I just returned home from an appointment at the Veterans Administration where I was able to reflect on my much improved life. Years ago, when I turned my life over the the VA, I was down on my luck. Today things are much better. I am feeling optimistic about life. I might be able to go to New Orleans next month for a conference. MC3, the mental health quality improvement board, sent me an email asking whether I would like to be a part of their steering committee. The Department of Health and Human Services for Milwaukee County is asking me to participate in an environmental scan to help them understand what is going on. And I am finishing a book Americanah about Nigerian refugees in America and Great Britain.
I am uncertain whether any of these things are related. I am a regular at the MC3 events and I am reasonably articulate. I participate in the small group discussions. MC3 is the group that recently nominated me for the Mental Health Board. It is possible that there is some connection between being on this steering committee and being on the board. My sister Chris would say that I am marketing myself. Let’s get this guy out there in the community.
There have been a few people who were marketed, awarded, publicized in the newspaper and magazines as knowing what there is to know about living with a mental illness and or helping those who have a mental illness. Suddenly, there might be an awareness that they need to have black men as part of these discussions. Too often, black men are the victims of the mental health system. There was a memorial recently regarding Dontre Hamilton a young black man with a mental illness who had fallen asleep in a downtown park and was killed by police. The first thing I would tell this Mental Health Board is to stop killing young black men.
When you check the staffs of agencies that are providing services such as case management you don’t find a lot of black men and yet the people who we have the most difficulty understanding are black men. Is that a surprise? So, hire some of them.
I asked a Milwaukee County worker, ask yourself, what can I do to help? She called my supervisor and told her she thought I was telling her how to do her job. Eventually, the county worker did what I was asking her to do.
The book Americanah tells about the differences between Africans in American and Britain and African-Americans. I have told my facebook friends about this and invited them to comment on the book. It was a very big seller not so long ago. The main character was a Nigerian woman who became a successful blogger. Maybe people will offer to sponsor my blog and I will not be working with people who are living with a mental illness? I seriously doubt that but perhaps something more interesting will happen. Stay tuned.
This post is to announce that I am returning to leadership within Unitarian Universalism. Many years ago I chaired the racial justice committee. That committee promoted diversity, organized a Kwanzaa event, organized a drum circle and tried to change the church culture. Unfortunately, the committee seemed to attract the same core group of people. I underwent a personal transformation that led to a divorce, and the development of a whole new career as a certified peer specialist. There were years in which I was barely active.
The committee was dissolved but in recent years new people have entered the church with a different set of ideas. One person in particular Mary Devitt has been a catalyst under the banner of Black Lives Matter. Mary has involved the First Unitarians in several events, most recently organizing a showing of a film about the 53206 neighborhood, which focused on the impact of mass incarceration on the low income community. She was also in the campaigns to change police practices after the killings of black men by police in Milwaukee and Wauwatosa. Her most recent accomplishment was a workshop on racial justice at Alverno College that featured Chris Crass, a speaker from Kentucky. Over 350 people attended the event which was organized with a remarkable coalition.
Mary has been a sort of one woman committee within the church which lead to her being given a designation as a change agent. At the same time Mary recognized that it was problematic for her to be in charge of black lives matter. She has what she calls her “cabal” that she can pull together on an ad hoc basis to achieve goals. However, that could easily lead to burn out. So we began a conversation this week about my leading a transformation of the black lives matter cabal into a committee to carry on the things she has started.
I have agreed to take this on at a time of turmoil within the Unitarian Universalist movement. There is more happening every day and it demands that someone from Milwaukee help give direction. The UU is a place where I feel comfortable sometimes. When my allies aren’t present and people ask me, where have I been, I feel like becoming invisible. That needs to change. A lot needs to change. Let the drum speak.
I have been a member of the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee since the 1990s. Like many people, I was drawn to the many progressive things that the church members did. They were affirming the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry and have children. They supported the right of women to control their own bodies and led a clinic protection coalition when right wing anti abortionists threatened to close down clinics. They marched against American interventions in the affairs of other nations. And I was also drawn to what the Unitarian Universalists did not have, which was a religious creed. No one was forced to believe in the existence of god, which I never have. I have never read more than a few pages of the bible and don’t believe in any form of supreme being.
I also joined the Freedom From Religion Foundation a few years ago because I found that public officials routinely brought their religious views into the lives as mayors, senators and other forms of elected office. They violated the separation of church and state. In that way I felt that they violated my rights.. I am excited when I read of ordinary heroism done not in the praise of some being I consider imaginary. I am able to nourish my friendships and work on doing good for its own sake. I am part of a struggle to help transform the Unitarians from a largely white middle class denomination to a one which welcomes people of color and affirms that my life as an African-American matters. I want to know that these are people who will have my back. That is what I believe.
I have been watching videos of a remarkable church in Washington DC the All Souls Unitarian. It is an intentionally multi ethnic multi cultural church that rocks. All Souls is a historic church that has been in forefront of struggles for civil rights. It has a staff that is a mosaic and the services, as far as I can see, are often lively. It is a welcoming place to be and I would hope that other churches would take a lesson. I have posted many of their you tube videos on my facebook page. This is the first time I have ever posted something like this about attending church!
Tonight I attended a screening of the 53206 movie at the First Unitarian Society. The movie showed the impact of the mass incarceration of African Americans focusing on a few families in this impoverished zip code. The zip code has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the country. I remember years ago being at a sign of hope in the community, a business incubator that was intended to help small business formation by African Americans. The businesses are long gone and what remains is the empty building.
The 53206 movie was shown at a Unitarian church in downtown Milwaukee to a packed crowd many of whom I did not know. There was an organizer from the 53206 project and talk about the lives being wasted and the depiction of a family hoping and waiting for their father figue and husband to return. He was denied parole, which is the most common result of parole hearings in Wisconsin. The governor plans to cut the parole department staffing even more.
The situation is complicated by the fact Wisconsin passed a truth in sentencing law in the late 1990s mandating that prisoners serve the full term of their prison sentences. But there are thousands like the man in the movie who are eligible for parole like the man in the movie but find the door slammed shut time and again. There is a lot of discretion still in the system and there are alternatives to long prison sentences but the fact we are not using them means that people are making money keeping things just the way they are. Who will have the courage to speak up? We signed cards tonight asking for changes but this is a long term project.
I just realized that I was still thinking about the story of the young man who committed suicide in a New York State prison. So many things in the system failed leading up to that tragedy. How did Lonnie Hamilton III, end up in the Marcy Correctional Facility and what stories had been written before I found the article in the New Yorker. If you google Lonnie Hamilton death, these are the stories you will find
We have traveled the road from the usual tragic story of a young man’s death to the possibility that the corrections officers played a role in worsening his mental health issues. The failure of the officials to disclose his worsening condition to his family is inexcusable. If my son was breaking down I would sure as hell want to know. And there was contact between Lonnie and father for some time while he was in prison, so I would think it would have been easy to find him and arrange a visit. Separating a person from their family and then not providing the proper mental health treatment is surely a way to kill our young incarcerated people.
America,we have a problem here. We have the problem of removing people from our community to be sent away in white rural communities fr extended periods of time. We have the problem of inadequate treatment in these facilities. We have the problem of the discretion parole and probation officers use to re-incarcerate people who don’t re-offend. And we have a problem of preventable deaths. This is the issue. Although the original focus of this blog s mental health I find that I am missing the big picture if I don’t look at how mental health intersects with criminal justice. You can expect more stories such as these.
Well I just could not resist going back to see what the Unitarians were doing and I must say they have become a little more diverse. I took a picture. Not, not really, but you know this group picture might fit in. I had posted something last year about meeting Mary Devitt and John Hagendorn at Colectivo Coffeehouse. They are relatively new members of the First Unitarian Society and active in Black Lives Matter. They are community activists and raising children who present challenges. When I met Mary she was recovering from an injury that did not seem to slow her down. However, John had an accident on his bike resulting in a brain injury and other difficulties. He is a researcher who has worked on issues related to gave violence and prevention. One of his books is on sale at the church.
People of a certain age will recognize the title of this blog from the Simon and Garfunkel song A Hazy Shade of Winter. I heard the song booming at me as I came down from listening to a forum speaker from Lutheran Social Services tell about her work with refugees and asylum seekers. Indeed, it was a hazy shade of winter with barely a patch of snow on the ground. But the music was quite a bit different from the old days of hearing the choir most weeks several years ago.
It is sad that some things had not changed. It seems that our government policies are creating more and more refugees. The new administration has responded to the crisis by issuing an executive order imposing a ban on travel from seven mostly Muslim countries. Fortunately, our heroes from the ACLU sprang into action and a 3 judge panel of the federal court has blocked the implementation of this unconstitutional mess.
I have all kinds of different emotions about what is happening as time passes. A woman I knew, Molly Cisco, died recently from a brain aneurysm. She was an activist for the rights of people with mental illness, a small business owner and an avid dog lover. She was only 59. People are sharing their thoughts of her on Facebook. I am quietly looking to find a way to become more involved with real life activism and tear myself away from social media. I am meeting new friends and trying to keep up with the old ones. I was very excited to see a picture from my old high school which is putting the finishing touches on a weight room. It is encouraging to learn that one of the oldest high schools in the country is making a comeback.
The sky may be a hazy shade of winter but sometimes you can rock to the beat.