Mamas Day 2014: The Legacy of Building Community

Thursday, May 08, 2014

This post written by Grace Bauer of Justice for Families is part of the 2014 Mamas Day blog series. 

My Mamma used to say, “There is more month than there is money.” Even though I grew up poor, in the rural South, I didn’t know it. In my community, everyone was poor so we never saw anything different. I grew up with my mother’s friends (my aunts), our neighbors, and family looking out for me while Mamma worked in a male dominated prison system. As the first nurse working inside one of Louisiana’s many prisons and jails, her passionate care, of those housed behind razor-wire fences and bars, was seen as an affront to the law and order, tough on crime, notions that permeated the criminal justice system, then, just as it does today. I never once heard terms like “community-driven,” “community-based,” or any of the terms that now define so much of my work. Yet, long before the terms gained recognition in our culture, they also, defined my childhood.

According to the medical wisdom of the late sixties, I was born late in my mother’s life. When we had special events at school, it was inevitable that another kid would ask me if she was my grandma. When I was in 7th grade, my Mamma had her first heart attack. That first one destroyed 25% of her heart. Six weeks later, on the morning they wheeled her into what would be the first in a long line of medical interventions, I was more afraid than I had ever been. It had been she and I against the world for so long, I had no idea of what I would do without her. She counted on me to hold myself together and be strong and I was determined to make her proud of me. As she spoke to each person that came to support us, I stood quietly next to her, fighting back a wall of tears and fear. Despite my strong intentions, when she turned to me, the floodwall broke and my entire body convulsed with the sobs of a very scared child. Though my crying made it impossible to speak or hear what she was saying to me, I knew that she was saying everything was going to be all right. As they took her through the double doors to surgery, I turned to all those she left behind to begin the impossibly long 8-hour wait.

The people that waited that day would wait with me through 20 years of surgeries, medical procedures and more hospital stays than I can count. They held vigil outside of other hospital rooms as I gave birth to my children. They offered sage advice and brought home-cooked meals so I didn’t have to cook when my babies were sick. They celebrated the birthdays, marriages, achievements and other happy days in our lives in their Sunday best with smiles on faces worn weary with time and their own heartbreaks. They listened, consoled, counseled and prayed in times of fear, confusion and uncertainty. And, on January 5, 1998, when there would be no more interventions, medical or otherwise, they again gathered around us to hold us in their arms and hearts as we grieved the loss of our mother.

As the years passed, old roots were pulled up, new ones laid down, dreams came true, beliefs shifted, and our lives were changed.

Our families expanded with new babies, partners, wives, husbands and friends and dwindled when we were called to mourn the passing of yet another in our beloved community.

Today, on Mamma’s 80th birthday, I am preparing to walk into another of America’s prisons, this time to visit my son and her grandson. In a few weeks, I will move half way around the country and leave behind my son who will spend many more years in a place where he is a stranger, like the millions of others behind bars that are invisible to our society. Mamma’s legacy of building community ensures that I will not leave him alone. When I walk through those double doors tonight, another daughter’s mother will be at my side. A stranger to me, two years ago, is coming to meet my son for the first time and in my absence, she will become a member of his beloved community.

Grace Bauer, Executive Director & Co-Founder of Justice for Families, a respected leader and a trusted confidant for families seeking justice across the country, is the mother of three children from Sulphur, Louisiana. Her first exposure to the juvenile justice system occurred when her court-involved son, at age 14, was sent to a notorious juvenile correctional facility where he was abused and mistreated. She helped organize other parents to form the Lake Charles chapter of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC). Rapidly recruiting and training new members and increasing FFLIC’s visibility and influence, the chapter became an integral part of the “Close Tallulah Now Campaign”, the passage of the Louisiana Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2003, and the closing of the infamous Tallulah juvenile prison. Grace later joined the Campaign for Youth Justice in 2008 where she united parents and allies of children in six targeted states to change laws and practices prosecuting and confining children as adults. Grace also led the development of the National Parent Caucus, a national network of family members seeking to end the misguided practice of trying, sentencing and incarcerating children as adults.

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