Reflecting On 2017

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Professor David Donahue, Director of the Leo T. McCarthy Center

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Sankofa, the African word that means we need to know and understand our past to head intelligently into our future.  Sankofa is usually symbolized by a bird whose feet are moving forward but whose head is looking back.  Sankofa is an apt metaphor for the McCarthy Center as we head to the end of 2017.  This year marks our 15th anniversary.  It also marks a year of strategic planning to chart the course for the next five years.  

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As with Sankofa, there is much wisdom in the McCarthy Center’s past that can inform what we value: integrity, knowledge, and service.  Recently, we have been conducting oral history interviews with some of the people who knew Leo McCarthy well. Over and over, we hear about Leo’s humanity, his compassion for those who were marginalized by society, and his commitment to doing what is right. At our 15th anniversary celebration on November 9, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi described Leo as a person who could see the “divinity” in everyone.  If only this generosity of spirit were the norm in politics now.  In the meantime, it animates the kind of community we create in our programs at the Center.

Leo’s values speak to us as we look ahead.  We began this new school year with a sense of heaviness and anxiety as racism and white supremacy, which have always been part of the history of this nation, became especially visible and were given permission to manifest by our nation’s president. That heaviness has as women have come forward to tell their stories of sexual harassment, including by our elected officials.

As 2017 ends, we are resolved to engage for racial, gender, and other forms of justice.  Our strategic planning process will give us direction toward those goals as we support students eager to engage in their community and in political life.  We are developing a new program for next year to connect USF students with community organizers and advocacy organizations.  We hope to engage students in city government as we continue to recruit students for state and national government internships.  Since the start of the fall, we have registered over 800 USF students as new voters who are ready to make their voices heard.  Early in 2018, we will launch our gubernatorial speakers series, bringing candidates for the “second most important office in the nation” to campus so they can engage with students, staff, and faculty.

We are eager to hear your ideas about what you see as strategic directions for the McCarthy Center.  Please feel free to share your thoughts with us any time.  Our efforts are stronger when they reflect a collective vision.

Please share your thoughts in the comment section here or email ddonahue@usfca.edu

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In D.C.’s Public Defender Service

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Vivienne Pismarov, Psychology ’19

This fall semester, through the USF in DC program, I’ve had the opportunity to intern with the Public Defender Service. Everyone working there is tasked with one job and one job only: do everything in your power to support your client. As an investigative intern, I request records, locate potential witnesses, serve subpoenas, canvass the scene of the crime, and more. Even though sometimes this role requires me to work late into the night and over the weekends, I’m honored to do this job because I believe every client deserves someone who is genuinely in their corner ready to fight against the giant criminal justice system. 

Working in the Special Litigation Division, we defend clients who were sentenced to life in prison as juveniles and are now eligible under the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act to have their sentences reduced or eliminated altogether. To be eligible for re- sentencing, individuals must have already spent 20 years or more in the prison system. These institutions often do not prioritize the rehabilitation of their inmates; instead, inmates are exposed to terrible living conditions, daily violence, racism and abuse. Such conditions make a transition back into society difficult and also make successful re-sentencing challenging.

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My first client, who I have spent most of my time in D.C. working with, was sentenced to life in prison when he was just sixteen years old after being misidentified as the perpetrator of a drive-by shooting that injured four teenagers in his own neighborhood. While there were witnesses and multiple examples of false testimonies to prove that our client was not at the scene of the crime and that the police involved in the case bribed witnesses to lie, my client has been imprisoned for the entirety of his adult life. This injustice astounds me. I have grown up with the privilege of having a supportive family and an education that has opened up infinite doors for me. Meanwhile an innocent young black man from the Southeast quadrant of D.C. has spent this same amount of time wrongly imprisoned and deprived of experiencing the world that he so desperately wants to be a part of again. Every day I come to work with a goal that one day this man will be able to enjoy a life of freedom.

We have witnesses who’ve confessed that they lied to the police. We have a solid alibi for our client. And we have proof that one of our client’s friends actually committed the crime. But while serving time in prison, our client was provoked by other inmates and was involved in a fight. Before he knew it, our client killed another man in prison.

From the bottom of my heart, I know that our client was not involved in the drive-by shooting that relegated him to a life in prison. However, I also cannot deny that a man in prison was killed at the hands of my client but I certainly believe that he would not have killed anyone if my client was never wrongfully convicted in the first place.

My client’s situation is not an anomaly. He had a great defense going for him and an amazing likelihood that he would be released from prison given the evidence that we had gathered in his favor. However, the prison system cultivated an environment where my client felt that he had to resort to murder just to live another day. Now, my client will likely continue living within the four walls that he has been living in for more than 20 years, while I have the world at my fingertips.

Given my client’s situation, I still will not give up fighting for his rehabilitation and release. Avis Buchanan, the Director of the Public Defender Service in D.C., emphasizes making a connection with a client and recognizing their humanity is required to successfully assist them in their defense. This is the challenge of the criminal justice system.

Avis Buchanan says that when you cannot see the humanity in your client, “that’s when you know it’s time to leave.” My time participating in the USF in D.C. program has taught me to never forget that everyone is human and deserving of someone being in their corner. While my internship is quickly coming to end, I’m not ready to leave and I’m not ready to stop fighting for the people who have been overlooked by society. When I leave this internship program at the Public Defender Service in D.C., I know that I will continue to advocate for people like my client who have been victimized by the prison system.

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Trump Exposes America’s Value

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Amir Abner

M.A. Urban Affairs ’17

Donald Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United States. President-Elect Trump has spewed racism, sexism and xenophobic ideals since his campaign started and it carried him all the way to victory. As soon as it was announced that he would win the bid to be the next President over Hillary Clinton, you could hear a collective gasp from the city of San Francisco and while many were shocked a man with his rhetoric and past could become the face of this country, I was not.

San Francisco and other cities in the Bay Area are really no different in their approach compared to southern cities and their residents that are constantly looked down on. The city still clings on the reputation built in the 1960’s and 70’s as this utopian place of solidarity and free thoughts. The “progressive” San Francisco is all but gone, not that it ever really existed (check out Urban Renewal in the Fillmore) but whatever you pretended it to be, it has been displaced. When was the last time residents of San Francisco looked themselves in the mirror and checked their own racist views and actions? You would think the unjust killings of civilians by police officers would do it… right?

Most people in San Francisco can ignore the issues that are faced by many people when it doesn’t directly impact their lives, in fact it actually helps their quality of life. The $5 coffee shops, that displace the corner store, can be seen as a cool hip place to meet friends and get work done, but what about the family of the person displaced? Look at the Mission District today, some will argue that communities naturally change over time, but being in the Mission makes me feel like I’m living during the apartheid in South Africa. Every corner you can see the historical importance of the Latino community with murals and cuisine but the high rents of residential spaces attract rich white transplants from other cities. The new residents walk around looking down on long time residents and it’s a bit sickening. The same can be said about the Fillmore district and Western Addition, but most of the black owned businesses in that neighborhood were displaced during the 1960’s and 70’s, so it’s a bit harder to find the history there. The destruction and mistreatment of people of color is constant so when a friend asked me “aren’t you afraid of Trump because he’s racist?” my answer is simply, no.

The racism in this country is very real, but we pretend to ignore it whenever we can. I am still not over how the government treated the people of New Orleans during the Hurricane Katrina disaster. If you think we’ve moved passed that, you are sadly mistaken. Every month there is a public lynching in the form of police executions taking place. I watched historically black communities become displaced over the last few years, a few examples are, Harlem, North Philadelphia and Oakland. The education systems in urban areas are crumbling and I watched how state officials dis-invest in HBCU’s. During this same time mass incarnation is still an issue and I watch people rejoice over the changing marijuana laws that will enrich thousands of white owned corporations. Even with these new state laws, federal law still classifies marijuana as illegal so if you’re black please be aware of this because we will continue to profiled while driving and stopped and frisked for the color of our skin. Last time I checked the water in Flint is still toxic and the Chicago police department continue to hold civilians illegally for years. Whenever there seems to be a pinch of black progress in America, ignorant white rage rises up in an attempt to reverse it (read White Rage written by Carol Anderson). The sentiment for most Americans is, in order to have winners we must have losers. If President Obama symbolized progressed in the eyes of millions of black folks, it must have meant the decline in the eyes of millions of white folks. Donald Trump’s rise should have been expected. If it took for a monster for America to address its racist nature then so be it.

When the hypertension dies down, will those who oppose him and his views still be on the front-line fighting for fairness? Or will they become reclusive due to his ignorance having no major direct impact on their lives as they were led to believe he would? Americas oldest tradition is racism and it will carry on with the electing of Donald Trump unless the people from the hardest hit communities come together rise up.

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