What do you see when you look at me? Through the years, I have worn many hats, played many roles and had many titles. But when you look at me what do you see?
I have participated in a program in Texas called Victim Impact for several years now. This program is intended to bring together ‘offenders’ and crime victims in an effort to build understanding and hopefully empathy in the offenders. While in some cases the program does bring face-to-face victims and their real offender, this isn’t the part of the program I volunteer in. The program I participate in is part of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, sponsored by the State Attorney General. The Victim Impact Panels are conducted inside of Federal and State Prisons, County and State Juvenile Centers and for Paroled Adults and Teens. The intent and mission of the program is the development of empathy and compassion, something that is usually missing in offender’s make-up.
I often ask this question as part of my speaking portion of Victim Impact.
What do you see when you look at me?
- White Woman
- Blonde, Red Head, Brunette (depends on my choices it changes)
- Beautiful Woman (I forgive them this many have been for a long time)
- Mean Woman (lots of kids in the juvenile centers give this answer)
- Victim (well they know this so they would see this)
- Well-dressed woman (I usually dress in work clothes)
- Rich Woman (I get this one often and always find it interesting, we aren’t allowed jewelry)
- Tall Woman (I wear 5-inch heels but usually my pants conceal this)
The above are just some of the answers. Notice anything missing from this list? How about the following:
These are all the things necessary to see to humanize me, to make me real. What about the rest of us, how do we look out into the world at others, through the prism of our expectations and experiences? What do we see when we meet others, whether formally, informally or simply through media exposure.
Over the years, I have been brought face-to-face with men who have spent their entire adult lives in prison. When I first started this journey I will admit, my heart was hard and my mind closed, I was there for me I wanted them to feel my pain, my hurt and how my life crashed and burned. But then something changed in me and my heart started to shift. Perhaps it was the first program I did with juvenile offenders, thirty young men in a room; each one had to stand and say how old they were, why they were there and for how long. Perhaps it was the first time I met young girls, some as young as thirteen in for prostitution, being punished for nothing less than being exploited, sold mainly by adults and to adults their youth laid to waste. While the young always leave me with holes in my heart and my soul crying for a justice that seems to be sadly missing in their young lives, I think this isn’t the one.
There is always a question and answer period after we speak our truths. There are usually at least three of us speaking on any panel. Sometimes questions are directed at one of us specifically other times someone will just speak to all of us, this was one of those occasions.
At one of the State Penitentiary’s a man stood up and thanked us he was about my age. He proceeded to tell us he had spent most of his adult life in prison. He had three children he had not been there for. One son was in prison, serving 20 years. His daughter would not visit him, hadn’t done so in years, wouldn’t return his letters either. Now his youngest son was facing capital murder and the DA had filed for the Death Penalty, this man would likely never see his child again, as he told his story tears rolled down his face.
What did I see when I looked at him?
I had always talked about the need for these men to reach out to their families, who were their victims as much as we were. I had never seen them though, not really. I had pragmatically understood the rules of the game, they couldn’t get into the program without a recommendation from a Chaplin or the program coordinator, it wasn’t a gimmee. They didn’t get a gold star in their jacket for participating; they had to want to be there. But I didn’t see them, not really not till that day.
So what do we see when first meet another person? Do we define them by their outward appearance? Do we exclude them if they don’t live up to our standards? Do we judge them harshly or simply see through them.
What do we see when we look at another person?