Joe’s blog – #84 – Center For Teaching Peace, Relationship with the students

Many are aware of my longstanding association with the Center For Teaching Peace, founded/directed by Colman McCarthy, and my working relationship with the students that pass through his classes. That partnership began in the late 1980’s while I was still on death row. Colman’s working premise is deeply simple: “Unless we teach our children peace, someone else will teach them violence.” Anyone interested in learning more about Colman’s enduring efforts can Google the Center, our check out his book, “I’d Rather Teach Peace”.

During the late 80’s and early 90’s, I had the honor of meeting many of Colman’s students via seminars/gatherings we had at different prisons where I was housed. The first was held in the visiting room at Mecklenburg C.C., in late 1989, while I was on death row. I was trussed up in prison blues, waist chains & cuffs, and leg shackles. The gathering was covered in People Magazine and written about in the Washington Post. That meeting was one of the most enriching experiences in my life at that time. And, that uplifting journey continues to this day. Though I have not had the profound pleasure of directly meeting with the classes since 1995, I have remained actively in regular contact with the classes though essays, group, and individual correspondence. The experience has been truly enriching both intellectually and spiritually. The dialog, the connection, remains truly edifying. The students, highschool & university level, are sharp. They come from many different backgrounds culturally and economically. Their views are diverse, informed, and aperspectival. They are bright lights in our very dysfunctional world. They are our future.

With that very truncated back story I’ll now move to this past week. Every year, with each semester of classes, I receive letters from the students. This past week I received letters from students at Bethesda-Chevy Chase Highschool, the University of Maryland, and American University. As always happens when I read the letters, tears well up in my eyes. From Bethesda-Chevy Chase:

“This year in Peace Studies we began the semester by discussing gun violence, war, animal rights. But in the past few weeks, we have begun to talk about something that manifests in all parts of our country – mass incarceration and capital punishment. At B-CC, this is a topic that many students are apt to discuss, with both sides of the issue represented in the student body….we are grateful for the opportunity to be learning about you and your story….Your story gave us the ability to truly empathize with the sentient being behind the conviction….please do not give up hope. Please keep spreading peace and holding your head up high….And finally, please remember that you have touched our hearts here in Mr. McCarthy’s Peace Studies Class. We are all rooting for you. Lots of peace and courage, [signed…..](the page is filled with the individual signatures of at least 40 students, each writing a short personal message.). And from the University of Maryland:

“Dear, Mr. Giarratano, ….[We are students] in Professor Colman McCarthy’s Journalism and Peace class at the University of Maryland. We recently have been learning about your life in prison, and have been inspired….Despite your time in prison, you have inspired and positively impacted countless lives. Through your academic seminars, letters of encouragement, fight for Earl Washington, Jr., and advocating for prisoner’s rights, you have done more for the people than many of our politicians….know that you have a large number of supporters that grows each day as more learn about your case. Please take comfort in this network of support, and remember that we will continue to fight for your exoneration. Yours truly, [signed,….](by some 30+ students); and, from American University:

“We are a class of senior students in the American University School of International Service, and we have learned about your story in Professor Colman McCarthy’s Peace class. We found your story deeply moving….Your work is incredible and the resilience and ability you have to make the best of your situation….is truly inspiring. We have read your blog posts as well as your essays and found them thought-provoking and noteworthy. As seniors, we are about to embark on careers in peace, justice, service, and human rights. We will work diligently to abolish capital punishment, seek peace and justice in our work and everyday lives, and fight for your freedom. We are inspired by your brave and noble fight for peace and hope that you are continually given hope and meaning in your life. [signed…by 20+ students]; and, from Colman McCarthy:

“Dear Joe–

You’ve always been a strong and needed member of my classes, as these latest letters well show. So glad you are blogging and getting the word out that way…..Stay well, be strong, do well– Colman”.

Those are just short excerpts from the letters. I have received hundreds of similar letters over the years (letters from a group of students, and hundreds from individual students). Many students stay in touch well after they leave school, some more often than others. They bring me up to date on what they have been up to in their lives. Some go into blue collar jobs and spend time volunteering for worthy causes; others become doctors, lawyers, businesswo(men), some work for nonprofit organizations, some start up their own non-profits, others join the military, some the Peace Corps, some have gone into politics, and others into the teaching professions. Their share their achievements and disappointments, some seek my opinion or advice, many just check to see how I am doing or just to remind me of their continued support.

They tell me about the books they are reading, ask about the books I read, they recommend books. All are meaningful to me, and I always since the very first letter I received, no matter what may be going on in my life, make time to respond to each and every letter: whether it be a response to a group letter or individual student. What follows is my response to the latest group letters;

“11 November 2016

Dear Friends:

Greetings to all in the Peace Studies classes at Bethesda-Chevy Chase, American U., and the U. of Maryland. Thank you so much for you truly kind letters, uplifting thoughts, and inspiring support. I was and, remain, deeply moved and humbled by the depth of your caring, sharing, and commitment.

You commend me for being an advocate for the “rights of prisoners”, and as accurate as that statement is it is too constricting. If I am an advocate at all than I am, simply, an advocate for Life. In that large arena we are all called upon to join the resistance. To become rebels and reject any action or, inaction, that demeans Life. As rebels, in that sense, we each possess a very real freedom, indeed, the ultimate freedom, i.e., the freedom to say “No!”. Each one of us, no matter our situation in life, whether we recognize it or not, are charged with the responsibility to refuse to cooperated with any action, whether by commission or omission, that demeans our dehumanizes. We must because when the level of dehumanization in our world increases there is a corresponding increase in societal dis-ease and, indeed, evil in our world.

Our ability, our freedom, to shout “no”, to shine our light in the eyes of the complacent & shake our moral tree to its roots, can only be maintained by consciousness. Thus it is our individual and personal responsibility to maintain our consciousness: both actual & spiritual at all times. That is so whether one is a prisoner, a professor, a police officer, a politician, a pundit, a president, a plowman, a prime minister, or a poultry farmer. No matter our profession or position we can, indeed we must, choose and act in ways that promote Life, and reject that which does not. Our thoughts, the words we speak, our actions & inactions, the decisions we make, all have an affect in life, on the individual actor, and others. What we say and do is analogous to tossing a pebble into a pond which in turn creates ripples that spread out in concentric circles.

We we treat others, when we treat any sentient creature, as objects rather than as a subjectively worthy creatures deserving of care and concern, when we construct and put in place processes or systems that directly, indirectly, or incidentially (no matter how rationally organized), dehumanize them, then we demean Life. Their is an inherent and, insidious, boomerang effect that comes back to bite us. In reality I (you or we collectively) cannot dehumanize another, i.e., strip or rob them of their innate humanity. But by attempting to do so, whether conscious of it or not, I surrender or negate my own humanness, i.e., I dehumanize myself. That which we do that works to dehumanize another only makes us less human. Its a vicious, self perpetuating, process. When we surrender our own humanity in that fashion we, in truth, snuff out our ability to empathize, and to have compassion for others. We become incapable of recognizing that we are our Sisters/Brothers keeper. That is the ultimate/unforgivable sin: not because we cannot be forgiven but, rather, because we have rendered ourselves incapable of granting or, accepting, forgiveness.

When I read your letters tears filled my eyes. Your letters are proof positive to me that all is not lost. That no matter how broken and dysfunctional our world is, there is reason to hope. You, each one of you, each individual, unique, signature that appeared on the letters is all the proof I need to KNOW that the light of Life still burns brightly in our world. That the Resistance is very much alive and well. When it becomes dark enough the stars will shine forth. Make no mistake about it and, never doubt it, you are bright stars. The more you reject and refuse to cooperate with that which demeans life that brighter your light shines, and dispels the darkness.

I am often asked where my strength comes from. Not a difficult question for me to answer: I draw strength and inspiration from you, from other friends, from all those who are part of the Resistance. We are many. I read about you in books, I see you on the news, etc. You show up in all walks of life and in the oddest of places. We are prisoners, wardens, healers, ditch diggers, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, and we all make a difference either for the negative or the positive.

A few years back I received a letter from a former student of Colman’s who, as a young man still in highschool I met when he came to a seminar at a prison I was housed at in the early 90’s. He had stayed in sporadic contact over the years while attending law school. Then later as a public defender. He wrote to tell me about a career change. He was now a prosecuting attorney. He had some questions he wanted to ask me, but feared that I would be disappointed in him due to his new position. I assured him that I was far from disappointed that I was, rather, damn proud of him. We need good, ethical, prosecutors no less than we need good, ethical, attorneys practicing in other facets of the legal profession. I did noted that I did not envy him. I explained that I knew what his core values were and that they would be taxed to the limit. Prosecutors are confronted with many pressures from the system they operate within. Its a system that often demands compromise, and what it demands is not always proper, just, ethical, or moral. Compromise is not always the right option.

But those pressures are not unique to prosecutors.

We are all confronted with similar pressures, to one degree or another, throughout the course of our day to day lives. Being a Rebel, joining the Resistance, does not always an easy life make. In fact, it has cost many their very lives. It will, at times, place you at odds with friends, associates, family, bosses, with the powers & principalities of this world. There are days when you might feel terribly alone, and times when you question why you even bother because you don’t see the difference your efforts make. I am speaking from my own experience when I say that. But I assure you, we do make a difference. Your letters to me only confirm that. Thank you for that.

One that note I will sign off. When life grants you the space and, if it feels good to do so, drop me a line and let me know how you are faring in this world of ours. I wish you the best in all that you do.

Peace, Joe G.

Deerfield Corr. Cntr.

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