In June, my community organization in New Orleans, 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 health care source for poor and working class residents and the subsequent lack of health care 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 health care. 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.” It teaches us that we can only achieve greatness with the support and love of our families, friends and neighbors.
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 connected. We cannot reduce crime if we don’t also address hatred and poverty.
“Show your love…. Take a moment to show a struggling member of your community that you see and support them.”
— Ernest Johnson
In one poignant scene in “Big Charity,” a man struggling with mental illness goes untreated. He ends up shooting and killing a police officer. With Charity Hospital closed, many mentally ill residents are incarcerated at the local prison, a site unequipped to meet their needs. Many more people are living in tents under the highway.
And of course, some turn to drugs and 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.
This summer, the U.S. Senate is considering a health bill that would not only roll back the Affordable Care Act, legislation that provided so many of Louisiana’s most vulnerable residents with health insurance, but would also drastically cut Medicaid. These changes are a direct attack on the life chances of the poor, the disabled and the elderly.
But the Senate bill also would affect crime and incarceration; violence doesn’t arise spontaneously. It is a reaction to the physical and institutional violence 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 this moment, 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. That includes the incarcerated, the violent and the mentally ill, just as much as the star athletes and valedictorians.
Show your love. Let your lawmakers know your thoughts. Support social justice organizations working to strengthen communities. Come to activist and community meetings. Become a youth mentor. Write a letter to an incarcerated young person. Take a moment to show a struggling member of your community that you see and 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 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! It means: “I am because we are.”
Ernest Johnson is director of Ubuntu Village, a New Orleans-based community organization that seeks to provide social, economic and transformative justice to youth and families. He is also a board member for Equal Voice Action, a family-led membership organization focused on social and economic equity. All photos are from Ubuntu Village.