Art is a Window to Other Worlds
By Nora Callahan
A friend for 22 years cut my hair at the end of July. "Where are you heading off to now?" she asked, knowing that I trim my own bangs until I'm leaving town. "Kansas Cities; Missouri and Kansas. They are next to each other, must confuse people."
What are you doing this time? Something I've never done before. Helping some young people broach the subject of snitching, the overuse of informants in drug war policing and imprisonment. Socially, it's a tangled subject and there's a lot of fear; kids involved in music scenes often get labeled and targeted. They sent me a CD of their hip-hop music. A few of songs burned a hole in my heart, and I enjoyed listening to them over and over.
She laughed. She has a great laugh; it starts low, from the inside. How did you meet them? Actually, I haven't met them -- I'll meet them tomorrow. A young man in prison creates this spoken word and hip-hop music to artfully present social questions.
They know that all the snitching -- setting people up to do crimes to get themselves out of prison time - doesn't make people safer. It breeds disrespect for law, and they're using music to tell about it. I use written words, lecture on it and we're going to put our techniques together and invite the public to talk about it.
I know she's stuck on the hip-hop images, the inner city gig and she interrupts me, or I stopped rambling -- I don't remember. She stopped cutting my hair for a moment.
Yeah, I know it's weird; a rural white lady going to an urban Midwest region to lead an afternoon public discussion on snitching, and the organizers are hip-hop artists. It's out of my comfort zone, and people in Kansas City probably freaked out, too. But we don't solve problems in comfort zones, and without crossing gender, race, age divisions. It's going to be great, even if we're all scared to death.
Nora Callahan interviews with Kansas City news media
Two days later: Joe Gonzales Jr. and Earl called us from Leavenworth Federal Prison right after the event. We were overly excited because we'd had a good turnout, one of the best events and discussions the Humanists hosted in some time, so they told more than one of us. A television news station filmed the entire event - my presentation, a song from the CD Stop Snitchin' 2, and the Q & A session. The former mayor pro tem was there, too.
At a BBQ later that evening, we filled Joe and Carol Gonzales' living room to see our issue explained briefly as lead story on the nightly news.
Since that time, Congress held first hearings on the problems created by over-reliance on informants, and the ACLU has launched a project that focuses on this controversy. Both stories are covered in this issue of the Razor Wire. Problems of the informant system need public review and resolution, and people pictured here deserve lots of praise for organizing to teach truth about a contradictory community issue.
If you live in the Midwest, we hope you'll join these organizers for the 2nd annual convening where they'll tackle another subject of keen public interest in drug war injustice. I'm hoping for a full-blown hip-hop concert, too!
By autumn I'd be in Philadelphia with film, print, radio multimedia professionals, and grassroots organizers. Thousand Kites -- a national dialogue project about communications within the criminal justice system -- brought us together.
"Art is a window to another world, a way to connect to people that engages them, empowers them. Engaged and empowered, we can struggle for a long time because we won't be alone." Those were the first notes I wrote, after sentiments of our first roundtable discussion had been summed up best.
Thousand Kites is the work of Appalshop out of Whitesburg, Kentucky. Appalshop has other projects including Calls From Home, an annual holiday radio show for prisoners and their family members. They also produce a weekly radio broadcast, made a film called Up the Ridge: a US Prison Story, and their theatrical plays entertain and provoke grassroots volunteers across the country. If you have Internet access, see www.thousandkites.org for more information.
If you don't have Internet access, but know about a community radio station near you, ask programmers to visit www.thousandkites.org and consider airing programs available there, and at www.november.org. Some prisons may have a community or public radio station. Write down their address, and let them know about these pre-recorded programs; share your imprisonment stories, too.
If you have poetry, short stories, sketches, and homegrown music -- your creative expressions can become part of film shorts, radio programming, and theatrical plays. Send submissions along with your written permission to use in multimedia productions to: November Coalition, 282 West Astor, Colville, WA 99114, Ph: 509 684-1550, or visit www.november.org for more information.
Contact Thousand Kites at 91 Madison Avenue, Whitesburg, KY 41858, Ph: 606-633-0108 or visit www.thousandkites.org.