b'ing stigma-free

3d-singing“Hey Retard!” were the words I heard every day when I walked into school, from first grade until the end of high school. As an individual growing up with Williams Syndrome, the word ‘retard’ made me feel isolated, as if I had no one to turn to as a friend. This mental abuse caused me to question who I was. I would often ask myself, “Why did I have to have a disability?” I’d cry to my mom in the hopes that she would let me stay home from school. I wasn’t proud of myself because of my disability and I struggled to find peers who didn’t view me differently. In grade school, no one ever took the time to see me for who I truly was. They only saw my disability and not the astounding abilities that I possess.

After finishing high school I was accepted to attend Berkshire Hill Music School in Boston, Massachusetts. It wasn’t until I went away to college that I finally escaped the abuse of my classmates and other peers. College offered me a breath of fresh air and I was able to see the light at the end of the tunnel of my dark past. For the first time I felt included, as if I was a “normal” person, integrated with my typical peers. I went to school without being judged because of my disability.

They only saw my disability and not the astounding abilities that I possess.

I am now able to call myself a friend, an employee, and an advocate in my community. I no longer see myself as a disability, something I believed I was for so many years: nothing more than a ‘retard.’ Being called this and thought of so negatively is dehumanizing. This is something that MUST be changed within our society. Individuals with disabilities are so much more than the “r-word.”

Join me in celebrating Spread the Word to End the Word, a national campaign supported by Best Buddies and Special Olympics that brings awareness to ending the disrespectful use of the r-word. As an individual with a disability, I have proven myself to be capable of everything all of my peers are. I have taught at an international conference; I have spoken at national events as a Best Buddies Ambassador; I volunteer in the community; I have held competitive employment positions; and I am now able to consider myself a true friend. None of these things fall under the stigma of the “r-word.”

Because we are different does not mean we are less.

I used to lack any awareness of my own self-worth. However, I now have the confidence to stand up for myself, and also others who might be the victim of bullying. In fact, I am proud to have Williams Syndrome and proud to be a leader in the community helping to Spread the Word to End the Word in the hopes that all people with a disability are not thought of in a negative way. End the use of the “r-word”, so that individuals with a disability are looked upon as equals. Because we are different does not mean we are less.

 

Rachel Lipke graduated from Berkshire Hills Music School in Boston, where she studied music. While there she was matched in a one-to-one friendship through Best Buddies, which changed her life. Best Buddies is an international non-profit organization that focuses on enhancing the lives of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) through one-to-one friendships, integrated employment, and leadership development. Rachel says that Best Buddies enriched her life by giving the gift of all three, offering the much-needed self-confidence she had been seeking. 

Since joining Best Buddies twelve years ago, Rachel quickly excelled in her passion for inclusion by completing ambassador trainings and speaking at local and national events. Rachel continued to challenge perceptions about the abilities of people with IDD by shifting from student to teacher, and began leading ambassador trainings. In this role she serves as an instructor and coach for her peers. Rachel was recognized for her achievements by being awarded the “Spirit of Courage Award” at the Best Buddies International Leadership Conference. She is also matched in the friendship program, and recently joined the jobs program providing her the opportunity for competitive employment. Rachel also volunteers in her community and is passionate about sharing her story to make a change in the world.

Rachel grew up in Chicago and moved to Maryland with her parents two years ago to be closer to her sister and her newborn niece.

Photo: Best Buddies Rachel (on the right) and Amy Davies.


 

CCA_attrition ratePeople with criminal histories are all too familiar with having to answer questions about their backgrounds. These questions appear on applications for employment, housing, and most recently, college admission. In the context of employment and housing, people with criminal histories know that the relentless onslaught of questions into their past is designed to exclude them. And when they encounter a similar inquiry when applying to college, many reasonably make the same assumption about the intent of the questions.

In our 2010 study of this issue, “The Use of Criminal Records in College Admissions Reconsidered” the Center for Community Alternatives (CCA) found that two-thirds of colleges and universities across the country were asking applicants questions about their criminal history. We also learned that checking the criminal history box on the application typically prompted the college to ask for supplemental information and subjected applicants to additional screening and inquiries. To investigate this process further, we conducted a case study of the State University of New York (SUNY), which includes 64 campuses. Expecting to find high rejection rates for applicants with criminal histories, we were surprised by what we ultimately discovered.

All SUNY campuses are required by SUNY Central to ask applicants if they have ever been convicted of a felony. Applicants who indicate they have been, then receive a follow-up letter asking for information specific to their criminal record. This information is reviewed by an Admissions Review Committee that must be established and used on each SUNY campus for the specific purpose of considering the admission of people who disclose a felony conviction. CCA’s latest report (March, 2015), “Boxed Out: Criminal History Screening and College Application Attrition” found that the process itself of inquiry into an applicant’s criminal history was a more formidable barrier than outright rejection by the Admissions Review Committee.

Using admissions data, we compared the percentage of applicants who check the felony box “yes” and do not complete the application process to the percentage of overall applicants who do not complete the application process. We term this phenomenon “application attrition.” We found that the SUNY felony application attrition rate (62 percent) is three times higher than the overall application attrition rate (21 percent). We estimate that more than 2,900 applicants disclose a felony each year throughout SUNY and that more than 1,800 do not complete the application process and are never considered for admission. In other words, about two out of three applicants who disclose a felony are boxed out by application attrition.

In contrast, while some campuses do report startlingly high rejection rates for applicants who disclose a felony conviction, most exclude fewer than 10 percent of such applicants. Several, in fact, did not reject a single applicant who disclosed a felony conviction. We found that for every one applicant rejected by Admissions Review Committees because of a felony conviction, 15 applicants are excluded by felony application attrition. This suggests it is the questions about criminal history records, rather than rejection by colleges, that are driving would-be college students from their goal of getting a degree.

CCA_exclusion
Part of what is pushing applicants away is the daunting supplemental process they are subjected to after disclosing a felony conviction. This gauntlet of requirements ranges from the absurd to the impossible. Some campuses require applicants to provide recommendations from corrections, probation, and parole officials who are reluctant to provide such information, unable to do so, or outright refuse to as a matter of policy. Other campuses require applicants to obtain documents that simply do not exist. Many require applicants who make it through the gauntlet to appear before the Admissions Review Committee, an experience that some applicants have likened to appearing before the Parole Board.

One of the people we interviewed for the “Boxed Out” report had this to say about the application process:

“At times I felt like the box and the supplemental procedures were put there to send a message from the admissions office: ‘Your kind are not welcome.’ The more they asked me about the offense, the more I felt embarrassed. It’s uncomfortable to have to relive this story over again. It’s traumatizing, but they didn’t seem to have a clue.”

For people who have faced barriers in virtually every important social domain, there is no way to make the criminal history question welcoming or less traumatic. The power of label and stigma, which shapes the life experiences of people with criminal history records in 21st-century America, discourages many from trying to push open doors that seem locked tight. For all of the reasons outlined here, CCA, in collaboration with the Education from the Inside Out Coalition, strongly recommends that all colleges and universities refrain from including the criminal history question on the application and prohibit the use of criminal history information in admissions decision making.

 

The Center for Community Alternatives (CCA) was founded in 1981 as the first alternative-to-incarceration (ATI) program in New York State. Its mission is to promote reintegrative justice and a reduced reliance on incarceration through advocacy, services, and public policy development in pursuit of civil and human rights. CCA has offices in Syracuse, Rochester, and New York City. Find CCA on Facebook and follow them on Twitter @CCA_NY.

Napier_EmilyEmily NaPier is the Director of Justice Strategies at the Center for Community Alternatives. Her work at CCA has been focused on increasing access to higher education for people who are incarcerated and those with criminal histories, reducing racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system, promoting alternatives to criminalization and incarceration, and removing barriers to reintegration for people with criminal histories. As an adjunct instructor at Syracuse University and Ithaca College, Emily taught courses on the criminal justice system, racial and ethnic inequalities, radical criminology, and research methods. She now teaches sociology at Auburn Maximum Security Prison through the Prison Education Program of Cornell University. Emily is also a community organizer and the current President of the Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse, a coalition of more than 30 congregations and agencies organizing around social justice issues in Central New York.

Alan RosenthalAlan Rosenthal, Esq. is the Advisor on Special Projects and Counsel at the Center for Community Alternatives. He is a criminal defense and civil rights attorney with over 40 years of experience. A graduate of Syracuse University College of Law, he has litigated cases involving police misconduct and violations of civil rights in both jails and prisons. Alan has written extensively on parole and sentencing and, more recently, on access to higher education for incarcerated people and people with criminal histories. He has served on the New York State Bar Association Special Committee on Collateral Consequences of Criminal Convictions and currently serves on the New York State Bar Association Special Committee on Reentry. In March 2006 he was honored with the Outstanding Service to the Criminal Bar Award by the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He was the 2014 recipient of the Wilfred R. O’Connor Award presented by the New York State Defenders Association.

Marsha WeissmanMarsha Weissman, PhD is the founder and Executive Director of the Center for Community Alternatives. She is a leader in the field of community-based alternatives to incarceration; has developed pioneering services; and has done innovative research, policy analysis, and training. Marsha’s writings, advocacy, and the programs she has developed have had a special focus on the impact of incarceration on youth, women and communities of color. She works to further equal justice for people who are poor, people of color, and other marginalized populations while keeping human and civil rights issues in the forefront of all her work. Her book, Prelude to Prison: Youth Perspectives on the School-to-Prison Pipeline was published in 2014. In 2012 she was honored with the Sara Tullar Fasoldt Leadership and Humanitarian Award from New York State. She is the 2015 recipient of the Service of Justice Award from the New York State Defenders Association.


 

Recently, my daughter Laurin and I attended a tech conference in Boulder, CO: the T-3 Summit. As the conference began, we were asked to break into groups of four people for an icebreaker activity. The instructions given were – each person will present three statements to their group. Two statements will be the truth and one will be a lie. The group members will then try to figure out which statement was the lie. I felt pretty confident I could get away with the lie I had chosen, so I offered to go first and made these three statements:Prison Policy Initiative

  1. Pointing to my daughter in another group I said, I’m here with Laurin, and she is one of my 4 sisters,
  2. “I’ve been to prison,” and
  3. “I don’t know how to code.”

When it was time to guess, one person stated that Laurin and I were sisters; that assumption made me smile and my daughter roll her eyes. The other two guessed that I did know how to code. None guessed that I had gone to prison. To their defense, I was at a tech conference and most of the people in attendance could have probably built an App over the weekend; it might have been easier for them to believe that I could code, versus having once been 1 of 2.4 million[1] people who are incarcerated in either a prison or jail in America. (See pie chart above.)

The truth is, decades of media coverage and our own personal biases have helped many of us create mental images of what “those people” who go to prison look like. We then try to predict their future actions, and as a society, we have created many methods for locking them out of our communities. Many Americans who go to prison don’t fit the stereotypes, and are therefore not stigmatized at a cursory glance. For better or worse, I am one of “those people.”

My conflict with the judicial system began in 2001 and has lasted so long that it has consumed nearly one-third of my life. Initially, disclosing the fact that I went to prison was difficult. But eventually I found that, for me, it feels more authentic to share my experience, allowing me to fully present all of who I am. Even now there are days when I still can’t believe I went to prison. I know that might be difficult for some people to understand, but it’s the truth.

Transitioning into incarceration was very difficult for me. It was hard when the staff of Alderson Federal Prison Camp, where I served a 70-month sentence, spoke to any of us in a derogatory manner. My skin crawled when we were referred to as “inmates.” It was hard for me to identify with or accept that label, because I have always understood that words, titles and labels do matter. Regardless of what the correctional officers thought, I would never let “inmate” define me.

Transitioning from prison to freedom was also challenging for me. Even though I mentally fought to maintain dignity while behind the gates, when I was released from prison, I initially found it difficult to process and receive random acts of kindness, human decency and courtesies from strangers. Yet, I was filled with so much gratitude when I was treated as normal. At the same time, I was disgusted and infuriated when I would hear kind people refer to the formerly incarcerated as “ex-cons,” “felons” and “convicts.”

Now, stating that you’ve been to prison leads to discrimination from individuals, corporations and institutions; it makes “returning home” and pursuing a life of purpose and productivity seem, as Marc Mauer and Jeremy Haile of The Sentencing Project describe in a 2013 Huffington Post article[2], an impossible journey. As a result, so many are forced to live in shame as they hide their personal stories.

Each time I reveal to someone new that I’ve been to prison, I notice two general responses:

  1. Either they seem to have a stunned or puzzled look on their face, tilting their head as if they are trying to process this new information; or
  2. They take a sight step backwards signaling their dismay in a deeper way.

Fortunately, I get to authentically live it out in the organization that Laurin and I co-founded, Mission: Launch, Inc. and the community effort we manage, Rebuilding Re-Entry. It is here where we lead our teams’ efforts in improving the outcomes for the nearly 700,000[3] people who are annually released from prison or jails in America.

Many of us who have endured systemic and/or institutional stigmatization lead the charge of equality, fairness and inclusion. This work may not always be easy, but the timing is right. I’m especially committed to eliminating stigmas concerning how we view people exiting prisons and/or jails – our returning citizens.

 

[1] Wagner, P., and Sakala, L. Mass incarceration: The whole pie, March 12, 2014. Prison Policy Initiative. http://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie.html, Accessed 7/9/15.

[2] Mauer, M and Haile, J. The new assault on formerly incarcerated individuals, July 29, 2013. Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marc-mauer/the-new-assault-on-formerly-incarcerated-individuals_b_3659935.html, Accessed 7/9/15.

[3] The US Department of Justice, Office of Public Affairs, August 22, 2013. http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-and-education-departments-announce-new-research-showing-prison-education-reduces, Accessed 7/9/15.

 

 

Teresa HodgeTeresa Y. Hodge, a passionate advocate for people with criminal connections, is committed to reducing the lasting harm caused by prison. It was a 70-month federal prison sentence for a white-collar, non-violent, first-time offense that introduced her first-hand to the justice system and mass incarceration in America.

Upon coming home, she and her daughter Laurin Hodge co-founded Mission: Launch, Inc. a non-profit focused on introducing technology and entrepreneurship to previously incarcerated individuals as a way of ensuring self-sufficiency. Additionally, the organization founded and manages the Rebuilding Re-Entry Coalition, a citizen-led movement committed to creating a more just and inclusive society for returning citizens (persons who exit prison or jail). The Coalition and its members desire to leverage its efforts within the greater Washington DC region to ensure a more efficient and safer re-entry for everyone.

As the Director of Strategy & Innovation for Mission: Launch, Inc., Teresa plays a critical role in building strategic partnerships and establishing social enterprise models for greater reach and sustainability. Prior experience as an entrepreneur allowed her to maximize her time in prison looking for best practices to help her and others get back on their feet upon release. Hodge is a certified life coach, with a specialty in prison re-entry. Her memoir and private coaching practice, Pearls & Prison, continues to bring meaning and closure to the time she spent in prison. In 2014 she was selected to be one of the initial cohort members of JustLeadershipUSA, an organization committed to ensuring that the voice of the formerly incarcerated is equipped to advocate for prison reform.

Teresa is available to speak to your organization or classroom. You can contact her for speaking engagements at: Teresa@Mission-Launch.org. If you’re active on social media please feel free to follow her on Twitter @TeresaYHodge or on Instagram at TeresaYHodge.


Words that we readily think of as synonymous often have subtle connotation differences. I learned this very quickly in regard to the racial labels African-American and BlackBlack is Beautiful button

As a woman of color, I would often refer to myself as a Black person in conversations with White counterparts, but I quickly noticed that they would always use the term African-American in response. This prompted me to conduct a study to see whether the term Black carried a social stigma.

Along with my colleagues, Katherine W. Phillips from Columbia University and Sarah S.M. Townsend from the University of Southern California, I looked at whether Blacks were perceived differently than African-Americans in four different societal contexts:

In the Workplace…

We randomly assigned White participants to look at one of two application forms that were unequivocally identical – except for one minor change: on one application form the job candidate’s race was listed as Black, and on the other application form the job candidate’s race was listed as African-American. Participants felt that the Black candidate was less educated and had less social status than the African-American candidate. Further, they believed that he earned a lower annual salary and was less likely to be employed in a managerial position than the African-American job candidate.

In the Court Room…

In a similar simulation, White participants were asked to review one of two crime reports. As you may have guessed, the crime report either reported the actions of a Black male suspect or an African-American male suspect. Participants responded more negatively to the Black male suspect than the African-American suspect.

In the Media…

We then wanted to test whether this observation affected media reports that we commonly read. We systematically reviewed hundreds of crime reports from 2000 to 2012 in major US newspapers. The use of the word Black in an article was associated with a negative emotional tone. However, we did not find the same effect when the term African-American was used.

In General…

We asked White participants to select ten terms (from a list of 100) that best described African-Americans or Blacks. The words used to describe Blacks were more negative and signified less warmth and competence than those that were used to describe African-Americans.

Is this what racism looks like in the 21st century? If so, the question becomes – what do we do?

The term Negro is now widely accepted as derogatory. (Recently, the US Census Bureau eliminated the term from the American Community Survey.) In my opinion, the terms African-American and Black should continue to be investigated.

I’m often asked whether the best remedy is to stop using the term Black, but I think there are many other ways to achieve our goal of being stigma-free. For example, I believe we should think deeply about why the term Black may engender these biases and strive to consciously disentangle these negative connotations from the term. The term Black instills a sense of pride in many minorities, so it would be best if others perceived this pride in a similar and equal manner.

Erika HallErika V. Hall is Assistant Professor of Organization & Management at Emory University, and joined the university’s Goizueta Business School faculty in 2014. Hall earned a PhD in Management & Organizations from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Her research focuses on implicit perceptions of femininity and masculinity in the workplace. Further, Professor Hall looks at how leaders with multiple minority identities are perceived in teams and organizations. Professor Hall’s work has appeared in academic journals such as Psychological Science and Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, and media outlets such as The New York Times. WNYC’s On the Media interviewed Dr. Hall and featured her research on the terms African American and Black. Prior to graduate school, Hall was a Research Associate at Harvard Business School.


Barcode image - Labels in the WorkplaceA few years ago I worked in an office with several forensic psychiatrists. They didn’t meet with patients as my own life-saving psychiatrist did; rather, they reviewed disability files to help determine whether the claimant was capable of re-entering the workforce.

Every week we’d all meet to go over difficult cases and get feedback from each other. The sole layperson in these meetings, I attended as a learning experience, and I was often shocked and offended by what the psychiatrists said about the claimants. “I wish I could have time off work because of stress,” they’d say, or “Oh, boo-hoo. She had a panic attack once and hasn’t been back to work since.”

While not every claimant needed extended time off, and it’s often therapeutic to get back into the swing of things, I didn’t appreciate how even the psychiatrists’ valid opinions were expressed—with judgmental bitterness. These attitudes made me feel really uncomfortable; I worried what they meant for the claimants who had legitimate reasons for needing extra care. The review team labeled the claimants, and then surmised the validity based on that label. How could these reviewers assess the situation and then offer a fair, professional opinion when they couldn’t contain their personal biases?

So I spoke up.

I met with both the owner of the company and the woman who ran the meeting and was disappointed to realize they didn’t take any of my concerns seriously. When I told them I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), their tough demeanor changed. With a sympathetic look on his face, the owner said, “You shouldn’t feel bad about that. We all have quirks.”

“I don’t feel bad,” I said. “The point in me telling you I have OCD is to illustrate that you can never know who might have a mental illness. If I have OCD and no one realized it, who else here is going through something and may feel alienated? What if someone makes a joke about schizophrenia, not knowing someone three chairs down has a relative with schizophrenia?”

“You know, those are closed meetings, and our reviewers need to feel comfortable to let loose. This can be a very stressful job,” he told me. “The meetings aren’t going to change. But you can develop a thicker skin and be less sensitive.”

Blood rushed to my face. “No,” I said. “I won’t be less sensitive. I like having a thin skin. It’s a huge part of who I am.”

I didn’t realize I’d be so assertive, but I also hadn’t realized he’d refuse to meet me halfway. Everyone else—those who were making rude comments in meetings and joking about alcoholism and “being OCD” in the break room—they were okay. They had permission to continue being insensitive. On the other hand, the powers-that-be said that if I was going to be so upset by the meetings, I should just stop attending them. Even when faced with the effect of the stigmatizing language, they dismissed me. By labeling me, and others, as having a mental illness, they seemed to feel their actions were justified.

I knew I had to quit this job. It was eating away at me. I sat down and had heart-to-hearts with the highest-ranking people in the company, and they told me to toughen up. They defended what was happening; they were okay that misconceptions were being perpetuated. And they didn’t care that one of their own employees felt uncomfortable in the workplace. I’ve wondered if they’d taken me more seriously if I hadn’t outed myself as having OCD. What I considered a strong point in my argument could have been the weakest link—I was just another squeaky wheel with a mental illness, not unlike the people who needed some time off from work.

A few days after I’d been told nothing would change, one of the psychiatrists joined me for lunch. “I want to thank you for reminding me what it means to be a good psychiatrist,” he said. “I work in forensics. I don’t have patients, and that makes it easy to forget that these claimants are people, too.”

I left the company knowing it hadn’t all been for naught. My frustration turned to empowerment, and within a year I’d signed a deal to write a book for teens and young adults with OCD. I may have had a positive impact on only one person at that office, but now I’m spreading my message of acceptance and sensitivity as far as I can, to anyone who will listen.

 

Image of author Alison DotsonAlison Dotson is a writer, copyeditor, and proofreader who was diagnosed with OCD at age 26, after suffering from “taboo” obsessions for more than a decade. Today, she still has occasional bad thoughts, but she now knows how to deal with them in healthy ways. Alison is the president of OCD Twin Cities, an affiliate of the International OCD Foundation, and has been featured as an OCD advocate on the International OCD Foundation Blog, the Huffington Post, and in Glamour magazine. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her husband and two rescue dogs.

Alison is the author of Being Me with OCD: How I Learned to Obsess Less and Live My Life. You can find her book, along with other books about b‘ing stigma-free, in our bookstore.


 

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