UN Working Group for People of African Descent Testimony on Mass Incarceration’s Impact on Black Women & Girls

On Tuesday January 26th, 2016 I  testified before the U.N. Working Group for People of African Descent at their NY Factfinding Mission. Her testimony was about how Mass Incarceration impacts Black Women and Girls. This Factfinding mission is apart of the decade for people of African Descent whose ancestors were taken into the transatlantic slave trade. Find my testimony below:

My name is Onleilove Alston and I am the Executive Director of PICO-Faith in New York, which is the New York affiliate of the PICO Network, the largest faith based organizing network in the world, additionally, I led A Women’s Theology of Liberation for the network. Faith in New York is a federation of over 70 multi-faith and multi-race congregations representing over 80,000 New Yorkers. Our vision is to build a New York where ALL not some of New Yorkers live in dignity through ending mass incarceration, fostering economic dignity and gaining comprehensive immigration reform. I want to welcome the delegation and thank you for traveling to the US to assess to state of People of African descent.

Personally, I was born and raised in East New York, Brooklyn one of the seven neighborhoods in New York that sends the highest numbers of people to New York State prisons. As a young woman who experienced homelessness and foster care (which is a pipeline to prison), the intersections of race, class and gender caused me to be targeted by police. While most of us are aware of the New Jim Crow against Black men and boys Black women and girls are silently facing police brutality and sexual assault and raising incarceration rates. In July 2015 alone five Black women died in police custody and their names are:

Sandra Bland

Kindra Chapman

Joyce Curnell

Ralkina Jones

Raynette Turner

 

What many do not know is that Black women of child bearing age are entering prison for the first time at extremely high rates. Mass incarceration is an issue with many tentacles, and in New York, one tentacle is school suspension rates that are through the roof for black children. What many  don’t understand is that according to data from the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, as presented in a recent New York Times article: “black girls in public elementary and secondary schools nationwide are suspended at a rate of 12 percent compared with a rate of just 2 percent for white girls and more than girls of any race or ethnicity. … An analysis by Villanova [University] researchers of data from the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health indicated that black girls with the darkest skin tones were three times more likely to be suspended than black girls with the lightest skin.”

The implicit bias of colorism also affects prison sentences. Villanova researchers studied more than 12,000 cases of African-American women imprisoned in North Carolina and found that women with lighter skin tones were sentenced to 12 percent less time behind bars than women with darker skin tones. Mass incarceration is showing that we can no longer ignore colorism in our communities.

Furthermore, since 2013 there have been multiple incidents of visibly pregnant Black women being beaten by police. One such woman was Brenda Hardaway a Rochester, New York resident who was slammed to the ground by cops while crying “you’re going to kill my baby” this is one of five incidents of pregnant women of color being beaten by the cops that I have encountered in my work this year. While the New Jim Crow was coming through the front door and removing black men from our communities, it was also going through the back door and quietly removing black women. We are unaware of the impending crisis that the incarceration of Black mothers, daughters, and sisters is going to cause in our community, quantitative data is needed to further study the impact of mass incarceration on African-American women and girls.

Suggested Questions

A. Culturally-Competent, Gender & Race Informed Criminal Justice Services-What efforts have federal, state and local governments made to ensure the availability of: a) trainings for law enforcement professionals focused on cultural and gender competencies and b) resources to attract Black women into criminal justice and legal professions?
B. Legislation-what federal, state or local legislation has been passed to a) ensure that gender-based police violence is prosecuted to the full extent of the law and b) ensure that African-American girls that are sex trafficked are given support services and not incarcerated as sex workers?
C. Disaggregate Data-Does the federal, state and local governments collect data categorized by race or ethnic origin that is disaggregated by gender-identity related to police misconduct?

 

Suggested Recommendations

A. That the Department of Justice, as well as state and local governments be required to collect data concerning police brutality categorized by race and ethnic origin that is disaggregated by age and gender-identity.
B. That the U.S. Department of Justice partner with Domestic Violence and Women’s Organizations to host local Truth Commissions on gender based police violence against Black Women with a commitment to enacting policy changes that are generated from these commissions.
C. That U.S. Department of Justice, state and local police departments should:
• Provide culturally-competent, age appropriate and gender informed criminal justice services.
• Collect data concerning the role that theimplicit bias of colorism plays on arrest and sentencing and provide recommendations for law enforcement and legal staff at the local, state and federal levels to counteract this bias in sentencing and arrest.

Ending #Hannukkah: He Will Provide Oil for Our Liberation

  

This Sunday was the last night of Hanukkah and though I know I am super late I wanted to share how blessed I was to end it at one of the @faithinnewyork Congregations I am blessed to work with, their Leader had the vision in 2009 to teach a class on how to mix oils the way in which The Most High instructed Moses to in Exodus 30:22-33, this then became a service and they held it this year on the last day of The Feastofdedication  aka Hanukkah and the miracle of the oil lasting longer than expected is central to this day. Being in an atmosphere where my people made and blessed oils as instructed in Exodus was beautiful and reminded me that though we are going through a great deal of injustice Yahweh will ensure that we have enough of his oil and anointing to fight for our liberation like the Maccabees. 

#StandwithBlackWomen&Girls Reflection

Stand with Black Women and Girls

Devotional: The First Baby Shower Unites Women on the Margins

by Onleilove Alston

This piece was originally published in the NPR’s OnBeing Blog

(http://www.onbeing.org/blog/first-baby-shower-unites-women-margins/2738)

This season I am reminded of the meeting Mary had with Elizabeth to announce she was with child. Though this could have been a time of anxiety for Mary, with Elizabeth it became a time of celebration. I playfully call the following account of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth the first baby shower and in this account we an example of the deep sisterhood that maintains women on the margins especially Black woman during times of uncertainty.

“Mary didn’t waste a minute. She got up and traveled to a town in Judah in the hill country, straight to Zachariah’s house, and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby in her womb leaped. She was filled with the Holy Spirit, and sang out exuberantly, you’re so blessed among women, and the babe in your womb, also blessed, And why am I so blessed that the mother of my Lord visits me? The moment the sound of your greeting entered my ears, The babe in my womb skipped like a lamb for sheer joy. Blessed woman, who believed what God said, believed every word would come true!

And Mary said, I’m bursting with Good news; I’m dancing the song of my Savior Yahweh. God took one good look at me, and look what happened — I’m the most fortunate woman on earth! What Yah has done for me will never be forgotten, the Yah whose very name is holy, set apart from all others. His mercy flows in wave after wave on those who are in awe before him. He bared his arm and showed his strength, scattered the bluffing braggarts. He knocked tyrants off their high horses, pulled victims out of the mud. The starving poor sat down to a banquet; the callous rich were left out in the cold. He embraced his chosen child, Israel; he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high. It’s exactly what he promised, beginning with Abraham and right up to now.

Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months and then went back to her own home.”

In America, baby showers are times for women to come together and celebrate new life; presents are exchanged, advice given, and games played. Mary and Elizabeth celebrated the new life within them by exchanging presents of joy, encouragement, song, and prophecy. Both women were carrying children of promise: one would pave the way and the other would be the way.

John the Baptist, a prophet even from the womb, jumped for joy because he knew the baby Mary carried was the Messiah. Mary and Elizabeth were both silenced and marginalized in their society, yet in the company of each other they declared prophetic words of what God was doing in their midst. Neither woman had a convenient pregnancy — Mary being a teenager and Elizabeth being an elderly woman, but each allowed herself to be inconvenienced for Yah’s purposes. Mary and Elizabeth’s celebration shows the importance of women coming together for prayer, praise, and prophecy.

When Mary sings, “He knocked tyrants off their high horses, pulled victims out of the mud. The starving poor sat down to a banquet; the callous rich were left out in the cold,” we see that in the presence of Elizabeth she could freely declare words that may have been dangerous if spoken in public. Mary’s song was more than words of celebration, it was a declaration of the inevitable breakthrough of justice.

In my tradition as a womanist Sabbath Keeping follower of Yahshua (Jesus) I am in a season of waiting for the messianic age, but this season I am not waiting for Yahshua. There is no need to wait because his grace breaks into my reality each day. As a young African-American woman, I am waiting for the justice Mary sang about to break through into my community, into the U.S. prison system, into the shacks of South Africa, into the relations we have with each other. As I think about Mary being pregnant as a Hebrew woman living under Roman domination I am reminded of the thousands of pregnant incarcerated women that give birth while chained to beds every day. They too are waiting for God’s justice to break through, will we be like Elizabeth and stand by them?

 

This passage is an encouragement to me as I wait because it reminds me that when women gather in Jesus’ name He is in our midst. I believe that if we want justice to break through into our society we cannot passively wait, but like Mary and Elizabeth we have to actively wait singing prophetic songs and taking actions of justice. Let us not grow anxious by the circumstances we see: the holiday parties, gifts to buy and return, or seasonal loneliness. But, during this season of Advent, let us remember that the Gospels included everyday people who God used in extraordinary ways.

Women can continue to come together to rejoice, celebrate, and prophesy about liberation through collective action and prayer. This season I will actively wait by organizing for justice in my community, because when we come together the course of history will be interrupted, life birthed, and justice given.

   

Prayer: God of Sarah, Hagar and Mary please be with women who are incarcerated this season, especially be with our pregnant incarcerated sisters and the children they will bring forth. Give us the courage to be like Elizabeth and standby our sisters to sing and act in ways that will cause the powerful forces of injustice to fall. Amen

In light of the #AssaultatSpringValleyHigh my colleagues and I came together to call faith communities to Stand with Black Women and Girls and we created a toolkit congregations can use. The toolkit is subdivided into four sections: 1) Liturgical Resources; 2) Policy Options & Public Actions; 3) Social Media Campaign; and 4) Video Resources. Starting Friday, December 11th, the #StandwithBWG campaign will continue until Sunday, January 17th, 2016. To join the campaign or request further information, please email standwithbwg@gmail.com

The Stand with Black Women and Girls Planning Team:

Rev. Andrew Wilkes, Convener and Policy Options/Public Actions Director, #StandwithBWG

Rev. Jennifer Bailey, Liturgical Resources Director, #StandwithBWG

Kercena Dozier, Digital Campaign Director, #StandwithBWG

Rev. Dr. Traci Blackmon, Executive Minister of Justice& Witness, United Church of Christ; Senior Pastor & Teacher, Christ the King, United Church of Christ

Rev. Dr. Frederick Haynes, Chairman, Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference; Senior Pastor,Friendship West Baptist Church

Rev. Shivonne McKay, Pastor, Galilee United Methodist Church

Rev. Willie Francois III, Pastor, Mount Zion Baptist Church

Ifeoma Ike, Esq., Co-Creator, BlackandBrownPeopleVote.

Onleilove Alston, Executive Director, Faith in New York

Carmen Dixon, Organizer, Black Lives Matter Chapter – New York City; Faith and Policy Organizer, Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies

 

Is Dark Skin A Sin?

10856651_826008774130194_8062477244597007895_oI am black, but [AND] comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon. Look not upon me, because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me: my mother’s children were angry with me; they made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept. Song of Songs 1: 5-6

As the Executive Director for Faith in New York, an affiliate of the PICO National Network, I organize faith communities to take action for justice concerning issues that threaten the health of our communities. One of our campaigns is Live Free New York, which is a part of a national movement in which people of faith are working to end mass incarceration, gun violence, and police brutality through policy change and direct action.

Mass incarceration is an issue with many tentacles, and in New York, one tentacle is school suspension rates that are through the roof for black children. What many in the black community don’t understand is that according to data from the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, as presented in a recent New York Times article: “black girls in public elementary and secondary schools nationwide are suspended at a rate of 12 percent compared with a rate of just 2 percent for white girls and more than girls of any race or ethnicity. … An analysis by Villanova [University] researchers of data from the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health indicated that black girls with the darkest skin tones were three times more likely to be suspended than black girls with the lightest skin.”
In the black community, we usually see colorism as regulated to beauty and dating choices, but research shows that colorism (defined as a practice of discrimination where those with lighter skin are treated more favorably than those with darker skin), affects educational and economic opportunities, as well as who is swept into the mass incarceration system and how long they reside there. Colorism is an implicit bias; research shows a connection between implicit bias and mass incarceration. From the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity:

“Implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purposes of social and/or political correctness.”

The implicit bias of colorism affects prison sentences. Villanova researchers studied more than 12,000 cases of African-American women imprisoned in North Carolina and found that women with lighter skin tones were sentenced to 12 percent less time behind bars than women with darker skin tones. Mass incarceration is showing that we can no longer ignore colorism in our communities. What many are not aware of is that black woman of child-bearing age are one of the largest groups entering prison for the first time. While the New Jim Crow was coming through the front door and removing black men from our communities, it was going through the back door and quietly removing black women. We are unaware of the impending crisis that the incarceration of black mothers, daughters, and sisters is going to cause in our community.

As a person of faith and someone who has studied colorism for more than 15 years, I recognized that throughout American history, black skin has been deemed sinful, with false theologies such as the “curse of ham” where Genesis 9:20–27 was incorrectly interpreted to deem all people of African ancestry as eternally cursed and sinful. In the famous passage from Song of Songs, we see that most English Bibles translate the verse to state, “I am dark BUT lovely,” which is an apology for darkness, whereas the correct translation in the original Hebrew is “I am dark AND lovely,” which is not an apology but a bold declaration of beauty. This is a small change that makes a huge difference in the message the reader receives about dark skin. The implicit bias of colorism or anti-blackness is fostered through all aspects of human activity: religion, relationships, business, and politics. As a black faith leader, I struggle with the fact that although the black church has been a healing agent of justice for our community, it has also been one of the institutions that promoted colorism through historically inaccurate icons of Jesus and other religious figures that support the idolatrous notion that whiteness is next to Godliness.

As the black community grapples with the effects of incarceration on generations of black men, we now have to grapple with the incarceration of black women and the fact that colorism and the disdain for blackness is a contributing factor to who enters prison and how long they stay there. When black is deemed sinful and thus regulated to incarceration, what is the future of melanin, that powerful chemical we all possess but that blacks possess most explicitly? When even our holy books are translated and interpreted in a way that deems blackness as sinful and something to be apologized for, how can we truly say #BlackLivesMatter? If we are honest even in the black community, #BlackLivesMatter as long as they are not too dark or too poor. The research on implicit bias, colorism, and mass incarceration are all intersecting to challenge American society, but especially the black community to deal with the long-term, deeply held belief that blackness is inherently sinful. Instead of waiting for American society to absolve blackness of this imagined sin, what would it look like for the black community to stand empowered declaring that blackness doesn’t just matter but is beautiful, powerful, and worthy of freedom? Only when we stand in empowered blackness can we fight strategically and powerfully to end mass incarceration.

 

#Wailing Women Call to Prayer for Black Women & Girls 

In light of recent events where the lives of Black Women and Girls have been violated not only physically, but spiritually, educationally, mentally and financially join Shivonne McKay and I for a #WailingWomen Emergency Prayer call this Sunday 11/1 at 8:00pm EST. This call is for Black women to come together to pray and wail though this does not take the place of organizing, advocacy and political action this just provides a spiritual foundation for that important work and a healing space so we can continue the important struggle for justice. For non Black women who want to be allies please pray for justice for Black women facing police brutality, violence, colorism and all forms of injustice. Edit

  

Dark AND Lovely: The Call to Love the Black Woman’s Body

This sermon was preached at St. Lydia’s Dinner Church for the “This is My Body Series”

  

Prayer for Black Women Who Have Died in Police Custody

Divine creator thank you for this day and this meal, bless all the hands that prepared it from field to plate. Bless each person here and give each woman present a divine revelation that she is fearfully and wonderfully made and that her body as it stands now is a gift from you. God of Sarah, Rebecca and Leah we confess to you that we have been silent when the lives of Black woman have been abused by the systems of racism and sexism. We confess that we have diminished the mothers of creation, while worshipping an idol constructed by our biases. Forgive us for not standing up when in July 2015 five Black woman died in Police Custody, we call out their names now:

  • Sandra Bland
  • Kindra Chapman
  • Joyce Curnell
  • Ralkina Jones
  • Raynette Turner

God please comfort the friends and family they left behind and help us as the church to take a bold stance against the societal sins that caused their deaths. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing in your sight oh Lord my rock and my redeemer. May your Holy Spirit enter this place. Amen

Scripture Song of Songs 1: 5-6

I am black but beautiful, 
    O daughters of Jerusalem,
like the tents of Kedar,
    like the curtains of Solomon.
Do not gaze at me because I am dark,
    because the sun has gazed on me.
My mother’s sons were angry with me;
    they made me keeper of the vineyards,
    but my own vineyard I have not kept!
Tell me, you whom my soul loves,
    where you pasture your flock,
    where you make it lie down at noon;
for why should I be like one who is veiled
    beside the flocks of your companions?

When we think about the Black woman’s body we see even within our scripture translations that there has been an attempt to diminish it’s beauty because most English translations of Song of Songs 1:5-6 will read I am black BUT Beautiful while in the Hebrew the verse can read I am black AND beautiful, the Hebrew word can be translated BUT or AND yet Bible translators due to the implicit bias of racism choose BUT beautiful which is an apology for Black beauty as opposed to I am Black AND Beautiful which is an unapologetic celebration of Blackness. So the scripture should read: 

I am Black AND Lovely
    O daughters of Jerusalem,
like the tents of Kedar,
    like the curtains of Solomon.
Do not gaze at me because I am dark,
    because the sun has gazed on me.
My mother’s sons were angry with me;
    they made me keeper of the vineyards,
    but my own vineyard I have not kept!
Tell me, you whom my soul loves,
    where you pasture your flock,
    where you make it lie down at noon;
for why should I be like one who is veiled

    beside the flocks of your companions? 

 

Since encountering colonial powers the Black woman’s body has not been afforded the respect or curtesy that the White woman’s body has been afforded.   

Pregnant African Women Brenda Hardaway Woman Beaten by Cops in Rochester, NY

http://youtu.be/kFRTNHA5mbg

 What does it mean that according to research the average Christian in the world today is a woman of African descent and yet in America the average person entering prison for the first time is a Black woman of child bearing age? What does it mean to have prolife Christian activist who are silent when Black pregnant women are beaten by cops? To date there have been multiple incidents of visibly pregnant Black and Latina women who were beaten by cops the most recent being a 8 month pregnant woman who while being hit by the cop was told you better be happy I didn’t make you lose your baby! 

The dark woman’s body is deemed sinful even in our criminal justice system. Villanova University researchers studied more than 12,000 cases of African-American women imprisoned in North Carolina and found that women with lighter skin tones were sentenced to 12% less time behind bars than women with darker skin tones. The study took into account the type of crimes the women committed and each woman’s criminal history to generate apples-to-apples comparisons. 

Data from the Office for Civil Rights at the US Department of Education show that from 2011-2012 , black girls in public elementary and secondary schools nationwide were suspended at a rate of 12% compared with a rate of just 2% for white girls and more than girls of any race or ethnicity. Researchers say that within minority groups darker-skinned girls are disciplined more harshly than light-skinned ones.


The dark woman’s body is deemed sinful, yet the oldest human remains were of an African woman named Lucy by anthropologist, the mother of humanity is dishonored yet our sacred text tell us to honor our mother that our days maybe long in Exodus. This dishonor and disregard is indeed sinful and yet throughout history Black woman have risen up and declared their beauty and power, the most recent example of this were the three black women that started the Black Lives Matter Movement and Bree Newsome who didn’t just talk about the confederate flag but removed it while reciting scripture and declaring her faith in God! My body and the body of my sisters is indeed beautiful, holy and whole, made in the image of God and as my ancestor Sojourner Truth declared:

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them. Amen!

Questions for Reflection: 

  • Is Dark skin a sin?
  • In what ways do the sins of racism and sexism intersect in our faith communities?
  • How can men be allies to women facing sexism? 

Marching to Zion: My Pilgrimage to Israel  #BlackLivesMatterEverywhere! 

On August 6th I left NYC to travel to Israel for a conference and Holy Land pilgrimage led by a powerful sister named Mahalayah Goodman she wanted Black people from throughout the diaspora to come together to build spiritually during these hard times.

I have always wanted to visit Israel but I also know that the current political situation there is deeply unjust but while many progressive people focus on Palestinians hardly no attention is given to the racism Blacks who live in Israel face from the hands of Israelies and Palestinians. I knew before I went to Israel that I wanted to see how my people lived there, currently there are indigenous Black Palestinians who are unmixed, African immigrants and Black Hebrews who have lived in Israel for over 40 years.

I chose to go to a conference and pilgrimage planned and led by a Black woman living in Israel and our tour guide was a Bedouin man whose family lived in the Judean mountains since they immigrated to Israel in the 1800’s (since Israel has been conquered by various groups since ancient times many of the indigenous people are mixed and many people live there who may not necessarily be from there even if they aren’t White Israeli). We stayed in Tel Arad one of the most diverse towns in Israel and everywhere we went we saw Black folks: Sudanese, Hausa, Ugandan Jews and of course Ethiopians. Israel is a lot more diverse than people know since technically it’s in Africa, I would suggest viewing the documentary The Northeast African Deception for more information about what Blacks who are indigenous to Israel go through.

On our last day we visited Palestine which is home to the Cities of Jericho and Bethlehem and we learned first hand from Yonise our tour guide what Palestinians and non Whites go through. When we got to Jericho a Black Palestinian boy welcomed us with a big smile and shook our hand, I prayed for his protection and that the injustice he will face from both sides won’t steal his joy.

My group consisted of Brothers and Sisters from various parts of the U.S., London and Israel and we became a spiritual family. We prayed together and honored Mike Brown on the 1-year anniversary of his death during the conference where I closed with presentation on what the Black Woman and her children are facing across the globe we also honored the 5 Black women who died in police custody in July 2015.  Throughout the conference and the week  we discussed strategy and organizing for our people on every level spiritual and politically.

I was also able to get some much needed rest so this was like an extended Sabbath 😉.

We had a powerful time of prayer at the wall of the only temple remains from the period of Solomon in Tel Arad and these remains were discovered by a Black man. As we prayed we wailed for our people. At the river Jordan I remembered my enslaved ancestors who sung of being baptized in the Jordan and  was joined by brothers from the Akan tribe of Ghana who spoke of what would happen to those who enslaved us and talked about the slavery that happened right in Ghana!

Overall this was a life changing trip and I am inspired to uncover the hidden Black presence in Israel!

Check out my photo slide show from my trip:

https://flickr.com/photos/46579940@N04/sets/72157655008230573

A Cover Girl in Israel Work Sis!  

 An Indian Family gets Baptized in the Jordan River