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A scrawny boy in beat-up velcro sneakers ran past. Our tour guide Mohammed sighed heavily, “Angel Park is probably the only place where a young boy could be young. Outside, he’s probably the head of the family, working three jobs to secure meals for his sisters, because his parents are in jail or killed.” I thought of my twin brother slouching comfortably on the sofa holding an Xbox controller, and knowing that mom is cooking steak for dinner.
Honestly, when I signed up for the Social Justice Academy at the University of Pennsylvania, I was anticipating lectures on broad topics like racism and feminism and probably a few interesting reads. So I was really nervous when we toured Eastern State Penitentiary. One former inmate, Jesse Krimes, informed us of how the government inflated his crime on the records to pressure him to snitch. He also showed us the intricate, slightly faded landscape on his prison wall, made by years of gathering magazine pieces and pasting them to form a design, partly to avoid losing himself in solitary confinement.
The amount of shame I experienced was unspeakable, because the night before I imagined the inmates as insane men; I had plotted to wear baggy clothes and hide my phone from them, all because of my own prejudice and ignorance. I realized that many of them are normal people with soft spots in their hearts, who will always be judged by one crime committed when they were young and headstrong. Is it fair? “Don’t fight fire with fire, fight fire with water,” as the play Hello! Sadness puts it. If we are fighting criminals by harming them psychologically with isolation and prejudice, we are essentially forcing them to remain criminals. There must be a less divisive way, one that encourages reform.
On the way back, I conversed with Professor Tony Montiero about the racism in the criminal system, the injustice of solitary confinement, and the idea that progress under new laws is a mere illusion if nothing within the culture changes. I’m beginning to grasp that these issues are interconnected, and I can’t consider, for example, sexism without pondering its similarity to racism.
These thoughtful conversations, with professors and friends, were the fuel of my growth. I cherish these conversations, because they made me reflect, intensely. They made me more aware of how fortunate I am and of the responsibility that comes with growing up privileged.
During the last hours of the academy, some friends and I gathered for the usual goodbye. But there was more. I mentioned that I would incorporate elements of other injustices like sexism and racism into the homelessness project I started last year and foster the open and non-judgmental community we found at academy. Hannah will start a Feminism Club in her Quaker school. Stephen shared ideas on starting a gay rights rally in his school. As more of us shared, power and mutual support were built. I left with the weight of my newfound sense of responsibility and thirst for thought-provoking conversations. I am forever grateful for this summer that, as Walt Whitman writes, “contains multitudes,” because I learned to connect with people, connect with their knowledge and problems, and connect with their kindness. I gained the maturity to utilize these connections not just for myself, but to impact people in need.
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