Interview about MY WORLD PROJECT

The Missing Slate, Interview with My World Project Founder Karen Hunt

For me, this is a way of life. It isn’t a “cause,” it isn’t a “movement.” I can’t put some spin on it. There aren’t any buzz words. It is how I choose to live, and I really can’t help it. It is so much a part of who I am.”

Honored to have this interview, by Constance A. Dunn, published in The Missing Slate, an international arts and literary magazine. The interview tells about My World Project and the backstory leading up to it. Here is a brief excerpt from the backstory…

“I went on a personal quest…I met a woman named Alma Woods, who was responsible for single-handedly getting the Watts Library built. And to illustrate the politics, they didn’t want to name the library after her, they wanted to name it after some big-wig politician and there was a huge outcry and they had no choice but to buckle under public pressure and name the library after her. She was a simple lady, lived in a simple house in Watts and I would go and visit her and “sit at her feet,” as it were, she was a real guru, she taught me so much! She would take me around her neighborhood and I saw Watts through her eyes. If there were kids loitering outside the liquor store she would reprimand them and they would hang their heads in guilt and listen to her. She was respected. She was fearless. I grew to love her. She encouraged me to follow my heart and not be afraid of where it led me. It was after that that I went into Central Juvenile Hall and talked to the principal, Dr. Arthur McCoy, an older version of the nutty professor and the most amazing human being, and he let me start teaching there, along with the amazing teacher in the girls’ school, Cheryl Neely.

Like a beautiful, magical web, one person has led to another in my life. Not big celebrities, or what you would call “movers and shakers,” but the salt of the earth people. The ones who really have the power because they don’t care about it. They are the ones who truly balance the good against the evil. The ones we never hear about. I know I use the word amazing a lot, but really, there is no better word for all these people.

JUST BECAUSE I’M AN “ARTIST” I MUST BE FLIGHTY AND DISORGANIZED…EXCUSE ME, WHAT?

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Writing in a café in Kranj, Slovenia

Throughout my life the assumption has repeatedly been made that because I am an artist (include writer in that title), I must therefore be flighty, impractical, moody and disorganized.

Oh, and most likely a drug addict and/or alcoholic, have loose morals and most definitely, my bedroom must be a mess. The list goes on.

“Artists are ‘all over the place,’ aren’t they?”

All over what place? All over the world? Because I have traveled all over the world, but I did it with super organized planning and a dedication and determination to accomplish  important goals.

If you want to describe me as a high achiever, I’m fine with that. If you want to say, wow, you sure have an imagination that is bigger than most, that’s okay too. It you want to say I am a visionary, hey, I don’t mind. If you want to say I am a pain in the ass because I never give up, even when it seems like no one could care less about what I am creating, I will give you a high-five. And, if you want to point out that I spend days, months and years working on projects that do not seem to make me a whole lot of money, I will have to agree with you.

Island of Dreams

 

One of my pieces of artwork inspired by a story I wrote, The Pool of Labrith, which I have yet to see published.

BUT, don’t dare to suggest that I am disorganized. I really take offense to that. I cannot create in chaos. I have to have a clean and orderly environment in order for me to focus.

Although, I must say, even when my kids were little, I could sit down at the table and focus despite the chaos of them running around and playing and crawling under my feet. I could get up, make the lunch, come back and enter the world of my imagination once again. It wasn’t easy, mind you, but it was out of necessity. It was an acceptable chaos, of a positive nature: my children growing before me. It was not the chaos of a disorganized mind.

And no, I do not wait for inspiration to strike. If I did, I would not have nineteen children’s books published and numerous essays and short stories. I would not have won awards, co-founded a creative writing nonprofit and now, at last realized my dream of Key of Mystery, the first book in the NIGHT ANGELS CHRONICLES, being published.

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Accepting the WOMAN OF DISTINCTION AWARD from the Soroptimists

I do not have to be drunk or high. I confess to having tried marijuana a few times and it was not for me. I have never used any other drugs, no exaggeration. Never. I cannot stand being drunk, but I love a glass of wine or a gin and tonic. Yes, I was young once…. I do know how to have a good time, but I don’t need to be high for that.

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College party at St. John’s College, York, England. The artist paints herself as if she is a garden, sort of.

I am self-disciplined and I work out almost every single day. I do not indulge my feelings, I set goals and go at them with energy. And I teach boxing and kickboxing at a martial arts gym.

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Where I used to teach, I now teach at House of Champions

Of course, there are artists who have drug problems, who are messy, who are impractical. There are lazy people and driven people in every field. There are also messy plumbers who are like that, and drug-addicted doctors (unfortunately) and even impractical lawyers. You can’t automatically lump one group of people together and assume they are all a certain way.

Now, I might not be a drug addict, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have other issues. I am not good at picking the right men to marry, that is for sure. And I can get depressed about life in general. Like everyone, I have my own weaknesses that I need to overcome. Just don’t put me in a box. I most certainly will jump out.

One thing all us artists will agree on is that it is a lonely calling and requires a huge amount of self-discipline and self-motivation. You are not punching a time-clock. No one is telling you to get the job done. Creating my NIGHT ANGELS CHRONICLES series meant a few years of dogged writing, where no one but myself was encouraging me to do it. There is the danger of beginning to suffer from a myopic view of your art, leading to doubt and discouragement.

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Such an amazing moment, to see my book in print after so much hard work for so long.

But, if you are determined and self-disciplined, you do not rely on your feelings, good or bad. You keep on going.

Never give up, never give in. Write or die. Might sound extreme, but that is my motto, because being an artist is as much a part of me as breathing.

 

USA Today’s Happily Ever After Interview

USA Today interview

Take a look at my interview, live today, about Key of Mystery and the NIGHT ANGELS CHRONICLES. I am writing this series under the name KH Mezek.

KEY OF MYSTERY Released Today

NIGHT ANGELS CHRONICLES by KH Mezek

Key of Mystery on Amazon

Be careful who you love. It just might kill you.”

When Sera’s father is killed in a horrific accident, all he leaves behind is a mysterious key. Sera places the key on a chain around her neck and vows to avenge her father. Strange characters arrive in town, including the otherworldly Night Angels, who claim to be sent for her protection.

Sera falls hard for one of them–exotic, arrogant Peter. But what if his promise of love is only a ruse to gain access to the key? As Sera’s connection to the key grows, so do her supernatural powers. Guided by clues let by her father, Sera searches for the hidden chamber beneath the city, hoping to save what lies within before the sinister mayor and his deadly followers drown humanity in a bloodbath.

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WINNER: WHY I CHOOSE TO REMEMBER MY 50TH BLOOD-BLATH OF A BIRTHDAY INSTEAD OF TRYING TO FORGET IT

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Pooled Ink Editor’s Pick Wow, so much happening on the writing front! So proud to have my essay, WHY I CHOOSE TO REMEMBER MY 50TH BLOOD-BATH OF A BIRTHDAY INSTEAD OF TRYING TO FORGET IT chosen for publication in “Pooled Ink.” It is an ‘editor’s pick’ thanks to the wonderful Jennifer Top.

SILVIA ON MY MIND

For those who remember, I am supporting the release of Silvia Sanchez after twenty years in prison. I do not cease to think of her every day. Here I am, twenty years later, on a hillside above Lake Arenal, Costa Rica, listening to the driving rain, thunder and lightening and reflecting on how mysterious life is and magical and filled with such pain and joy. The road to where Silvia and I am now has not been 20150607_100335easy.

I have never lived a life compromise. When I befriended Silvia Sanchez in 1996, it was a turning point in my life. My husband divorced me for wasting my time with criminals. Silvia was the biggest reason why I made that commitment. I believed in her. In a time when it wasn’t cool to believe in kids who were in juvenile hall, I stuck my neck out. And had it about chopped off so that it was hanging by a thread. Somehow, it got sewed back on again, but I was lucky it didn’t destroy me completely. One thing that kept me going was that if Silvia could survive in her horrible circumstances, I could survive in mine.

There’s so much more to this story. I made a lot of mistakes. But one thing I know, to live life to its fullest you can’t be afraid of mistakes, you can’t allow others to buy you and exploit the situation or make you feel inadequate. You can’t allow them to manipulate you. You have to experience what it is to take a stand, to swim against the tide, to believe in your vision when those in power resent you for it and try to intimidate you. When you own family turns against you. When your husband divorces you. When you lose friends.

Supporting Silvia was not a cool cause like some of the others. Supporting her was deeper and more profound because there was nothing to be gained from it, except to see her make it through each day. Supporting Silvia has never meant a reward, recognition, invites to exclusive high powered political and fundraising parties, offers of movie deals. Supporting Silvia never had the promise of furthering anyone’s career.

Supporting Silvia was important because she was a quiet, unassuming, inspiring, hard-working, ordinary, and at the same time extraordinary, woman who has paid the price and doesn’t deserve to be locked up a minute longer.

And her writing was everything that InsideOUT Writers was about. The power of writing and the ability to show young people whose voices had never been heard that they had something of value to say and that people were going to listen. Silvia went from a quiet insecure girl who didn’t believe in herself to a young woman who could pierce the heart of any issue with her writing.

I believe in Silvia. It is important that I believe in her. She taught me about myself, demanded I face my own abusive relationships. I said good-bye to her in Central Juvenile Hall twenty years ago. And now, on November 6th, she has her first parole hearing. The first parole hearing for someone who never posed a threat to society. But who came to understand full well that, in a moment, she made a choice based on fear and the control of an abusive man, that ruined her young life. Now, she can help other young women to learn from her mistakes. That is what we all should do as we grow.

The miracle is that she is still here and stronger and better and wiser and inspiring me and countless others. A few years  back I was put in a position where I believed it was in her best interest if I withdrew from her life. Now, I realize I don’t have to think like that. I can be there for her. For her and her family as much as I am able. I love Silvia for all she is and for all she has done for me.

So People! Stand with me! If someone from InsideOUT Writers wrote a letter to the parole board on behalf of Silvia, I would appreciate knowing about it. Silvia represents everything that IOW is founded upon. IOW participants should know who Silvia is and the history that made it possible for them to benefit from the sacrifice of those before them.

Anyone reading this, send the best thoughts you can, pray if it is what you do. Let’s bring Silvia home.  And when she is out, because I believe she will be, let’s celebrate the young women who were in that first InsideOUT Writers class, the very first class ever held. Watching Silvia rise above the labels that were put on her inspired me to do the same. I expect to celebrate her freedoms. I expect to see her do wonderful things.

November 6th. The truth shall set you free.

Why I Choose to Remember My 50th Blood-Bath of a Birthday Instead of Trying to Forget It

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Why I Choose To Remember My 50th Blood-Bath of a Birthday Instead of Trying to Forget It

Looking back, what is the birthday that stands out most in your mind?

How about someone else’s birthday that is especially memorable?

Are they remembered with love or regret?

Laughter or tears?

Why do you remember these birthdays in particular?

On June 6th I will turn 59. Birthdays always make me think back to the ones before. I’ve had some doozies. Especially my 50th. In a perfect world (according to the media and celebrities and self-help gurus), turning fifty should be some sort of meaningful Zen-like epiphany, where you realize how wise you have become; you should be pleased because you are still in great shape; you have saved enough in a steady job to be looking forward to retirement, and/or those alimony checks are substantial because you weren’t one of those stupid women who signed a pre-nup; and maybe you even have a loving relationship with someone who gives you sizzling-hot sex…. You know, “fifty is the new thirty,” and all of that.

I only fulfilled one of those achievements: I was in pretty good shape. Otherwise, I was nowhere near where I thought I should be at such an advanced age. Instead of lying in bed beside a wonderful lover, or even just a warm body, by midnight of my 50th birthday, I was standing in a dingy apartment, covered in someone else’s blood and wondering what to do about it.

The day started okay. I went to a lovely, exceedingly Zen-like wedding, and a reception that was held in an exclusive gated community in Calabasas with a breathtaking view of the Santa Monica Mountains. I was high above the messy streets and dressed perfectly for the occasion, wearing a little black and white number that hugged my hips and ended discreetly just above my knees, a string of pearls about my neck, a Kate Spade purse and Stuart Weitzman heels, all carefully preserved leftovers from life before the divorce. I looked good on the outside, and I was sure none of these successful people who lived in the clouds would ever suspect how worried I was inside, as a single mother, struggling to raise three children in an apartment down on the flats of the San Fernando Valley. For a few hours, I drank champagne and danced and forgot my troubles.

Then, I went home, close to midnight, and the phone rang.

It was the mother of a friend of my eldest son and she sounded hysterical. There was a young man in her home that had been stabbed and she didn’t know what to do. She’d bandaged him up as best she could but he refused to go to the hospital.

“I can’t have him dying here,” she said. This mother was a recovering heroin addict and the last thing she wanted was the police on her doorstep. I don’t say that as some sort of judgment, I say it to explain why she was so nervous. She was a good person. She loved her son like most mothers do. She wanted to do the right thing, and mostly, she tried her best under challenging circumstances.

So, what did I do? What I always do when I get calls like that. I got in my car and drove over to where she lived in a small apartment complex in Sherman Oaks. Of course, I first changed out of my perfect outfit into workout pants, t-shirt, running shoes and a hoodie, all black as the night. I wish I could say I felt like a superhero donning my fighting clothes, well I did sort of because I have a sense of humor and a good imagination, and I did feel prepared for the fight, however it might present itself.

The mother answered the door, put the leash on her dog and walked out, saying she needed a break. That was the last I saw of her that night.

Okay. The young man was standing in the middle of the living room swaying and delirious, from drugs or loss of blood, probably both. He was shirtless and there were bandages wrapped around him like a mummy. A lot of blood had seeped through. The place looked like a crime scene. My son and a few of his friends were sitting lined up on the sofa, scared and immobilized.

I hated the direction my son was going, hanging out with Juggalos and wanting to be one. If you, Dear Reader, don’t know what a Juggalo is, I won’t bother explaining. Suffice it to say that you don’t want to know, unless you are unlucky enough to have a kid who thinks he or she wants to be one, then you will have no choice but to find out. On the other hand, I do believe that they are misunderstood in a lot of ways and I would like to write more about them. I don’t believe they are a gang so much as a kind of cult, believing in something called the “Dark Carnival” and appealing to the poor and outcasts who really cannot find anywhere else to belong. My son was and is a  talented artist and writer and I understood his fascination with the dark side. I love him and have faith in him and respect his desire to be true to his art. Being an artist myself, I understand how painful is the road of raw self-expression and I admire the brutal courage that it takes to be true to one’s art.

I didn’t like the young man with the stab wounds, although such a reaction to him made me feel guilty. I worked with youth in juvenile hall who were no different from this young man. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite, but if I was honest, then I had to acknowledge that it was easy to care about those who were locked up because I could walk away and they did not invade my day to day life. If I really wanted to live what I claimed I believed, then I had to care about those people who smashed into my safe world and threatened to turn it upside down. Or did I–certainly I was allowed to draw the line somewhere? This was a complex question and certainly there were boundaries that needed to be observed, I just wasn’t sure exactly what they were.

This young man, known as Popeye, was a few years older than my son and his friends. As impressionable teenage boys, they thought Popeye was the shit. I don’t know why. Calling yourself Popeye, that right there, should throw up a red flag. He wasn’t especially smart,  and he certainly didn’t have a nice temperament. He was a small-time criminal with a serious drug problem who thought he was some kind of prophet with a special dispensation from God. He enjoyed quoting the Bible, except that he quoted it all wrong. The thing is, he had charisma. In fact, in a way, he reminded me of a stunted Charles Manson. Sometimes, when he came to my house, he would look at me with an intensity that I knew he used on my son and others and was trying to use on me. He was practicing his style, trying to grow into his “calling” as a leader of the lost and downtrodden. But it fell flat with me. I saw through him, as I saw through those in the boardroom who tried to manipulate me in ways that I saw as perversely similar. Popeye reminded me of countless puffed up pastors, entertainment executives, corporate leaders and politicians I had met, except he hadn’t been given the education or even the “luck” that they had. No matter if the domain is the streets or the churches or city hall, those who feed off of power seem to share the same psychological profile, except that the well-heeled are clearly more dangerous due to their access to resources that can cause havoc and destruction on a world scale. Nobody ever stops them, however, because those who are further down the ladder are way too desperate to climb up a few pegs, grasp at a few more crumbs, fool themselves into believing that they can be powerful too, if they just kiss the right person’s ass. And oh, how the powerful use that hunger to their advantage.

I well know these worlds within worlds, and that night, I crossed, as I have done so often, from the world of the elite into the world of the downtrodden; these worlds that seem so very different on the surface, one dirty and dangerous, the other pristine and filled with opportunity. But the underlying horrors are the same. For example, on the one hand you have Juggalos, a despised and ridiculed bunch, and on the other hand you have fraternities and the god-like status of athletes. Might I suggest reading John Krakauer’s Missoula to find out more about that gruesome culture?

But back to the nightmare of Popeye’s life. He had been stabbed seven times while attempting to enter a house to attend a party. Apparently, someone took offense at his Juggalo tattoos and attacked him with a knife. Popeye kept on fighting, not realizing he was being stabbed, until someone pulled him away and pointed it out to him. Somehow, he had made his way to this apartment.

The mother had been correct in saying that Popeye was refusing to go to the hospital. Even though he wasn’t the perpetrator on this occasion, he was on probation and was afraid of being sent back to jail. And he held such sway with these kids that none of them dared to try and make him go, even though he appeared to be dying right in front of their faces.

“So you’d rather die?” I asked Popeye.

He smirked at that, ever the tough guy. He seemed to think he would be just fine if he could have a few minutes to lie down, which he did, except he fainted, his skin turning a scary gray color. That was when I ordered my son and his friends to help me drag him out of the apartment, get him in the car and to the hospital.

As it turns out, one of the knife wounds had pierced his lung and he was bleeding inside. He would have surely died if he hadn’t made it to the hospital in time. Instead, he lived to cause more trouble. Not long after that, I heard that he leapt out of a moving car on the freeway and almost got himself killed… again. Then, he assaulted a woman at an ATM machine, kidnapped her and ended up in prison for a very long time. I have to say I am not sorry that he is off the streets and out of my son’s life. He is a dangerous and unpredictable person who caused a lot of harm. And yet, I had a profound encounter with him that goes beyond the physical and enters the realm of the spiritual. I saved his life. I cannot help but pray that he is receiving the psychological care that he needs but chances are he isn’t.

As much as this memory might be considered horrible, it happened to me because I am the kind of person that those in need feel they can call on. I don’t say this with any kind of pride. In fact, I often wonder if I am not just a naïve sucker. I can’t help it, though. It is the way I was made, I guess. And going around helping people doesn’t mean that you necessarily get a prize for it or that the result is a happy ending. Nobody would have given me a prize or helping Popeye. He was a person who could well have gone on to kill someone or himself. And indeed, he did something almost as bad.

But we don’t know the future and so we can only do what we think is right in any given moment. And there have been plenty such moments in my life. And even if I had known the outcome ahead of time, it wouldn’t have changed my decision to do what I felt compelled to do.

Which leads me to my memory of someone else’s birthday. Because thinking of my 50th always leads me to think of my friend Silvia’s 18th. It was on that day that she was sentenced to twenty-five years to life for a murder committed by her older, abusive boyfriend. And there I was, in the courtroom, unable to change her fate.

In 1995 I went into Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles and started teaching creative writing as a volunteer to a group of girls who were facing life sentences for serious crimes. One of those girls was Silvia. I worked with her for three years and attended her trial, taking forty-five pages of notes. I wanted to see a trial for myself, and I picked hers because it was the most extreme and I had become close to her. I had decided that by the end of the trial I would either walk away from this difficult work, or I would make a commitment to it for the long term. After what I saw at Silvia’s trial, I was more determined than ever to do what I could to help these young people make their voices heard. And so, InsideOUT Writers was born, with the help of many incredible people.

At Silvia’s trial it was never determined that she knew a murder was going to occur. But she was there when it happened, on Dockweiller Beach, planes screaming overhead as they took off and landed at LAX. Silvia had walked away, angry at her boyfriend because he asked her to flirt with the victim so he could steal the guy’s car stereo. The others were down by the water and Silvis headed back towards the car. She turned around to see the victim falling and not getting up again. Afterwards, her boyfriend threatened that he would harm her brother, Cesar, who was mentally ill, if she didn’t keep silent. Having been abused for years, she wasn’t about to disobey his orders. I could relate to this since I had been in two abusive marriages, was still in the middle of the second one during her trial, and feeling depressed that I hadn’t learned my lesson the first time around. Silvia’s writing spoke to me in a powerful way. Mostly, she wrote about how she had allowed herself to get into abusive relationships and what she needed to do to get out of them. She went on a journey in her writing and I went with her and that journey culminated with her trial. I had entered juvenile hall with the desire to help these girls. Never did I imagine how much they, in turn, would help me to face the truth of my own life.

Seated with me at Silvia’s sentencing was the woman with whom I had started InsideOUT Writers, Sister Janet Harris, and a private investigator who was considered by many to be the foremost authority on the death penalty phase, Casey Cohen. These two extraordinary people were my best friends and mentors. I had contacted Antonio Villaraigosa about Silvia’s case. At that time, he was Speaker of the House of Representatives, before he went on to become mayor. He had put a piece of Silvia’s writing up on the wall in his office and sent a representative to speak on his behalf at her sentencing, a young man named Jimmy Blackman. But it hadn’t mattered.

On Silvia’s eighteenth birthday, despite the lack of evidence, despite the fact that she did not represent any threat to society, Judge JD Smith sentenced her to twenty-five years to life.

“I could have given you life without parole,” he told the girl with the long black hair, fading tattoos and eyes that were now hopeless instead of angry. “You should thank me.”

Silvia said nothing. She didn’t know that he actually, literally, meant that she should thank him. She was in the process of getting the tattoos removed. Besides the tear drops beneath her eye, she had been branded by her boyfriend in many places on her body, and then there was the 213 on her knuckles, the last tattoo Gerardo had made on the night of the murder. I had managed to get a court order from Judge Smith allowing her to stay in juvenile hall until the tattoo removal was completed. She would end up staying there until her twentieth birthday, I believe an all-time record for a juvenile offender.

Judge JD Smith was a big, tough white guy, white hair and a florid complexion that grew redder after lunch. His face was positively crimson after he’d told Silvia to thank him and she hadn’t, perceiving her lack of response as insolence. “I said you should thank me,” he bellowed.

Silvia turned in confusion to her lawyer, who nodded that she should obey.

“Thank you,” she said, her head bowed and in a barely audible voice.

“What?”

“Thank you,” she said louder.

He nodded, satisfied.

And that was the end of Silvia. I had been so angry at the belligerent man but years later I realized that his hands had been tied and how I saw him at the trial represented my own hurt and frustration, because he really had done the only thing he could do to help her. In retrospect, I don’t think anyone in that courtroom wanted to see Silvia in jail for life, not even the prosecutor. But she was no one important in the greater scheme of things and she hadn’t stood up for herself when given the chance. She had refused to take the deal offered by the prosecution out of fear of Gerardo and so there was nothing anyone could do.

Removing the tattoos was a cleansing ritual for Silvia as at each painful session, more and more of the ink was drawn out of her body.

“It burns my skin, it really hurts,” she told to me. “But I can feel the ink going out and it’s like the poison that he infected me with is going out too.”

The State showered Silvia with honors before locking her up forever, choosing her as Valedictorian and then crowning her prom queen at the graduation for her winning essay, “Moving into the21st Century,” written about her plans to attend college, as if she were a free young woman instead of a convicted murderer. At the prom, a picture was taken of her, me and her date, all of us smiling happily. Pictures were taken of each of the youths dressed in their finery, standing in front of a limo that would never drive them anywhere. The party was held in the juvenile hall gym, decorated with balloons and streamers, a band playing. The LA Times even wrote an article about it. A bizarre party where Cinderella’s dress turned back into rags, but with a hopelessness that would never have a happy ending.

Nothing lasts forever. Life comes and then it goes, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, like the ocean tide, big and angry, small and intimate, continually turning from one thing into something else and back again. Silvia left suddenly, before her tattoo removal had been completed and I never understood why. Fifteen years later, visiting her at Chowchilla Women’s prison she told me.

“I was getting too old to be there. The pressure was too much to be the wise old lady, you know?” She shrugged. There was more there, I was sure but it was a world I really could never fully understand.

When it came time to say good-bye, we looked at one another with real, deep love, tinged by sadness. I was always having to leave her and I wished so badly that I could just take her out. Like an angel, like what happened to the Apostle Paul. But that was just a fantasy.

Saying good-bye to Silvia was always painful and the time came when I stopped visiting her because I just couldn’t take it anymore, for various reasons beyond what I can write here. But I will go again. I can’t stay away forever. I will never forget the day of our most momentous good-bye, when Silvia left juvenile hall for the “Big House.” We hugged each other in front of the chapel, the place where I had first met Janet and poured out my heart to her about my dreams to work with incarcerated youth. I couldn’t believe that it was really happening. I’d had such faith in words. I had been raised to believe in their power, by an evangelical father who was a successful writer. “In the beginning was the Word…” That verse had been pounded into my mind from a young age. Yet, my speech, so carefully prepared for Silvia’s sentencing, hadn’t done anything to save her. I had truly thought that if I could find the right words and say them with enough conviction all would be clarified, the judge and the jury would see the light and a miracle would occur. But there was no miracle, only the wheels of fate relentlessly turning with each one of us playing a small part in a bigger story, with my individual actions having absolutely no impact.

“Not on the system,” Casey told me. “But one individual can influence the life of another. Always remember that, Karen. Don’t become obsessed with the political circus and the powerful in society.” He visibly shuddered. “It’s an enticing world but a completely corrupt one, which, perversely, is much of its appeal.”

Casey impacted my life more than anyone else I have ever known. The last time I saw him, we were standing in the parking lot behind “attorney to the stars,” Charlie English’s law offices, above the bluffs of Ocean Avenue. By then, his clothes hung lose on a gaunt frame, cheeks sunken, eyes haunted and avoiding mine. He was dying of cancer. We were about to get in our cars and go our separate ways, just as we had always done, just as people were doing all around us in a normal, everyday manner.

He made his usual joking observation, “We’ve got to stop meeting like this, in parking lots and at crime scenes,” only this time, his words were choking him. “We should be going to a concert together, or shopping, how about shopping? No, what am I talking about? We should be on some small island in the South Pacific, lying on the warm sand, catching and cooking our own fish, drinking rum in some open-air bar on stilts, the ocean lapping beneath us, walking on water, we should be walking on water.”

“Only in dreams,” I murmured.

Yes, only in dreams…. And in remembrances of birthdays.

And now, here I am coming up to 59 and these are my memories, the powerful experiences that I think about in these days leading up to that moment when I magically make it to another number in a long line of numbers. The looking forward can only get shorter and the looking back can only get longer. But the memories don’t change. Not the ones that have been embedded so strongly in the mind. Casey is gone and I miss him every day. Silvia is still here, yet I miss her the same.

I think of Silvia and I think of my own son. Impressionable teenagers, preyed upon by older people who used them to feed their own egos. I understand. I have been there, too. Who hasn’t? And people like Gerardo and Popeye, those who feed upon the weak, what are their stories? What birthdays do they remember? Once they, too, were young and weak, preyed upon by those more powerful than themselves, and so they learned to do the same. The world is a place of eating or being eaten.

I don’t teach in juvenile hall anymore and it is a long story why. But those years left a lasting impression on me. After every class I would take the writing home and type it up, the words of the girls searing me as surely as those tattoos seared Silvia. Opening the folder where I kept the girls’ writing, I always looked first at what Silvia had to say, wanting to hear her voice, contemplating how it applied to me:

Me, Gerardo and Marisol were outside a friend’s house when my friend was talking and Gerardo got mad and was telling her to shut up but she was so dingy, she just kept on talking. So he took a knife and Marisol was sitting on the sidewalk and he threw the knife at her and she screamed so he kept throwing the knife at her. Then he saw me standing by the tree and he threw the knife at me and I got scared but I didn’t say nothing.

There was this lady who sells corn passing by and she asked me what my boyfriend was doing and I told her he was playing. She looked at me like I was crazy. But everyone thought I was. So she was just another person thinking I was crazy to be playing with a man who plays with knives.

Common sense should tell a girl to stay away from a man who uses her as a dartboard. Still, incredible as it may seem, it can happen to anyone if the circumstances are right. It’s easy when you’re on the outside looking in to say that a girl is crazy, that she should just get out. Or that my son should understand to stay away from a delusional criminal who quotes the Bible all wrong. Or, that a mother should be able to keep her son safe from evil.

But when you’re the one in the middle of the maze you can’t imagine the possibility of escape. Once, on the streets of London, my first husband kicked me repeatedly like I was a mangy dog and a man passing by reached out in distress, offering to help me. My husband turned on him in a mad fury and the man retreated. I stood in terror, shaking my head and mouthing no, no at the man, praying that he would just go away. It never occurred to me that I could go away with him. The only result I could imagine from his misplaced kindness was for me to suffer even worse abuse when I got home. Because I would follow my husband home, wouldn’t I? I always meekly walked into my prison and allowed him to lock me in.

If I ever tried to argue with either of my husbands, they would say “Don’t fight me.” The message was clear—you have no right. You are a woman and I am a man. I have power and you do not. That is the way of this world. Don’t upset the balance. But even in those dark days I wondered, why? Why can’t a woman, or anyone who is oppressed for that matter, stand up the way the powerful do? Don’t the oppressed have just as much right to be tough and strong, to speak freely without fear? Yes, they have the right, they just don’t have a way to be heard—and if they do happen to be heard, they must quickly be suppressed or discredited so that no one actually listens.

I went on to free myself as best I could. It took many years and I am still in the process. At the age of thirty I started training in martial arts and learned how to walk tall and without fear. I now teach boxing and kick boxing and self-defense to women and children at a gym called Tarzana Boxing. If anyone would have told me in my first marriage that I would be doing such a thing in my fifties and that I would be in the best shape of my life, I would have said they were insane.

The girls in my writing sessions never stopped wanting fighting lessons and I repeatedly had to remind them that it wasn’t allowed.

“Every girl should be able to do that,” they would say wistfully.

I remember one girl, Elizabeth, slamming the table with a fist and saying to me, “Damn, woman, you’re dangerous—a Dangerous Woman.”

I always hugged each of them good-bye; those condemned young women whose tough facades had been stripped away at the writing table, revealing fearful little girls who passively did what they were told because they never knew they could do otherwise. I understood exactly how they felt.

And that is why, when I got the phone call from that hysterical mother on my 50th birthday, I didn’t hesitate, but went out my door and into the world of suffering and danger in the flatlands of the San Fernando Valley. Honestly, I feel more comfortable in that world than in the shiny one on top of the mountain. At least on the street there is a certain honesty to the crimes, while in the clouds, the hypocrisy is as thick as a London fog.

This birthday, I will be in Ojai, relaxing and writing for a couple of days. That’s the plan, anyway, and maybe it will turn out like that and maybe it won’t. That’s what makes life interesting. I don’t regret those memories. There is sadness, there is pain, but I hold onto them as experiences that have given meaning to my life.

No doubt, there will be more to come.

The Meaninglessness of Trying to Find Meaning–Random Thoughts

I have been silent so far on this tragedy, the killing of innocent children. I don’t have enough information. I want to know about this young man’s mother, about his father, about his childhood. There is always an “answer,” and yet, everyone seems to have a dfferent idea of what that answer may be. In fact, our propensity towards being convinced that we all know the “answer” has contributed greatly to our violent history, when really we don’t know much of anything. We are no nearer to understanding what matters–those cliched questions “who am I?” “how did I get here?”, “what is the meaning of life?”; and what is “truth,” who is “right” and who is “wrong”? We have some sort of compulsion to want to know the answers and we come up with answers through the stories that we tell ourselves. My best friend was Casey Cohen, private investigator who worked on many of the most notorious death penalty cases in the country. His last case before he passed away from cancer was that of Jeremy Stromeyer, the young man who took the little girl into the bathroom in the Reno casino and killed her. Casey worked for the defense in many such cases. He came to know the “monsters” of our society. His job was to tell the story of the killer’s life, go back in time and explain what had led up to the present. Because there is always a past, there are always reasons leading up to the heinous act. Casey would say that these people are not monsters, they are human beings, like you and me. He would say that if I were Jeremy Stromeyer, if I had lived his exact life, I would have done as he had done–because I would have been him. What makes one person react in one way and someone else react differently. What makes one person a drug addict and another person not? The one who is not attracted to drugs cannot look down his nose on the person who is. It is simply the way we are. The person who faces a life long battle with drugs and tries to overcome is more worthy of respect than the one who never has a problem! Yet we demonize the drug addict. I was married to two abusive men. My first husband almost killed me by strangling me. Yet I never thought of killing him. Why? I don’t know. Most women on death row are there because they have killed an abusive spouse–or their own children. Does that make me better than them? No, it only means I had a different past that led me to the present choice of not killing, whereas those women, when presented with that moment of choice, did what every moment before had led them to do–to kill. And I am me and you are you because of our genetic structure, because of our upbringing, because of a billion little things that have molded each of us. This means that we are all who we are, not because we are good or bad, not because we choose to be a certain way, but because we have been built little bt little by genes and circumstances and the stories that we have told ourselves along the way to solidify in our own minds who we are and why.

In my book A Dangeorus Woman I have a section where I go into the mind of a killer, Jimmy Luna, and I explain what he did and why, from his perspective. I read over a 1,000 pages of court documents, I interviewed many people, and Casey opened my mind to the killer’s world, so I would be able to understand him to the best of my ability before talking about him. Luna stabbed a man numerous times and cut off his penis. As a child, Luna’s father hung him from a tree–that is just one of a long list of horrific circumstances. I have never been hung from a tree. I do not know how it would affect me if this had happened to me. If I had had Luna’s exact background, I would have done exaclty what he did because I would have been him.

We are a violent and perverse race. We justify certain actions while demonizing others. It is somehow okay to go into another country and kill and maim in war, yet it is a crime to go into your neighbor’s house on your street and do that same thing. One is “Justified” by the stories that we tell ourselves, so that we can live with ourselves in society, while the other is an evil act of an individual maniac. None of this makes any sense. Yet in order to stay sane, we have become adept at telling ourselves stories, as individuals and as societies to justify our own actions. Really, all that we know for sure is that we live–short or long–and we die. The fact that any of it matters is all in our heads.

Having said that, I want to live a life of meaning. I want to do something “good” with my life. That is the story that I have come up with and it is what gives my life meaning. We all need meaning because we are intelligent beings who have a strong sense of “self.”

This young man who killed these children had reasons for his actions, just as our politicians and corporate leaders have reasons for the massive bloodshed that they cause. I don’tknow what the answer is. I don’t think there is an answer because we are all too much in the middle of this mess. We are like ants who have crawled up on a blade of grass and think we see the world when we haven’t even explored the front lawn. We cannot even begin to comprehend how limited we are. We have just enough self awarenes (I was going to say intelligence, but I think self-awareness is a better term) to think that we have important stories to tell that make sense. But we aren’t enlightened or honest enough, or something of that sort, to accept that our stories are just that–stories. There is something really wrong with the set-up of humanity on this planet. We inundate ourselves with “information” yet it is information signifying nothing. Somehow along the line, we went down the wrong path. Any beautiful thing that humanity has created has its dark side. Look at a cathedral, so beautiful, to worship God. And yet, the politics, the power, the control that the church exerts over those who walk into that church–the “little people. Is it not obvious that over and over and over and over down through history, it is the same story–those in power use and abuse those who don’t have power. It’s all perverse and it does not change.

So when we look at the senseless act of a lone gunman killing innocent children, we must find justifications, reasons why it was just him, experts to come forward to explain why he did what he did. And then, we can hear about the heroes–the teachers who shielded the children and gave their lives. But how sick this all is–that we must find ways to make ourselves feel better about something that we should never feel better about. No act of heroism can ever overcome the dark side of humanity. Because in order for heroism to occur, something evil has to happen. That is the disturbing thing about the set-up of this world.

I am rambling on here, I am aware. But this is what i talk about in my book that I have been writing and I am completely filled with it in my mind and heart. The question of “free will.” Less and less do I believe in such a concept. less and less do I believe in good and evil. More and more do I believe that we are ants desperately fighting with each other to climb onto a blade of grasssop we can look down our noses at those below, willing to kill in order to be above, to stand out, to have a moment of meaning, before we die ourselves, living lives of fear of the unknown–with a media that more and more feeds on that fear. I am one of those ants, by writing this, I contribute to the desperation of trying to figure it all out when I am incapable of doing so. But I am compelled to try, or what else would I do with my life that would give it meaning?

Interview with Stan Tookie William shortly before his execution

IOW CHILDHOOD

In 1995 I went into Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles with the vision to start a creative writing prgram for incarcerated youth. Out of that experience grew InsideOUT Writers. In 2005 I left the organization to pursue my writing once again. Something I was most proud of was the magazine of interviews and student writing and the book, What We See, which has been used by thousands of students and teachers. The last magazine issue had an interview with Stan Tookie William shortly before his execution. The interview was an incredible gift to the students of the InsideOUT Writers program. Sadly, the magazine didn’t continue after I left. I would like this magazine and this interview and the incredible power that it had for change in the lives of our youth not to be forgotten.

Here’s a copy of the interview:

Stanley Tookie Williams is the cofounder of the Crips gang and has been living on death row at San Quentin since 1981.During this time he has dedicated his life to ending gang warfare, eaerning him five (2001, 2022, 2003, 2004 and 2005) Nobel Peace Prize nominations and four (2002, 2003, 2004, 2005) Nobel nominations for literature. He is the coauthor of nine books with Barbara Cottman Becnel: Life in Prison and Tookie Speaks Out Against Gang Violence, an eight-book series for children. He has also written his memoir, Blue Rage, Black Redemption. His transformation into an advocate for peace and education was the subject of last year’s Golden Globe-nominated cable TV feature Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story starring Jamie Foxx.

Interview by Susan Shields

WHEN AND WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO WRITE BOOKS FOR CHILDREN?
For me, writing children’s books was the evolutionary process of my redemption and transition. I wanted–and needed–to warn children about this path of self-destruction.

HAVE YOU CONSIDERED WRITING BOOKS FOR TEENAGERS?
I have written the book Life in Prison, whihc is primarily for middle school level teenagers–and there will be more books for them. Critical thinking persuaded me to begin with the children, then teenagers and, eventually, adults.

HOW HAS YOUR IDENTITY CHANGED THROUGH THE DIFFERENT PHASES OF YOUR LIFE?
Throughout most of my life, I never had a real identity. After educating myself intellectually, culturally and spiritually, I discovered who I am today: a thinking Black man, not a gangster or an animal.

WHAT WOULD HAVE MADE THE BIGGEST DIFFERENCE FOR YOU AS A CHILD AND TEEN T HAVE KEPT YOU FROM GETTING INTO TROUBLE?
Among other things, I believe that had I had the consistent presence of a responsible, educated, hard-working, spiritual, and caring father, it would have made a tremendous difference.

YOU WROTE IN Gangs and Self-Esteem, “It took me a lon time to learn to like myself, but I do now and it feels much better than having a bad reputation.” WHY DO KIDS IN GENERAL NOT LIKE THEMSELVES?
In many instances, it has to do with negative racial stereotypes, poor parenting, abuse, social inequality and exposure to verbal degredation. Indeed, when adults repeatedly tell a child hat he or she is worthless, eventually that child will start to believe it–and then live it. Children need encouragement.

WHAT MADE YOU LIKE YOURSELF?
I began to like myself the moment I started to change my negative behavior. It built my confidence.

ALSO FROM Gangs and Self_Esteem: “I believed that because people were afraid of mem they respected me. That was one of my biggest mistakes. When people are afraid of you, they want to hurt you before you hurt them.” WOULD YOU LIKE TO ELABORATE ON THIS?
Any form of respect earned by fear or violence will make you a target for aggression. When people fear you it’s because they worry about you harming them. Others will reason, “Let me hurt him or her before he or she hurts me.”

YOU WROTE IN Gangs and Your Neighborhood: “When you’re truly tough, you don’t worry about what other kids think about you. You care about what you think about yourself.” HOW CAN KIDS TODAY GET “TRULY TOUGHT” WITHOUT RESORTING TO VIOLENCE?
There are simple ways to be tough without resorting to violence. Here’s a brief list of true toughness:
1. True toughness is to attend school, graduate, and then enroll in college.
2. True toughness is to avoid gangs, drugs, weapons, crime, illiteracy and violence.
3. True toughness is to believe in your ability to succeed.
4. True toughness is to ignore people who say you’re dumb and worthless.
5. True toughness is being strong mentally, physically, culturally and spiritually.
6. True toughness is being able and willing to help other people, regardless of their color, race, creed or socioeconomic status.
7. True toughness us acknowledging right from wrong and behaving in a manner that will not harm you or other people.

YOU WROTE in Gangs and Your Friends: “When I was a boy, there were times when I knew that something I was going to do was bad. Just before I did it, my stomach felt strange. A voice inside my head said ‘Don’t.’ But I would do it anyway…. You can learn from my mistakes. Trust yourself.” DOES THAT STRANGE FEELING AND VOICE IN YOUR HEAD GO AWAY EVENTUALLY IF YOU KEEP DISOBEYING IT?
No. It never leaves! If that inner voice disappeared from every human being, all of us would be human automatons, robots. The feeling in the stomach is a reaction to disobeying the voice. The voice itself is the voice of reason, the higher or better part of us. As long as we exist that voice will be our conscience, warning us to do what it right.

WHAT KIND OF RESPONSE HAVE YOU RECEIVED FROM KIDS WHO HAVE READ YOUR BOOKS?
I continue to receive positive feedback. Tens of thousands of youths and students have written me or emailed my website (http://www.tookie.com) along with parents,teachers, principals, professors, counselors and others. Most of the kids claim that they are adhering to my message and that I have changed their lives for the better. Many kids who were about to join a gang email me to say that they changed their minds after reading my books or watching the move that was made about me, Redemption: the Stan Tookie Story, starring Jamie Foxx. I also receive emails from a lot of youths already in a gang who quit their gang affiliation upon reading my books or viewing Redemption.

CAN YOU TALK ABOUT YOUR INTERNET PROJECT FOR STREET PEACE–LINKING AMERICAN YOUTH WITH AT-RISK YOUTH IN ZURICH, SWITZERLAND? ARE AMERICAN PROBLEMS AMONG YOUTH UNIQUE?
First, my Internet Project for Street Peace enables youths from two different countries to address social issues and exchange ideas as to how they can participate in resolving these problems. My project also includes mentoring, teaching youths themselves to be leaders and mentors among their peers. The Internet Project for Street Peace also helps youths to become computer literate.
Second, America shares a common thread with most all countries. No country is exempt from poverty, corruption, unemployment, lack of adequate housing and medical care, drugs, crime, violence, racism and gangs–all of the circumstances and conditions that support a culture of youth violence, incarceration and community destruction.

LOOKING BACK, IF YOU COULD, WHAT WOULD YOU TELL THE 7-YEAR OLD TOOKIE, THE 17-YEAR OLD TOOKIE, THE 24-YEAR OLD TOOKIE?
I would tell the 7-year old Tookie to not be in a hurry to become an adult. I would tell him to enjoy his childhood; listen to his parent–or parents–because they have the experience; study hard and obtain the highest education possible, and then use that education to help resolve social problems.
I would tell the 17-year old Tookie that every choice in life begins with him. I would warn him about the perils of gangs, drugs, violence, incarceration, death row, and death itself. I would say, “Don’t follow in my footsteps. However, the choice is yours.”I would explain to him that it’s all about him making positive choices that will prevent him from ending up in Juvenile Hall, California Youth Authority, prison, death row, hurt or killed! I would remind him that change begins with him. I would ask him not to become a victim of self-pity or a victim of the negative social conditions that surround him, like thousands of others have done. I would say, “Be a consistent survivor.Pisture your seuccess and then work towards achieving it.”
For the 24-year old Tookie I would say, “Look, you’re wasting your life. The only people benefiting from your gang-thug-criminal lifestyle are the police, judges, prosecutors, jails, prisons, death rows and morgues. You, Tookie, are becoming a modern-day slave. Though you might feel offended and are likely to deny being a slave, I can prove it. Here are the recognizable signs:
1. A modern-day slave will neglect to educate himself or herselfor to develop a legitimate trade.
2. A modern-day slave will commit robbery, theft, burglary, and other crimes against his own people–and others.
3. A modern-day slave will perpetuate self-hate, chaos, violence and senseless murder against his own people–and others.
4. A modern-day slave will buy, use and/or sell street drugs, causing his own people and others to becomes slave addicts to drugs, slaves to crime, slaves to misery and slaves to death.
5. A modern-day slave will hustle, degrade, abuse, disrespect, rape and/or prostitute women.
6. A modern-day slave will deprive his or her children of financial and/or emotional support, as well as abandon them.
7. A modern-day slave will inevitably end up incarcerated and will make no attempt to break the chains of his or her mental and physical bondage.
“Now, Tookie, I challenge you to rise above your present situation, a circumstance that can destroy your life. I challenge you to become a better ‘you’ and work to resolve your community’s social ills.”
I would also encourage a 24-year old Tookie to watch movies like Redemption and to read books like my memoir, Blue Rage, Black Redemption. I believe a 24-year old Tookie could empathize with the type of analysis that I made about myself in Blue Rage, Black Redemption, including my self-healing process and my redemptive efforts to assist others.

IF YOU WERE OUT OF PRISON, HOW WOULD YOU SPEND THE REST OF YOUR LIFE?
I would spend it promoting peace and helping youths as well as adults throughout America and around the world.
Amani–that’s Swahili for peace.

LA to BELFAST: Art, Gangs and the Stiff Kitten

From LA to Belfast: Art, Gangs, and the Stiff Kitten published in The Adirondack Review Fall 2012 issue
http://www.theadirondackreview.com

KAREN HUNT

BELFAST:

My name is Nicola. I have just recently turned 17. I live on the Shankill and absolutely hate it. A lot of tourists visit this area. To be honest I don’t know why, it is a dump. I live in a two bedroom terrace house with my mummy and step-daddy. I have one older sister who is 23, married and who has two kids. I absolutely love my sister, I would be lost without her. My niece and nephew mean the world to me and always brighten up my day. My mummy and step-daddy don’t work but my real daddy is a full time taxi driver. My area has changed a lot from the past. The paramilitaries always used to cause fights and that but now they don’t. When you walk about our estates at night all you will see is underage smokers and drinkers. Also some people will walk about off their faces on different drugs. In school I was bad behaved and bad tempered and was always being shouted at or punished. If I could I would go back to school and do it properly from 1st year. I have tried drugs in my past and rather liked it. I used to smoke dope a lot but have cut it down as it messed my head up and made me feel paranoid. In the future I wish to take driving lessons, move out of the Shankill, have a good job, get married and have kids.

Shankill is the principal road running through the predominately Protestant working class area of Belfast. Known as The Shankill, meaning “old church,” its residents and shop owners have endured bombings and shootings by paramilitary forces for over forty years. There are various paramilitary groups, however, the two that are the most commonly known are the Catholic Irish Republican Army (IRA), which was formed to fight for independence from British rule, and the Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force (UVA), which fought as loyalists to the British. The clash between these two groups has been a source of terror and bloodshed, termed “The Troubles,” starting in the late 1960s and officially ending in 1998.

The “peace” walls of Belfast were built to separate the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods with the rationale that clearly defining the territory of each group and having check points to search those who crossed over would discourage violence. Fourteen years after the declaration of peace, not one of these walls has been torn down. Painted murals now adorn many of the walls as an artistic statement offering hope for the future, or, as in the case of the Shankill, commemorating a history of the struggles they have faced. One can’t help but wonder how much hatred, distrust and fear lies hidden beneath the bright colors and positive images.

And, in fact, peace lines are still being drawn. The newest wall was erected a mere four years ago and runs past one of Belfast’s rare “integrated” elementary schools. Fewer than 3 percent of Northern Ireland children attend integrated schools. A Catholic child can live on one side of a peace wall and a Protestant child on the other. They can hear each other’s laughter but they will never meet.

Coming from a melting pot like Los Angeles, it seems hard to imagine living in such a blatantly segregated environment. Yet there are eerie similarities between the streets of both cities. Most of the walls separating neighborhoods from Calabasas to Compton are invisible but they are just as high and unsurpassable as the ones in Belfast.

I have always, since childhood, had a fascination with walls and the doors and gates that offer admittance or exclusion; a way in or a way out, a way to imprison and a way to gain freedom. Often, it is merely a matter of perspective, or it can be about the choices we make of which doors we open and which ones we shut—if we are lucky enough to have the luxury of choice. Whatever the path that leads to a door in a wall and whatever lies beyond, the reason for the wall being built in the first place is usually the same: fear and ignorance.

In the mid 1960s, I traveled with my family to over fifty countries, crossing borders from the Soviet Union to Northern Africa, knowing intimately what it was like to be a stranger in a strange land, sometimes the loneliness and the yearning to belong almost too great to bear—particularly in those tumultuous days when it was almost unheard of to see an American family traveling to the places that we did.

My father is a Christian writer and we went abroad in part so he could gain inspiration for his books. It is hard to imagine now, but we literally smuggled Bibles into the Communist Block, a crime punishable by prison in those days, having to pass border after border, every inch of our car searched by guards so tight-lipped and suspicious that I was convinced they would shoot me if I looked the slightest bit guilty, which I was sure I did. Amazingly, they never opened the suitcase with the Bibles. Whether one believes in miracles or not, it was miraculous. I had little faith and at the age of ten experienced a debilitating terror at every crossing and then, once we made it through, a drunken relief that made me giddy.

Our family had the misfortune of arriving in Cairo shortly before the outbreak of the 6 Day War. I know what it is like to suddenly find myself in enemy territory; horribly conspicuous in our bright red VW Van with the requisite USA sticker plastered on the back window, trying to make it through a mob of gun-toting Arabs yelling incomprehensible slogans, sometimes banging on our windows and pointing their weapons at our faces. We wanted to get to Israel but when my dad dared to say this at the tourist agency they yelled back that Israel did not exist. I have never known my dad to display any fear and he calmly responded that yes, it did exist and we wanted to go there, to which they became even angrier. I spent much of my time wishing my dad would just be quiet and that I could sink into the ground and disappear. Sadly, we weren’t able to get to Israel, but traveled to Beirut, thinking we could wait it out, and then had no choice but to escape out of Syria and into Turkey shortly before the borders closed. I celebrated my eleventh birthday, June 6, 1967, in Ankara.

These experiences, and many more which I am writing about in my childhood memoir, Into The World, led to my life-long fascination with walls and barriers and gave me the mindset that there are always ways through them, or around them, if you are brave enough to try. My dad and mom taught me this, and I am forever grateful. Despite the dangers we encountered, the Middle East is my favorite part of the world. I am enraptured by the landscape and architecture and met many wise, spiritual people who broadened my perspective and gave me an appreciation for other cultures and faiths that I would not otherwise have had.

And of course, the fact that at the very beginning of our travels I discovered the Narnia Chronicles in a thatched house in the English countryside and on a blustery rainy day, sat in a big armchair in front of the fire and read about the magical wardrobe that led Lucy to Narnia, well, forever after, my sister and I inspected every wardrobe we encountered, desperately hoping that one of them would lead us to Narnia. It was my first real understanding of the power of words to open doors that could take me anywhere I wanted to go.

This adventure of learning from those who inhabit a culture different from our own is something I have naturally incorporated into my writing programs with incarcerated youth, wanting to share with them the wonder of a bigger world, through the power of words and their own imaginations.

LOS ANGELES:

Arturo

I’m 17 and I’m Salvadorian and I would like to visit there. My mom is over there and she got deported. I’m from Compton. If anyone says Compton around here it makes people think of a gang-infested area of the city .There are certain parts where some races can’t walk, if they do, they take the risk of getting killed. If you are not known in the neighborhood, it you are an outsider, if you’re not from my vario, you’ll get smoked. For me, I grew up in it and of course in a gang, myself, I’m in a gang, it just goes with the territory. My drug is crystal meth. I have loyalty to my gang. I do because if my homies found out if I was more loyal to anything than my gang I take the risk of getting hurt or killed. It has nothing to do with how you feel about it, it’s just how I grew up. They are my family. I don’t know my real family, I never met them. I’ve been locked up for about five years. I want to be smarter now and go to college and do something without my gang. The gang will be supportive of me going to college. When I get out of college I will always visit and always love my vario. But I want also to move on.

Belfast to Arturo: Everyone is asking where is Salvador? Some think it is in South America?

You seem like you want to take a different route in life!

If you had no real family, then who have been the people to raise you?? How and where did you grow up? And how long have you been doing meth?

Is Compton really that bad?? Do you hate people not in your gang? If so why would you??

What do you want to do in college? Do you think you can do well still living as a part of a gang?

You situation has sparked a lot of conversation. Almost that you are contradicting yourself by saying you want to be at college and live better but that your gang is so important.

Chloe wants to know can you leave the gang?? If not why?

Why the loyalty? Are they your family? Are they a real family? Supportive?

I think what you have been saying to us sounds almost like it is a different world. And I suppose it is here really! It’s fascinating and amazing that we are all talking first hand like this. So do not feel pressured into answering all of the questions BUT the guys are keen to find out more. Everything that is talked about is alien to them.

In October 2011 I had the opportunity to go to Ireland for a writing fellowship at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre. While there I met a Belfast artist named Clinton Kirkpatrick. Over a pint at the local pub, he told me about an arts program that he conducted for youth from the Shankill, in a place called Impact Training, a trade school for youth who have had trouble in regular schools.

“These kids, they’re so isolated, trapped in this one neighborhood and they can’t get out. I mean, most of them have never been to the other side of the road—they dream of leaving but they view it as impossible. The depression and hardship is stifling, so I try to give them a sense of a bigger world,” he explained.

I was setting up an arts program for youth at a boys’ group home called Pacific Lodge, in Woodland Hills, in Los Angeles. A place like Pacific Lodge is often the final stop for probation youth, one last chance to get it together or they end up in prison. Compared to juvenile hall or any of the camps, Pacific Lodge is a paradise. It’s well tended, on expansive grounds, with a swimming pool and a baseball field. The staff that I met was pleasant and caring.

I thought about the Shankill and about the kids I worked with in LA. Two completely different worlds yet so similar! Ever since I had first started working with at-risk youth I had wanted to set up an exchange like this. Now it could finally happen. I told Clinton, “I would love to do a project with you, have these kids communicate back and forth through writing and art, see what they discover about one another.”

Clinton, being the adventurer that he is—he had recently returned from conducting an arts program in Kenya—jumped on the idea.

When I returned to LA, we set it up and for six months, from January to June 2012, our two groups communicated back and forth, sharing ideas and artwork. The first week I introduced my group to the youth in Belfast and Clinton did the same. We both had a group of about eight youths. My kids knew nothing about how kids in Belfast lived. On the other hand, the kids in Belfast, like kids everywhere, had plenty of ideas about what life in LA must be like, according to television and films that they had seen.

I explained to my boys some of the history of Northern Ireland and the Shankill Road in particular. All the guys and girls in Clinton’s group came from that general area and were Protestants and from intact homes. My guys, on the other hand, were the usual LA mixture. James is half Czechoslovakian and half Filipino, Alec is Russian Jewish, Adrian is Puerto Rican and Nicaraguan, Drake and Anthony are Latino, Ray is African American, and so on. Because of the laws protecting minors in Los Angeles, my group couldn’t send photos, so instead they drew ridiculous faces on cardboard boxes and put them on their heads, took pictures and sent those, which the group in Belfast thought hilarious. My guys were very curious to see the photos of the Belfast group, exclaiming that it was true—they were really white!

Clinton’s group stayed pretty consistent, but mine changed from week to week. A kid might AWOL, get kicked out, or sent home. I never knew what awaited me from week to week. Hard drugs were the demons on the backs of my guys, while alcohol was more likely to torment the kids in Belfast. For my guys, they all felt betrayed by a society that sells the same hard drugs you can find on the street to the general public—but in government-sanctioned packaging—and then imprisons the youth who use them. For the most part, both groups, with a little prodding, proved intelligent and creative; and frustrated by being stuck in a small world that they desperately wanted to escape from.

Anthony from LA

I’m 18, I’m Latino and I basically used to do drugs, mainly meth. I grew up with it, like, basically, it was all around me, in the street, in my family. I’m from Lancaster, which is the desert outside of Los Angeles. It’s exciting—dangerous—because you never know what’s around the corner. I started using meth around 8. How could I make any other choice when it’s all around me? I like to read. My favorite is My Bloody Life: the making of a Latin. He was an ex-Latin Kings and he tells how he got into the gang, grew up in it and it’s all he knew, and the abuse in the family didn’t help. Eventually after he was in prison for 30 years he got out of it. He inspires me to change my life.

From Belfast to Anthony: The guys all thought cohesively that you have a hard life. Because you have been smoking meth from when you were 8. Ryan wants to know how you still operate because ‘meth fucks with you!’ The guys are asking have you ever watched the show called ‘Breaking Bad’?

Anthony: Most of the guys have never seen it but they know what it is. Basically, we would all agree with this advice: don’t believe everything you see on TV. I’m living in this very real world and facing real problems. They are difficult but you overcome the obstacles that life throws at you.

Belfast to Anthony: Carla wants to know what meth is. Can you describe it??

Anthony: It’s a little crystalline substance that fucks your life up. It makes you hyper. It’s a form of speed. It gives you heightened energy, very focused, and honestly not much different from what the government now legally prescribes to kids—which is fucked up if you think about it. Every kid here knows a lot about drugs, both legal and not legal.

Belfast to Anthony: Ryan asks how much do you buy it for?

Anthony: It’s expensive, but it depends on the amount and the bad thing is that once your coming down on it you’ll do anything to get more. It’s called being dope-sick and it’s not just with meth it’s with any hard drug.

Belfast to Anthony: Does your family use it as well? Who first gave it to you?

Anthony: Some of my family does. I found it in my house and started smoking it—I had seen a lot of people doing it so I copied their movements. It was the most natural thing in the world for me to imitate my elders.

For seventeen years I have worked with youth from these divided LA neighborhoods, conducting writing programs inside juvenile halls and all types of detention and placement facilities, encouraging a view through and beyond the walls. I have sat at countless steel tables inside dehumanizing institutions and seen the world of imagination opened to the children trapped there, kids ranging in age from eight to nineteen. We have talked of death and violence, of rape and abuse, of hopelessness and of the terror of the years to come, since many of the youth I have worked with were facing life sentences in adult prison. We have talked of fairies and starlight, of magical voyages to far-flung islands, of life in outer space, of philosophy and history, of science and science fiction. At the writing table there is no official agenda, no evaluations and no tests, no psychologists or educational experts. No winning or losing, no judgment, no good or bad; just plenty of paper and pencils, where free thought is encouraged and invariably thrives.

When I first started working with incarcerated youth, I felt quite alone in my desire to help these young people. I was married at the time and my husband, along with friends and family, thought I was naive, with the potential to make a fool of myself.

The comments always ran along the lines of:

How do you know they’re telling you the truth?

They’re criminals, you can’t trust what they say.

They’re going to play with you, pull the wool over your eyes!

My response was, what do I care if they do?

There is no such thing as lying in a creative writing class. They are free to say what they want—and if they pull the wool over my eyes, fool me into believing what they are saying, then they have done a good job. And I have always found that most young people, when listened to with respect, respond more honestly than adults give them credit for. In fact, young people, I find, are generally more honest than adults.

LA to Belfast: Do any of you have friends that are Catholics?

Curtis: no he has no Catholic friends

Ryan M: yes he has. He plays rugby and plays all around the city with other people. Sport is often a way to unite people

Naomi: Has no Catholic friends. Never really met any to hang about with.

James: yes he had a few from when he was on a residential from school. He stayed down in County Fermanagh. Not in touch with any since or hang about with any.

Daniel: aye they are all dead.

Andrew: No he has no catholic friends. No reason really

Ryan Millar: Yes he does. He hangs about with Catholics and used to go out with a girl who was of that religion.

Chloe works with Catholics… and goes out with them and all.

No one in this room has an opinion that they hate Catholics! Ryan Millar says he used to hate Catholics but he grew up.

Yes people walk in Catholic areas. Only if you are wearing something sectarian do you possibly face a problem. There used to be a guy in this class called Kurtis who would have been sectarian minded. He is not here anymore. We went into Belfast one day and he would not, for love nor money, walk into Belfast City centre the quicker way which is down by the Falls Road. The youth here get so many chances given to them yet often throw it all back in the person’s face who is offering it to them.

The Royal Hospital, which is our main hospital in Belfast, is situated right in the middle of the Falls Road (Catholic area) and people have to walk there to get to the hospital if they need to go.

No-one would ever be in a Catholic church if they were not that religion. Although personally when I dated someone who was Catholic I went to the cathedral to christenings and Easter Mass. Very much because I was completely curious about it all so my little eyes went to take it all in!

Completely look forward to your response back, Clinton

In late 1995, while still married, I started a creative writing program at Central Juvenile Hall, at the invitation of the principal of the school, Dr. Arthur McCoy. As I mentioned, not many people in my world were enthusiastic about the idea of me doing this program. My husband, from an established California real estate family, was dead set against it from the beginning.

I was living in one of those gated communities in Calabasas, since then made famous by the Kardashian clan and their “reality show.” For younger well-to-do couples it is supposed to be a great place to raise children, inside an idyllic bubble unmolested by the violence and drugs of the rest of the city. At least, that is what people are led to believe. There is no such place left in Los Angeles. As an example, in 2011, and within the span of 10 weeks, 3 young people from the Calabasas-Agoura Hills area committed suicide and another apparently died of alcohol poisoning.

In a November 2011 LA Times article, written shortly after the suicides, family counselor Alan Ludington is quoted as saying to a group of bereaved parents, “We try to compare our children’s lives to what we remember from high school. How many of you could get heroin in high school? Raise your hands.” No hands went up. “Well, your children can.”

“One in six teenagers will have a serious problem with drugs or alcohol before they leave high school,” he said.

The article went on to state that “the most common sources in communities like theirs are homes with unlocked liquor cabinets and unused pills in the medicine chest. And parents with open wallets, closed eyes and unwitting ignorance.”

This was the community where my husband and I had naively planned to raise our small children.

One morning in 1996, while I sat drinking coffee at the sun-filled breakfast table, I read an article in the paper about a woman named Alma Woods. The Watts library was being named after her because she had pretty much singlehandedly built that library through grit and determination and the rare ability to shame officials and politicians into acting on her orders. In Watts, Alma was known as “the woman who built the library” but apparently, only a person who had donated at least a million dollars could have a library named after them. A huge public outcry had ensued, resulting in the rule being bypassed so that the library could be named after Alma.

On a whim, I had gotten into my car and, leaving the gated community in which I lived behind, I had driven to Watts to be present at the opening of the library.

Surrounded by press and a cheering public, Alma Woods sat on a raised platform at the front of the library, a beaming grandmotherly figure in a fancy hat. I was determined to meet her and after the ceremony, despite the crowd of well-wishers, we made eye contact and smiled. I don’t remember what we said to one another since there was a lot of confusion and many people vying for her attention but she looked me up and down shrewdly, nodded as if I had passed some inspection, and to my great surprise, wrote her number on a piece of paper and told me to call her. I did and it was the beginning of a wonderful friendship. Alma invited me to her home. I visited her on many occasions, almost guiltily escaping from my mausoleum of a house, not telling my husband because I knew he wouldn’t understand, and finding refuge in her cozy house surrounded by a flower-filled garden, and inside old fashioned comfortable furniture, every surface covered with photos of her children, other people’s children, memories of a life filled with good deeds.

Alma became a kind of guru to me. I could also call her a Keeper of the Gate. Without her approval, I would never have gained admittance into this world that was a forty-five minute drive from my house (in traffic) but might as well have been on another planet. Women living in my neighborhood didn’t go to Watts. Watts was dangerous and undesirable. The people of Calabasas had paid big bucks for the privilege of never having to rub shoulders with the people of the inner city. But I kept going back. I “sat at Alma’s feet” as it were and absorbed as much as I could of her wisdom. When I complained of my marriage or how isolated I felt doing my work in juvenile hall and I questioned whether I should obey my husband and stop, she became quite affronted.

“What do you think, you want the easy life? Sorry, but you weren’t meant for that sit back and get my nails done sort of way of spending your day—excuse me? And if you ever start living like that, you better check yourself because you’ve lost your way. Life is hard—for you, for me, well, it’s hard for everyone in one way or another, I’m not saying it isn’t. But when you choose a difficult path instead of taking the easy way, then, it’s hard because you’re following your calling and if you’re in the thick of the battlefield, you will get hurt, but you pick yourself up and you go on, because that’s just all there is to it.” And she leaned in and pointed at me. “And you are, you know. You’re in the thick of it—on that battlefield!”

She taught me about her neighborhood. She knew everyone by name and they knew her. If a boy was loitering on a street corner, Alma yelled at him to get his ass back to school and he slunk away, turning into a guilty little kid, no matter how gangsta he had looked a minute before. Alma loved her neighbors—I mean she really loved them, in a way that I could never love mine.

Each time I returned to my pristine neighborhood after visiting Alma, the gates closing behind me felt increasingly claustrophobic instead of safe and secure. I did not even know most of my neighbors, although they lived so close, and yet hidden behind thick walls. My neighborhood had no history; no hardships that pulled us together—well, the hardships, the drug addiction, the unhealthy obsession with image and the pressure of living beyond one’s means were buried beneath a shiny veneer and never acknowledged. It was like a movie set where I lived, a calculated plan that had been drawn up and quickly built, along with a media blitz manipulating people to buy into the lie.

It was to Alma that I confided my desire to build my writing program in juvenile hall. Where others had tried to discourage me, she said, with great spirit, that I could do anything I wanted. She believed in me. It didn’t matter to Alma that we came from different worlds. She didn’t despise and look down on me like some rich white bitch who wanted to “help the less fortunate.” And I looked up to her as someone I wanted to emulate. Her blessing was a big reason why I kept going, despite the criticism and outright disdain that I encountered at home.

So, working with incarcerated youth—traveling from one world into another—was something I had been doing for many years by the time I met Clinton at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, in County Monaghan, Ireland. I had kept at it over the years, despite my husband divorcing me, despite the jealousies and the politics of the nonprofit world, because the reward of seeing how the written word united kids who would otherwise be enemies on the street was worth it.

Parents do not fully comprehend the terrifying unknown that awaits our youth every time they walk out the front door, no matter where they happen to live. A friend of mine from a Mexican Mafia family told me that when he was a kid police would grab him and throw him in the back of the cop car and drop him off in enemy territory just for fun, just because they were bored.

He said, “Each time they did that, it could have been a death sentence. What does that teach a kid? Who could I trust?”

A New York Times 2008 article states that 1 in a hundred Americans is locked up. And I won’t even get into the percentages of the poor and minorities that are imprisoned.

“Far from serving as a model for the world, contemporary America is viewed with horror,” James Whitman, a specialist in comparative law at Yale, wrote last year in Social Research. “Certainly there are no European governments sending delegations to learn from us about how to manage prisons.”

Prison sentences here have become “vastly harsher than in any other country to which the United States would ordinarily be compared,” Michael Tonry, a leading authority on crime policy, wrote in “The Handbook of Crime and Punishment.”

Certainly, this is the view I got when I went to Ireland. I spent a week in Dublin, speaking to people involved with juvenile justice, and all of them were appalled at the United States’ criminalization of our youth. My friend and colleague, Juliet Bressen, who is a writer and a doctor and works with addicts in Dublin says,

“You wouldn’t put kids in prison in Ireland for drug use. Maybe for supply, but only after all other attempts to discipline the kid have failed. So, probably the kid would be fined, then maybe given a community sentence: and really, by the time all of that is up, he wouldn’t be a kid any more so if he were a serious drug dealer after age 18 he’d go to prison but I’ve never heard of a kid under 18 going to prison for drugs, even for supply. They usually only detain kids here (under 18’s) if they are violent and commit violent crimes like grievous bodily harm, manslaughter, reckless endangerment (drunk driving for example) . . . stuff like that. I think Irish people have their own drug culture that is quite different to American. Here it’s not associated with race, with gangs, or with guns like in America. We don’t have a Mafia or a history of that kind of organized drug culture. We aren’t subject to pressure from the Colombian cocaine market. Poverty is the main problem.”

Poverty is a problem in Los Angeles, too. Overwhelmingly, it is the poor children who are locked up, not the wealthy. Of the kids in my group at Pacific Lodge, only two were not from a poor environment and one of those two was the only white youth in the group.

A report by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and U.S. Department of Justice, “Survey of Youth in Residential Placement: Youth’s Needs and Services,” used data from more than 7,000 youth in custody gathered during interviews. The report’s findings include: 70% of youth in custody reported that they had “had something very bad or terrifying” happen to them in their lives. 67% reported having seen someone severely injured or killed; 26% of those surveyed said they felt as if “life was not worth living,” and 22% reported having tried to commit suicide at some point in their lives; 84% of the youth surveyed said they had used marijuana, compared to a rate of 30% among their peers in the general population; 30% reported having used crack or cocaine, compared with only 6% in the general population.

Adrian

I am 15 years old. I’m from San Francisco and Puerto Rican, Nicaraguan. I don’t like talking about the Nicaraguan because my dad is part that and I don’t like my dad. My dad is in San Quentin he’s been there for three years. He made me sell drugs. He’s from a gang and made me be involved. He gets out in a few months and I’m going to get an ass-whooping cuz he asked me to do something and I didn’t do it. Before that he made me do something, he said, do it or die and I did it and I almost died. So I don’t want to do it anymore. I’m going back to my hood when I get out and what can I do? I don’t know. I have a bad life, a lot of temptations and bad influences. I don’t got a good man as a role model for me as a young man growing up. My mom is good.

Belfast to LA:

None of these guys drink on the streets here anymore. They used to when they were about 16 but now they are the legal age of 18 they don’t do it anymore in parks and on streets but go out to clubs/bars/pubs instead.

Ryan M (new guy) was out in Bangor (near to the town to Belfast) and was at a concert. He says that the police caught him with drink and confiscated it from him and said that if he was caught again he would be taken to the police station and cautioned.

Cops here would take your booze and empty it out so you cannot drink it.

The guys say that when you get caught by the police in the park here nothing really happens. They take drink off you and give you a brief telling off. But Ryan thinks that you could get caught another few times before anything would actually happen to you and even then it would only be a caution and perhaps a fine. It is nowhere near as violent or oppressive as people where you are! If you showed violence or a destructive attitude towards the police then that is a different story. They would arrest you pretty quickly, take you down to the station and sometimes lock you up but only for one night.

Even I (Clinton) am really in awe of the extent of the different places we live. Because we are in a more post-conflict era it almost gives the impression that we live in a colorful world here. I suppose it is far from that notion actually but it certainly seems a much calmer and much more tolerant society here now. And I wish you all had the chance to come and see it. A different society with different problems perhaps. I just asked the guys what they thought about the difference. They think they have it much easier than you guys.

Which I would agree with!

My Life on 1 Argyle Court

My name is Danielle. I am 16 years old and hate it! I live in a shithole called Conway and there is SFA to do. When my words fail, music speaks!  Sometimes I hate my mummy and daddy because they are assholes but I love them. My daddy drives a big ugly car! I miss my childhood because nowadays there is nothing to do. All everybody does is smoke, drink and take drugs. What a life!

Daniel from Belfast

Yes I do take drugs. The drugs I have taken are weed (if that counts), ecstasy and LSD. One of my experiences on ecstasy would be on Boxing Day when I was at the Stiff Kitten. I started with taking 5 while in the Stiff Kitten, then after I left I went to a party and took another 5. By about 5am I was completely skiiwhipped. My drug of choice is weed. The drinking age is 18 over here. I started drinking when I was 16. Drinking is more popular over here.

I live in a quiet little neighborhood in Ballysillan. Nothing really happens.

Nah I am not a graffiti artist, but James is.

Aye, UVF took my phone. Cunts. They’re a paramilitary who think they run Belfast.

Weed is super. It is illegal over here but it’s easy to get.

Life growing up was good. I grew up on the ol’ Crash Bandicoot games on the PS1 and Sunny D.

I can also be humble to the ole blunt and the off red Ferrari every now and again and a wee drop of LSD if I’m feeling cheeky. But no needles or crack-pipes! I enjoy the humble blunt because it is a social thing to do with my friends.

The things I hate are not getting paid, owing money, dealer not being about!

Latest news from LA:

Went to a wolf sanctuary, it was more of a rescue place, we did community service cuz wolves don’t have a play area so we went and built a fence. It’s an acre play pen, there are 24 wolves there. One wolf was 19 years old and one was a year and a half. We felt real smart energy, if someone’s truck drove by they would know whose truck it was and if they liked them they would howl. Black coded cages were wolves are the ones you don’t fuck with—had to stay three feet away from the cage. some are more wolf than dog and some are more dog than wolf, red is a little better, blue and green are very playful.

What do you do at the Stiff Kitten—what is that place—are Catholics going there? It sounds like a gay bar to us with a name like that—but then we looked it up online and saw it’s a rave sort of place? For us to get out of a gang is like for you to get out of the paramilitary group your father and grandfather were in—would you say it can be compared that way? For some of us who live in neighborhoods like Compton, it truly is almost impossible to get out of the gang, because it is in our families for generations. Trust us, we aren’t talking about a TV show here, this is real life for a lot of young people in places like Compton—it is a war zone. But the gang will support us if we leave the neighborhood and go to school. It is possible to move on and have a good life, but you always have love for your neighborhood, you always have an understanding of your gang and the life.

Do you have places like Pacific Lodge there? Do any of you have friends that are Catholics? Do you feel comfortable walking in a Catholic neighborhood. Would you ever go into a Catholic Church?

Here, in inner city neighborhoods, if someone’s walking down the street that you don’t know, you ask “where you from?” and that is a dangerous question—it’s like a confrontation and the answer can get you killed or badly hurt if you answer you’re from a rival neighborhood. So, are you suspicious of people you don’t know in your neighborhood? Can you tell if someone is a Catholic or a Protestant just by looking at them? Over here, you can tell who is in different gangs by what they wear, tattoos, hair.

Belfast to LA:

Unless you kill someone here or they find 1000’s of pounds worth of drugs or you do something of considerable magnitude then you will not be imprisoned. Even if you offend the law often you will get what is called a suspended sentence. So for example….if you get a 2 year suspended sentence you don’t go to jail BUT if you step out of line once during that 2 years you will go straight into prison! More relaxed system. It is not about numbers accumulating in prison here. They try to keep people OUT of prison because it costs too much money to have them in there. I of course talk loosely and everything does not just fit into a box that easily. There are also different levels of crime and sentences given. But the justice system here, regardless, seems so much more diplomatic and relaxed compared to you over there.

Ok so yes you could compare paramilitaries to your gangs. Gangs were like paramilitaries although with the peace process happening here things have somewhat changed and paramilitaries are not at the forefront of the news and community these days. They are still there, don’t get me wrong, and they remind us all that every once in a while. Like for example… a year and a half ago people shot dead a guy in broad day light in the middle of the Shankill Road. Also this weekend just passed there was a car bomb left in the street in Woodvale just up the road from here. So it is still there but not to the extent of what it was a decade ago, 20 years ago or 30 years ago when it was much different. Instead it is a very limited shallow amount of people who operate like this. Like for example…. there was another 600lb car bomb left just outside Newry this weekend as well. Newry is just over the border from the Republic of Ireland. It was the dissident republicans who left it there. This weekend saw a couple of stories like that. Although they are not as crazy as they used to be!

Ryan Miller says there is not the kind of loyalty here that you have there with regard to your gangs. People do what they want to and when they want it. This world, here, would be somewhat independent. In some strange way the binding ‘friendships’ which you have because of your gangs is non-existent here. Friendships, I believe (Clinton), are a lot more disposable here. People don’t really care that much whether they are friends one day and not friends the next!

How well did the two groups end up understanding one another. How different are their worlds really? If a bomb were to go off in Los Angeles, we would think it was a pretty big deal. But because bombs have been going off in Belfast for years, and the level of the bombings has decreased, the fact that a year and a half ago people shot dead a guy in broad daylight in the middle of the Shankill Road. Also, this weekend just past there was a car bomb left in the street in Woodvale just up the road from here… doesn’t seem that bad to the Belfast kids but to the kids in LA it seems horrendous.

My group was offended when a Belfast kid used the word “Chink” to describe an Asian youth, while those in Belfast didn’t see the harm in it. A lively discussion ensued and my guys shared how recently it had been all over the news that someone had been fired from a fast food restaurant for using that word to describe a customer. The Belfast kids were amazed by this.

The Belfast kids thought the LA kids lived a crazy life and they weren’t sure if they really believed it could be as bad as that. The LA kids pointed out that they felt like they were being perceived as something out of a TV show, not reality. Those in Belfast had a hard time grasping the concept of loyalty to a gang. And in LA, they couldn’t understand why Protestants and Catholics would hate each other when they all looked the same because, really, weren’t their religions both Christian so what was the big deal? But both groups began to understand one another better when they explored the similarities between gangs and the paramilitary.

It was clear that the frightening drug culture that we have in LA hasn’t reached that extent in Belfast. Belfast is a smaller, more enclosed space and people have lived in the same areas for generations. The LA kids mostly lived transitory lives, with no real sense of home or identity, except what their gangs gave them.

Over the course of the six months, the youth exchanged artwork as well as writing. (Click here to view some of the artwork.) The youth at Pacific Lodge made a peace wall of their own and sent it to the kids in Belfast. Clinton and some of his group had actually contributed artwork to one of the peace walls in Belfast, which our kids thought was pretty cool.

The last project the LA guys did was a collaborative story—a story of imagination rather than reality.

“THE STREETS OF BELFAST”

by the Pacific Lodge Guys

It was just another ordinary night on Shankill Road: a moonless night, with an icy rain falling. What could a person do to bring a night like this to life?

Out of the darkness and into the dim light of a streetlamp appeared a suspicious person and no one wanted to go up to him and talk to him. He was wearing a long black trench coat and he had a totally tattooed black face. A group of teens (that would be us) were the only ones brave enough to go up to this guy and talk to him because he looked very different from anyone we had ever seen. We all started to have a good conversation, until we asked him where he came from but he wouldn’t tell us and kept trying to change the subject. All of the sudden something happened down the street that nobody could explain—a car exploded but nobody was sure how it had happened. It turned out that the guy we were talking to had set everything up cuz he was a crazy dude. See, this guy was a drug dealer and, yes, we admit it, we were trying to buy a pound of weed. We gave him the money and the dealer told us to follow him. Our car was parked down the street. All of a sudden we saw another explosion down the street and some guys with guns came running after the tattooed dude. We were scared out of our minds and took off on our car. We sped down the street till we hit a light post because of how terrified we were.

Then a guy name Frank appeared and took us to the House of a Thousand Babes. We had our pleasure time until a mushroom arrived, arising from the floor like the best dream come true ever, and we decided to eat it. We were on the biggest trip of our lives. We ended seeing unicorns and leprechauns dancing everywhere. After a couple hours of having the biggest trips of our lives the trip went away and we were sober again.

As usual, after having that much fun, we felt like crap.

We decided to take a walk on Shankill Road once again, when all of a sudden, our homies came and picked us to go to a party, It was only two a.m. They wanted to go drink cuz they was burned out…but we didn’t know where to go since we didn’t know the area. It was completely dark now. For some reason, the street lights dead and rain was falling like knives from the sky.

Damn, we gotta get out of here, we all agreed. We were freezing cold.

Suddenly, a crack in the ground opened up and a huge purple snake slithered out and hissed at us, “How about heading for the Stiff Kitten.” We jumped on its back and started a crazy ride through the streets of Belfast. But just as we reached the door to the Stiff Kitten, all excited to have some more fun, the sun blazed up over the top of the building and the snake sizzled into nothing and the buildings all burned to ash and there we were, in an empty space, thinking to ourselves,

“Yep it sure was another ordinary night on Shankhill Road.”

The story is silly and fun and yet with undercurrents of meaning and, yes, it sure pulled the wool over my eyes. It seemed a fitting way to end the six month exchange, with a made up story, inspired by a place on the other side of the world that the guys in my group had never known or cared about until the door to that world had been opened to them. Like opening that wardrobe and finding Narnia, with “The Streets of Belfast” these guys created a magical world inhabited by sinister characters and a slithering snake and a very real reference to a strange nightclub called the Stiff Kitten—which had absolutely captured all of their imaginations. Clinton and I had the privilege of being Keepers of the Gate, just as Alma had once been to me, and together, we were able to open that door for our youth. Walls are built through fear and ignorance. This LA to Belfast project did its part to dispel some of that fear and ignorance and in so doing, toppled a few walls.