Re-Post: “More than One Man, More than One Sentence”

This essay was originally posted on the City Brights Blog, which is an online publication hosted by the SFGate, home to the San Francisco Chronicle.

In its 12th year, the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights is a powerhouse in the struggle for justice, opportunity and peace. Under the direction of Jakada Imani, the center has helped close some of California’s most abusive youth prisons, successfully sponsored landmark juvenile justice reform, and created new clean and green opportunities through the groundbreaking work of the Green-Collar Jobs Campaign. In 2008 Jakada and the Ella Baker Center played a lead role in defeating California’s Proposition 6, a dangerous and ineffective “tough on crime” ballot measure that would have forced the state to spend more than a billion dollars annually on failed programs.

The Bay Area native is working to help bring an end to the cycle of violence that plagues much of urban America and to promote reinvestment in our cities using smart solutions and uplifting alternatives to violence and incarceration. A a long-time community organizer and activist, Jakada led a successful campaign to stop the construction in Alameda County of one of the nation’s largest (per capita) juvenile halls in Alameda County — an enormous “Super Jail for Kids.”

For many years before becoming the Executive Director at the Ella Baker Center, I worked with our Books Not Bars campaign which transforms our juvenile justice system to invest in young people, their families, and our communities. Since its inception, the campaign has helped close four of the notoriously abusive California Youth prisons and organized thousands of family members of incarcerated youth and our allies to demand change in the system.

After all those years of working with incarcerated youth and their family members, one thing is extremely clear. A prison does very little to help people behinds bars. In fact, it often makes things worse. Forced to experience outrageous levels of violence, abuse, and neglect, young people often leave California’s youth prisons damaged and unprepared – over 70% are rearrested within two years.

Not only is a prison sentence ineffective at providing those locked up any form of rehabilitation or opportunity for healing, a sentence does little to end the suffering of the victims of a crime. One of the mothers from the Families for Books Not Bars network remains seared into my memory. This woman, was the mother of three kid- her oldest son and her daughter were both serving time in California’s youth prisons. Her younger son was killed in a case of mistaken identity. The understandable devastation she felt at her son’s murder was not so different then the extreme devastation she felt from having two of her children locked up for their own mistakes.

Violence inflicts trauma. Healing from that trauma is a long path. When tragedy strikes, we yearn for justice. However, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again- sentencing one man is not justice.

On Friday, November 5th, a sentence is expected in the trial of Johannes Mehserle for the murder of Oscar Grant. And Mehserle is guilty of murder, even if the jury decided it was merely involuntary manslaughter, and should be held accountable for his actions. But I don’t want any of us to kid ourselves that a longer sentence for Mehserle will equal justice for Oscar Grant..

Read the rest of this post at


Creating a Curriculum For Change

Author of the forthcoming Virtue, Passion, and Moderation in Shakespearean Drama and numerous articles, Unhae Langis teaches at Slippery Rock University near Pittsburgh, PA. She is presently working on a book on Shakespeare and happiness.

At my school, I teach English 210 – a general education course required for graduation. Formally, its objectives are to teach students how to interpret literature, support their interpretations with textual evidence, and to come to appreciate and enjoy the role of literature in their lives.


My course puts a special focus on bridging literature and life, books (from Latin liber) and the aim of liberal studies. In the words of educator Edward Beckham: “to liberate us unto ourselves, to liberate us from oppression and privilege, from unexamined assumptions, from passivity in the living of our lives.”[1]


I try to get my students to see that literature can enlighten and empower them in their personal and civil lives and deliver them from the brutality that often breeds from ignorance.


Most students enter the class thinking that nothing could be more remote from their here-and-now existence than “literature”— that the class will involve some dusty “classics” that couldn’t possibly relate to the 21st century world and the day-to-day experience. The key is involving students—many of whom would characterize themselves as non-readers and some as never even having read a novel—by choosing certain texts.  As student Shane Boydell puts it: “[It is] attention-grabbing reading, not the boring put-me-to-sleep kind that schools make you read as a curriculum.”

Maslow’s Theory of Human Motivation provides the framework for examining human actions in life and in literature: human beings are driven by three tiers of motivators: survival (safety and physical sustenance), social success (belonging and esteem), and transformation (self-actualization).


During the semester, we explore these through stories, essays, poems, and plays. We read how literature is a reflection and dramatization of the very struggles we encounter in our own lives. Literature, as Professor Alex Macleod states, is a way for us to “compare notes on how others have approached and experienced the challenge of human life—the potentialities, hopes, frustrations, joys, and sorrows.”

Course participants hone critical thinking skills, self-expression tactics and obtain an increased awareness of how literature expands a person.


Brody Travers: [L]iterature is important because it allows us to learn about other ideas than our own or those of the people immediately around us. Without new thoughts and fresh ideas, we would never have stimulus for change or growth. Part of growing into a mature adult or developing a personal identity is experiencing many different points of view and deciding which you feel represent you best and which you want to be known by.


Fallon Kosinski: I’ve become more energetic and more driven to accomplish my goals….  I most definitely want to fulfill my potential. I think the literature we read in class formed my desire to flourish in life. 


Nathan Rihely: I’ll admit, I did not believe that I would grow as a person just by taking this course. I felt as though it was just another English course and that I would be able to get by, just by going through the motions. However, I felt the need to be involved. Literature doesn’t offer technical knowledge to further yourself in career goals, but it can aid you towards valuable self-knowledge about how to lead a more meaningful life. Interpreting literature isn’t about the story between the front and back cover; it’s about the story beyond the cover of the book or play.


Chris Penco: I am more in touch with my emotions than I can remember, and most of all I feel my moral code is at an all time high.  I try to keep an open mind about every situation that is thrown my way.  Keeping all options open, I feel it gives me the best opportunity to accurately assess the situation and make the right decision, for the right reason, for the right end, [Aristotelian ethics that I taught in reference to the literature] and doing the right thing when no one’s watching [citing one of our texts, Topdog/Underdog]. I will do everything within my power (and beyond) to leave this world a better place than it was. I will not be part of the problem.



[1] I am indebted to Provost William Williams for this reference.


Atticus Finch: Character Identification

For many readers, personally identifying with a novel’s character is a familiar concept; it involves them as the story progresses. In the Changing Lives Through Literature program, character identification does much more. Not only does it engage the reader, but it helps them gain insight regarding their own life, history, and future.

In the following piece, author Andrew Howe discusses his personal recognition for the character Atticus Finch.

Andrew Howe is an Assistant Professor at La Sierra University in Riverside, California.  His teaching and research interests include the films of Alfred Hitchcock, the history of Hollywood, and World War II.

When I think of the books I was fortunate enough to read during my youth, there exists not so much a single work that stands out in my mind but, instead, a character.  To me, Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) contains many of the qualities to which I continually aspire, but rarely master.

Lee’s work is set in Maycomb, Alabama, during the 1930s, and the story is told through the eyes of Atticus’ daughter, Scout Finch.  Atticus is a well-respected public defender, and near the beginning of the tale takes on the case of Tom Robinson, a black sharecropper who has been falsely accused of sexually assaulting a white woman.  Unlike just about all of the other white characters, Atticus does not allow the color of Tom’s skin to influence the manner in which he views Tom as a person.  In one of the most memorable scenes in the book, Scout and her brother Jem watch as Atticus stands up to a mob of angry townspeople who have come to lynch Tom Robinson.

In ones and twos, men got out of the cars.  Shadows became substance as lights revealed solid shapes moving toward the jail door.  Atticus remained where he was.  The men hid him from view.

“He in there, Mr. Finch?” a man said.

“He is,” we heard Atticus answer, “and he’s asleep.  Don’t wake him up.”

In obedience to my father, there followed what I later realized was a sickeningly comic aspect of an unfunny situation:  the men talked in near-whispers.  (Lee 151)

This passage signals the regard in which Atticus is held by the entirety of Maycomb.  The black townspeople and whites sympathetic to Tom’s situation respect Atticus for his social conscience, and even the white southerners who disagree with Atticus appreciate his fairness and ability to take a stand.  In this scene, the naked courage Atticus displays is nearly enough to back down this drunk, emotional mob, although in the end it takes an intervention by Scout and Jem to diffuse the threat of violence.  Regardless of the outcome, the mere fact that a white man would risk his life for a black man in the Jim Crow south – and that a white-collar lawyer would go out on a limb for a poverty-stricken sharecropper – is powerful indeed.

Ultimately, the deck is stacked against Tom Robinson, and despite the number of ways in which Atticus demonstrates in court that the case has no merit, Tom is found guilty.  Along with another plot development, this unfair judgment represents a loss of innocence for Scout.  Fortunately for her, she has a wise and understanding father to guide her through this process; in addition to being a man of tremendous social justice, he is also a model parent.  Atticus always seems to know what to say to his children during times of difficulty, and also what to do in any given situation.  In many ways, he is the idealized version of a father that, sadly, many today are not accorded.  In contemporary times, having two children raised by a single male parent seems strange indeed.

Atticus Finch is courageous, tolerant, generous, kind, and fair.  The 1962 film version, starring Gregory Peck, was so successful in achieving Lee’s vision of the character that, in 2003, the American Film Institute ranked Atticus Finch as the #1 cinematic hero of the twentieth century in their “AFI’s 100 Years . . . 100 Heroes and Villains,” narrowly edging out both Indiana Jones and James Bond.  As I move through life, I try to be an Atticus Finch in all that I do.  It doesn’t always work, but I find that this character has helped me when it comes to interacting with other people:  I try to be tolerant, I try to be fair, and I try to see in them the value that they themselves possess, not the value that society places upon them.

Who Will Is Dead

James Koch is a chef and aspiring writer who has battled with addiction for a majority of his forty-one years. This piece is a reflection on his relationship with substance abuse and the written word.

Throughout my whole life I’ve had to deal with reoccurring bouts of depression. I’ve tried many different remedies to “cure” these episodes, but the end result is always the same. My run-ins with depression are merely the excuse I use to let my addictions run wild.

The addict’s mind has an uncanny ability to string together the weakest set of reasons so as to justify abusing any substance. Anything goes in the name of healing thy soul, self- preservation and numbing all feeling completely.

In my case, these chemical vacations have always had a silver lining: I usually end up with an exceptional burst of creative writing. The pieces don’t usually have anything to do with why I was depressed in the first place, but they do help to exorcize whatever demon was gnawing on my soul at that particular time, and for this I am eternally grateful.

With age I have gotten better at navigating the dark waters of my addictions. So much so, in fact, that I feel comfortable attaching words like “functional” or “recreational” to them (as in “functional alcoholic” or “recreational I.V. drug user”). This may seem like splitting hairs to the non-abusers out there, but, trust me, there’s a huge difference between a functional and a full blown alcoholic, and I’ve got my two year degree from outpatient rehab to prove I know what I’m talking about.

Regardless of the name I attach to the problem, the solution is the same. In the end, it is my writing that gets me through it all. I wouldn’t have lived through any of this if I couldn’t pour myself out onto a clean white sheet of notebook paper every once in a while.

One day I’ll be happy… maybe earn my living as a writer of some sort. But, until that day comes, I’m happy to be silently broadcasting whatever my heart desires to an audience of none. For me it is the act of writing that matters most; the solitary pursuit of putting pen to paper that enables me to feel more connected, more human than I have ever felt.

The following is an excerpt from a piece entitled “Confessions of a Barstool Pirate,” written under the pseudonym Who Will.

I’ve got a terminal (or rather a non-terminal) case of being in the right place at the right time. I don’t know how to explain it. I don’t know if it’s luck or something more divine, or even something supernatural.

Occasionally I have a vision about what it would be like to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and a sense of euphoria washes over me. I become more aware of the present and for at least a little while I forget that there is a devil named Anxiety holding a gun of failure to my head, repeatedly whispering in my ear, “You’re a loser, you’re nothing!”

I remember what I felt like before I sold off all of those pieces of my soul; pieces of a life that I swore I would buy back one day. With them I’d become better, I’d become whole, and I’d become driven. I guess that’s why I’m telling you this. Because as we get older we forget which dreams we traded in for a paycheck.

Maybe I’m one of the lucky ones. Lucky enough to have some kind of mental defect that inspires a bizarre chain of events and encourages the forces that be to press my face up against a mirror where I must take an unflinching look deep into my soul and defend my life and my choices – all of them. Right down to the last drinks, the last line and the last syringe. And if those choices can’t be defended, I’ve only myself to blame when I can’t get back to the life I once had.