Recognizing the Need for Civic EngagementM. Toni McComb Hall Springfield
It was during dinner with “friends” one evening that I decided to become involved in civic engagement. The people with whom I was dining began to discuss their involvement with the Community Accountability Board. Both had been on the Board for several years, yet this was the first that I heard of it. As they began to tell me about their interactions with incarcerated members of our community, and how they would meet with them monthly to discuss their re-entry into society, I knew I wanted to be involved. Not because the people speaking made involvement sound glamorous–quite the opposite. The woman explained that she was involved because she wanted to know who was living in her neighborhood, and if they had been incarcerated, she wanted to be the judge of whether or not it was safe for them to live in the community.
I was immediately angered. How dare she judge someone on a past mistake and then deem them fit or not to live near her, as though she were perfect? Where was the empathy? Where was the concern for your fellow man? Where was hope for someone who may have made a wrong turn but was looking now to be on the right path?
My outrage was fueled by the fact that I have loved ones who have been incarcerated. Although I did not condone their behavior that landed them behind bars, I loved them, nonetheless. Someone viewed as a convict by some is still someone else’s father, mother, brother, sister, child or spouse. I felt personally offended as the sister and aunt of presently incarcerated men. And as the close friend of a woman who spent years in the Framingham correctional institution but has changed her life and is now working side by side with me to mentor young women to do the same, I could not agree with the reasoning of this self-righteous woman across the table from me. Everyone has an importance to someone and should never be devalued based upon bad decisions. There is a chance of redemption for us all.
The incarcerated men who meet with the Community Accountability Board (sponsored by the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department) are there voluntarily. While I know not all of them are honest about wanting a different way of life, some do. If you can reach half of these people and inspire them to do better, wouldn’t you be fixing at least part of the crime problem in Springfield?
The Board meets monthly with inmates to aid them in realizing how their crimes affected not just themselves and their families, but the community. The participants are given writing assignments that may range from showing remorse to planning for their return home. The Board encourages continuing education, joining recovery programs if needed, and seeking employment that will provide a stable lifestyle for the participants. As I listened to my “friend” (who no longer speaks to me) boast about drilling these people and telling them directly, “You’re not ready to be released,” I knew that someone needed to combat her dogmatic and prejudiced approach and to show that there are people within the community willing to give a former inmate a chance. That someone was me.
I joined the Board and began to work toward a better community relationship with people who were willing to engage. Yes, I did meet with some who were only involved because it looked good on paper for parole or release, but there were so many more who had an opportunity to share how they ended up incarcerated and what plans they were making to change.
Serving on the Board has given me an opportunity to reconsider opinions that I may have formed without seeing every angle of the situation. As it is often said, the view is different from the outside looking in. Sometimes we must put ourselves in the shoes of others to understand the steps that they have made.