With Trelawney J Grenfell-Muir & Mark Saxenmeyer
Dan's Note: This special edition of Transformation-is-Real will be different than some of the ones I've posted in the past. Lately, I became intensely interested two seemingly unconnected bits of news. As I began to research them, I found they have more connection to the topic of transformation than I first realized.
The first is the recent arrest of Ahmed Mohamed in an Irving, Texas school for bringing a homemade clock which authorities suggested was a hoax-bomb. (Some reports had to later clarify, since they originally had reported that they thought it was an actual, bona-fide bomb.)
The second was the production of a new documentary for PBS called The Innocent Convicts. The producer for the documentary is a fellow writer, journalist and colleague, and CEO of The Writers Inc, Mark Saxenmeyer. Wrongful convictions, along with felons regaining the right to vote, are important topics to me.
The connection between the two unrelated topics is that social justice does matter in our country. It matters for our world. The transformation I hope that we will begin to make comes in beginning dialogue, and learning from others why these topics are important.
So…this week for Transformation Is Real, I'm sharing with you two interviews I had the pleasure to make from two people who will share a bit of their stories why a transformation in society is often a precondition to transforming our personal lives.
Trelawney J Grenfell-Muir
Trelawney studied Peace and Conflict Studies at Boston University, University Professors Program. She's also a pastor's kid, twice-over. She grew up in the Methodist church. She has recently taught graduate courses at Boston University and the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Her background as well as her teaching acumen are very cross-disciplinary; she easily qualifies as a "renaissance woman" — anthropology, sociology, political science, international relations, and religion inform her perspectives, as well as her yearning for social justice. Trelawney is the online moderator for the group Progressive Christians.
Ahmed Mohamed, an American kid from Irving Texas, was arrested at school for building a clock that worried an English teacher might be a bomb. What bothers you about this high-profile case and what thoughts can you offer from the standpoint of social justice?
First, I take it from a larger context. There are specific things about the case, but let me first address some larger issues.
The Mayor of Irving, Texas has been expressing vitriol against Muslim people for a while now, so there's that—she's been stirring up Islamophobia. She (as well as Fox News) has been speaking out against Islam. So . . . that's part of the larger context. I want to say more in a bit, but yes . . . this kid lives in a particularly Islamophobic area.
Specifics that bother me: for starters, no one ever thought it was a bomb. The teachers and police knew right away that it was neither a real bomb, nor was it even a hoax bomb, which of course the student had never intended it to be.
They later insisted they thought it was a hoax bomb. However, white children have brought their own clock inventions to school, and no one thought twice about them. So, this school singled Ahmed out because he's brown-skinned, and he's Muslim. The shop teacher knew it was just a clock, but he also knew that the prejudice in the school would make Ahmed vulnerable.
And, then, they didn't follow proper protocol: they didn't have a parent or guardian present while they interrogated him. Personally, I hope the family sues the police and the district.
Why do you hope they'll sue?
Well . . . I suppose this is where my Christian theology comes in. Shining a light on this event is the only way to make change. The darkness hates the light, and the truth shall set us free. When good hearted Americans hear the truth and see this kind of darkness, that "light" brings out the best in people: they champion the victims of injustice and support needed reforms.
Jesus is the Way, the Truth... and the Light of the world — to me, those symbols speak to how exposing the depth and extent of this disease is the first step toward healing it. I'm really heartened by all the public approval of this boy, but at the same time, there are wider causes of Islamophobia in our society.
For example, President Obama tweeted, "Hey Ahmed, nice clock." That's good. I'm glad he did that and I support that. But at the same time, Obama has a drone program . . . it's one of the main causes of Anti-American terrorism and rage in the Middle East. There are extremists there; of course I condemn their violence. But we've got to ask ourselves the question: What causes this rage and continues to build support for anti-American sentiment among people who otherwise would promote nonviolence? In other words, what can we do to minimize support for anti-American violence, which will be the best way to make innocent children like Ahmed safe from prejudice?
People are eager to support this kid, but do they question the policies that bring about anti-American rage? Social justice demands — my faith too — that I not demonize the "other," but rather question the geo-political context that promotes nationalism and a sense of "us vs. them" in the world. The drone program is one example; there are others too. Our government continues to sustain racism and fear in many systemic ways.
Tell me more about social justice. What role do people of faith have to play?
Well [the other interview you're doing with Mark Saxenmeyer] speaks to the injustice of private prisons and the Drug War; certainly those are two examples of what needs fixing. But, the structural violence is deeper than the cultural level. We need to address violence on all levels: direct, structural, and cultural-- in order to make change. People of faith can offer an alternative to fear: a path of courage, which will bring healing to violence and all its wounds.
Where this connects with my spirituality is that we must build bridges. We are who we are in community: our identity is a web of connectivity of all humanity and otherkind. Separation is a lie. It is only when we connect with others, across all of the artificial divisions of culture and society, that we can be transformed by the Divine that is within them encountering the Divine that is within us. Transformation happens when we realize our most true Divine selves, which happens through encountering what we mistakenly consider to be separate, or "other," and realizing that we all are One.
Mark is the President, CEO, and Founder of The Reporters Inc, a nonprofit multimedia company and production house. Mark is the recipient of the Leadership in Journalism Education award from Loyola University Chicago, he was presented the Young Alumni Award for Outstanding Achievement And Distinguished Service from UW-Madison, and he was an inaugural inductee into his high school’s Hall of Fame. His current project is The Innocent Convicts, which is the topic of this interview.
Mark, thank you for speaking with me, today. I'm interested in the project you are doing, both from a personal standpoint, but also from a transformational perspective.
Thank you for your support of the film. And thank you for your blog, Dan! We know the public is interested in this topic . . . we just need to gather the swelling support we know is there.
How did you become aware of the need to share the problem of wrongful conviction?
I think I've always known it's been an issue with stories I've covered in the past; especially when DNA came on the scene to exonerate people who had not done anything wrong other than by being in the wrong place at the wrong time — or those who had the "wrong" color skin — but who fit a specific profile the authorities were looking for. Essentially, that's were trying to convey with The Innocent Convicts, that the system has some real gaps, and justice can [sometimes] be meted out to the wrong people.
Who are you working with to produce The Innocent Convicts?
When the filmmaker Ossy Okurowa reached out to us with some interviews he had done, I knew right away that it was something I wanted to be involved with. Ossy didn't know how to proceed with a project of this size or scope. Since [crafting a documentary] is essentially what we do at The Reporters Inc, we were happy to partner with him to craft a story to show people just how much a wrongful conviction can ruin a person's life.
What do you want people to know about this project?
Journalism today has gotten to be so piecemeal, so the advantage of our format we use at The Reporters Inc, is that we can really dig in and tell the stories we need to know about. We want people to know that REAL LIVES are affected by these wrongful convictions. The way we do that is by crafting the true story of what happens to these human beings and their families while they basically rot in prison.
Probably the most tragic of the examples is one that you see on our website; it's the story of Tim Cole. This was a guy who was convicted of raping a student in 1986. He would spend the next 13 years in prison and he ending up dying before the truth came out in 2006: he didn’t do it. He died of an asthma attack because he couldn't even get his inhaler.
Tim's story is only one of the many of the wrongful convictions that victims of this crime have suffered. You know, it's a crime with victims, essentially the wrongfully convicted, but no one pays for that crime . . . other than the wrongfully convicted themselves! It's stuff like this we want to share. It's about passing on the emotion of that story. And that's what I do!
In what way do you feel a systemic racial bias exists in the United States that affects the outcome of trials?
O gosh…that's a big one. What I think is that [this bias] has been engrained in families over decades—if not generations—where people of color or of a certain belief system are caught in a never-ending cycle of poverty and despair. And…it seems like law enforcement has to find someone and get the work done they think needs to be done—which it does—but not by arresting or accusing someone only because they're black, or Muslim, or what-have-you.
There needs to be a lot of reformatting of the decisions prosecutors make. It's just a big rush to judgment. Hopefully, this project will help break it down for people so they understand wrongful convictions DO happen…and it goes beyond just the numbers. It's about people's lives. I'm really excited that we're seeing the grass-roots support for this project. It shows me that people really care.