Author and activist Nell Bernstein, who deals mainly with the plight of children of the incarcerated, traveled to Millersville from her home in California to spend a few days with Millersville faculty and students this week.
Last Monday night, during the end of her stay, Bernstein gave a presentation on her work at a ceremony that was given to honor the recipients of the Distinguished Civic Leadership Awards, which are presented every year by the university’s Civic and Community Engagement and Research Project. The awards are given to honor individuals and groups that have had a positive impact locally, regionally, nationally or internationally.
Dr. Francine McNairy, former president of the university, was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award for her efforts at improving the school, promoting diversity, global education and multiculturalism in the university community and transparency and accountability in the administration, and promoting economic development in the area.
Business major Amanda Walter was recognized for her creative efforts at fundraising for the Wheatland Middle School permaculture garden, a project that helps children in a food-insecure area learn to grow their own food.
Jan Bechtel, who is earning her MSW (Master of Social Work), was honored for her work to advance women and LGBT people in the community.
Dr. Jeri Robinson-Lawrence, a professor of art, was given an award for her work to found the Red Rose 4-H Fiber Artists Club. Children who join this club can learn to knit, spin, weave and crochet and have the opportunity to gain leadership skills and express themselves.
Alumna Addie Ritenour was honored for her extensive work to help children with disabilities. Among other things, Ritenour developed an after-school program for children with disabilities called Los Amigos.
Steve O’Neill, another alumnus, was honored for his leadership within the VITA (Volunteer Tax Assistance) program.
Lastly, the sorority Alpha Sigma Alpha was honored for its fundraising and volunteer work for the S. June Smith Center and Excentia.
The awards were followed by performances by young members of SWAN (Scaling Walls a Note at a Time), a non-profit organization that gives free music lessons to children whose parents are incarcerated. There was a percussion piece, a choral piece and a voice soloist.
After the performance, Bernstein took the floor. She gave a heartfelt acknowledgement of the local community’s work to help children with incarcerated parents, saying, “There aren’t a lot of areas doing that,” despite the fact that there are much greater numbers of these children in America now than ever before.
Bernstein spoke of children who live on ‘million dollar blocks,’ so named because researchers estimate that the government pays that much to incarcerate residents from the block each year.
2.7 million children, 1 in 10 in the US, have at least one parent incarcerated at any given time. 70% of these children, Bernstein said, are present when the police come for their parents: they aren’t shielded from seeing their ‘protectors’ handcuffed, sometimes handled violently, and taken away from them. 30% face a drawn weapon. Many are simply left to fend for themselves in empty houses and apartments, with no help from the systems that took their parents away. This needs to change, said Bernstein.
The author also spoke of the trauma that children undergo after the police come for their parents. She read from her book, “Invisible Children: When a Parent Goes to Prison.”
One boy, whose parents were taken away for a drug-related offense when he was very young, told her his memories of being locked up in a “kiddie jail,” describing the austere, uncomfortable conditions and prison-like security measures in a shelter. “Actually it’s not punishment. Actually they punished me though,” he told Bernstein.
The author brought up the idea that society “needs to break the cycle” of crime, of the idea that crime somehow runs in families. This idea has a tinge of fatalism, she said.
This idea of a ‘cycle of crime’ has its roots in disturbing old ideas about biological determinism and crime. “The current century hasn’t taken us as far from that worldview as we would like to tell ourselves it has,” she said, adding that there is still a strong stigma kids with incarcerated parents must bear.
“We’ve got years of attachment research that proves to us what we already know – children need their parents,” said Bernstein. “We’ve got to do better by them.”
But as one questioner pointed out, the ‘invisible children’ do not exist in a vacuum; rather, they are emblematic of this society’s unfair treatment of the poor and racial minorities.
Bernstein and the others who were honored at the Distinguished Civic Leadership Awards seem to see pain in the world around them and seek to address the source of that pain and take steps to alleviate it.