updated 9:48 am 4/7/17
Yesterday I entered a level four maximum security jail. I had a volunteer interview with the chaplain there. I saw no inmates and only entered into the administrative section of the jail to have a conversation with the chaplain on my social enterprise proposal.
We discussed the viability of a key component of my proposal, that of physically revitalizing the Bridgeport, Ct. playgrounds after a collaborative grant search and acquisition of funds to purchase new equipment, along with any possible training needed for the first round of inmates I would theoretically be working with. The idea is to have the men give back to the community and to themselves by beautifying the communal environment of the city and therein, through their work, that they do ‘soul work’ in the process of the physical exertion and mission of the endeavor. To this the chaplain let me down gently, explaining that though my proposal was a good one, given the security level of the jail and the transient nature of inmates entering and leaving, that my social entrepreneurship venture would be best suited for jails or prisons with inmates who are serving longer terms. Personally, I feel that the relevant immediacy of having inmates reenter the community again makes them prime candidates for the social entrepreneurial company I proposed. After an initial training of the first group of inmates, newly entering prisoners into the group would be trained by present, existent ones and so forth. The fact that their community reentry was eminent, in my opinion, would make the work prescient and of timely relevance in their lives. As opposed to simply providing services within the physical correctional center, positively disruptive programs that ‘hold weight’ should be open to experimentation and piloting given the general state of recidivism (civilians returning back to prison/ jail). It may be that after decades of running the same programs, the intellectually deprived experience of jail/ prison may not be enough to deter people from changing their ways and avoiding incarceration. This is punishment with no practical positive rehabilitation.
At any rate, I quickly pivoted and put forth that my possible volunteer work within the jail did not have to be beholden to that specific proposal and that I could go back to the drawing board and send him a new proposal based on the work occurring completely within the jail. For example, I could have a group coaching program where I guide inmates to understand what their current skills are, what their professional yearning may be and create a physical document for each of them which would serve as a plan to help them keep moving once they reenter the community. This sounded more palatable and after a customary orientation given to all new prospective volunteers or professional workers we parted.
“As-salamu alaykum” (Peace be upon you.)
This chaplain, a humble Muslim senior, spoke to me like a brother, though I be a Christian.
An Era of Social Enterprise: Fostering Social Responsibility By Being Positively Disruptive
Listening in on the radio last night on my way home from my interview, I heard a commentator, an author and listeners who called in speak on the notion of the American dream. One caller said that the American dream was having the ability to chase one’s dreams, even if we never attain them. The commentator posited that the last time there was a collective American dream was in the 1940s after the second world war, but that since then the collective dream had dissipated into one of individuals each chasing their own dreams and taking care of their own selves rather than engendering a communal spirit that brought the country together with a larger focus. Another caller, a woman, said that in her estimation, there were two American dreams, one where basic inalienable rights and the pursuit of happiness were still existent. A reality that calls so many immigrants to our shores. The second dream, she explained, was one she felt was misguided. An american dream of garnering fame and material wealth with the purpose of accumulating more of it in a never-ending cycle. She finished in delineating that this was the individual dream of so many. The commentator added sometimes people don’t know they are happy because their focus is framed on the acquisition of ‘more’ and ‘greater,’ instead of appreciating what they have already.
What do we have at the end of it all, if we only look to help ourselves and our family? We can take nothing with us, but we can leave the land a better place by operating our lives in such a way that our community improves because of concerted energy we bring to somehow makes things better for one individual or many.
My work in starting up the American Originals Skateboard League, an organization of competing skateboard schools from different towns within and around Fairfield County, Connecticut is a social-educational experiment in bringing community together, not just facilitating the teaching of skateboard skills or providing a fun, Olympics-level activity for youth to be involved in. A primary focus of this enterprise is to create the environment for typical youth to mentor and form relationships with youth who have varied special needs. So a typical child, or even one with attentional deficits benefits from learning and peer-mentoring another youth who may be on the autism spectrum, with Downs Syndrome or another disability. As a professional with fourteen years working with special needs communities and families of Boston, Hawai’i, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Florida, I empathize with the social isolation most individuals with special needs encounter in their daily life. The creation of the skateboard schools across the county addresses this issue alongside, yes, creating a fun, novel time for kids to just have fun, experience a repeated sense of accomplishment, fine-tune their executive function skills and work on 21st century skills, like grit, perseverance, emotional control and goal-directed persistence.
Like my hopeful Bridgeport, Ct Correctional Center initiative, reaching out and being a source of empowerment in others lives, even if for a season replenishes my desire to thank God for the blessings he blesses me with. Is it not his will that we be our brothers and sisters keepers? Is it not threaded in some archaic American foundational principle that we look past ourselves and see that we are truly connected one to another in more ways than meets the eye, and thus, work and live in such ways that lift up and strengthen eachothers families to the praise of God? How else will we solve the social ailments that undo this American quilt? I know we all have to work in order to put food on the table, a roof over our heads, take care of our children and so on. But there is more to life than this.
We must look to do more than is required of us, else we continue the system and current state of the American union as it is. Our prisons are filled to the brim. In low-income neighborhoods, youth and young adults know nothing of how to help themselves. Many families have no fathers who are present in the lives of their children. Kids in economically poor neighborhoods struggle to make the best of what seems hopeless. There are so many issues that need passionate people to enter into. Finding something that you care about and bringing your energy towards consistently impacting a social need in positive ways is a start. Work on what interests you. Be a trailblazer and do social good in a way unique to you. The more unique you go about making life better for others the better. It is not required that you go to school to learn how to do help others. We just need a creative, caring, unstoppable heart that does not give up.