The Day of Empathy is a national day of action to generate empathy on a massive scale for millions of Americans impacted by the incarceration industry.
Virtual reality has been described as an “empathy machine.” #cut50, a Dream Corps initiative, launched the Day of Empathy campaign to create empathy on a massive scale for the millions of Americans behind bars. In partnership with Benefit Studios, the team will create a series of virtual reality experiences based on true stories that reveal a broken aspect of our criminal justice system.
The campaign will recruit Ambassadors of Empathy who will bring virtual reality visors/headsets into all 50 state capitols and the U.S. Congress.Through the impact of VR, key decision-makers will experience the human consequences of a criminal justice system that has gotten too big, too unfair and too brutal.
Visit the campaign page to learn about the Day of Empathy.
In an average-sized kindergarten classroom in the U.S., at least one child may have a parent behind bars. But most Americans still struggle to imagine what it's like to have an incarcerated father or mother. A new short film tries to make it clearer: strap on a virtual reality headset, and the film puts you in the place of an eight-year-old girl watching her mom go to prison, and ending up in foster care.
The short, Left Behind, is the first in a series of virtual reality films called Project Empathy. The first films start with the prison system, letting viewers experience re-entry into society, what it's like to be a child tried as an adult, and what it's like to have a family member in prison.
"Virtual reality is being referred to as the empathy machine, and there's really no bigger empathy gap than the one that exists between people who live in overly policed and overly incarcerated communities and those who do not," says Van Jones, who worked with filmmaker Jamie Wong on the first films. "We just want to do everything that we can to give people more of a felt sense of what it's like to live in a situation where law enforcement is not always friendly, and where the stakes for any mistake are incredibly high."
My work is an extension of my life. I'm the youngest of eleven kids, born to a refugee family that fled war-torn Vietnam. I didn’t initially understand that there was anything abnormal about my upbringing: spending my first few years on my mother’s back as she picked strawberries and snow peas in the pesticide-ridden fields of Oregon, and then later on watching - and eventually helping - as my parents labored away in the sweatshops in West Oakland, one of the poorest and most polluted communities in California.
It wasn’t until I was able to travel and live in other parts of the United States that I began understanding that these conditions were abnormal. I decided to dedicate my life to alleviating poverty and building the beloved communities that Dr. Martin Luther King envisioned.
One of the proudest moments of my life was helping to pass a landmark community reinvestment bill in California that created a polluters pay fund, which has created the largest fund in history for low-income communities to green up and to create economic revitalization for residents. In the last two years, it directed over $900 million into the poorest and most polluted communities in California. Now, I’m privileged to be leading Green For All to create national programs that will prioritize low-income communities and communities of color in the crafting of policy across the country.
Vien Truong leads Green For All, a national initiative that puts communities of color at the forefront of the climate movement and equality at the center of environmental solutions. She lives in East Oakland, California with her husband and twin three-year-old boys.
By Roger Leu
My family still calls me by my Chinese-given name, roughly translated to “little winter melon.” Though partially attributed to my gratuitous baby fat, the nickname also aptly describes my still and observant nature. I have always found people, culture, and human behavior fascinating. Why do people do the things they do? Why did Tom Cruise jump uncontrollably on The Oprah Show some years ago? Why do people find Keeping up with the Kardashians so compelling? These are the questions that keep me up at night.
I grew up in Berkeley, California, a relatively small town in the San Francisco Bay Area known for tie-dyed shirts, colorful protests, and subversive thinking. My parents are first generation immigrants who emigrated to the United States from Taiwan in search of a better future. My dad first worked as a dishwasher and a gas attendant to pay the bills. My mom briefly worked on a fiber optics assembly line. They are quintessential pragmatists that would rather have me put on five layers of clothing than turn on the heater, unplug the idle power strip rather than pay for electricity, and shop at swap meets instead of department stores.
The look on their faces when I told them I wanted to pursue a career in social work was one of sheer confusion and terror (think Edvard Munch’s The Scream). “Is that like depression?” they asked in an English-Chinese improvisation. I simply responded, “It’s like having a big heart and helping people for a living.”
Social workers are so often misrepresented in pop culture as villains that invade your home and steal your children on behalf of the government. This is a terrific example to not believe everything you see on television! A social worker is the shoulder you lean on when you have a bad day. We are the extra ear that listens when you need to vent. We fight for the most vulnerable individuals in our communities. We are your advocates, your confidants, your strongest supporters, your champions of social justice.
The #cut50, #YesWeCode, and Green For All initiatives here at The Dream Corps are united under the umbrella of social justice. We continue the fight for a brighter future that includes all communities regardless of race, gender, color, or creed. We are agents of change that support closing prison doors and opening the doors of opportunity.
The #cut50 team has been advocating tirelessly for 2.2 million people remaining behind prison doors. As a social worker and a member of the #cut50 team, I am proud to work toward intelligently reducing the prison population in 10 years, and to engage in a bipartisan effort that rises above politics. Individuals in prison are often suffering from mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder; we must remember to arm ourselves with kindness, compassion, and empathy to combat arguably one of the biggest moral crises in our time.
As I look at the road ahead, I cannot help but think of what the great Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” These words are as true today as the day they were written. Indeed, there is still injustice in the world, and we must continue to fight for equality, justice, and the inherent worth of all beings.
I am inspired by the small acts of kindness I see every day. When I leave the BART station and see a passing stranger hand a homeless man a dollar, I am inspired. When I see a group of friends organizing their waste into trash, recycle, and compost bins, I am hopeful. When I see Buzzfeed articles that combat the stigma of mental illness, I am filled with confidence about the future of humanity.
We are still reeling from an amazing week at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. For the first time in history, both political parties are making a bold statement against the incarceration industry with the Democrats’ Platform calling for an “end to the era of mass incarceration.”Read more
In an exclusive video for Mic, Alicia Keys, Rihanna, Common, Chris Rock, Taraji P. Henson, Van Jones and others describe the mundane actions that cost black Americans their lives. Watch below:
For the full post from Mic's Jamilah King, click here
Van spent hours on air last week -- reacting to tragedy after tragedy live. His words speak for themselves:
"We need to reach down and find some empathy. If you cried for the brother who bled out next to his fiancé but you didn't cry this morning for those police officers, it is time to do a heart check. If you cried for those police officers but have a hard time taking seriously all these videos coming out with these African-Americans dying, it is time to do a heart check. Because a country -- we are either going to come together or come apart now. There is enough pain on both sides there should be some empathy starting to kick in."
For the full playlist of discussions from last week, click below.
"Even though we are incarcerated, we still care about the community.”
A group of incarcerated men at the Oregon State Penitentiary raised $800 for the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. Inspired by their efforts, Dream Corps raised a matching donation in support of the organization's work in Flint. Thank you to all who helped raise a matching donation in support of the incarcerated men at Oregon State Penitentiary and the Community Foundation of Greater Flint.
When a group of incarcerated men at the Oregon State Penitentiary learned about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan that had exposed thousands of residents to contamination, they were shocked and impacted by the stories of families subjected to using polluted water.
From left to right: D’Angelo Turner, Jeremy Hays, Troy Ramsey, Grover Clegg
"I was sitting on my bunk in my cell watching TV. Flipping channels. I saw people on the Steve Harvey show talking about how they couldn’t shower with the tap water," said Troy Ramsey who initiated the fundraiser. "I thought, ‘What can I do from where I’m at to help the Flint community?”
With the necessary approvals needed to begin collecting donations, a group convened to devise a plan to raise money to the Flint community. Hoping to raise $500, the group was able to raise $800 for Flint with the generous $1, $2, and $5 donations from inmates.
“These are not small donations,” explained Ramsey. “ The average income for inmates is about $49 per month, and we have to use that for all our hygiene items, foods, etc. A lot of the guys also have obligations to kids and families.”
In an interview with the Dream Corps, Kosal So, who helped Ramsey organize the Flint fundraising efforts, reflected on his own journey and how his experiences influence the work he does from within the prison.
“I was kicked out of school. I didn’t learn to read. We lose confidence and get wrapped up in the streets. I was in and out of the juvenile system. Once you are in that, you are stuck. Now I work to raise money for kids to go to college.”
Like So, other incarcerated men also use the examples of their own lives as a vehicle for change in their communities and society.
“Just because I’m incarcerated doesn’t change morals and values. I used to deliver food to the homeless on Thanksgiving,” said Grover Clegg who helped lead fundraising efforts. “I drove a truck for a freight company and would use that to drive around on Thanksgiving to deliver food”
Though making donations may not be easy for inmates, fundraising is not new to this group who frequently engage in efforts that contribute to a variety of issues.
“I have been involved in a number of efforts,” said D’Angelo Turner another leader in the Flint fundraiser. “ I have written a re-entry program. I raised money for Missus Harris who was diagnosed with orphans disease – cancer – back in 2005 or 2007.”
Incarcerated men involved with the fundraiser noted that it is these efforts that cross racial groups bringing together groups typically segregated based on race.
“Our effort cut across racial groups,” said fundraiser leader Eric Nitschke. “ There are cliques in prison. This fundraiser was also helping people unite across groups and begin to break this down.”
Nitschke added, “I couldn’t believe that we in America could do this to our people. I learned about the change [of drinking water source] from the lake to the river. They knew it was polluted. It shocked me that someone who wasn’t drinking the water made that decision.”
This story of incarcerated men at Oregon State Penitentiary organizing a fundraiser to benefit victims of the Flint water crisis lives at the intersection of environmental and criminal justice, which hits close to home for the Dream Corps and our initiatives.
Here at the Dream Corps, we support economic, environmental and criminal justice innovators. We serve to uplift powerful voices of those impacted by the criminal justice system--like this group of incarcerated men--and ensure that we are working towards an inclusive green economy.
We are deeply inspired by this effort. To support the efforts of the incarcerated men at Oregon State Penitentiary, the Dream Corps has committed to raising a matching donation of $800 for the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. Help us raise matching funds for every child, family, and business in the community of Flint affected by the water crisis.
Shaka Senghor with son Sekou and Van Jones
As President and Cofounder of #Cut50 Van Jones introduced New York Times—bestselling author and #Cut50 Director of Strategy Shaka Senghor at the packed Castro Theatre in San Francisco Wednesday night, he got a laugh by first thanking the crowd for missing the Warriors playoffs to attend a conversation on criminal justice reform. Then he talked about how Shaka’s memoir, “Writing My Wrongs,” is one of those books that, by the time you have finished, you have become a different person.
“Tonight,” said Van, “we’re going to have a real conversation. Shaka, you’re from Detroit, you were abused in childhood, you ran away, joined a gang, got shot, then shot back. Then you went to prison for second-degree murder for 19 years, 7 of those in solitary confinement. Since you’ve been out, you’ve been on the front lines pushing for changes to the system. You wrote a memoir and by some miracle wound up in the hands of Oprah Winfrey--perhaps you all have heard of her--and now you’ve been to the White House, twice. What happened in between? What’s prison like up close?”
Shaka started by dispelling the myths that prisons are full of crazy people and lazy people.. "In prison, there's a 100% forced employment rate," he said. "I made an astounding 13 cents an hour cleaning a unit full of frat house males, subjecting myself to hepatitis. Prisons are an $80 billion industry, and they are getting their money's worth. But are we? I don’t know many other industries with a 70% failure rate." The crowd laughed.
Shaka continued, "I met amazing men serving life in prison who became my mentors, gave me books that transformed my life. The work I do today is because of the unsung heroes I met in prison.”
Shaka was interviewed last month on Oprah Winfrey's SuperSoul Sunday. She also bought his movie rights. Shaka is close, too, with top venture capitalist Ben Horowitz. Said Van, "People in Silicon Valley would push their best friend in front of a BART train to talk to Horowitz. And yet your most powerful mentors are people we have thrown away forever.” Shaka told the audience about the great political and legal minds in prison. “You wouldn't believe the level of wasted genius. It’s a very innovative place. I’d love to take all you Silicon Valley people to prison and show you some of the things we made up. When I started working with MIT Media Labs, I gave some design challenges to some of their brilliant minds. For example, can you pass a message across a corridor using only a toilet paper roll, a tube of toothpaste, and a pair of underwear? They couldn’t. Yet that was our Internet system in prison. 'Check your email.'" He got a big laugh, but added, "Innovate at MIT and you’ll be validated; in prison, you’re labeled a troublemaker.”
So how does one write a book in the toughest place on earth? “Most of us have dreams we’re not achieving, and we all have excuses,' said Van. "You wrote your first book while doing a 4 ½ year stretch in solitary confinement. The rest of us have writer’s block at Starbucks. How were you able to break out of your internal prison?”
Shaka said he didn't know he had the skill till he tried. He said he wanted to leave something for his son. He thought, if you're sincere about turning your life around, then challenge yourself to write a book. He did it in n 30 days with no laptop. He had only a flimsy pens that could not be used as weapons. Even paper was limited. When he finished, he sent his manuscript by string to the cell directly across. The other guy said it was the best book he’d ever read. "Then I remembered," said Shake, "the dude’s in solitary confinement--any book’s going to be the best book."
Shaka went on to write a second book, then a third. And he fell into a severe depression, because he had discovered he had a dream worth living for. "They don’t give you an end point when you’re in solitary - it’s part of the psychological control,” he said.
Van talked about coming from the Black Faith tradition. But what about Shaka? He asked if a spiritual root helped him blossom. They compared polyester pastels worn to church during their 70s childhoods. And Shaka said while he doesn't often talk about his faith, he did start to center his life in prison on my belief that the world is infinitely abundant." He wrote a letter to the warden telling him that if he let Shaka out of solitary, it would be one of the best decisions he ever made. The warden agreed, but his higher-up didn't, and Shaka spent another year in solitary. But finally, he got to go to jail.
Van started laughing, “You had a dream, to get to jail!” And Shaka couldn't help but laugh. “Yes, and I promised myself, if i ever get out of solitary i’m going to do the George Jefferson stroll.” Van added, "You can tell right now how old people here are by who gets it, who’s laughing.”
Shaka said, “I was moving on up to a new me.”
Shaka went to prison when he was 19 and came out when he was 38. If prison is the complete opposite of being a human being, what does it feel like to get out?" Shaka said he just wanted to have the feeling of drinking a juice of his own choosing from his own refrigerator. That, for him, was the ability to be human.
But he knew he had a responsibility to speak for the ones he left behind. He said, “The level of mental illness in prison would blow your minds. The worst abuse against mankind is the way the mentally ill are treated in prison. The cutters in solitary for example, don't’ receive treatment but are instead chained to their beds to stop the self-mutilating."
Again and again throughout the night, Shaka mentioned hope. It's what people on the inside need the most and have the least. It doesn't help that the majority of prisoners aren’t in contact with anybody on the outside. "These are men and women we’ve thrown away. A simple letter or phone call doesn’t cost us much," said Shaka. "Expand empathy in spaces that aren't your natural ecosystem. There’s no forgiveness for the currently incarcerated or for those coming home."
Shaka reminded the audience that everyone of them has done something they're not proud of. Van couldn't resist, “Look at how some of yall are dressed," he said looking out at the crowd, then added, "I joke, I joke.”
Shaka talked about a trip to Germany last year to see their prisons, and how he expected them to be harsh. "I was shocked," said Shaka. "From the very first moment of incarceration they work to get people back into society. They actually get them working in society. They don’t use solitary. Family visits are mandatory. And they don’t sentence children to life in prison.”
The last segment of the evening was audience questions. A moderator called from the right side of the theatre, "We have a question from the right." Van said, "Hopefully not the real right." It was someone wanting to know about the fiasco that occurred when they got invited to the White House. Shaka and Van recalled rushing that hot day, from the train station, running down the street in their suits.
"I’m not the type to put a suit on," said Shaka. "Now, I always get nervous going through security. My name was on the list, but when I heard ‘one second, sir,’ I knew it was going down hill from there. I stood outside for 2 hours in my suit in the 90-degree heat." Shaka explained that it was a very difficult moment, to be invited to the White House and then barred. He did eventually get inside, and was even invited back. Van pointed out that Obama has made sweeping prison reforms this year.
The night was not only a big window into prison existence, but also the realities of coming home. "When I got out of prison, every apartment turned me down," said Shaka. "I aced a job interview, they said they wanted me, then later I found out I didn’t get the job because of my felony." It is, after all, legal to discriminate against felons.
Shaka recalled how demoralizing was that moment, wanting to do the right thing, and being told he was unworthy. "Soon after I got out of prison, we were expecting a baby, and I was asking myself ‘how am i going to take care of my family? And it occurred to me that with one phone call I could be back in the gang, because the streets are always hiring. If not for the help of my friends, I might have become homeless or turned to substance abuse."
Just before he brought that child, Sekou, up on the stage, and his standing ovation, he said, "It's about giving people a fair chance. These are regular people with hearts and souls who want to dream and work and live with dignity. Human resilience is really what it’s about.”
“Every once in awhile a book comes around that changes the conversation,” said Van Jones, President of Dream Corps and co-founder of #cut50. He was introducing Shaka Senghor, author of Writing My Wrongs and director of strategy and innovation at #cut50, to a house full of friends and allies on a rainy night in Los Angeles.
That evening, music executive Russell Simmons, who has been a long-time advocate for criminal justice reform, hosted stars like Alicia Silverstone, Aloe Blacc, and Harrison Barnes to learn more about the fight for reform in 2016 and hear Shaka’s story of redemption and transformation.
“We need criminal justice reform now because there are far too many men and women being locked up and not given a second chance,” said Shaka, who gave one of the top 10 TED talks of 2014. Members of his audience had tears in their eyes as he recounted his 7 years in solitary confinement and the difficulty of watching his children grow up while he was incarcerated.
Shaka Senghor and Russell Simmons
“There are far too many children growing up without parents. My parents had to drive for 12 hours just so I could touch my own children for a moment, before they were taken away again.”
Shaka is co-founder of #BeyondPrisons, a new initiative of #cut50 and Dream Corps.
Shaka is set to become a household name in 2016. His soon-to-be-released memoir traces his journey from childhood to the streets of Detroit, where he sold drugs and lived a life of crime that resulted in a 19-year-prison sentence.
Note: Pre-order your copy of Writing My Wrongs and receive an exclusive excerpt from the book: http://bit.ly/1SI51tR
Shaka Senghor and Harrison Barnes of the Golden State Warriors
“Incarceration destroys individuals, families, and communities,” said #cut50 National Director Jessica Jackson Sloan, whose husband was sentenced to 15 years in prison for a non-violent crime, leaving her with a small daughter who asked everyday to see her dad. Sloan talked about the inhumane hardships their family faced, like not even knowing which facilities he was being moved to, or not being able to afford the weekly $21 phone call.
#cut50’s Jessica Jackson Sloan
“The idea we can all get behind is the economics,” said former BET President Reggie Hudlin. “It costs so much more to send a person to prison than to college. As a nation we are hurting ourselves putting so many resources into warehousing people, where they arguably become worse criminals. The tragedy of the prison system is no one is talking about breaking the cycle, rehabilitation, and reducing crime in a meaningful way.”
#cut50 urged everyone to sign the petition asking Congress and the President to end the culture of punishment run amuck.
#cut50 team directors Shaka Senghor, Van Jones, and Jessica Jackson Sloan