by C. Denise Johnson
Special to the NNPA from the New Pittsburgh Courier
Award winning novelist and essayist John Edgar Wideman was at Duquesne University for a panel discussion on a think tank in which prisoners collaborate with those outside to study issues of common concern as a part of the national Gaultier Symposium, a two-day seminar developed by Norman Conti PhD, through his Gaultier Faculty Fellowship with Duquesne’s Center for Community-Engaged Teaching and Research.
The panel, titled “Race and Justice Inside-Out: Think Tanks as Mechanisms for Social Justice,” also included Tony Gaskew PhD, director of the criminal justice program and associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Pittsburgh-Bradford, and rapper-activist Jasiri X. Moderator was Lenny McAllister, host of PCNC-TV’s Night Talk.
The Inside-Out concept, began at Temple University in 1997. Norm Conti PhD, an associate professor in Duquesne’s Department of Sociology and the Graduate Center for Social and Public Policy, established it at Duquesne in 2007, partnering Duquesne students with inmates at SCI Pittsburgh.
Wideman’s brother, Robert, who is the subject of the award-winning 1984 book “Brothers and Keepers,” has taken three Inside-Out classes while incarcerated and is a founding member of the think tank. After sharing “Brothers and Keeper 30 Years Later: A Reading,” Wideman was followed with a reading of an essay by an incarcerated participant in the Elsinore Bennu: Inside Out Think Thank (Elsinore refers to the miserable foreboding castle – not unlike SCI Pittsburgh where the think tank is based – where “Hamlet” takes place; Bennu is a predecessor to the phoenix from ancient Egypt. Thus, the think tank’s name is about being burned and rising from the ashes within a hellish context to a better place or “peace of mind”).
Malakki (Ralph Bolden) writes, “The incarcerated men here… have found a way to use the meager scraps of self-determination we’ve managed to scrape together. It is my opinion that only those of both sides of the coin who chose to better themselves despite their situation or condition are in the best position to help others going through similar circumstances. People who suffered victimization and overcame their struggle are the best fit to convince someone grieving to find the inner strength to endure. And also, it is those who have caused pain and suffering in the past and who overcame their struggle to who are best equipped to find an answer to reduce the mindset in individuals (who believe they’re) entitled to (the possessions, body and life of another based on strength and cunning).
Malakki concludes with “For the Elsinore-Bennu, our resurrection comes at a cost and our role in this think tank is our best attempt at restorative justice. That’s what this name means to us.”
The panel discussion examined the place of think tanks within the current scheme of social justice from the perspective of three generations of Black men. Professor Gaskew, who worked in law enforcement before teaching, shared an edict from his father, who “told my brothers and I that we had a moral duty to be mitigators within the criminal justice system.”
Jasiri X recalled an experience from the early days of 1Hood “police asked for help in getting community to cooperate with them more; 1Hood asked their help with police…police said they couldn’t do that.”
When asked how to further highlight the role of race in the criminal justice system, Wideman said, “We stop pretending…we’re not talking about some weird edge of evil…our justice works on the principle that……justice is only possible if certain people are kept under wraps.”
Gaskew recounted a recent community forum with the new Pittsburgh police chief. “an audience member asked if there could be an issue of racism. No panel member acknowledged it.”
“I’ve seen Ferguson in countless communities,” said Wideman. “Let’s stop kidding ourselves. We have an endemic basic problem. Genocide “is a ranting word…but I am a witness to genocide. A certain group of people have been designated as surplus.”
“America has never gotten over its original sin of genocide of Native and African Americans. That’s the foundation.” Gaskew added. “Culpability lies with those who commit crimes, the criminal justice system and those who stand by and allow things to happen. You have to not just march, not just tweet.”
“(More of us must) become criminal justice professionals from the inside; the criminal justice system does not deserve our trust today.”
Wideman said he would return to participate in next year’s symposium.