I was struck by a column I read in the Sept. 23 issue of The Nation. In it, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, discusses her dissatisfaction with the narrowness of her focus on mass incarceration. In reflecting on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington she finds powerful inspiration in the fact that in the aftermath of that historic event, “Dr. King ignored all those who told him to stay in his lane, just stick to talking about civil rights.” Dr. King’s subsequent initiatives – against the Vietnam War, for economic justice and in support of a living wage campaign, to name a few – push Alexander to conclude:
I am still committed to building a movement to end mass incarceration, but I will not do it with blinders on. If all we do is end mass incarceration, this movement will not have gone nearly far enough….Dr. King demanded we….connect the dots between poverty, racism, militarism and materialism. I’m getting out of my lane. I hope you’re already out of yours.
I’m a fan of Alexander’s work and think she’s being a little hard on herself, but I’m intrigued by the importance of “getting out of your lane.” First, perhaps, because it echoes both the original title and goal of this blog, Out on a Limb, but also because I think some of the most important programs at the RFC came from my father’s (and our Board and supporters’) willingness to step out of their lanes.
The RFC’s birth is itself an example of a leap of faith. My dad, an unfulfilled tax attorney, stepped out of the lane (some would say he stepped all the way off the road), when he quit a well-paid job to start a non-profit foundation as I, his older daughter, headed off to college. I don’t think he’s ever regretted it.
We stepped in a new direction at the RFC when we started awarding grants to allow children to visit incarcerated parents and grandparents. Today these Attica Prison Visits are one of the most important programs we run. They help families separated for years, sometimes decades, maintain ties and pass history and resistance and values from one generation to the next.
Another potentially risky move resulted in our Gatherings, events that bring together activist parents and their school-aged children, or young adult beneficiaries, to play, learn and connect with other families who share their experiences of targeting. And our entire program for targeted activist youth, and more recently development grants to support these young people--targeted for their own activism rather than their parents’--with their educational or emotional needs and help encourage their growth as activists, came from looking beyond our focus on the children of activists to include those young people targeted for their own activism (learn more about all of our granting programs here).
All of these choices have expanded and strengthened our community. As I finish my fourth week as Executive Director of the RFC, I’m committed to following Alexander’s lead by thinking about ways we can continue stepping outside our lane and expanding our work. I invite all of you to share your thoughts with me and I’ll update you in a future blog on what we decide.
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