What do you want to be when you grow up?
I’ve had the conversation thousands of times, with family, with friends, classmates, mentors. But never before had I had the conversation with a group of men whose lives had not been as privileged as mine has, men who have been incarcerated, homeless, and hopeless at one point or another in their lives.
There were many firsts I have found myself encountering in my internship position at Times Square Ink of Midtown Community Court.
Times Square Ink is a job training and placement assistance program that “helps participants improve decision-making skills and identity how their actions, feelings, and thoughts affect their behavior in everyday life” with the goal of presenting them with comprehensive programming that will provide them the necessary tools to enter the workforce and provide for themselves and their families.
Every six weeks we welcome a new group of men into our program, to help them process their pasts, build social support, and develop the skills needed to re-enter society with strength and healing. During the first session of each cycle, the men are posed with this question: what did you want to be when you were a child? It is such a simple answer for me. My earliest memories have me announcing to anyone who would listen that one day I was going to be the Prime Minister of Israel. Not just any Prime Minister, I was going to be like Golda Meir. Even as a young child, I saw in her the ideal of a strong and admirable woman, a determined woman who was able to create change against all odds. These were traits that at I was unable to articulate at the time, but held a power over me that lasts to this day. Yet as I sat in class with these men, sharing my own childhood dream and listening to theirs, my childhood aspiration seemed naïve and grandiose.
Participant after participant have spoken about their boyhood dreams of becoming the neighborhood pimp or the biggest drug dealer in Bronx. One man said that all his life he wanted to be like his uncle, the neighborhood pimp, while another man spoke of always wanting to be like his father, a car mechanic, until he died from a drug overdose. Each man has his own story, and in relation my goal seemed to be somewhat silly.
Times Square Ink has given me the opportunity to work with a sector of the community that I previously had very few, if any, interactions with. Each session brings out new stories, traumas, jokes, and opportunities to learn between the men and myself, all of which force me to understand the deep-rooted complexities of their current situations. The time I have spent at the Court has given me a larger understanding of the complexities of homelessness, the criminal justice system, and experiences of trauma.
But more importantly, my work at Midtown Community court has given me an opportunity to explore the inequalities that exist within our own communities. My experiences have forced me to question the relationship between power and privilege and how these two factors effect the communities in which we live in. It is only by understanding the roots of these issues that we can question how to break this cycle of injustice. These solutions demand that we are innovative and attempt not the easy path but rather the alternative path, and I am fortunate to have been given an opportunity to learn daily from those working on the ground how this path is forged.
Interested in hearing how other Columbia students are grappling with the Criminal Justice system? Check out information about the Beyond Bars, Moving Forward Conference happening on April 5th and 6th and featuring activists Angela Davis, Marc Lamont Hill, and Soffiyah Elijah!