Ms. Susan Burton

Today, I got to attend a talk by Susan Burton, the founder and Executive Director of A New Way of Life Reentry Project. ANWOL provides housing, legal help, and other support for formerly incarcerated women leaving prison. Ms. Burton started ANWOL based on her own experience as a former drug addict and convicted felon. She start in 1998 by buying a house and inviting women who were just leaving prison to come live with her. Since that time, ANWOL has provided housing and services for over 700 women. Ms. Burton has become a powerful voice for formerly incarcerated people.
Ms. Burton was joined by Dorsey Nunn, Executive Director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children who had also been formerly incarcerated. Their stories emphasize the power of advocacy by people who have been directly impacted. Professionals like myself have an important place as technical and resource experts. Yet we also must join with those who know firsthand the grueling hardships that we work to change.
Some people may hear that Ms. Burton had been in prison for possession of crack cocaine, and scoff. They might say that she shouldn’t have used crack, and that it was her fault. Maybe. But Ms. Burton started using crack as a way to self-medicate from the immense grief she experienced when she saw her five-year-old son run over and killed by a police vehicle. The police officer never even got out of his car. Ms. Burton never received an apology or any acknowledgement from the police department. If that were you, reeling from the loss of your son, and someone offered you something that would make you feel better, what would you do? You don’t need to condone her actions. She broke the law. But I hope that we can empathize with her. I hope that we can all applaud how Ms. Burton and Mr. Nunn have advocated for the humanity of formerly incarcerated individuals. I hope that we can see the humanity in everyone who enters prison.
Much thanks to The Way Christian Center for hosting the event, and for Karem Lizbeth Herrera and Jennifer Kung for sharing in this experience.

“Don’t people choose to be homeless?”

I was talking to one of my friends about homelessness. She said, “I see folks standing by the side of the freeway asking for money. But they seem fine to me. Don’t they choose to be homeless? Why aren’t they working?”
That’s a complicated question with a lot of issues. But one thing I’ll note is that disability can be hidden. Some physical disabilities are not readily apparent. Most mental disabilities are invisible. I’ve met folks who are able to bathe and dress themselves, but cannot work. They may have depression and miss work a couple days a month. They may have bipolar and have a hard time interacting with coworkers or supervisors. They may have schizophrenia and have difficulty concentrating on tasks.
Most folks I’ve met don’t want to be relying on government money. The process is bureaucratic. You could get cut off because some government employee makes a mistake or you forget to report a change in your situation. And the amount of money you get doesn’t cover your basic needs.
On a deeper level, humans are wired to be productive. We are made to find deep satisfaction in work. Most of the folks I’ve met really want to work, but need some help during their time of need.
Sure, some folks are just trying to abuse the system and not do anything. But that’s a tiny fraction of the people that I see. It’s unfair to brand an entire group of people based on the actions of a few.

Reflections from a hearing

I shadowed my supervisor to a hearing. As part of the application process for disability benefits, the applicant may appear before an administrative law judge for a hearing. As far as legal procedures go, it’s fairly informal, but still really important.
My supervisor Kyle and I showed up at the hearing office. Kyle’s client was already there. We talked about what to expect in the hearing, including what questions the judge may ask. The client had applied for these benefits years ago. Because of the backlog of cases, hearings take a long time to get scheduled.
When we were called, we filed into the hearing room. The judge said hello and started talking about some preliminary matters. The client was sitting next to me. I could hear his breathing get heavy, and looked up to see his eyes tearing up. He was crying.
After Kyle gave his opening statement, the judge asked the client a few questions. At one of the questions, the client started choking up. He started sobbing. He has had a really tough life, and had been living with his disabilities for a long time. He had made some mistakes and done some bad things. But he was also trying to turn his life around.
The judge commended the client for his efforts to turn a new leaf. He said that he had enough evidence to support a finding of disability, and would grant the benefits.
We exited to the hallway. With tears streaming down his face, the client reached out and embraced Kyle. He then embraced me. He thanked us for helping him get this far.
I became a lawyer to help people. I wanted to help those in need navigate the byzantine tangle that is our legal system. Kyle’s client did an excellent job advocating for himself. He is strong. But he also needs help. And our system is set up so that those who are disabled have a hard time getting the help they need.
This work will be hard. I can tell. But it’s moments like this hearing that remind me of why I do what I do.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

I saw Mr. Smith Goes to Washington last night for the first time (much thanks to Lauren for the suggestion and the DVD). The basic summary is that a wholesome country man becomes a U.S. Senator and finds himself tangling with political corruption and deceit.

Lauren pointed out that she appreciates the film because of the integrity displayed by the main character, Jeff Smith. He is a man of strong ideals and integrity, whose inherent goodness personifies the best in all of us.

What’s also remarkable is how Jeff Smith’s integrity inspires transformation in others. You can see this most clearly in how his idealism moves his secretary, Clarissa Saunders, from cynicism to hope.

Yet the film also demonstrates that heroes sometimes need to be reminded of who they are. SPOILER ALERT: In a pivotal scene, Jeff Smith is ready to call it quits, but Saunders comes in and lifts his spirits, reminding him of his vision for his people.

All heroes need this kind of reminder. All heroes have moments in which they doubt their ability to make a difference. It is in those moments that heroes need community that can look them in the eyes and say, “You can change things. I’m proof of that.”

July 4th 2017: What does USA mean to me?

What does USA mean to me?
USA means home, the place where I was born, the place where I grew up. It informs the language I speak, the values I keep, the ideas I believe.
USA means opportunity. My parents came here from Korea and found opportunity for a better life. My brother and I have far greater resources than we would have had we remained in Korea.
USA means separation and connection. In pursuing after economic opportunities, my family became disconnected with my extended family back in Korea. I have never celebrated a holiday with my grandparents, aunts and uncles, or cousins. Yet in this country, I found others with whom to celebrate, a new extended family.
USA means strength in South Korea, in both good and bad ways. The US-South Korean relationship is important, but also complicated. The US played a key role in South Korea’s economic vitality, but also played a key role in the division between North and South (along with others). I still have family members in North Korea, although I have no idea what has happened to them.
USA also means tragedy. For some of my friends, their families did not choose to come to the US, but were brought by force. For others, their families were already here, and the US brought disruption and violence. Still others came with visions of opportunity, only to have those visions dissipate in broken promises and broken dreams.
USA means contradictions, complexities, and paradox, just like any group of people. It is a people of high ideals and great nobility, but also crass vulgarity and mindless violence. To extol its virtues does not mean neglecting its flaws, and to critique its weaknesses does not mean undermining its strengths.
So on this day, I say that I am grateful to live in the USA. I will also say that I will endeavor to make it a more just, merciful, and compassionate place. I hope that others will do the same.