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Can This Be Life?

As some of you may know, in my regular life I’m a news reporter. I rarely  share information about my work, but today I feel compelled to do so.

Though most days are pretty routine — press conferences, city and community meetings, etc. — some days I cover stories that just won’t leave me alone.

On Friday, I sat in Connecticut Superior Court and watched a 20-year-old man named Branden be sentenced to 20 years in prison. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter with a firearm, a lesser charge than murder, for killing another young man, Tyrell, about three years ago. He’ll likely do about 12 years, and then three years of probation.

Covering court cases can be exciting for a reporter. We’re nosey and covering courts provides all kinds of juicy bits of information and a fascinating window into the minds and lives of people.  A day in court also gives you a front row seat to the American justice system, which is valuable in a time where a lot of people are talking about it, but have never actually experienced it. It also allows you the rush of re-telling a story that people are going to want to read/hear. (I mean, most of y’all probably listened to the “Serial” podcast, so I’m sure you get it.)

But covering Branden’s sentencing was agony for me. And while my boss was hyped because telling the story of Branden’s sentencing qualifies as a “good” news day for us, it was hell on this reporter.

A Tale of Two Brown Boys

Branden was 18-years-old when he committed the crime he pleaded guilty to Friday; he’s now 20. Tyrell was the same age Branden is now, when he was shot and killed. If he’s “lucky” Branden will be 32 when he completes his sentence. If not, he will be 40. My first revelation? This is one hell of a school-to-prison pipeline.

With Branden’s family sitting on one side, and Tyrell’s family on the other, the tension was barely contained. At one point the marshals became visibly agitated when raised voices could be heard outside the courtroom doors. Various family members on both sides stormed out the courtroom throughout the sentencing.

I’ve not been in a courtroom a lot in my 13 years as a reporter, but I have covered a few cases. This one made me profoundly sad about the future because it reminded me of how often lives in America are wasted in this way. A young man lost his life. The young man convicted of killing him is losing his life. And in a way all the people connected to them lose their lives just a little bit too. Why do such things happen?

A Fly on The Wall

I was struck by how many women were in court Friday in support of a man, not just for the case that I’d come to cover, but also for the handful of other cases that the judge presided over. Given that court was supposed to start at 10 a.m. and it was now almost 11 a.m. I wondered about their lives and what they might have been missing.

The court system seems to have no respect for their time. It was my job as a reporter, and that of the people who work for the court system, to be at court on Friday. We could have been there all day, and it wouldn’t much matter. But I suspect that these women had other places to be — other places they’d rather be. I don’t know so much if justice is blind, but when it comes to court, she is surely slow.

I also wondered how they were connected to these men. Why was it worth it to them to be present for their sentencing? Most of the women looked to be grandmothers, mothers, wives, girlfriends and sisters. They also were all black women. How did they get here?

More practically, what job did they take off from to be at court? If they have children, who was keeping them? If they brought a child with them to court, how where they going to keep the child entertained and quiet? And for what? Just a short glimpse of a loved one. And surely that one is loved, and dear, at least to the person who came all that way, and spent all that time, to bear witness to this next phase of this process.

I watched with what felt like morbid curiosity, as the judge told the attorney of one handcuffed 18-year-old manchild that he would not honor a request that would keep him in juvenile detention. Instead he would be transferred to the adult detention center because he was soon turning 19. A woman who appeared to be his mother started to sniffle. The 18-year-old made a point to make eye contact with the teary-eyed woman and a younger woman who was with her before the marshal shut the door of the room he had been escorted to, presumably to be returned to lock-up.

Then it occurred to me that if you believe the man that you love is innocent of the crime for which he has been convicted, you will be there with bond money. You will help him get a lawyer and a suit for court. You will sit through his trial, and of course, be there for his sentencing.

Maybe you know why he committed the crime and it’s more complicated than, “He’s a bad man and he does bad things.” Maybe you’re a parent, and no matter how wayward the child, you are always hoping your kid will pull it together. I don’t know. I’m just guessing.

But to me it was almost like these women were being punished for being connected to these men. Guilty by association. I realized that to have a loved one in the court system, whether you’ve ever committed a crime or not, is to be doomed to serve time with them, especially if you have any hopes of staying active in their lives. And while some people might mock these women for their commitment to these men, I couldn’t help but feel empathy for them.

Breaking The Cycle?

As the prosecutor described the crime that Branden committed — the crime, not the charge — I vaguely heard a girl sitting behind me say under her breath of the prosecutor, “You lying.” I later heard a young man from Tyrell’s family’s side of the room whisper loud enough for Branden’s family to hear, “Ol’ scary nigga.” I watched as both sides sent side-ways glances at one another, and thought to myself that Branden’s sentencing won’t be the end of this. And if it’s not, it won’t be because somebody didn’t try to end it. It won’t be because nobody tried to be a voice of reason.

Tyrell’s father, Eddie, was the only older black man at court today who wasn’t wearing a badge. He has been vocal since his son was shot and killed. But on Friday he volunteered to be quiet. Not because he didn’t have anything to say, but because he felt the same tension that everyone was feeling in the courtroom. It was the type of tension that might have been relieved with a lot of cuss words and a brawl back in the day, but today would likely have ended in a hail of bullets given half a chance. Eddie’s choice to be silent is the kind you make when you realize the value of growing old, and live long enough to be wise.

Eddie is a man who knows what it’s like to miss being a part of his children’s lives because he’s been to jail. He said that though Branden faces a lot of prison time, there’s still hope for him and he wants to be a part of that hope. He offered his contact information with hopes that at some point Branden will consent to keep in touch and meet from time-to-time.

Eddie is a man who knows he isn’t a perfect father, and knows that in Tyrell, he hadn’t raised a perfect son. But nobody is perfect. Eddie’s eyes kept searching for those of his 12-year-old son, Xavier, while we talked. Xavier had tears in his eyes at the sentencing, and afterwards stood alone looking out over the city, refusing to be consoled. Eddie told me after court that he kept quiet because he didn’t want to further upset Branden’s family or his own. But he also wasn’t surprised by their reaction.

While I was impressed with Eddie’s olive branch to Branden, and his consideration toward Branden’s family, it was his daughter, Omuni, who impacted me most. At 35, she’s my age and the oldest of a fairly good sized sibling network. She spoke eloquently about how an environment that harbors violence — the very environment that Tyrell, Branden and her younger brothers lived in — only begets more violence. Quite frankly she nearly brought me to tears.

It was she who forced her brothers and sister, to focus on her, and not Branden’s family as they were escorted out of the courtroom. It was she who talked to the ones that had angry tears in their eyes, and it was she who took young Xavier to her bosom and hugged him, even as he refused to let the tears fall.

And what of Branden? He chose not to say anything on his own behalf at his sentencing. But I certainly don’t judge him for that. Maybe he just didn’t have anything to say. I can only imagine the riot of thoughts ricochetting through his head. Even if he can serve the 12 years without incident, it’s still more than a decade of his life, locked away from his family, his friends, his young son.

Maybe he is preparing for the hard road ahead that the judge laid out before him. He’s going to prison with no work experience and no high school diploma. If he can in fact find a way to turn his prison bid into something positive, he’ll still find life just as hard as it was when he left thanks to his felony record. It also made me wonder about plea deals and whether a person who does not have a basic education can comprehend what they are doing when they agree to one.

Because I’m a reporter, I felt a sort of ineptitude in getting all sides of the story. I had hoped to speak to Branden’s family to see what sense they made of all of this, but because of the tension, they were ushered out of the courthouse before I could talk to them.

I don’t know what I expected to feel after witnessing all this. But I left with a profound sense of hurt for both families. They are inextricably bound together by this tragedy, and I wonder can they set aside their hurt and their anger at the circumstances, at the system and at each other for this not to turn into New Haven’s version of the Hatfields and the McCoys. (Ironically, Branden’s defense attorney referenced the simmering feud between the two families as “Montague-Capulet,” though I wonder how many of either family has read much Shakespeare.)

But I think my last question is my most profound and disturbing: If the families can’t see past it all, who among them will be the next Tyrell and Branden?


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Christina’s Story: Learning to Truly Give

Guest Contributor: Christina Sin 

 “No one has ever become poor by giving.” – Anne Frank

I had a bucket list for 2013.  The most important goal on that list was to “pay off the ACS education school loan.”  I’ll be honest; when I wrote that down I didn’t have a plan of attack.  Then in April after reading about Operation Do Better, I decided to write down my debts and create a financial road map. I felt pretty good about my situation.

When I saw all my debt as a concrete number, I was floored.  I immediately began to reevaluate my budget.  What were the things I needed to pay every month?  How much could I set aside for “fun” things?  I read about strategies to cut debt.  I figured out how much I would need to earn if I wanted to pay off my student loan and have no credit card debt.  I realized that my salary plus babysitting and pet sitting could not guarantee that I would be able to cover all my expenses.  I was beyond frustrated and mostly disappointed in myself.  I felt like a failure.  I kept wondering what I was doing wrong.

 Then I realized I wasn’t doing anything wrong.  I was paying back debt—a lot of it too—but it wasn’t my own.    

Before I continue, I would like to provide some background.  My self-employed parents worked incredibly hard to provide my younger brother and me with opportunities they never had. They instilled in us a strong work ethic and a desire to always better ourselves.  I am eternally grateful for everything that my parents have sacrificed for me.  We were not wealthy, but I had a comfortable and wonderful life.

During my junior year of college, my parents’ income was drastically reduced because of unforeseen medical and economic circumstances.  I worked throughout college to pay my own tuition, and luckily, I found a job straight out of undergrad.  It was during this first summer as a professional that I realized how bad things had been financially for my parents.  Watching them struggle to stay afloat, I decided to help.

At this point, with the exception of rent and two small credit card bills, the majority of my income was going back home. I hustled to get babysitting jobs, and for over a year I worked as a nanny 5 days a week, in addition to my full time job and going to graduate school. I called credit card companies on my parents behalf and placed high interest credit cards on a hardship program, cutting their interest to 2-4%. I also setup a monthly payment plan designed to get my parents debt under control or eliminated in 5 years.  I called banks to negotiate lower interest rates or to remove penalties. It was gratifying to take several bills off my parents’ plate and serve as a translator.

Despite the good feeling I had about straightening out my parents’ finances, after two years I was discouraged and aggravated.  I was proud of myself for being financially independent and for giving to my parents, but I had not paid down a significant portion of my personal debt. In my quest to help my parents, I completely lost track of my own debt.  Granted, I didn’t have a lot of money left over, but I felt I could have done more to change my personal financial circumstances.

My frustrations crept into my daily conversations with my mom. She could feel my growing resentment.  During one phone call, I got angry with my mom for not saying “thank you” to me, and she said something I will never forget.  With a wavering voice she said,

“How many times do I have to say thank you?  You cannot understand how embarrassing it is for a parent to have to ask their child for help, or the intense failure that you feel as a parent.”

I had never been so ashamed in my life.

My mother and father never guilted me into paying off their credit cards or loans.  They never demanded that my paycheck go to them.  I made a conscious decision to help them. I volunteered to take on this role.

There are still days where I feel resentful and wish that my entire paycheck could be devoted to me.  There are still days where I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything because I’m close to paying off someone else’s debt, but mine still stares at me.  There are also days when I feel like I am not doing enough and that I will never get out of this financial rut.  But here are some things that I’ve done to lift my spirits:

  1. Gain some perspective. Whether it is through volunteering, talking to a friend or reading, I find it helpful to truly do something delibrate to shift my focus and gain some perspective.  Yes, things might get tough, but rather than focusing on all the things I cannot do, I sometimes need to focus on all the things I CAN do.  Typically, a making a gratitude list or volunteering helps.  I lead an incredibly privileged life and I want to be able to see everything as a learning experience that helps shape my character.
  2. Feel what you feel. I know that in the grand scheme of things my life isn’t horrible, but I also have learned to allow myself to feel angry or disappointed.  All of my emotions are valid and I am allowed to feel them. I’ve let go of trying to control everything that I feel.  It isn’t so important what I feel, but what I do with these emotions.  I can allow them to consume me, or I can acknowledge them and think of a healthy way to deal with them.  I am human and I am allowed to make mistakes, but I cannot let those mistakes define who I am.
  3. Follow your own path. A wise woman once told me to never compare yourself to others because you will always lose (thanks Reese!).  This is a pitfall I face frequently.  I see my friends saving, or buying homes or going to Europe and I think I’m doing something wrong because I am not doing those exact things.  How crazy does that sound?  It’s not easy, but I am getting comfortable with truly forging my own path and doing things that work for me.  Yes, I could have paid off my student debt faster if I didn’t help my parents, but I know that the decision I made to help them was the right one.
  4. Give to yourself. I believe that in order to truly give, one cannot expect anything in return. I’m learning to give without wanting anything back.  And I’m learning that it is okay to pay myself first through savings and that I shouldn’t feel guilty for wanting to treat myself to a cupcake.
  5. Talk to someone. This experience has taught me how to let it all out.  This blog post is probably the most public I have ever been about my financial situation, and it is very scary.  But as I’ve written this post, I found it to be incredibly therapeutic. It isn’t healthy to keep everything bottled in. Talk to a friend, write in a journal, pray to God.  Vent your frustrations and talk about your struggles, but once you’ve done that, have a plan.  Venting is healthy, but constantly complaining is draining for everyone.

As clichéd as it is, life is too precious to constantly worry or have regrets.  There is beauty in all things and the best part of life is finding that beauty and sharing it.


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A Pie for You, Mama

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI loved picking blackberries when I was a kid, but not for the sake of loving it. I loved it because I knew that if my sisters and I picked enough, my grandmother would take those berries and make a pie. My goodness, I loved my grandma’s blackberry pie. I’d watch her roll out the dough, line the bottom of a 9×12 pan with dough, pour a layer of berries, add another layer of dough, and repeat it until the pan was full. Most times, I’d sit in the kitchen and wait, or I’d run next door to my house only to return about 30 minutes later to see if the pie was ready.

Today is my grandmother’s 81st birthday. She can no longer make blackberry pies or garden or fish or drive herself to church 3 or 4 times a week. She can’t do any of these things, because she can’t remember how to do them.

My grandmother taught me how to sew. She taught me how to bake a cake. She was the person who heard me spell my winning word when I qualified for the Scripps National Bee in 3rd grade. She took me fishing, picked me up from athletic practices, disciplined me when necessary, and made me wear stockings to church even though I P1080648hated it. She showed me what grace looks like in action and reminded me that raising my voice wasn’t the only way to be seen or heard. She was devoted to her church, but more than that, she was committed to the idea of loving thy neighbor as thyself. She is the one and only person I have called “mama” my entire life. She’s strong, a classic example of not succumbing to the woes of the world.

I cannot be in Texas today to celebrate her birthday. Even if I was, she wouldn’t know who I am. Instead, I celebrate her day by baking a blackberry pie (not as good as hers…no time to make dough from scratch), and committing to volunteer at least 20 hours over the next six weeks. What better way to celebrate the person who taught me the beauty of working with my hands and the joy of helping others?

image (4)Mama, today’s pie is for you. I frustrated you when you taught me how to sew. You often thought I talked too much. There were times when you felt like I was not always appreciative of all you did. But, I also know that you were proud of me and your other grands. I cannot go back and redo those awful stitch lines or close my mouth instead of arguing or show you more appreciation during the times you felt like you were undervalued. I do hope the pride you felt was enough to make the frustrations worth it.  What I can do is sow your legacy into the world and spread goodwill and justice wherever I go…and one day, if I have a tiny human, I will teach her that her great grandma was a gentle, loving reminder that the Universe’s love is spread through how we choose to treat people. Happy Birthday, Mama. I am so proud to be your legacy.