Three years ago, my friends and I visited a prison facility in order to break the negative enigma surrounding prisoners— that all inmates were by nature evil and therefore do not deserve our respect or attention.
Through the common language of sports, facilitated through good sportsmanship and enveloped with genuine care, we broke down the this stereotype surrounding prison inmates by exposing their kind humanity to the participants that came. We played many sports together with the inmates, most of whom were our age or older. Many had surprising dexterity with badminton rackets; others were masters of soccer balls; and some of them, too, that could nail free-throws like their forearms were pinpoint machines.
We were part of an already-existing international youth-based volunteer organization that set out, among other things, to break down the social stereotypes that run rampant in Indonesia, especially Jakarta. We were called Children’s International Summer Villages, or CISV, for short. 50 CISV kids visited a prison facility.
I was the youngest among the handful of teens that planned this trip, but even the oldest of us had not reached 25 years old. I was only 15 then, but had already become one of two Local Junior Representatives of all of CISV Indonesia. Out of the many projects I planned, this one is my favorite by far.
I believed then as I believe now that many Jakartans love to stereotype (I said many, not all!). We’re not talking skin color — although that happens too here — but social status. A combination of where you’re from, what your parents do, whether you go to an international or national school, your religion, how much money is in you wallet as you’re reading this article, can determine whether I would want to make friends with you or not.
At the time, my planner-friends and I all agreed decided to attack this bad habit to the extreme. We all wanted to make a change, or at least do something about the problem we see, that would make the largest ripple possible in our pond such that everyone would feel the tsunami of change. We went to the lowest of the low and loved them — we became iconoclasts who embraced prisoners.
The largest obstacle for us at the time was that all the planners were volunteers, and therefore technically were not bound to this project. This was the very nature of CISV — we were youth volunteers changing the world. We had to schedule time to meet in the busy, gridlocked heart of Jakarta, arrange trips to the facility beforehand to ascertain that we had enough space, and the like. Many got lazy, but after a lot of refocusing and reflecting as to why we were doing this at all, the team found rejuvenation and we got on with it.
Arguably, the people most impacted perhaps are not the prisoners. We were there for only a few hours, and did not leave gifts or money.
However, fifty-or-so kids that went there came back as different people.
It is the sad truth that most of us become products of our society unconsciously. Most of us do not realize that every sentence we hear everyday carries with it ideas and nuances that make us who we are, bit by bit. My friends and I were going to be the next generation of Jakartan stereotypers, and we did not want that. We believed that once we make everyone realize how we cannot base our judgment purely on presupposed, society-borne assumptions, we would all begin to remove the horse-blinkers that have so blinded us from worldviews on our periphery.
The kids that came into the prison facility thought that no walls hemmed them in — that they were free, unlike the prisoners with whom they played. However, whereas the prisoners’ walls were made of concrete and cement, ours was made of discriminatory ideas and assumptions.
It’s very easy for us to clump all prisoners as misanthropic, heartless and devoid of all goodness. But many were just at the wrong place and the wrong time, or perhaps were themselves an unconscious product of some violent household. How they played sports with us, how they told us what happened to them, how they cheerfully sang songs, and certainly how they acted as the humble winner or the respectful loser in the games we played stand testament to the fact that although they have done much wrong in the past (or little), they are still indeed human and not necessarily misanthropic, heartless and devoid of all goodness.
Without an eye-opening examination of our society’s stereotypes and assumptions, we would have lost out on so many valuable experiences such as this one. Not to mention making a lot of new friends that are actually not that evil. In fact, they almost seem like us.
Call me idealistic, but the fact is that fifty kids went and played sports with inmates, with barely six adults among us, and every teen came home unscathed and alive. More alive, perhaps I would argue, than when they had entered the prison walls. They had just experienced what their parents and friends would have never done, and I believe that they will be better, more open-minded people because of it.
Call me idealistic, but I believe that a kid who played badminton with an older inmate who stole rear-view mirrors and got caught would one day become a person that would be slow to judge and discriminate.
We broke down these walls.
I write this because I come from a community where students are taught to take tests but not impact their society. We feel that because we are young, we cannot do much. A mantra of CISV reads: “if you think you’re too small to make an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito in the room.” I have adopted this spirit ever since I left the prison walls.
It is also in this spirit that I wish Projects Project would operate — that we, too, can make a change, despite our young age. Do something impactful! Solve a problem in your community! We are all here to help.
Welcome, and let’s crack at it!