Martha Michael | Choosing Kinship Over Skinship

When asked about my biggest fear, the answer I typically respond with is “imprisonment.” Or worse – “false imprisonment.”

It’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever have to face that fear, however, a luxury I have because I was born to educated, white parents. But thanks to a few very special women, I’ve become more aware of my fellow Americans who live without those odds.

First, I listened to a group of female reporters on the Peabody Award-winning podcast “In the Dark” who covered the Curtis Flowers murder case, which, in a strange coincidence, was overturned by the United States Supreme Court last month. 

The flimsy case against Flowers – a poor, African American man – has been brought to trial by a district attorney six times while he’s languished in jail for more than 20 years. The podcast’s reporters point out there were manipulated witnesses and fabricated testimonies. The victim in this is Flowers, a man who appears to have had nothing to do with the murders in the case. 

Even the conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh validated what the podcast reporters found: The prosecution’s “relentless, determined effort to rid the jury of black individuals … strongly suggests that the State wanted to try Flowers before a jury with as few black jurors as possible, and ideally before a white jury.”

Bravo, U.S. Supreme Court! But get this – even though the trial was reversed, Flowers stays jailed while District Attorney Doug Evans decides whether to try him a seventh time. 

If you’ve tuned out because you don’t think it pertains to you, I wish you and Evans could learn from my favorite novelist, Jodi Picoult, who helped me understand the plight of a black nurse wrongly accused of killing a white patient in “Small Great Things.”

Picoult tells readers to imagine if everyone born on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday had bigger homes, more job interviews, better medical care, etc., than people born later in the week. What if it was that random? Oh, wait – it is!

The headwinds of racism are obvious, but we who are white are ignorant of the tailwinds of racism. Not only do we give little thought to whether we had a shower today or could afford breakfast, we can be late to a meeting and it won’t be blamed on our race. 

Racism isn’t just about hate, it’s about power and who has access to it. 

I was also schooled by another female last week, presidential candidate Kamala Harris, whose interchange with Joe Biden pointed out the problem with leaving things to states’ rights. Think about it: When empowering local governmental bodies, including judges and DA’s, keeps power in the hands of racists and misogynists, victims are powerless to fight them. 

“If those segregationists had had their way, I would not be a member of the United States Senate,” Harris said in a TV interview. “I would not be a serious candidate for president of the United States. … Lester Holt would not be asking questions on that stage.”

So often it’s female legislators who have the emotional aptitude to perceive these things. But there are also those who aren’t waiting for government agencies to come through. 

Aimee Wellins of Santa Clarita spends every Friday in L.A., in rooms where students of various ages work on English, math, social studies and science. She is a volunteer math tutor at Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention rehabilitation and re-entry center in the country.

“The math is not the important thing,” she said. “Yes, I want them to be successful, but the most important thing is that they’re good humans.” 

On Wellins’ first day when she was greeted by men with heavily tattooed faces she was taken aback.

“And yet, I found it was the most loving, welcoming feeling … and the safest I’ve ever felt in my life,” she said.

Hired into the trainee program are men and women released from prison and those with gang affiliations. Tutors help them work toward a GED, a high school diploma, college coursework or testing to obtain a job.

“When we get to a human level we have so much in common,” Wellins said. “Sometimes we’re doing math and sometimes, if there’s been a difficult transition, I’m just there as a sounding board, giving somebody a chance to share with another human being how they’re feeling.” 

A former social worker, Wellins has a vision for the bigger picture set by the Rev. Greg Boyle, the Jesuit priest who founded Homeboy Industries in 1992. What began with Homeboy Bakery now includes grocery foods, Homegirl Café, silk screening, electronics recycling, a presence in 24 farmers’ markets, a restaurant at LAX and a diner at City Hall.

But it isn’t about their business model.

“What we want to create and form is a community of kinship such that God in fact might recognize it,” Boyle said in a TEDx talk online. “Imagine a circle of compassion where no one is standing on the outside of that circle.”

Wellins jokes that “Father G” is the “Mother Teresa of the gang world.”

Homeboy Industries employs 400 individuals and ministers to more than 15,000 people per year, offering mental health services, job development, parenting classes and free tattoo removal. He says they remove more tattoos than any other venue on the planet.

“Trainees learn how to come to work and be appropriate, and then move up the ladder,” Wellins said. “Some move up to staff and get hired on and some get jobs out in the community. There was a man who was an excellent cook who got hired on at a French restaurant. He had been in prison his whole life.” 

She has heard things that would make your hair stand on end, she said. 

“Life is not easy and I’ve had students who’ve gone back to street life,” Wellins said. “Some are gunned down because they’re not in a gang anymore, just in the wrong neighborhood.” 

Father G keeps count of every one of these young people he’s buried, which numbers in the hundreds. But what seems to sustain Aimee Wellins and everyone else in the Homeboy family is that radical kinship. 

“I believe it’s successful because it’s based on seeing people as humans and loving them because they’re human,” she explained. “You are meant to be loved and there’s no reason we’re not going to love you. Keep coming back and if you come back we’re going to love you.” 

It strikes me that the biggest lack of justice here is my inability as a writer to convey its powerful result. 

Martha Michael is a contributing writer for The Signal.

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