At Ripple Effect Artists, we take strides to leverage masterful plays that are catalysts for conversations about today’s most challenging subjects. Theatre is a wonderful foundation for our world’s difficult issues as it demands listening, evokes humanity, and brings forth empathy. In 2018, when we were preparing for a season of projects that addressed racial justice and equality, I was floored by how much I was learning about the systemic efforts to keep people of color disenfranchised. Much of this was covered in an event called Ripple Effect Artists’ Production With Talk-Backs which was strongly recommended for people who were resistant to phrases like “racial justice,” “systemic racism,” or “prison pipeline”.
Whose Fight Is It
Before I say anything, let me be clear about who I am; I am a white woman married to a dark Filipino man who is about to be blessed with her second baby. I am extremely proud of my family and I have a personal stake in ensuring my children do not have to worry about racism. The first step I am taking in the fulfilment of this mission is to ensure that I inspire empathy with regards to the subject, especially amongst those who think that this isn’t my fight. I am not just speaking of Caucasian people, but perhaps other pale skinned minorities, like my Chinese-American friend who was resistant to talk about racism because for her it is experienced as a very minor, subtle thing. Yet, that is what racism often looks like in contemporary times. People of color call this “new racism”. New or old, it is still unacceptable. So, while I do not have a personal experience of racism, I do have life experiences that help me to empathize, and help me stand for racial justice and reparation.
I am only newly acquainted with the phrases such as “Systemic racism,” the “Prison pipeline”, and “Restoration”. For the unfamiliar, Systemic racism is a set of policies, procedures and practices that result in an unequitable set of circumstances and results for people of different races. The Prion pipeline is a system by which people from disadvantaged backgrounds and circumstances are funnelled into the prison system where they suffer greater disadvantages instead of being helped and Restoration is a brief period of African American prosperity last century that caused a backlash of racial terror and racist legislation. I am honestly shocked and baffled at these micro-aggressions that are devoted to maintaining an unequal society. My conversations in the past few years have spanned from activists to intellectuals to pedestrians. I have listened and been guided by their strife. I see now, racism in America will not disappear until the education and legislation are overhauled. Therefore, I stand in solidarity with the millions of Americans who are disaffected by racism.
More than anything, I am a human. Standing for reparation for the toxic and traumatic effects of centuries of disenfranchisement of an entire race of people… that is not a stretch! Yet, blind-spots and a lack of responsibility have held this empathy back from many people.
Acknowledging the Legacy
How do we earnestly overcome racism, and what is there to do in the U.S.? Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) says that post-war Germany has strove to bring closure to the atrocities of the Holocaust by urging visitors to their museums but in the U.S. with no museum to honor the victims of slavery or lynching, we have yet to learn from our dark past. It is worth noting that EJI is has made plans to raise a memorial to victims of terror lynching.
America’s rampant racism still exists because it is learned and habituated, it is hard to be self-aware enough to eliminate all of our bad habits mostly because white people benefit. As white or passing-for-white pedestrians, we may be blind to how we benefit from racism, and it’s easy to deny. For me as well, until recently, ‘”Systemic racism” sounded like a conspiracy theory. Besides, I had heard that some people of color call out their own demographic for keeping themselves oppressed. I am sure there’s some relevance to that, and that sounds GREAT to a body of white people who don’t want to take responsibility for today’s racism in America. But regardless, those issues are symptoms. America’s racism today is still seeded by our forefathers.
For example, did you know that Incarceration it’s far more expensive for the TAX PAYER than education. Our nation spends 3x more on inmates than on public school students. It doesn’t make sense to spend more on prison than on education, does it? Let’s look at the numbers… As of 2010, in New York State each inmate cost $60,000 (the National average was $31,286); compare that to the average cost of public school per student $21,2016 (the National average was $11,392–2015 in New York State). Let’s take a closer look at our city. In 2013 the New York Times reported: as of 2012, New York City’s annual cost per inmate was $167,731. (What?! That’s more than the so-called $125,000 threshold that politicians keep referring to in various scenarios of healthcare and education — for a family of 4.) Who were those incarcerated prisoners? 57% were black, 33% were Hispanic, 7% were white, and 1% were Asian or ‘other.’ Also, 76% of that jailed population (of 12,287 prisoners) were those awaiting trail. Prisons are privatized; corporations get cheap labor; and there are already plans for the next generation of prisons! Yes! Corporations look as school data to determine how many people will likely go to prison 25 years from now. Mass incarceration is such good business that it is a fiscal priority outweighing education.If this piques your interest, you can read more about how the legal system disproportionately affects people of color here.
It’s elementary my dear Watson, the sheer cost of incarceration over education is appalling! Baffling! Ridiculous! Let’s consider another example, Bernie Sanders’ campaign estimated it would cost $75 billion to provide free college education in the U.S which could be funded through a tax imposed on Wall Street. That’s $5 billion less than the $80 billion ($39 billion from the tax payers) we factually do spend on the prison system. Why don’t we re-prioritize and save billions of dollars; balance the budget; use the money toward education or dare I say ‘Universal healthcare’?! Why do we have this mass incarceration problem: a problem that has grown by 700% in the past 50 years? The missing link: corporations and their lobbyists turning a $7.4 billion industry from the incarcerated. Read more about this here.
How Ripple Effect Artists Contribute to the Discussion
We are not yet in a position to impact policy but we have certainly been doing our part in raising awareness. In April 2018 we performed the award winning short play Guarding the Bridge by Chuck Gorden. This play tells the story of a white boy who learns from his father that he should fear black people and guard his family from them. This story takes place on the night that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and by no coincidence our premiere of this play was on April 4th, 2018, the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Following this play was a spoken word performance by Dawn Speaks on the issues on racism and inequality, which was further followed by audience engagement. These performances and the context of black and white racism were further leveraged as a means to discuss all forms of prejudice and racism. A day before these dynamic and impactful performances we were proud to host 90 year old Ruth Zimbler who is a survivor of the Holocaust. Ruth told a sobering story of survival and reminded our generation of the atrocities of racial and religious prejudice.
It is through engaging with performances and conversations such as these that we strive to raise awareness of the various forms of injustice that still lurk in our society. It is only when we shine the light on them and discuss them with an open mind will we be in a situation to get rid of them.
Jessica Jennings is an Actor, Producer and Founding Board Member at Ripple Effect Artists. Hailing from a long line of performers, Jessica was practically raised on the stage. Her theatrical debut was at the tender age of two weeks when her father added her to his production of Shakespeare’s “MacBeth” as one of MacDuff’s babes. Around the age of five she signed with New York based management Terrific Talent. She appeared in a number of regional commercials and the national commercial for Teddy Ruxpin. In 2003 Jessica returned to acting full force and has gone on to earn some fantastic credits to her name such as “Stars In My Eyes” at Actor’s Movement Studio; also ATA’s “All’s Well That Ends Well” (Helena) and “Hamlet” (Ophelia) for which she received the Jean Dalrymple Award for Best Shakespearean Actress 2005. Jessica is also proud to be teaching dance therapy for disabled children and adults at the Hummingbirds School (as recently featured on NY1).