Vol 1, Issue 8 August, 2019

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Save the Date-Class of 2020

Three questions with...
2018 Fellow Reginald Dwayne Betts

Could you tell us about your upcoming book of poetry, Felon, and what inspired you to write it?

Over the past decade, I've had hundreds of conversations with people involved with criminal justice reform, prosecution, and community safety issues—often these groups overlap, and nearly always I've found that we, as people who care about the lives and health of other people, know very little about them; particularly about people who have committed crimes. Our perspective is too often shaped by just The Wire or Oz. And this is not to say that The Wire isn't a great show, but to suggest that there is a broader bandwidth of ways to think about these issues. Both as issues of over-incarceration and violence that feels endemic to the black community, and just as a very American problem. Felon is my attempt to talk about some things outside the normal bandwidth. And it's really about the ways that men hurt other men and the women they love and the women they barely know. It's about the way all of this hurts the children around us—and then, how inadequate, ultimately, a word like felon is, to ever grasp this thing we're all struggling with.

How is Felon similar and different to your previous work, especially your last book of poems, Bastards of the Reagan Era?

It's one of those things where I feel if one book were enough or one poem, Shakespeare wouldn't have written so many plays and Tupac wouldn't have written so many songs. Bastards is very much about what crack cocaine and violence did to communities I know—Felon is about what prison has done to some men I know, myself included, and what we've done to people in our community to end up there, and what we've done upon leaving. There is more grief in the new book, maybe.

In your National Magazine award-winning New York Times Magazine article you chronicled the difficulties previously-incarcerated individuals face in overcoming societal stigma and getting a second chance. Do you see this dynamic changing anytime soon, and if so, how?

The dynamic changes daily. But the real change is going to come when we become more invested in answering the question of what we should demand from people who have harmed others, people who have committed crimes, and a system that doesn't seem bent on making anyone whole. But there really are changes on an almost weekly basis, even if it's just the change that happens when a person gets from the start of a poem to the end of one.

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Publication date: August 20. Available for pre-order.

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Two Cents

How have you been able to interview someone who was reluctant to speak with you?

1: I often have to interview people on sensitive subjects they may not want to discuss. I try to be as transparent and empathetic as possible—especially with trauma survivors, I try to give them as much control over the conversation as possible so that they feel comfortable. I take time and let the conversation move as quickly or as slowly as they want. And I try to contextualize our conversation for the person I'm interviewing, to help them to understand how the interview will be used, and the broader purpose of the work. I often find that many people who were initially hesitant to speak are more amenable if they understand why I want to talk to them, and how their story might be used. — Jill Filipovic, Class of 2019

2: By spending many hours chewing qat (a mildly narcotic plant widely masticated in Yemen and the Horn of Africa) with them first. — Iona Craig, Class of 2019

3: When I was trying to get an interview with then-candidate Obama in 2007, I was very patient and polite. I knew that the campaign was overwhelmed with requests, and I didn't want to make their job even harder. For two or three months I was put off and put off. Then I thought, this is not working, I have to try something different. So I called up again and was extremely aggressive, bordering on obnoxious. Worked instantly. I concluded that when you're dealing with incredibly busy people, being the thing they most want to get rid of can be an effective strategy. — Larissa MacFarquhar, Class of 2017

4: Persistence! My research focuses on the politics of aid in the Middle East and officials working on such aid are often reluctant to speak candidly with foreign researchers given the sensitivity of the subject, especially in Egypt. A local official I was keen to interview finally answered one of the many emails I had sent over six months. I assured her that her identity would remain anonymous and met with her at a coffee shop she selected. Allowing her to set the place and pace of our meeting was key. I didn’t actually have the chance to ask my questions during that meeting; We ended up chatting about her days as an activist in college and her travels to the US. On our second and third meetings, though, she felt far more comfortable discussing her work in development aid and answering my questions. — Erin Snider, Class of 2017

Two Cents

Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote an article for the New York Times about court-ordered desegregation, busing, and white racism. She then appeared on the New York Times' "The Daily" podcast to discuss the myth that busing failed.

Gabriel Sherman’s book The Loudest Voice in the Room, which he produced as part of his New America fellowship, was turned into a Showtime series starring Russell Crowe as Roger Ailes. The series was covered in the New York Times among other outlets.

National Fellow Jonathan Katz interviewed Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez about conditions at border patrol stations in an article for Mother Jones.

Two Cents

Reading this month

One of those novels where you see pieces of yourself in every character. It's a killer. 
— Karen Levy, Class of 2019

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The murder of Emmett Till shifted the geography of memory in the Mississippi Delta. This book explains the indelible changes to the physical and cultural landscape of a place known as the most southern place on earth. 
— W. Ralph Eubanks, Class of 2008

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The book offers a history of the rise of one of North Carolina's largest banks that became Bank of America in 1998. 
— Bart Elmore, Class of 2017

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Free Swag

Fill out this tiny form for a chance to win a copy of A Good Provider is One Who Leaves by Jason DeParle, Class of 2019

(Please submit by COB Monday, August 12 to be considered)

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