The Ethics and Action Series, pt. 3
Words matter. Every. Single. Word. Each of them has meaning, nuance, and potency.
Some words seem more powerful than others, but every word is itself a vehicle by which we communicate. Have you ever considered the word dignity? The meaning of the word itself conjures up thoughts of strength and pictures of courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. Images of people who’ve risen above the odds and stories of those who’ve not only survived but thrived despite what they’ve endured. These elements all add to the unique definition of the word dignity.
Dignity is a Middle English word from the Old French degnete, which is from the Latin dignitas, from dignus, meaning “worthy.”
Worthy? So, when the leadership of FRRC says with great pride in the ongoing restoration of the returning citizen community, “we believe in the human dignity of people who are and have been incarcerated or convicted, and recognize that they come from and are part of our communities,” they mean because of the innate connection to our communities, returning citizens are “worthy” to be accepted by and restored back into those communities? I think that’s an ethic worth standing for. A principle to practice for a lifetime.
For 150 years, the state of Florida sought to make returning citizens look and feel unworthy. The draconian law that prohibited people with felony convictions from ever voting again, keeping returning citizens from participating in democracy, disenfranchising them, and muzzling their civic voice, was soundly brought down because a few returning citizens understood within themselves that they are inherently worthy of an equal place in society. The most sacred documents of our republic - like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States- say they are.
Sixty-four percent of Florida voters who cast their ballots in 2018 agreed, and Amendment 4 — which restored voting rights to over 1.4 million returning citizens — was passed.
Still, returning citizens constantly find themselves having to prove they’re “worthy.”
Worthy to rent an apartment without being seen as a risk for liability from neighbors who’ll find out that they are formerly convicted .
Worthy of a job that pays more than the bare minimum because the owners understand that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.
Worthy of being seen as a human being because that is exactly what you are: HUMAN.
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition gets it. Returning citizens are just that, citizens. People with past felony convictions never stop being citizens. So, the discrimination and disenfranchisement against people with convictions proves that there is a problem with the eyes of those who are seeing, not with that of those who are being seen. The problem is with people who don’t see other people as people.
Returning citizens are returning to something not merely from something. They are returning to our communities because they are from our communities. So, if your neighbor is worthy of quality healthcare, a well-paying job, and an opportunity to live in your community without so much as a whiff of discrimination, then the neighbor who just so happens to be a returning citizen is equally worthy of the same. Why? Because there is an inherent dignity they possess in just being human. We are human beings. And human beings are flawed, subject to error, make mistakes, get it flat out wrong, but find redemption in the end.
From the best employees to diligent and vigilant residents, returning citizens offer a usefulness and an ethic that is distinctive; unlike any other. People don’t often think about it, but they sure need to consider the fact that returning citizens bring a work ethic, an appreciation for life, a newfound commitment to social justice and civic engagement, and a deep desire to repair breaches and chasms they see in their families and communities. All of this is born out of the crucible of their own experiences.
These are the ways returning citizens are taking accountability for their own past incorrect thinking or actions, and ultimately finding redemption. Finding ways to add value to their communities, which in turn increases feelings of self-worth.
Prison changes people. Some for the better. Some for the worse.
Prison gerrymandering — the act of counting incarcerated people in the county where they are housed but have no connections or community because they are not from there — effectively denies incarcerated people real political representation. This act undermines their reentry into the communities where they should be counted and tells returning citizens that they are unworthy. Imagine! Could a more Machiavellian maneuver be designed that would achieve the same end of dehumanizing an American citizen, while simultaneously extracting every ounce of political power that may aid said citizen in the future as they struggle to change for the better and return to the place that they once called home? I think not.
Incarcerated citizens are worthy to be included in and counted towards a national census. But be counted in the counties and cities they’re actually from, not the counties and cities they are currently incarcerated in — which robs their hometowns and native counties of much needed government funding and resources that is intended to help them with successful reentry.
I am counted, but I do not matter? I am counted as a body, but not seen as a person who needs those resources that were taken from me because my location of origin or residence is not considered ? That indignifies me. It does not recognize the inherent dignity I have as a citizen and human being who simply desires to return home and add value to a community that once fostered my growth.
But there is hope. Great hope! There is a rising American electorate committed to building an empowered base and increasing their capacity to strategize, organize, mobilize, and transform their communities. We are returning citizens. And we do this because we are human beings who want to be freely accepted, fully restored, and finally redeemed. And this is worthy.