Unraveling the Tangled Web of Slavery

One of the beautiful aspects of storytelling in the digital world involves the inclination of the story you’re reading (or watching) to magically lead you by the hand, so to speak, to another relevant and connected story, sort of like a squirrel scampering from one branch to the next.

In my case, this act of magic happens after I receive a Nieman Storyboard email newsletter. Case in point, within the December 27th edition Jacqui Banaszynski mentioned that she looks forward to magazine freelancer Barry Yeoman’s annual list of favorite longform stories.

The 2019 version is a diverse and thought-provoking list, with something for everyone, so do dive right in, there’s a special treat waiting for you there. One story Jacqui highlighted was “The Long Road Home” by Deborah Barfield Berry and Kelley Benham French of USA Today.

The 40 hour journey of Wanda Tucker from Virginia to Luanda, Angola also spans some 400 years, back to the days when Africans were taken from their homeland and forced to live in, what was at the time, the English colonies.

It’s a heartbreaking story, reminding us that certain groups of humans, throughout history and into the present day, believe that having darker skin is proof enough that someone else isn’t completely human. (although it seems more logical that the reverse is true, but I digress)

Those in power justified slavery with the values at the time – prosperity, survival, the cleansing of souls and the expansion of the empire.

Having moved to Portugal a few months ago I’m still in the very early stages of learning about the country’s history, especially those aspects which involve colonization. My naive view had limited that topic to just Brazil, but I am coming to realize the complexity of Portugal’s history.

It was the article on Wanda Tucker that opened my eyes to Portugal’s involvement in Africa, as well as their participation in the slave trade, especially the slave trade in Angola. How did I not know this? Did they not teach me this in school? Or had I conveniently forgotten? I was shocked by the brutality of it all, as slave traders would often capitalize on the dynamics of warring factions within Angola’s borders.

The Portuguese gave guns to Imbangala soldiers in return for slaves. Armed with superior weapons, Imbangala soldiers captured and sold natives on a far larger scale as every new slave translated into a better-armed force of aggressors.

Capture and Coffle of Enslaved Africans

“Capture and Coffle of Enslaved Africans, Angola, 1786-87”, Slavery Images:
A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora

Unfortunately, it is all too common to limit an understanding of history to our own, localized situation rather than fully embrace the big picture. While I knew that slaves were brought to America from Africa, my thoughts centered on the plight of these slaves once they were living in the deep south – how they were treated, how they were ultimately emancipated, how they are still treated by many – not on the point of origin, method of capture, or the participation of European countries playing ethnically superior colonial rulers. I was missing half the story.

I’m far from done with my newfound quest to better understand the history of slavery in America, as well as the lingering remnants of ethnic prejudice and discrimination that still exist within much of the population. And this quest will serve as a reminder to look beyond the immediate scope of any (every) story created within the confines of limited knowledge.

Do read the USA Today story about Wanda Tucker, and if you’re in the process of crafting a personal narrative, ask yourself what truths lie one step beyond, one lever deeper. They may help you create a more impactful story.

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De Oratore by Cicero – Book 2 – The Emotions of Oratory

In addition to being a lawyer, politician and philosopher, Cicero (Marcus Tullius Cicero) was also a preeminent Roman orator. Drawing on the teaching of Greek rhetoric and the craft of oration in Roman times, he composed De Oratore to highlight the principles he believed were at play whenever someone planned to speak on an important topic.

While political speeches and legal proceedings were at the forefront of public speaking during this time, the concepts presented here are valuable in the drafting of any nonfiction narrative. Written in 55 BC, and comprised of three books, De Oratore is a dialogue that is set in 91 BC.

Cicero shares a dialogue, reported to him by Cotta, among a group of excellent political men and orators, who came together to discuss the crisis and general decline of politics. They met in the garden of Lucius Licinius Crassus’ villa in Tusculum.

Lucius Licinius CrassusQuintus Mucius ScaevolaQuintus Catulus
Marcus Antonius OratorGaius Aurelius CottaPublius Sulpicius Rufus

Marcus Antonius speaking to Catulus:

For mankind make far more determinations through hatred or love or desire or anger or grief or joy or hope or fear or error or some other affection of mind than from regard to truth or any settled maxim or principle of right or judicial form or adherence to the laws.

It’s common to believe we make decisions based on logic first and emotions second – does it make sense, and then, do we like it – but sadly the reverse is our reality. Our choices need to feel good first, and if they do, then we look toward the facts as a way to seal the deal.

It’s the same process in storytelling, as well in storylistening. Too often a speaker will want to offer information as their narrative’s foundation, layering on the human elements afterward. I encourage clients to change course and give listeners a reason to empathize before engaging their brains. As I see it, information invites judgement, while emotions invite connection.

Antonius then offers:

The feelings of the hearers are conciliated by a person’s dignity, by his actions, by the character of his life; particulars which can more easily be adorned by eloquence if they really exist than be invented if they have no existence.

While the previous passage dealt with two elements of Aristotle’s rhetoric; Pathos (emotions) and Logos (logic), in this case, however, Antonius is addressing the mysterious nature of the third element – Ethos (ethics).

What is the audience’s gut feel about the speaker? Do they feel he or she is honest, authentic and trustworthy? Some speakers will stretch the truth a bit, embellishing their abilities and track record as a way to impress the audience. But in such cases the audience will usually see through a smoke screen of eloquent delivery.

Keep these observations in mind as you think about the sequence of your story blocks. If the audience believes what you’re saying, then finds their heart touched by your words, and the logic holds up, you will maximize the impact of your story.

[De Oratore excerpts from Delphi Complete Works of Cicero, Translated by J. S. Watson]

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The Secret that Almost Killed Me – Kirsten Johnson at TEDxSDSU

Students that enroll in my Storytelling with Impact course at UC San Diego Extension are generally looking to improve their storytelling and public speaking skills, but one of my students had been accepted to speak at TEDxSDSU 2018 (held at San Diego State University) and she had a specific goal in mind – crafting a narrative for her upcoming TEDx Talk.

Right up my alley, I thought, as my work with TEDxSanDiego and TEDxDonovanCorrectional involves coaching speakers for the TEDx stage, and other clients have given TEDx Talks.

But this was special, as Kirsten wanted to discuss a personal issue that is never easy in front of an audience – her experience with sexual assault, and the resulting trauma that negatively affected her life for years – all the more important as she was speaking on a college campus.

As she worked through each draft of her talk and rehearsed in class, the discussions varied between “how much to tell” and “which narrative to use”. To her credit, Kirsten wasn’t afraid to experiment, to see what felt right, and to revise accordingly. Not saying enough could come off as lacking in depth, glossing over important topics, while providing too much detail could turn off an audience. This is the reality of delivering a talk with an emotional core.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure which version of her talk would end up on the TEDxSDSU stage, as she was still revising after our class had ended, but I was pleased to see how she presented this difficult subject – with heartfelt passion and resolve – to an audience that needed to hear about her experience and the lessons she learned along the way.

Kirsten Johnson is a life coach, YouTuber and author of the upcoming book Elephant. Johnson makes videos on anxiety, addiction, shame, spirituality and living your life purpose. She is also the creator of The Elephant Heard, an online community composed of people rising up to their full potential after the trauma of childhood sexual abuse.

Kristen is passionate about teaching people how to transform their relationship with fear so that they can live an empowered life.

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The Tragic Story of Bail in America

The bail system in American is nothing short of criminal, a tragic story of incarceration for those who lack the funds to get back on the street while awaiting trial. It means being separated from your spouse & children, maybe missing work, and potentially losing your job. It means being guilty until proven innocent, which is about as un-American as it gets.

In an attempt to turn the tide on this tragedy of justice, Robin Steinberg and her husband, both public defenders, founded the Bronx Freedom Fund, and in doing so, attempt to change the story of thousands caught up in an immoral system.

The Bronx Freedom Fund envisions a society that humanizes instead of criminalizes. We restore the presumption of innocence by keeping clients with their families, at their jobs, and out of jail while they await trial. We work tirelessly to fight mass incarceration and the criminalization of race and poverty, and to end the cash bail system as it exists.

A decade later Robin took the stage at TED2018 to talk about The Bail Project, taking the idea to a national level as part of TED’s newly launched Audacious Project.

The Bail Project, by bailing out 160,000 people over the next five years, will become one of the largest non-governmental decarcerations of Americans in history.

What if we ended the injustice of bail? by Robin Steinberg at TED2018


I will never forget the first time I visited a client in jail. The heavy, metal door slammed behind me, and I heard the key turn in the lock. The cement floor underneath me had a sticky film on it that made a ripping sound, like tape being pulled off a box, every time I moved my foot. The only connection to the outside world was a small window placed too high to see. There was a small, square table bolted to the floor and two metal chairs, one on either side.

That was the first time I understood viscerally — just for a fleeting moment — what incarceration might feel like. And I promised myself all those years ago as a young, public defender that I would never, ever forget that feeling. And I never have. It inspired me to fight for each and every one of my clients’ freedom as if it was my own.

Freedom. A concept so fundamental to the American psyche that it is enshrined in our constitution. And yet, America is addicted to imprisonment. From slavery through mass incarceration, it always has been. Look, we all know the shocking numbers. The United States incarcerates more people per capita than almost any nation on the planet.

But what you may not know is that on any given night in America, almost half a million people go to sleep in those concrete jail cells who have not been convicted of anything. These mothers and fathers and sons and daughters are there for one reason and one reason only: they cannot afford to pay the price of their freedom. And that price is called bail.

Now, bail was actually created as a form of conditional release. The theory was simple: set bail at an amount that somebody could afford to pay — they would pay it — it would give them an incentive to come back to court; it would give them some skin in the game. Bail was never intended to be used as punishment. Bail was never intended to hold people in jail cells. And bail was never, ever intended to create a two-tier system of justice: one for the rich and one for everybody else. But that is precisely what it has done.

Seventy-five percent of people in American local jails are there because they cannot pay bail. People like Ramel. On a chilly October afternoon, Ramel was riding his bicycle in his South Bronx neighborhood on his way to a market to pick up a quart of milk. He was stopped by the police. And when he demanded to know why he was being stopped, an argument ensued, and the next thing he knew, he was on the ground in handcuffs, being charged with “riding your bicycle on the sidewalk and resisting arrest.”

He was taken to court, where a judge set 500 dollars bail. But Ramel — he didn’t have 500 dollars. So this 32-year-old father was sent to “The Boat” — a floating jail barge that sits on the East River between a sewage plant and a fish market. That’s right, you heard me. In New York City, in 2018, we have a floating prison barge that sits out there and houses primarily black and brown men who cannot pay their bail.

Let’s talk for a moment about what it means to be in jail even for a few days. Well, it can mean losing your job, losing your home, jeopardizing your immigration status. It may even mean losing custody of your children. A third of sexual victimization by jail staff happens in the first three days in jail, and almost half of all jail deaths, including suicides, happen in that first week.

What’s more, if you’re held in jail on bail, you’re four times more likely to get a jail sentence than if you had been free, and that jail sentence will be three times longer. And if you are black or Latino and cash bail has been set, you are two times more likely to remain stuck in that jail cell than if you were white.

Jail in America is a terrifying, dehumanizing and violent experience. Now imagine for just one moment that it’s you stuck in that jail cell, and you don’t have the 500 dollars to get out. And someone comes along and offers you a way out. “Just plead guilty,” they say. “You can go home back to your job. Just plead guilty. You can kiss your kids goodnight tonight.” So you do what anybody would do in that situation. You plead guilty whether you did it or not. But now you have a criminal record that’s going to follow you for the rest of your life.

Jailing people because they don’t have enough money to pay bail is one of the most unfair, immoral things we do as a society. But it is also expensive and counterproductive. American taxpayers — they spend 14 billion dollars annually holding people in jail cells who haven’t been convicted of anything. That’s 40 million dollars a day.

What’s perhaps more confounding is it doesn’t make us any safer. Research is clear that holding somebody in jail makes you significantly more likely to commit a crime when you get out than if you had been free all along.

Freedom makes all the difference. Low-income communities and communities of color have known that for generations. Together, they have pooled their resources to buy their loved ones freedom for as long as bondage and jail cells existed. But the reach of the criminal legal system has grown too enormous, and the numbers are just too large. Ninety-nine percent of jail growth in America has been the result — over the last 20 years — of pre-trial incarceration.

I have been a public defender for over half my life, and I have stood by and watched thousands of clients as they were dragged into those jail cells because they didn’t have enough money to pay bail. I have watched as questions of justice were subsumed by questions of money, calling into question the legitimacy of the entire American legal system. I am here to say something simple — something obvious, but something urgent. Freedom makes all the difference, and freedom should be free.

But how are we going to make that happen? Well, that’s the question I was wrestling with over a decade ago when I was sitting at a kitchen table with my husband, David, who is also a public defender. We were eating our Chinese takeout and venting about the injustice of it all when David looked up and said, “Why don’t we just start a bail fund, and just start bailing our clients out of jail?” And in that unexpected moment, the idea for the Bronx Freedom Fund was born.

Look, we didn’t know what to expect. There were plenty of people that told us we were crazy and we were going to lose all of the money. People wouldn’t come back because they didn’t have any stake in it. But what if clients did come back? We knew that bail money comes back at the end of a criminal case, so it could come back into the fund, and we could use it over and over again for more and more bail. That was our big bet, and that bet paid off.

Over the past 10 years, we have been paying bails for low-income residents of New York City, and what we have learned has exploded our ideas of why people come back to court and how the criminal legal system itself is operated. Turns out money isn’t what makes people come back to court.

We know this because when the Bronx Freedom Fund pays bail, 96 percent of clients return for every court appearance, laying waste to the myth that it’s money that mattered. It’s powerful evidence that we don’t need cash or ankle bracelets or unnecessary systems of surveillance and supervision. We simply need court reminders — simple court reminders about when to come back to court.

Next, we learned that if you’re held in jail on a misdemeanor, 90 percent of people will plead guilty. But when the fund pays bail, over half the cases are dismissed. And in the entire history of the Bronx Freedom Fund, fewer than two percent of our clients have ever received a jail sentence of any kind.

Ramel, a week later — he was still on the boat, locked in that jail cell. He was on the cusp of losing everything, and he was about to plead guilty, and the Bronx Freedom Fund intervened and paid his bail. Now, reunited with his daughter, he was able to fight his case from outside. Look, it took some time — two years, to be exact — but at the end of that, his case was dismissed in its entirety. For Ramel —

For Ramel, the Bronx Freedom Fund was a lifeline, but for countless other Americans locked in jail cells, there is no freedom fund coming. It’s time to do something about that. It’s time to do something big. It’s time to do something bold. It’s time to do something, maybe, audacious?

We want to take our proven, revolving bail-fund model that we built in the Bronx and spread it across America, attacking the front end of the legal system before incarceration begins.

We’re going to bail out as many people as we can as quickly as we can. Over the next five years, partnering with public defenders and local community organizations, we’re going to set up 40 sites in high-need jurisdictions. The goal is to bail out 160,000 people.

Our strategy leverages the fact that bail money comes back at the end of a case. Data from the Bronx shows that a dollar can be used two or three times a year, creating a massive force multiplier. So a dollar donated today can be used to pay bail for up to 15 people over the next five years. Our strategy also relies on the experience and the wisdom and the leadership of those who have experienced this injustice firsthand.

Each bail project site will be staffed by a team of bail disrupters. These are passionate, dedicated advocates from local communities, many of whom were formerly incarcerated themselves, who will pay bails and support clients while their cases are going through the legal system, providing them with whatever resources and support they may need. Our first two sites are up and running. One in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and one in St. Louis, Missouri. And Ramel? He’s training right now to be a bail disrupter in Queens County, New York.

Our next three sites are ready to launch in Dallas, Detroit and Louisville, Kentucky. The Bail Project will attack the money bail system on an unprecedented scale. We will also listen, collect and elevate and honor the stories of our clients so that we can change hearts and minds, and we will collect critical, national data that we need so we can chart a better path forward so that we do not recreate this system of oppression in just another form. The Bail Project, by bailing out 160,000 people over the next five years, will become one of the largest non-governmental decarcerations of Americans in history.

So look — the criminal legal system, as it exists — it needs to be dismantled. But here’s the thing I know from decades in the system: real, systemic change takes time, and it takes a variety of strategies. So it’s going to take all of us. It’s going to take the civil rights litigators, the community organizers, the academics, the media, the philanthropists, the students, the singers, the poets, and, of course, the voices and efforts of those who are impacted by this system. But here’s what I also know: together, I believe we can end mass incarceration.

But one last thing: those people, sitting in America, in those jail cells, in every corner of the country, who are held in jail on bail bondage, right now — they need a lifeline today. That’s where The Bail Project comes in. We have a proven model, a plan of action, and a growing network of bail disrupters who are audacious enough to dream big and fight hard, one bail at a time, for as long it takes, until true freedom and equal justice are a reality in America.

Thank you.

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