DC Books to Prisons — a Spark in the Dark in 35 States

by guest writer Barbara Cornell

It’s Wednesday evening, and we’re in a church basement. The walls are crazy-crammed with books–from foreign languages in the far corner to business and science by the door. Busy people buzz around us.

Why have I brought you here? Joseph’s letter says it best: 

“A book or magazine is a major event in my 8×10 universe, and I would not have that spark in the dark if it were not for free.”

Joseph’s 8×10 universe is a prison cell in Woodville, Texas. And you are at DC Books to Prisons in Washington, DC.

If social justice is what love looks like in public, then DC Books to Prisons shows how love brings people together to push back against the darkness.

Our little group of volunteers—and we are all volunteers—is one of a handful of organizations around the country that sends free books to people in prison.

DC Books to Prisons serves 35 states, so we know how hungry prisoners are to read. We will send more than 16,000 books and other reading materials this year. 

If social justice is what love looks like in public, then DC Books to Prisons shows how love brings people together to push back against the darkness.

Barbara Cornell

But that’s only part of the story

We send Spanish books to children in immigration detention centers. We provide books and magazines for children visiting federal prisons, collect books for prison book clubs and build prison library collections. 

Hundreds of caring people give us books and the money to mail them, free space, free storage, free supplies. 

Sending even 16,000 books is a tiny act against the damage of mass incarceration. But choosing humanity over inhumanity is at least a spark in the dark.

“If we can act with courage and choose humanity over inhumanity, it does not seem that it can affect the larger trajectory of history,” said Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. “But I believe it can.”

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Location of other prison book programs (click for details).

Take Action!

Explore  DC Books to Prisons .

Support DC Books to Prisons with a donation.

Find similar programs near you using this map

Learn more about mass incarceration.  “Being involved in Books to Prisons made me want to know more about mass incarceration in America,” Barbara said. Here’s a fact sheet by the Sentencing Project.

Read about progress being made. There has been some progress to undo some of the factors that have contributed to mass incarceration, but there are still many more issues to tackle such as money bail

Visit previous blog posts:  
Carla Trier Brings Heaps of Love to Sheridan, Wyoming by Way of the Foster Parent Exchange
“Gillette Against Hate” Stands Up to Violent Speech and Actions

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Barbara Cornell lives in Washington, DC.


20 Years After

Matthew Shepard’s Murder in Laramie, Wyoming

by guest contributor, Jess Fahlsing*

Jess Fahlsing with their mom,
Sue Fahlsing.

“Love you.”

Whenever I go biking out east of Laramie, I send my mom that text.

Fortunately, it’s not uncommon for me to text her that.  We have a pretty good relationship, so she doesn’t always know why I text her, “Love you.”

I do it after biking, because I remember Judy Shepard’s words, quoted by Rulon Stacey in a press release after Matthew Shepard died.

“Go home, give your kids a hug, and don’t let a day go by without telling them that you love them.”  

I’ve flipped those words around so that, whenever I go biking into the land where Matthew was taken, beaten, and left to die tied to a fence, I text my mom and tell her I love her.

I can make it back home.  Matt never can.

“Go home, give your kids a hug, and don’t let a day go by without telling them that you love them.”

Judy Shepard

Growing Up in Rock Springs, Wyoming

I grew up in Rock Springs, Wyoming, mountain biking in the desert.  It was a place where there was no visible queer community.  No clubs at the high school.  Very few queer role models out in the town.  I did have a trans friend, but they faced extreme violence in that town. 

I love the land there.  My heart yearns to go back.  

You can’t change who or what you love.

Yet there are some things you can’t make it back from.  That you cannot return to.  

I don’t know that I will return to Rock Springs to live long-term.  But I do know that Laramie has given me a lot. Laramie PrideFest, founded by Robert West, gave me the space to find a queer community here after I started openly identifying as lesbian at age 21.  It gave me the space to honor what activists before me have given up, and to remember Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, transwomen of color who were key in the Stonewall Riots.

. . . whenever I go biking into the land where Matthew was taken, beaten, and left to die tied to a fence, I text my mom and tell her I love her.

Jess Fahlsing

Shepard Symposium on Social Justice

In Laramie, the Shepard Symposium on Social Justice [hosted by the University of Wyoming each year in April] gave me a family. They are my family.  That is actually how Ellen and I met.  

Through the Shepard Symposium, I had the honor to co-chair the Matthew Shepard Memorial Group with Dr. Emily Monago, Chief Officer of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.  As part of the Memorial, we put banners for Matthew on the University Union.

“That wouldn’t have been possible even 10 years ago, when I was here for grad school,” a friend told me, who was visiting Laramie the same time as the Memorial.  

[Rock Springs] was a place without a visible queer community.  No clubs at the high school.  Very few queer role models out in the town.  

So there is good change.  There is love.  There is the text that I can keep sending my mom.

“Love you.”

And she will send it back.

Jess and their sister Anna (left) and mom, Sue, (right).

. . .

Take Action!

Attend the next Shepard Symposium on Social Justice April 10-13, 2019. All are welcome.

Read about Judy and Dennis Shepard, parents I admire deeply in life.

If you’re curious about the use of the singular personal pronoun “they,” take a look at this post: “Take Two: Why the Singular, Non-Binary ‘They’ Pronoun is Darned Difficult to Master.”

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* Jess Fahlsing is a senior at the University of Wyoming. They are dual majoring in Psychology and Gender and Women’s Studies with minors in Queer Studies, Honors, and Creative Writing. What’s important to know when reading this love letter is that 20 years ago Matthew Shepard was also a student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie when he was murdered in a hate crime for being gay.

I am privileged to know Jess and grateful for their contribution to this blog. I look forward to following their career which surely will expand social justice and human rights in ways that have yet to be revelaed. — Ellen

Witnessing Joy Was the Christmas Gift

Christmas 1958.

Christmas in Maine was routine.

Not a hum-drum sort of thing but rather something to count on.

Thanksgiving led to Christmas Eve at the Congo church that kicked off restless sleep before Santa came.

Photo for an annual Christmas card. The popup book? “Poochy the Christmas Pup.”

Before sunrise could emerge my sister and I would locate our bulging knit stockings and empty the contents as our parents looked on.

Then in heightened anticipation of the rest of the day, my mother’s elegant, candle-lit breakfast would be ever-so-slightly rushed.

In record time dishes were washed and put away so that the only thing standing between us and racing toward gift exchanges was Nana Webster’s deliberation.

And trust me when I say her Christmas-day pace was remarkably relaxed.

With Nana Webster in 1960.

She admired each gift.

It was held up and received as if it had been personally delivered by one of the three kings.

Because to her it had been.

And as our elder, she got to go first in the slow rotation — one person, one gift at a time.

It’s a cadence I’ve come to love.

To grandmother’s house we go

Halfway through the day we’d bundle up and walk three houses down to be with our other grandparents where happy chaos prevailed. 

They were faster, didn’t save paper like mom and Nana, and one of them used expletives like most of us throw out thank yous.

“Well for *&@!#%’s sake, who gave me this?” my grandmother would ask.

Bob and Hattie Weatherbee, 1960.

With a door always open to nine children and spouses, 21 grandchildren, great grandchildren and long-time friends, even ordinary days in their home were high-energy events.

And rarely a day passed in my youth when I wasn’t in their company for at least part of it.

This segment of the Christmas ritual meant watching as they opened packages between pausing for coffee warm ups, taking calls from friends, and greeting relatives entering and exiting the scene.

Witnessing joy in one another was what these days were about.

Christmas present

As an adult I count my blessings for each year I get to spend with my husband and children.

And it’s inevitable that sometime during Christmas day, reflection will appear.

I’ll miss kicking off wet boots to  rush into cousin Berta’s room to see what Santa left.

I’ll sense a longing for the sweet scent of baking bread and will feel the acute, still undefined loss that accompanied the stocking’s end as I reached the navel orange that filled the toe.

Such a poor use of space, I still think . . .

I’ll miss my mom and my dad, the man who modeled agape love.

I’ll think about Nana and Grampie Bob and my beloved Grammie. 

Dog memories of Patches, Rocky, Wags and Tippy will color in the background.

And in a flash the foundation responsible for this year’s Christmas will be acknowledged with a nod to the past and a prayer of thanksgiving for the joy I get to witness right here and right now.

Wishing each of you a moment to witness joy 
in this and every day.
. . .
(a recent photo taken at Ariana and Lucas’ wedding in Los Angeles — my son Byron, daughter Audrey, me, and my husband, Ed)

Musical “Come From Away” Radiates Joy and Human Kindness

The musical “Come From Away” is playing in Denver and elsewhere.

Go.

It’s the story of 9,000 townspeople in Gander, Newfoundland who welcomed 6,700 unexpected guests on September 11, 2001.

When terrorism struck the airways, all U.S. air traffic stopped.

Planes en route  to the states had to go somewhere, and 38 of them landed in Gander, a town with 550 hotel rooms.

The play celebrates human decency in the face of calamity.

Retiring Gander mayor, Claude Elliott. (USA Today photo)

Last year retiring Gander mayor, Claude Elliott, spoke with USA Today reporter, Katherine Lackey:

“What we consider the most simple thing in life is to help people.

“You’re not supposed to look at people’s color, their religion, their sexual orientation — you look at them as people.

“One thing this world is lacking today is common sense.

“You’re not supposed to look at people’s color, their religion, their sexual orientation — you look at them as people.”

“We have to set more of an example and show the world we can all live in harmony regardless of what we are,” the mayor said.

The Graciousness of Gander

“Come From Away” amplifies what Gander showed the world.

And in recent years churches in Gander raised enough money to bring five Syrian families to Gander.

“One thing this world is lacking today is common sense,”

They saw a need and responded.

Yet those not from the island will always be considered “come from aways.”

And, in truth, aren’t we all?

The story’s creators, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, said they “found hope in a story about human kindness.”

It’s clear throughout, and by the end joy pulsates.

A final scene depicts the reunion in Gander 10 years after the planes landed.

A Newfoundlander says, “On the northeast tip of North America, on an island called Newfoundland, there’s an airport – and next to it, is a town called Gander.

“Tonight, we honor what was lost. But we also commemorate what we found!”

Make Kindness the Norm: World Kindness Day November 13

Last year I was at a table sitting next to a well-known newspaper opinion editor.

I thought I was adding to the conversation when I said I subscribe to the optimist news from the Washington Post.

He and a writer on my other side exchanged smirks.

They spoke over me as one asked, “Does your paper have optimistic news?”

“We have news,” was the reply.

Shut down.

“Recently I’ve been on a mission to both find and create more kindness in my world. . .” S. Petrow

Tuesday, November 13, is World Kindness Day.

It’s sponsored by Random Acts of Kindness.

“Make kindness the norm” is campaign slogan that’s really an invitation.

Last month the Washington Post published, “How a ‘kindness contagion’ improves lives, especially now.”

I love this article.

The author, Steven Petrow, won me with his earnest opening.

“Recently I’ve been on a mission to both find and create more kindness in my world. . .” he wrote.

Thinking back on the dinner I attended, I remember the lively people at the far end of the table nodding and urging my quiet daughter’s conversation contribution forward.

They shared time skillfully and playfully, and what I witnessed happening down there was kindness.

I, on the other hand, was flanked by sarcasm and my own discomfort.

Yet optimism always seems to win out.

Like Mr. Petrow, I’m off to “find and create more kindness in my world.”

And who couldn’t use a bigger dose of both of those?

Take Action!

•  See oodles of resources at Random Acts of Kindness.

•  Read the Washington Post’s, How a ‘kindness contagion’ improves life, especially nowby Steven Petrow.

• Treat yourself  to learning about Ben’s Bells where the motto is “Be Kind” and their mission is to teach “the importance of intentional kindness.”

•  Link to past posts related to kindness:
Alan Turgeon, thank you for your decency
Mr. Rogers, it’s time to bring back what you taught us
Gillette against hate
Pain should not be wasted

•  Watch this 1.5 minute kindness video:

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Ellen is a native of northern Maine. Her interest in getting to know Wyoming focuses on ways people and organizations help and protect individuals, wildlife, beauty, and rights. She is a HeartMath® trainer and coach, a Connection Practice trainer and coach, and a biodynamic craniosacral therapist. Her website is:  EllenSynakowski.com and her email is EllenSynakowski@icloud.com.

. . . justice is what love looks like in public.” Cornel West