Where were you when you were fifteen? Maybe learning to drive and working an after-school job, or toiling through homework and trying to keep up with music lessons, or just trying to figure out who you wanted to be as a human.
At fifteen, Danielle Allen, now James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard and Director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, was growing up in Claremont, California, in a bedroom with a Laura Ashley comforter and a wooden desk that held letters from a German boy with whom she’d had a “minor music camp romance.” She was captain of the varsity track team, and though she felt insecure and awkward like any other teenager, she lived in a stable, close-knit community.
At fifteen, Allen’s younger cousin Michael was arrested for an attempted carjacking; he would soon after be sentenced as an adult to twelve years and eight months in prison for the crime. It was his first criminal charge. On December 5, 2017, Allen read from and spoke about Michael’s story, much of which she has turned into a biography titled Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A.; the book was excerpted last summer in the New Yorker.
Allen covered a lot of ground in her talk. She shared moments of Michael’s childhood and parts of his journey attempting to re-enter society after he was released from prison (attempts that ultimately failed; he was murdered by an inmate with whom he’d been romantically involved). She pointed out the perfect storm of events, some understood and some still murky, that led to the long sentencing for a first-time offender. She reminded the audience that the United States has built the biggest penal system the world has ever seen--bigger even than Apartheid South Africa’s. She touched on issues of shame. How in the US, people spend $100 billion dollars on illegal drugs, but our culture of secrecy often prevents loved ones from discussing such habits because they are ashamed of the stigma it brings. Allen suspects that more open and honest conversation in her family could have puzzled together the pieces to prevent Michael from involving himself with gang members.
The story was powerful. But just how powerful was driven home when Allen was joined in conversation by attorney Chloe Cockburn, criminal justice reform program officer at the Open Philanthropy Project, and Michael Romano, director and founder of the Three Strikes and Justice Advocacy Projects at Stanford Law School. Both in questions and in responses, the importance of personal narratives in criminal justice reform was a theme that all three speakers reiterated throughout the conversation. Allen had first told Michael’s story after being asked to give a lecture series at Harvard, and though she didn’t realize how difficult the act of public storytelling itself would be (she admitted she wept for three lectures straight; “They were the strangest lectures Harvard had ever seen,” she joked), she did know the importance of personal storytelling. Bringing concrete examples to abstract concepts is important in any kind of learning, and when people are learning about a problem as huge and difficult and, often, dehumanizing, as that of mass incarceration, giving them a story with details and characters will be more effective in enacting change. Allen showed this, not only by giving us moments of Michael’s life, but also giving Michael a voice. Her book and talk included excerpts of his own writing from essays about Dante’s Inferno and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales; we can picture him without having met him, if only by virtue of hearing his words spoken aloud.
Cockburn also attested to the power of storytelling. “These are really important,” Cockburn emphasized, when speaking of the role of narrative in reform. For her, she said, “policy is 20% of the pie chart to answer these questions [regarding the problem of mass incarceration]. How do we change culture? It’s not just about winning hearts and minds,” she said, because those hearts and minds are often populated by false images about incarceration and people who are incarcerated. “Simply by asserting ‘I’ and telling the story of [Allen’s] cousin who was brilliant, many people are more approximate to this issue.”
In Romano’s work, they’ve seen success in using real people’s anecdotes to convey the gravity of the situation. But instead of focusing on the idea of the smart kid with a bright future who took some wrong turns along the way--a storyline that can easily be dismissed by those who disregard structural or sociological impediments--Romano flips the narrative. “I tell the story of the person who was sentenced to life in prison for stealing a pair of socks. That’s a real person.”
Even the story of America’s founding made it into the mix. One questioner during the audience Q & A asked Allen what one piece of political philosophy she would teach students to spur reform, and Allen replied with a mic-drop recitation of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. That document, Allen contended, had its own moments of anti-slavery and serves as an important part of this country’s mythos. “We don’t have to be ashamed of our entire tradition,” she said. “A lot of it, but not all.”
SARA BUTTON is a freelance writer, editor, and educator based in Menlo Park. She has an MFA in Writing from the University of Pittsburgh.