Sharon Astyk makes a provocative case that if progressive groups are actually concerned about outreach and diversity they should reach out to ex-convicts,
If you are SERIOUS about wanting to increase the diversity of your membership in terms of age, class and race, wanting to make your future communities more secure, wanting to expand local food and employment opportunities, wanting to do outreach into minority communities and offer something to those already hardest hit by the early stages of our society’s crash, I’d recommend one particular access point – find ways for your group to work with recently released prison inmates in your community . . .
The post is worth reading in full, but a side point that she well understands is that this kind of things gets outside the comfort zone of many of her readers. For example her commenter, D . . .
Consider the risks and the benefits and . . . commit to a great deal of research prior to taking on the issues of society’s law breakers. Sharon is right on that these issues need our time and attention; yet at the same time, there are considerations one must ponder prior to throwing one’s self and family into this area . . . Practicality and safety do call for a level of caution.
Which led me to leave a comment of my own . . .
D., you bring up a good point about the dangers inherent in dealing with people who've been swept up into forms of criminality. But that danger is exactly the crux of the matter. In fact, the ability to NOT have to deal with such people and their potential dangerousness is probably one of the defining ways that class and social geography are structured, at least here in the US. If you are poor, you have no choice -- these people are your neighbors, family members, co-workers, friends and enemies. If you are privileged on the other hand, you can choose to take advantage of the way class and ethnicity are segregated so that you can CHOOSE (more or less) whether or not to have them part of your life.
Yes, it increases your danger when people cross the barriers - when they are invited into your church or school or workplace or neighborhood. There's no doubt about that, and it's a reason why people don't want to live in "those neighborhoods." But these very barriers are, without question, a major part of the problem. The only way this country can maintain its inhuman war on drugs, its unprecedented and draconian incarceration rates, and its great myths about privilege and the undeserving poor -- is because the privileged make use of these walls to not see what is going on right next to them. And so the cycle is sustained and intensified.
If we integrate our communities, we expose ourselves to some of the dangers that poor people face every day. But by stitching together one community where there were many -- some used to being excluded and some used to doing the excluding -- we create something better. I believe that. We can wait for things to collapse, or we can start to take the bricks down ourselves.