“I held myself to a higher standard because I learned my real history.” Brandon Harrison, youth organizer from Stockton CA (1997-2017).
Can you explain a little about your experience and your relationship with carceral punishment?
ML: I am formerly incarcerated, and system impacted. I distinguish the two because of my personal experience within the system and because growing up members of my family were in and out of jail. I am a first-generation college student, and as a student I advocate for people like myself.
AG: I’m a community organizer and a law student. I grew up in Coachella, which is in Southern California, Riverside County. My community is one that is beautiful and resilient, but has suffered from a lot of disinvestment and isolation. Growing up, I saw the criminalization of our people firsthand. Unfortunately, many of my peers were not afforded the same opportunities I received. That is a bleak reality I aspire to change.
What does it mean to be system impacted?
AG: It is important to talk about both the direct and indirect impact of incarceration because the indirect still directly affects you. For me, “system impacted” is a broad term that refers to the oppressive impact of many systems and institutions, including poverty. There are many policies and systems that perpetuate poverty, and those compounding pressures create oppression that is much worse than many of us realize. The community that I grew up in is a predominantly Latinx/Chicanx farmworker community. Growing up, thankfully Creator provided me with a supportive family and a safe home. That was my safety net. In communities like mine, children and youth without a support system at home are more vulnerable to external factors that will harm them. Whether it be the cops, the schools pushing them out, or something else.
Growing up impacted by racial, social, and economic inequities did something to my spirit and it has created a lot of barriers for me to get over. It has been a struggle and I sometimes have a hard time finding folks in law school or in the legal profession that have struggled the same way.
It is important to talk about both the direct and indirect impact of incarceration because the indirect still directly affects you.
ML: A professor of mine has a good way of putting it. There are millions of people in California who have been in and out of the criminal justice system, and each of them are going to have at least two family members they have impacted. So, what’s the population of people that have been impacted by our huge criminal justice system? How many are directly impacted because someone they depend on is caught up in the system? And there are many different ways people are impacted. In my work, I accept all the definitions people use when describing how they have been impacted because the consequences of incarceration are not linear. It’s a branch, and after it touches one person it is going to affect many more as it grows.
When I think of system impacted, I try to understand the weight of these institutions on communities. We don’t learn the immediate histories of our communities, so we don’t always see what happened one or two generations ago that led to the conditions that we experience. Many of the gangs in California’s Latino communities started with zoot suiters fighting against racial violence and racist policies. You also don’t know why your school is the one that has a trade program, a resident military recruiter, and no clear pathway to college. You just accept the reality you live in.
That is why I am always frustrated that people call me exceptional. I’m not, I was just lucky enough to capitalize on certain opportunities. There are a lot of people that can do what I did. I don’t want my story to reinforce that narrative of “if you try hard enough, you’ll make it” because the truth is that so few make it. There is no clear path to success. Rather if you’re lucky enough to live in an area that has a diversion program or community-based assistance, then you might be able to be one of the lucky ones that is what happened to me.
We don’t always see what happened one or two generations ago that led to the conditions that we experience.
The notion that we are not taught our immediate history is an interesting one. Can you talk a little bit more about the importance of knowing that history?
ML: There’s something called the sociological imagination. It is your understanding of your place in history – how the history of your family or community fits into the bigger picture of the world. Sociological imagination gives you a better understanding of why you are where you are, and many don’t have that. Without the context it is easy to tell yourself that the world is just the way it is. When you have that sociological imagination, it enables you to decide with more faith and conviction who you want to be. And it’s an educational piece. In high school my focus was survival. I never asked myself who I wanted to be. My goals were: I don’t want to be in this situation and I don’t want to live paycheck to paycheck. That is all I knew. Learning my history was therapy, and if you are not being taught your history, you’re being stripped of it.
If you are not being taught your history, you’re being stripped of it.
AG: This question makes me a little emotional. Nine years ago, I was an organizer with the United Farm Workers. I witnessed the abuse farm workers suffer, and it’s an issue that I know is worse now due to COVID-19 and the wildfires. It’s personal because my grandpa was part of the Bracero Program. He immigrated to the U.S. with my dad and the rest of his family with no money, all while suffering exploitation and abuse. My schools did not teach me about the ways people from Mexico were exploited in this country. This history helped me understand the evolution my family underwent to produce the success of my generation. It is humbling, but also easy to imagine the many ways the progress my family made could have been disrupted by state violence. Every time the system incarcerates someone, it impacts a family and deprives them their right to progress.
I think a lot about my own privilege, especially when thinking about future generations. The struggle my ancestors endured will influence the next generation of my family. The next generation of my family won’t endure a lot of the struggle I did, just like I did not have to endure what my parents and grandparents had to. But that is not the case for so many people because intergenerational growth is disrupted by incarceration. Ultimately, one of the main objectives of social and racial justice work is to help families heal. Families have the right to strive towards a brighter future. Knowing that there are generations coming ahead of us brings purpose to our work. That is exactly what our ancestors did for us. They thought about us three, four, five generations ago, and so for me that is what makes this work so spiritual.
Every time the system incarcerates someone, it impacts a family and deprives them their right to progress.
ML: That is interesting, and makes me think about how the system is misguided. A prosecutor’s job performance is measured by convictions, which encourages criminalization. But has that actually produced law and order? What would the world look like if prosecutors were evaluated by their ability to promote healthy communities? In my own experience, the state interfered with a personal issue that could have been handled over a beer. Instead, it became a life altering event. I lost a lot, and all because the county had a new DA that was pushing a 95% conviction rate for political reasons. You change the trajectory of a person’s life by labeling them a criminal; and it is usually done without considering their background, history, childhood, or anything else about them that would help us understand their needs. It was a long hard road to get to a point where I could expunge my record and get a job again because of that.
AG: And I’ll add a bit before we move on, because I am reminded of a very powerful youth organizer from Stockton, CA – Brandon Harrison. Brandon is no longer with us, but he once said, “I held myself to a higher standard because I learned my real history.” I remember Bandon would tell me the history of black people, which he learned through his involvement in our movement in Stockton. For me, the movement and activism I have been involved with has helped me learn my history. And our histories are not taught, particularly in law school. This means that most future district attorneys never learn the histories of the communities they prosecute. It is what creates the problems we see with the system today. So, I wanted to honor Brandon and use him as an example of why it is so important for young people to learn the struggles of their ancestors. It helps them understand the power within them to overcome the oppression they face, instead of being stuck in it.
As we discuss efforts to transform the system, it is important to acknowledge the need to have formerly incarcerated and system impacted individuals lead this conversation. What do you think needs to change to see that happen?
People need to know that they won’t be denied critical opportunities because they were outspoken about the oppression they experienced.
ML: First, it’s important to point out that this is a double-edged sword. The very thing that protects so many system impacted and formerly incarcerated individuals, is the thing that holds them back from participating in these larger conversations. Anonymity and secrecy regarding your history with the criminal justice system is the only way many people are able to navigate back into society. Because society relies so much on stigmatizing people, these systemic problems can only really go away if we create avenues for people to share their stories without the threat of judgement. People need to know that they won’t be denied critical opportunities because they were outspoken about the oppression they experienced. I don’t have the answers, I can only say that as a society we need to come together around these issues and make it less of a stigma. And that can happen at a policy level and at a criminal justice level. We can do more to help people struggling under these labels instead of stigmatizing and punishing them.