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Program Helps Men Get Back on Their Feet After Incarceration

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By Charlene Muhammad, Special to the NNPA from The Final Call –

(FinalCall.com) - John Thompson narrowly escaped death by lethal injection after serving 18 years behind bars for a murder and other crimes he did not commit. He was released after evidence revealed that prosecutors withheld a blood test and other information that would have exonerated him and a jury awarded him $14 million compensation but the U.S. Supreme Court stripped him of the judgment. Despite it all, he has dedicated himself to helping others like him get their lives back on track after incarceration.

Thompson told The Final Call he was stunned but mostly saddened after the court's 5-4 reversal. He could have walked out of prison and gone into seclusion but instead, he reaches back every day by working to build Resurrection After Exoneration, a New Orleans, Louisiana-based program that helps men get back on their feet after incarceration.

“The whole thing was facilitated because of what guys had to do to put their lives back together coming home,” Thompson said. The program was initially created for men who were exonerated but broadened to include ex-offenders generally.

“I thought our state should have been responsible, held accountable, meaning help us put our lives back together, too but I've come home to find out it was the opposite. They didn't really care about you putting your life together. Then I started reading and found out what happened to these other guys that had come home before me and it was a sad case. I couldn't go that route,” Thompson told The Final Call.

He explained that the sad case was most of the exonerated men were homeless and some were severely ill with no medical benefits. When he was freed in 1999, there was no compensation bill in place, he said. After regularly meeting with some of the men he was imprisoned with, discovering what they experienced, and what it takes to survive on the outside, they decided to create their own house and program together, he said.

The guidance of people like Norris Henderson, a longtime community activist who was also formerly incarcerated, has helped to mold his life and make him a fighter and a survivor during his younger years in prison, Thompson said.

Part of the result has been Resurrection After Exoneration, which runs out of a fully donated eight-bedroom, three bathroom home that is under renovation. It is fully equipped with two kitchens, a large den and huge backyard for a vegetable garden.

The focus for the past three years has been on men located in Louisiana and Mississippi. To self-sustain the overhead and programs, Resurrection After Exoneration plans to operate several independent businesses like its paralegal training program, a computer silk screening company, and a community space that it leases out.

The men may stay at the house for up to six months to help them work their way back into society, coordinators said. During that time, they are offered a skill trade, such as computer literacy. They are also given trauma treatment and counseling with social workers and psychologists to help them readjust to living outside of prison.

“Sometimes that is the biggest hurdle, trying to readjust and refocus on coming out of an abnormal environment into a normal environment. You know, people fail to realize how violent, how vicious inside a prison is,” Thompson said.

“It's one of the worst places where your manhood is tested 24/7. That means during the course of a day or any given time you have to be on your defenses and it could mean life or death inside the prison and you want me to just turn that switch off when I come home,” he added.

Resurrection After Exoneration is a space for those formerly incarcerated to come home without feeling so isolated and ostracized because most have been in prison so long, their families are already gone, Henderson told The Final Call.

The program isn't looking for a profit—only to put people to work, Henderson continued. The community garden will be used to produce and sell fresh herbs and vegetables to the neighborhood. Development of a lawn care business is already underway and the paralegal training program has 22 enrollees, he said. Graduates of their programs give back by donating 10 hours a year to mentor someone else at the house. A primary key is to help participants successfully resume their lives by making a way for them to become financially independent.

Thompson received some limited compensation from the state after his ordeal but most men don't receive that, Henderson said.

“That was a bad message the Supreme Court sent, ya'll can do anything you want, put people on death row, put people in jail, but no harm, no foul,” Henderson said.

For Thompson, the Resurrection Program has been a labor of love rather than a distraction from the Supreme Court's denial of his award. He said he filed the lawsuit in part for the other men left behind in Louisiana's prisons and jails, to give him and them hope that their lives are valuable.

“You gotta think about what they told my family, that our system could take your father from you and punish him for 18 years and you can't get nothing! To both of my children, to my mom, I was a good father. None of my children were on welfare when I went to jail. I was a hard worker and a little hustler too, now. I was no angel but I wasn't no damn murderer either!” Thompson said.

'Race-based Disparities Hold Us Back'

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By Chris King, Special to the NNPA from The St. Louis American –

There is no mainstream institution in the St. Louis region that addresses, head-on, the issues of race more consistently or effectively than the Missouri History Museum under the direction of Robert R. Archibald. With American I AM: the African American Imprint at the museum through September 25, we asked Archibald about the exhibit and his tenacity in hosting shows like this in St. Louis.

The St. Louis American: Tell me about American I AM and why you wanted to show it in St. Louis.

Robert R. Archibald: When organizations were solicited for proposals and expressions of interest, we made sure we had somebody there at the first meeting with their hands up first. We were not the first venue to show it, but we were first on the list.

The exhibit is a journey of 300 or 400 years of African and African-American history. From an object standpoint, there are African art objects that Dr. Suggs tells me are of extremely rare and beautiful quality. It has the African cultural background to the enforced enslavement of African people – for instance, the doors from a castle where people were imprisoned before shipment. There are some macabre instruments of slavery. And there are some just amazing things, like Langston Hughes’ original manuscript and typewriter. It has the real stuff in it.

It also documents the ways African Americans have persisted and achieved and made huge contributions, despite all the obstacles placed in their way. The message of the exhibit is these are really strong people who learned to be strong and had to be strong and who represent in many ways the best of what humans are. For people of African descent, we are looking at something really empowering that underscores all the things we know to be true. For people who are not of African descent, this is an opportunity to stand in the shoes of African Americans and view the world from their extraordinary perspective.

The exhibit is set up with a quote from W.E.B. Du Bois: “Would America be America without our Negro citizens?” The answer the exhibit gives is a resounding, “No!” To be American is to be an inheritor of the African-American experience.

I wanted to bring it here because we are looking at a community that self-evidently is grasping at all kinds of fixes (and I don’t mean to minimize them), whether it be a cargo hub or attempting to attract this business or that business, but in the end we need to create a community where people want to live. And, people want to live in places where there is reasonable equity and people get along reasonably well and civic agendas are pursued with respect for democratic process and there is not a huge discrepancy between the richest people and the poorest people and where the community is not segregated.

And, when we look at St. Louis, deep down in our hearts and souls we know something is wrong that we are even reluctant to talk about, and that thing we are reluctant to talk about is the fact that our disparities too often are based on race and it is those disparities that hold us back. So, my hope in bringing the exhibit here is to make one more little effort to build bridges and get people to stand in each other’s shoes and build a better understanding of people in St. Louis of African descent.

The American: You must sometimes get pushback and hear from the public or from your board members, “Enough with race!”

Robert Archibald: As for pushback, not very much, really. I get crank calls from racists, probably the same people call you as well, but not many.

We come at it at different angles. Last year we did Are We So Different?, which was an anthropological look at the idea of race, at whether skin color makes genetic sense as a basis to make distinctions between people. It wasn’t about people of African descent specifically, but all people. American I AM celebrates a specific people and their history.

Yes, you’re right, they do both deal with race, but it isn’t accusatory, we are not accusing anyone of racism. We are trying to overcome the barriers and boundaries and distinctions between people based on race.

People expect us to be a neutral forum for these debates and exhibits. If we don’t get some reaction, then what we’re doing is not very important. It’s important to deal with difficult topics but never to push people away, because in doing so you lose audience, and when you lose audience you lose effectiveness.

Worldwide 'Planking' Craze Reminds Some of Slavery

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Special to the NNPA from the AFRO-American newspapers –

A fad entitled “Planking” has recently emerged that calls for participants to find the most difficult place in which to lie face down with palms to the side and feet pointed to the floor. It was originated by two men in Australia. Some say the fad reminds them too much of African slaves who had to lie in the same position for months during the “Middle Passage.”

The game is said to have been by started by Aussies Gary Clarkson and Christian Langdon 14 years ago, according to The Sydney Morning Herald. As children, they performed in public places, reveling in amusement from onlookers. But they had no idea their practice would one day garner worldwide attention, with “plankers” sharing their pictures on social media.

“It was just a really stupid, random thing to do,” Clarkson told the Australian newspaper. Other Australian kids took up the practice and, in 2007, a Facebook group was created. Plankers from Europe and America started to share their planking pictures on the group and as it gained followers, the practice received worldwide attention.

But, participants found more risky places to lie face down, culminating in the death of a 20-year-old who tried to plank off a balcony. The negative media attention from that incident increased as some began to link the game to slavery.

“If you look at the pictures of the ships used in the ‘Middle Passage,’ slaves used the planks as beds,” a report on news Web site The Black Urban Times stated. According to the news site, plank collars, or wooden planks with five openings, were used as holding collars for five slaves. Commentator Daja Robinson on entertainment Web site thisis50.com called the game a cruel reminder of the past. “This 'game' is another way to remind us that no matter how far we've come, we will always be a slave to our past,” Robinson said. “Not that deep to you? Just a game? Well ask your grandparents how they feel about lying face down with their hands to their sides while you take a picture to laugh with your friends and post on Twitter for views.”

In the book “The Slave Ship: A Human History,” author Marcus Rediker detailed the workings of British and American slave ships during the 18th century.

“Vessels in the slave trade needed to be sturdy and durable, so [the buyer] insisted both vessels be built with heavy ‘2 ½ and 3-inch plank with good substantial bends or Whales,’” Rediker wrote.

The author described Oladuh Equiano’s Middle Passage as a “pageant of cruelty, degradation and death.”

“The enslaved were spooned together in close quarters, each with about as much room as a corpse in a coffin,” he wrote.

While the current practice of planking did not stem from undertones of slavery, Camillo Smith, a columnist with The Grio called the position a “humiliation and confinement for African people during the Middle Passage” and referenced a passage from, “Upon these Shores: Themes in the African-American Experience, 1600 to the Present.”

“Some ships had tiny bunks, really nothing more than shelves, on which slaves could recline; in others, the slaves lay side by side on the planking, rolling with the ship, bodies virtually touching, for weeks on end,” the book states.

Strong Start Symposium Offers Solutions to Education Decline

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By Jihad Hassan Muhammad, Special to the NNPA from The Dallas Examiner –

The quality of public education has been a heavy concern across the United States for many years. With the current downturn of the economy and downsizing of the school system, there is a growing concern about the nation’s schools ability to adequately educate today’s youth. Students at predominantly African American schools are at greater risk; according to statistics that show a large percentage of Black students are already at a disadvantage, more so than their Caucasian counterparts, or any other group in America.

Marian Wright Edelman, president/founder of the Children’s Defense Fund suggests that a “toxic cocktail of poverty, illiteracy, racial disparities, violence, massive incarceration and family breakdown,” has led to a gap in education, health disparities and broken dreams.

Recently, the Educational Testing Service and the Children’s Defense Fund brought awareness to this issue as they co-sponsored a joint symposium, called: A Strong Start: Positioning Young Black Boys for Educational Success at The National Press Club, in Washington D.C.

ETS serves individuals, educational institutions, and government agencies by providing customized solutions for teacher certification, English language learning, and elementary, secondary and post-secondary education, as well as conducting education research, analysis, and policy studies. CDF’s mission is to ensure every child a healthy start, a head start, a fair start, a safe start and a moral start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.

“The higher rates of drop outs, the higher rates of incarceration, the higher rates of unemployment, and the need to find ways to reverse those negative trends caused us to do the symposium, focusing on the root of the problems and an effort to find a long term solution,” said Michael Nettles, ETS senior vice president.

A Strong Start also focused on the link between early brain development and later academic achievement. The lack of this early brain development and academic achievement is referred to as the “cradle to prison pipeline.” The symposium reported that more than 40 percent of Black children are born into poverty. Poor Black children are behind in cognitive development at nine months and further behind at 24 months. It further reported that 3.5 million Black boys under the age of nine will not go to college or become prosperous adults. The above facts ultimately lead to a statistic that experts say are relative to the lack of education and that is the overwhelming amount of incarceration in the Black community – which is 63 percent of all who are incarcerated, while Blacks are only approximately 13 percent of America’s population.

“Early education and early development sets the stage if a child will end up in prison, even in the womb when a woman is pregnant. That emotion response, along with social development, is very important in regards to this,” said Catherine Beane, the director of policy at the CDF.

Beane also cited that the need to get involved and change the dismal outlook connected to the non-socialization and lack of education of our children is imperative.

“If a child is not successful in education the chances of them going to prison goes up dramatically. We, as a community and as parents, must be actively involved in our children’s lives to stop that” she continued.

NAACP’s attorney Wade Henderson talked of the importance of early social and educational development.

“The family is the first school the children go to. Reading to your child, having dinner with your child builds their understanding of words and learning, which affect these outcomes positively,” Henderson said. He is also the ETS vice chair of the Board of Trustees and president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights – one of the country’s premier civil and human rights coalitions. Symposium speakers advised its audience that the condition of education in the Black community could be observed and acted upon from a holistic and socially active approach. But, politics and public policy must reflect equality in the education of children in the Black community and poverty overall to be fully effective.

“Fighting to achieve an equal education for our children is not a light weight effort. Resources must be cultivated for them. There is a need to ensure we provided an adequate support on the federal and state level. Regardless of where they live and what their zip codes is, our voices and vote must make a difference,” Henderson said.

Organizations like the CDF are taking steps to make a difference. Its Freedom Schools – a national program that provides summer and after-school enrichment that focus on reading, self-esteem, and positive attitudes toward learning – are a lasting objective and outcome that have rendered results for educational development.

Edelman is actively grooming and cultivating young minds. During the summer, she brings 1,300 young people to the Knoxville, Tennessee to the Alex Haley Farm to be trained in aspects of better education to work within the Freedom Schools. Edelman also writes a weekly column, educating and updating readers on a variety of concerns regarding the education, health and wellbeing of America’s youth.

The ETS published an A Strong Start statistical profile that indicated other strategies needed to help combat the current statistics, such as better health care during pregnancy and for children, stability and security in the home, active neighborhood centers for youth, sex education, and birth control.

The groups concluded that the objectives and outcomes of the symposium where vast and attainable, like parents getting more involved from the womb and early childhood development, lifting their voice regarding concerns and voting for equality in education, and members of the community could volunteer and become mentors. With consistent effort, change could become present in the education of our community.

Violence Increasing Among Young Women in Pittsburgh Community

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By Rebecca Nuttall, Special to the NNPA from New Pittsburgh Courier –

Last year in Allegheny County, 242 women were arrested. Though men often play the leading role in the stories of crime and violence across the city, women are increasingly becoming key players.

At The Symposium on Reducing Youth Violence in mid-June, attendees heard from Erica Gay-Fields, director of administration and the Sisterhood Initiative of One Vision One Life, who shared her own shocking history with violence. By focusing on the ever-growing problem of violence among young women, OVOL is addressing a segment of society long ignored by the juvenile justice system.

“Ladies, we are not excluded from jail or death,” Gay-Fields said. “Why do women engage in crime and violence? It can be because of low socio-economic status, lack of education, and the media (hip-hop videos). The main reason is to keep a particular lifestyle.”

Through her work with the Sisterhood Initiative, Gay-Fields strives to empower young women, encourage personal growth and foster positive relationships between females. Since its inception, the program has played a key role in mediating conflicts between young girls in local schools and neighborhoods, much in the same way OVOL staff have mediated conflicts between rival gangs.

“So how do we help, through programs such as One Vision One Life with women on staff who have had similar experiences. These women can assist females ages 12 and up with getting their life together and helping to prevent future violence,” Gay-Fields said. “We can stop the violence today. You can be someone’s angel.”

Gay-Fields listed materialistic wealth as one of the main reasons women engage in crime and violence. However, when they are led into this lifestyle by their partners she said low self-esteem is the deciding factor.

“When we engage with these young women, come down to their level and talk to them. We don’t tell these young women how wonderful they are and how proud of them we are,” Gay-Fields said. “We need to make sure children remain children. Each and every day, I encourage them to be all they could be.”

Before revealing herself as the leading lady in her story, Gay-Fields exposed the audience to her life as the wife of a drug dealer. Despite growing up as the daughter of a U.S. Marshall, she eventually found herself purchasing guns for her husband while he cheated on her with a woman who lived down the street from their home.

“So what do we do as women, we accept that there is a shortage of African-American men and we share them with other women,” Gay-Fields said. “Because a large portion of our men are in jail or dead, it’s affecting us and our children.”

Several years later, Gay-Fields is working to earn her masters degree and has seen her children go on to strive toward their own degrees in higher education as well.

The two-day symposium was presented by the Pittsburgh Psychoanalytic Center in conjunction with Manchester Bidwell Corp. It was held at the Manchester Bidwell Corp.

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