On March 29th, in solidarity with friends/colleagues whose work examines social exclusion at Adler University, I had the transformational experience of participating in a social exclusion simulation process. Now in the spirit of full disclosure, I have leaned towards a skeptical view of simulations, at best, for many reasons. I have often wondered if “simulating” challenging conditions in the world subtly and quietly strips marginalized people groups of their dignity and voice, minimizing opportunities for them to share their own stories. Likewise, given the institutional context in which these simulations often occur, I have often been concerned that they further feed the privilege and entitlements inherent in having access to the resources required to produce such an experience.
Nonetheless, I suspended those notions, held them loosely, in an effort to explore the benefits of such a process, if any, and I must say, the results, and even my reflections, came as a surprise to me…
In the blink of an eye, I had become “Mimi Vasquez,” a composite of several women’s stories who had been incarcerated and released to make a life for themselves, post- incarceration. I wondered how much of Mimi’s story I would be able to live out in the 3-12 minute “weeks” I had to walk in Mimi’s shoes, and I wondered also, how much of myself I would be able to lose in order to more fully take the walk with Mimi. Mimi was a 29 year-old Latina who had 2 children who were a part of the foster care system. Having been abused by her brother, cousin, and mother, Mimi ran away from home at age 13. Mimi had served 3 years in prison, arrested as a result of a drug raid that happened at a home she had been crashing at, homeless at the time. Mimi received her GED and training to be a bus driver while in prison, and she was released with her social security card and 5 transit passes. Mimi also developed a personal relationship with God while in prison and was committed to doing “right” and helping other women who had had similar circumstances unfold in their lives.
As Mimi, I had a few tasks that I HAD TO complete: see my parole officer each week, apply for a job, find housing, get food and clothing, go to my 12 step program meeting, go to the doctor, see the social services agent, and of course, manage to stay out of jail. In the first week, I felt the pressure of seeing my parole officer because I knew that if I didn’t, I would end up back in jail, but I also knew that if I didn’t have some “proof of performance” when I went to see the officer, that I would not get the signature of completion. I went to apply for a job first, thinking that that would get me the “proof” I needed that I was working to be a productive citizen. Many of the other participants around me were filling out applications as well, and several of them were lying about work history, etc. in order to get the job. I was trying to stay committed to Mimi’s new commitment to Christ, so I did not lie on my application; consequently, I did not get the job. When I went to see my parole officer, I was refused the signature for the week because I didn’t have enough “proof of performance.” She asked me to go to the 12-step program and then she would sign the sheet for me, but by the time I got through the line, the office had closed and the week was done. I had not eaten, found clothes, or gone to the doctor, and the week was done. As “Wow” was leaving my lips, I noticed something. I was humming a song and tapping it out from my hand to my leg. “A Good Man” by India Arie was mingling in swirls of life parts lying all around me, (Listen to India Arie’s “A Good Man”). The song is about a now single mother whose husband has fought and died in the war. In the song, the mother is delivering a message to her children about their father: that in the case that he does not come home, be sure to tell them that their father was a good man. In these moments, I imagined that though Mimi knew her Father was close, it might have been difficult for her to know Him in the ways that she had. The Father might have felt distant, and she may have needed to remind herself of His goodness. In that moment, as week one ended, it was Mimi’s faith and India’s song that had gotten me through week one.
During the group reflection between weeks one and two, I learned that I needed to be more positive and have a good attitude if I wanted to “make it.” This news implied that I had not done those things in week one, and what was intended to spur me on made me feel less eager to tackle week two. If my spirits in week one had not been high enough, then how would I be even more eager the next week, given what I had just endured? I also learned that if I hadn’t gotten a signature from my parole officer in week one, that a warrant had been put out for my arrest—the very thing I had been trying to avoid. Finally, while I had consciously not prioritized my own basic needs in week one (food, clothing, shelter, seeing the doctor) in order to appease the system’s mandates, I learned during the group reflection between weeks one and two that I would now “not be at my best” for achieving my goals without these basic needs, and as such, anyone who had met these basic needs would be allowed to “start their week” (12 minutes long)” two minutes before me…
When able to participate again, I proceeded with my plan to go straight to the 12- step program, get approval, and then go to my parole officer for approval that I had started seeking last week. However, because of the warrant for not going the week before, I was immediately picked up by the police and placed in jail. In lock up, I had my folder clasped across my chest, a subconscious decision to place it there had occurred sometime between weeks one and two. In it were my story, my social security card…MY IDENTITY. The police officer kept yelling for everyone in jail to drop her belongings to the floor—I did not comply. Her yelling made me grasp more tightly. It was in the final debriefing at the end of the day that I realized that it was because Mimi’s “selfness” was swaddled in the blanket of that folder, nestled in my chest, and it had become my job, somewhere along the way, to protect her from the systems that were excluding her.
One cool thing about living on the margin is that sometimes being invisible suits one well. When the cop called for a “row” of prisoners to be released, I vanished out of the tail end of the group, escaping prison in an effort to participate in my own existence. It was in the final debriefing at the end of the day that I realized that though I had been working so hard to maintain Mimi’s Christianity—it was, after all, what she had chosen for herself—I had, without hesitation, escaped prison deceitfully! It is important to note that I did not process how I was harboring Mimi’s identity, nor my decision to escape prison until the entire simulation had ended. Who had time to process any of that while Mimi’s weeks were encapsulating me, a straightjacket to manipulate, to loosen at best, but never to remove…
Released from prison again, for the second time in two weeks, I proceeded to the 12- step program (yeah, I was still trying to get there). After some brutal and humiliating questions from the agent masked behind her consistently pervading gawk of disbelief for every response I gave, she finally signed my form, and I was off to the parole officer. A long line of newly released prisoners, the weight of waiting, stacked like anvils on my shoulders, made my neck sore with angst, and then, the week ended, and I missed seeing the parole officer again.
During the time of reflection between weeks two and three was when I realized that my song was gone. No more tapping out the syncopation of India’s rhythms on my leg…she had left me to it, like so many others, I can imagine, in Mimi’s life. At this point the only thing that made me eager about approaching week three is that I knew it would only last 12 minutes, and then, it would be over. Mimi though, in real life, does not have the luxury of knowing when the systems will stop tossing her about, drowning her, a rag in a washing machine, left to spin too long.
Alas, week three begins, though late for me due to the penalty of yet again not taking care of my basic needs of eating, clothing, and caring for myself (even the system knows not to count the care I got in prison), and I literally turn in circles. There doesn’t seem to be any good place to start anymore. For a second, some small part of me thought about just starting in jail. “It’s inevitable, right?” What kept me from going there was Mimi’s desire to be free in order to use her gifts to share her story with other women who were struggling. I went to social services to get more transit passes. Expecting five, I only received three. State budget cuts. I thought of a story that I had read this past week about a struggling single mother who created a children’s gardening club in government housing in order to lift her spirits. Mimi certainly seemed like the type, so I got in the housing line. A long one indeed, and just as the anvils began to mount upon my shoulders, the housing office closed. In utter disbelief, I turned to look for another step, and, you guessed it, the week ended.
Unending questions clasped on to the rag in the washer, spinning too long, and there they all went, swirling…
There was no way to unravel the threads of the rag or the questions dangling from it in the time allotted. Rather, tattered and torn, the remnant of it remained with me, as I imagine it will for days and weeks to come. It was real and it wasn’t, and I felt myself needing something definitive to tie it and me back together again. And just as I thought it, Queen Brown graced us.
Queen was a Black woman who had been abused, incarcerated and struggled with drug addiction, and she was also no less a woman who had overcome addiction, reclaimed her family, loved God, and was the epitome of a servant leader. Queen Brown had come to help us tether ourselves back to reality. Using her voice and her presence, she shared her story, and in doing so, she gave me a new sense of hope. She leaned into how well she knows that it was God who was keeping her the entire journey, and as she shared this narrative, my song came back! The melody in my mind brought me back from a broken place: “His Pain,” by B.J. The Chicago Kid featuring Kendrick Lamar was the deliverance ditty this time, a song in which the singer laments the pain of his life and wonders why it was necessary, then realizes that it was in order to share his story with others in hopes of transformation and “vesselship” by God (Listen to “His Pain” by B.J. The Chicago Kid featuring Kendrick Lamar). As Queen shared, I realized that I would not have met her, known her, heard her story, had it not been for the opportunity that the simulation experience afforded the group and me. The simulation experience created a platform for Queen Brown to give voice to her journey in a way that liberated us all. It was necessary. It was beautiful. It was blessed.
After all was said and done, while I did not enjoy walking in Mimi’s shoes, the exclusion simulation experience informed my understanding of what it means to be a prisoner in this country. It informed my understanding of what it means to be Latina in this country. It informed my understanding of what it means to be me alongside my sisters whose narratives encompass these realities. And while I still do not endorse such experiences in isolation of going, being, listening, and ultimately acting in solidarity with actual people in actual places having these actual experiences, I can say that there is some benefit, for me, in the appropriation of simulations that include “EBE’s” (Experts By Experience). I am thankful for Mimi Vasquez, my fictitious sister, and I am evermore thankful for Queen Brown, my real sister. Together, they have reshaped my existence. Selah.
by Reesheda N. Washington