By Ernest Johnson of Ubuntu Village and Equal Voice Action
Last week, my organization, Ubuntu Village, co-sponsored a screening of Big Charity: The Death of America’s Oldest Hospital. The film details the post-Katrina closure of Charity Hospital, New Orleans’ primary healthcare source for poor and working class residents, and the subsequent lack of healthcare options for people battling physical and mental illnesses.
People asked me why Ubuntu Village, an organization that focuses on reforming juvenile justice and reducing juvenile incarceration, would show a film about healthcare. We must remember that all these issues are connected. The institutions and individuals that wield power in our society, and those that uphold racism and oppression, encourage us to see our problems as isolated and unrelated.
Additionally, these institutions encourage us to see each other as disconnected, divided by race, age, income, and neighborhood. Yet we are only as strong as our community. Ubuntu means “I am because we are” and it teaches us that we can only achieve greatness with the support and love of our families, friends, and neighbors. The New Orleans homicide rate is up, and as I drive through the city past armed pro-Confederate protesters and expanded homeless encampments under the overpass, I know these things are all connected. We cannot reduce crime if we don’t also address hatred and poverty.
In one poignant scene in Big Charity, a man struggling with mental illness goes untreated and ends up shooting and killing a police officer. With Charity Hospital closed, many mentally ill residents are incarcerated at the local prison, a site wholly unequipped to meet their needs. Many more are living in tents under the highway. And of course, some turn to drugs and to despair. When we look in the faces of the young people at juvenile court, some of them only 13 or 14 years old, we see in their eyes the resources they have been denied, the institutional failures that laid the groundwork for their actions.
The Senate is currently considering a health bill that would not only roll back the American Care Act, legislation that provided so many of Louisiana’s most vulnerable residents with health insurance, but would also eliminate Medicaid as an entitlement. These changes are a direct attack on the life chances of the poor, the disabled, and the elderly. The bill will also, inevitably, affect crime and incarceration; violence doesn’t arise spontaneously, it is a reaction to the physical and institutional violence all around us.
We must do more. In this dark moment, we must stand up to show our neighbors and our communities that we care. That’s why Ubuntu Village is launching our “Show Your Love”campaign. In the moment, when it seems as if we are most divided, most fragmented, we must come together and demonstrate that we have love for everyone in our communities: the incarcerated, the violent, and the mentally ill, just as much as the star athletes and valedictorians.
Show your love. Call your Senators and encourage them to reject the proposed ACA repeal bill. Donate to organizations working for social justice. Come to activist and community meetings. Become a youth mentor. Write a letter to an incarcerated young person. Take a moment of your day to show a struggling member of your community that you see them and you support them.
Once we decide some people are expendable—that they can be ignored or thrown away—our own humanity suffers. We become less human when we dehumanize others, and we live within a system that constantly seeks to dehumanize and marginalize.
Likewise, the little moments of connection matter. Orleans Parish Prison recently eliminated in-person visitation; now those who seek to visit their incarcerated loved ones are forced to do so through videophones. This is a small detail, a drop in the bucket of oppression, but it etches away at our common humanity. My son is currently incarcerated at a prison hours away from New Orleans. The burdens distance places on poor and working class families are enormous. The cost of phone calls remains exorbitant. As Ubuntu expands, one of our goals is to provide transportation for families who lack the resources to visit their incarcerated children, held hours away.
We seek to humanize and connect, to acknowledge people’s flaws while also recognizing them as fully deserving of our love and our care. We must work to push our government to do the same. We must fight to see our many issues and campaigns, and all our lives, as interconnected and interdependent.
Ubuntu! “I am because we are.”
Ernest Johnson is the co-founder and Director of Ubuntu Village, and a member of the Equal Voice Action Board and Family Advisor Community.
The mission of Ubuntu Village is to provide programming that delivers social, economic, and transformational justice to children and communities. Ubuntu works primarily with youth who are involved in the criminal justice system and their families. Through tackling issues like juvenile justice, mass incarceration, racism, unemployment, trauma, joblessness, individualism, and divisiveness, Ubuntu works towards more just and equitable solutions that enable people confronted with multiple oppressions to overcome them in unity. For more information, please visit their website at ubuntuvillagenola.org.