This profile was published as part of Gandhi’s Be Magazine’s #ProfilesofChangemakers series, uplifting the stories, lives, and work of Changemakers who are being the change they wish to see in the world.
David Chura is a Teacher, Youth Advocate, and Author of the book “I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup,” David Chura blogs on youth incarceration and youth stuck in the social welfare system.
Tell us about your journey. From being a young boy to the environment you were raised in, and the adult influences that helped shape you both good and bad.
I grew up in a working class neighborhood and family where the shaping culture was an oppressive 1950s Roman Catholicism. Luckily I was a teenager during the early 60s, and so the rather closed world of 50s America was opened up for me by the Vatican Council’s social justice doctrines, the civil rights movement and eventually, the peace movement. It was in high school, a Catholic high school, that I became a fledging activist inspired by Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, the teachings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. I wrote editorials for the school newspapers that the principal would pull, organized a tutoring program for inner city kids, and started an inter-racial council. In college my commitment to social justice strengthened and expanded; at the same time my Catholicism withered but soon was replaced by a growing interest in Eastern religions particularly Buddhism. While studying in college, I volunteered at and, for a time, lived in, a Catholic Worker house of hospitality which provided meals and shelter to homeless men. Eventually I gave up my student deferment to protest the Vietnam War and applied for conscientious objector status. My long held innate pacifism found firmer footing in the teachings of Gandhi and Dr. King. To my surprise (and, I think, to the surprise of the Selective Service Board) I was granted conscientious objector status and was assigned alternative service at a psychiatric hospital. It was there that I began my forty year journey of working, at various times, as a counselor, teacher and advocate with young people pushed to the margins of society by poverty, racism, violence, addiction, abandonment.
Running tandem to these life experiences was my struggle to accept myself as a gay man in the face of a condemning culture. While the years of prejudice, self-hatred, dishonesty, and fear were damaging, in many ways they are the foundation of my deep commitment and identification with “the outsider.”
The prison industrial complex is in a downward spiral with a generation of youth incarcerated. Can you share with us your feelings on this?
I’m often asked if I see any hope of change in the criminal and juvenile justice systems—the prison industrial complex. Sadly, I feel that any change that comes about will be the result not of commonsense or of humanitarian concerns but of economics. Unfortunately prisons are a big money making industry in the United States. This is apparent when states spend more money on building, maintaining and staffing correctional facilities than on schools. I recently was in an upstate New York town where a large Federal prison was the main source of income for the community. A local newspaper headline caught my attention: “We Care About Our Prisoners.” I was intrigued—and perhaps, naively hopeful—and bought a newspaper. At issue was not the welfare of the offenders housed in the local prison but the possibility that the facility might be closed. Needless to say that never materialized; it rarely does. But it illustrated to me the cycle of dependency that the prison industrial complex creates: Prisoners, especially young people, are a commodity. Communities count on there being a steady supply of that commodity so that the money continues feeding the local economy. This economic dependence is a strong deterrent to improving the criminal justice system. If change happens it will come about only under the crush of failing state budgets.
Tell us about your prison experience.
My ten years teaching minors (some as young as 15) who were incarcerated in a New York county adult prison was a transformative experience. When I started working in the prison I was clear about who the “good guys” were and who the “bad guys”; the “us” and “them”; the “oppressors” and the “oppressed.” I saw the correctional staff—whether officer or administrator—as the enemy. I was there for my students and thought of them as the victims of an unjust system. But as the months went by I began to see the prison culture was based on a hierarchy of power and that I was doing exactly what everyone else did who was caught up in the penal system: I was taking sides, drawing lines in the sand, deciding who people were based on what I saw or what I thought I saw.
Over time as I got to know the correctional staff, especially the correctional officers, I began to realize that they were as oppressed by the toxic prison system as the inmates—they worked sometimes for as many as 16 hours a day under the same conditions: the close, foul smells of overcrowded blocks; the crippling noise and dirt; the constant threat of violence. As the COs began to trust me more, or at least get used to me, they shared their life experiences. In many ways they were not much different from the people they were charged with “overseeing.” For some, their lives mirrored that of the young people I taught—poor, from fractured families, struggling with addiction. The difference was that they had had enough resources or supports, perhaps just barely but enough, that saved them from the same path. They were as much, what I came to think of as, “children of disappointment” as my students.
Then as I looked around me I realized that those of us who worked there as “civilians”— medical personnel, chaplains, teachers, social workers—were also deeply affected by the same oppressive prison conditions. Until I finally understood that all of us, inside and outside prison walls, are “children of disappointment.” I saw that every person I knew had experienced hardships which they handled as best they could. This final insight is what made it easier, and intensely rewarding, for me to work in the prison system 5 days a week, 7 hours a day for ten years. It is what has supported my work to break down the barriers that separate all of us from each other.
There is a movement going on that includes “New Jim Crow” focusing on how there is a disproportionate number of African American males in prison, and the failure of the system in general. In your opinion, what can we do to change this revolving door and injustice?
The metaphor of Indra’s Net, an image that speaks to the interdependence of all experience, comes to mind when I think about our racist prison system. What happens in our prisons is a reflection of our society at large. The racism of our criminal justice system won’t change until we confront the bigotry of the larger American society; it won’t change until we confront poverty and violence in our communities. Our prisons are emblematic of our standard way of solving problems: instead of addressing the roots of crime we build more prisons, impose harsher, more punitive sentences, all in an effort to turn our backs on what is obvious and must be done.
I am a “personalist” and believe that change can only come about when each of us takes responsibility for what happens around us. One way that I can do this is to heighten people’s awareness of the inherent racism and brutality of our prisons. A phrase that I pointedly use more and more in my writing and in talking to people about our prison system and its culture is that these practices are “done in our name.” Prisons are built, more people of color are arrested and harshly sentenced, inhumane practices such as extended solitary confinement (in some cases for decades) are used even for young people. All these laws and practices are implemented and sanctioned by the legislators we elect and policymakers we listen to. A Buddhist meditation teacher I have practiced with urges his students, “Don’t turn away.” That teaching holds true for all of us as we confront the injustices in our world. This personalist approach is perhaps a slow means to change but it is the only one I feel can work, as each of us, person by person, confronts and takes responsibility for the actions of our society.
If you had one piece of advice to share with a young boy, what would that be? What would you share with adult men?
“Advice” can sound so lame but indeed is so true and profound: To a young boy I would say, “Hold on to your faith in life even when your simplest hope seems out of reach.” To an adult man I would say, “Kindness is your only true legacy.”
We have an initiative called “Boyz, Inc.” which calls for more positive mentors and role models, as well as getting our young men focused on character, values, and helping to create an awareness of the importance of a positive community to support our youth… What ideas and work are you doing that corresponds with this?
I’ve always been a teacher, it seems. In my 40+ years working directly with at risk kids, my efforts have been to crack open their rather narrow, constricted and impoverished lives and show them a different world. Likewise I’ve strived to do the same for the adult world by writing in various forums about the reality of my students’ lives and the things I have learned from them.
Recently I have been working with juvenile justice advocacy groups who on the state level are pushing for reform of the regressive laws that for decades have hindered the positive development and rehabilitation of young offenders. Through my writing and public speaking I’ve tried to educate a public that, when they hear about what it’s really like for a young person in prison, will often confess, “I had no idea.” It is that awareness and concern that I hope they will then express to their lawmakers.
Hope is a rare commodity in the juvenile justice field. So when I can, I also support and mentor people who are doing frontline work with youth in crisis by nurturing their commitment and enthusiasm, and by reminding them that although what they do every day to help young people is often unappreciated and disparaged it is essential and noble work. One of my favorite Zen sayings is that life is made up of “the 10,000 joys and the 10,000 sorrows.” I know that on some days people working with troubled kids can feel as though it is nothing but “the 10,000 sorrows.” But I like to remind them that at other times it is also “the 10,000 joys.” And most days it’s just a crazy mixed-up mess.
Tell us about the inspiration for your book “I don’t wish nobody to have a life like mine” as well as the ongoing discussion you have about the prison system.
I have written all my life. I enjoy capturing the everyday in words and trying to make what I see and feel real to others. As a result, I have written about the young people I’ve encountered over the years in counseling programs, psychiatric hospitals, homeless shelters, or schools. So of course when I started working at the prison I wrote.
The longer I was there, teaching in such an alien and difficult place, I began to see that my writing was a way to understand what was happening around me. The pieces I wrote focused on the young people I taught and the world they were forced to live in, inside and outside of prison. However, I wasn’t interested in writing political science or sociology. As important as that is, there was enough of that around. What I wanted to do through the writing process was to get to understand the people, young and old, “keepers and kept,” that I encountered every day. To do this I wrote the kind of literature that I knew from my own years of reading allowed me to experience and understand worlds very different from my own: I wrote stories that had all the elements of fiction—character, dialog, point of view—yet were true to what was happening; stories that put faces to all those statistics and studies about young offenders that periodically appear; narratives that would make people say, as they have said, “I had no idea.” Overtime the stories became I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup in which I not only shared stories about the people I met but also described my own personal journey of recognizing the common humanity I shared with everyone I encountered in the prison and outside it.
Do you have anything else to share with us?
My belief in the power of the written word to change the world and the people in it has grown and strengthened over the years. That power may reside in great literature, in an article, or even an email. An awareness of this power is something I have tried to share with my students, urging them to read, and to write their own stories and share their opinions. And I’ve tried to bring that power into my own writing in whatever form it takes.
Words have carried me through some very difficult places. I’ve often reminded myself, and others, of the lines from a Galway Kinnel poem, “for everything flowers from within of self-blessing/though sometimes it is necessary/ to reteach a thing its loveliness.” Or Rumi’s “This being human is a guest house. /Every morning a new arrival.” And finally, I like to pass on to people who are feeling discouraged about their work for criminal and juvenile justice reform these words of Barry Stevenson, executive director of Equal Justice Initiative, from an interview on The Root, “…if we’re going to be a just and fair society, the place where we test our commitment to the rule of law and human dignity is not in how we treat the gifted kids, the privileged kids, the talented kids, but really in how we treat the kids that are broken, that have failed and struggled and been condemned.”