A Convenient Incarceration

A continuation of “It’s All About Sex…And I Don’t Like It”

“How much for both of us?” asked the driver of a dark truck. Nicky was enjoying a plate of barbecue on the porch of a vacant house. It was July 4th and she was not looking for work. Out of instinct, she named her price. The potential customers declined and drove away. A few moments later, a squad car raced toward Nicky. Two Atlanta police officers, one male and one female, jumped out barking instructions. Nicky was arrested and taken to the Atlanta City Detention Center and charged with prostitution.

On August 2nd Nicky was ushered into a crowded courtroom in a red jumpsuit where she waited with other inmates to receive representation from the public defender’s office. During the intervening time, Nicky talked with the attorney, cried, rolled her eyes, and mouthed words at me. At trial, her attorney asked for Nicky to be placed in a facility for women leaving the sex trade. I was given the opportunity to speak on her behalf. The prosecuting attorney rejected the deal, citing prior misconduct. The judge sentenced Nicky to six months in jail.

During her incarceration, I visited Nicky several times; Sunday afternoons at 3:00 was our standing date. The visiting rooms were small and separated by thick glass. The phones for communicating had a noticeable delay; Nicky and I decided to speak with raised voices. Our visits were pleasant. She was always glad to see me and usually in a good mood. We talked about life on the inside and the latest happenings on Rockwell Street. She asked about my family and Rocky, the kitten we adopted from Rockwell Street.

Nicky was released in early November after four months served, thanks to her good behavior and willingness to do work detail. While Nicky was confined, I had an opportunity to reflect on the aforementioned events.

Her incarceration was one of convenience. I’m sure it’s easier, safer, and cheaper for law enforcement to arrest an acquiescent prostitute than it is to pursue, arrest and build a case against the pimps, Johns, and drug dealers that undergird the sex trade.

It’s easier for the courts to sentence Nicky to six months in jail than it is to build an internal rehabilitation program or monitor an outside provider. It’s easier to pass laws about mandatory sentencing than to build a system that supports judges as they consider each case based on its merits. It’s easier for elected officials to tout favorable crime data than it is to do the hard work needed to address the systemic societal factors that foster crime and poverty.

It is also easier for citizens to believe that their community has improved when “criminals” are behind bars than it is to acknowledge the reality that the “undesirables” are being hidden in shelters, institutions, and correction facilities.

So what did all this convenience lead to – Nicky back on Rockwell Street. For Nicky, there was no training while in jail, no attempt at rehabilitation, and no network of support when she got out, not even any new clothes or bus fare or food money upon her release. For her, life is the same after jail as it was before, she’s just four month older.

I had not spoken with Nicky for two weeks prior to her release; I was caught off guard when I got the news that she was back in the neighborhood. I kept telling myself I was going to be there for her when she got out. I thought I had more time.

As it turns out, it was also more convenient for me when she was in jail. Our visits were scheduled and controlled. Our conversations were pleasant, because in jail she was safe and stable and because there wasn’t anything I could give her other than my time and attention. I didn’t have to select my path to work each morning based on whether I wanted to see or avoid her. My emotions didn’t rise and fall on our interactions. I didn’t sit at my house feeling guilty because she was sleeping outside, and I could perpetually tell myself, “Maybe this will be good for her.” It wasn’t.

Jail made our relationship cleaner, but real relationships are messy. It gave me an opportunity to gain some emotional separation from Nicky. It was nice. And I hate it. I’m committed to being Nicky’s friend and being with her as she tries to reach her full potential.

What’s the answer for this situation? I don’t know, but I’m sure it won’t be convenient.

It’s All About Sex…And I Don’t Like It

I rode the dark streets of the Pittsburgh community looking for a prostitute; it was around 7:30 pm on a Saturday night in January.  The forecast was for overnight temperatures to dip into the teens.  I found Nicky on one of her usual corners, bundled up and smoking a cigarette.  I offered to drive her to the old Stewart Center building and put her up for the night.  She sheepishly declined and said she needed to make money.


Nicky was born in East Point Georgia to a single mom.  She was raised by her grandparents and never knew her father.  She bounced through childhood, attending at least six different schools before completing the 12th grade, without graduating.  At some point her grandmother kicked her out of the house.  In her twenties she worked at a salon and a security company, met the wrong guy, got involved with drugs, lost her job and then the apartment.


Housing redevelopment is a major component of the Stewart Center’s strategic plan.  In the next couple of months the Center will complete renovations on two homes in the Pittsburgh community of south Atlanta. The housing initiative is designed to provide families with quality, stable housing.  Among other criteria, families must have children in Stewart Center programing to qualify for one of our rental properties.  As it so happens, Nicky is one of our neighbors.


This September, I’ll turn 40 years old.  I had a great childhood; I grew up in a safe neighborhood and went to great schools, then off to college, work, graduate school, and finally the Stewart Center.  Our paths could not have been more different, yet Nicky and I are working the same block in south Atlanta.


This November, Nicky will also turn 40 years old, meaning our lives have covered the same period of history.   We were 9 when the Challenger exploded, we were 13 when the Gulf War began, and we were 24 on September 11, 2001.  Nicky has been having sex for money for the past twelve years.  Over that period of time Anna, and I moved to Atlanta, I completed graduate school, we had two boys, bought two houses, and celebrated our 15th anniversary.


Knowing Nicky for the past 9 months has enlightened me to the role sex plays in our lives.  For some people, sex is a sacred part of marriage; for some, it is an intimate experience shared with only a few people; for others, it is little more than recreation; and for quite a few people, it is a profession.   As troubling as it is, it is not the sex that has me agitated.


The social context of our parents, the people who had sex to create us, has a huge impact on our life’s trajectory.  Nicky, a black girl born to a single mom in a low income neighborhood without a dad or a college savings account did not grow up in the same America as a white kid raised in a college town with great parents and good schools.  As a child I struggled to overcome learning disabilities.  I went to special classes in elementary school, took medication, and had numerous tutors.  If I had been born as a black boy into Nicky’s context, statistics say that I would most likely be in jail instead of writing this blog.


Nicky provides sexual services, stays in vacant houses in the Pittsburgh community, and is banned from two local convenient stores.  She has a long rap sheet that includes prostitution, indecent exposure, and criminal trespassing.  She can be hard to love, but Nicky has met my boys and calls them by name, she has done work on our construction projects, she takes care of elderly neighbors, shares what she has, and has a sharp mind.


On the day the Stewart Center closed on the house at 552 Rockwell Street, I went with a uniformed police officer to sweep the house.  The officer had to kick the door in to gain entrance.  He removed a woman who had nothing to her name except a grocery bag full of clothes.  It was not until recently that I realized the woman was Nicky.


I have no judgment for Nicky; I hope she does not have any for me.  I care only for her health and personal safety.  In the 70’s, we were two kids with our whole lives in front of us; today we are two friends brought together by the Stewart Center.  I have no idea what will become of this relationship, but I am certain that my life will never be the same.


Nicky is not enrolled in any Stewart Center programing and there are no goals and objectives for our relationship, but it does relate to the Center’s mission.   For 100 years the Center has existed to love our neighbors and to disrupt a society that offers disparate opportunities based on who your parents had sex with.

Keep Swinging

Henry Aaron was eighteen in 1952 when he boarded a train in Mobile, Alabama bound for Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the spring training home of the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro League.  With a sack of sandwiches, two dollars and dark brown skin no one could have predicted that the skinny kid on that train would someday break the most hallowed record in sports.

When Aaron arrived in the major leagues in 1954, and for many years after that, he was not considered a power hitter.  Although he hit 140 homers in his first five big league seasons, guys like Eddie Mathews, Willie Mays, and Mickey Mantle were more revered as home run hitters.  Aaron was much more than a home run hitter.  He is currently one of only 29 players with 3,000 or more hits in their career and he holds the career records for runs batted in (RBI) and total bases and is fourth in runs scored.  It has been said that Aaron both deliberately and inadvertently hit home runs.

Henry Aaron played for 23 seasons, hit 755 home runs, but never hit more than 47 in a single year.  Seventy-three times in major league history a player has hit more than 47 home runs in a season.  Guys like Albert Bell, Hank Wilson, George Foster, Andruw Jones and Ted Kluszewski all hit more home runs in a single season but none came anywhere close to Aaron’s career mark of 755.

The Stewart Center’s recent transition to the Pittsburgh community is the result of much planning, hard work, and prayer.  We are optimistic about our long-term commitment to Pittsburgh and we are eager to see positive results from our efforts.  Despite the recent momentum, it has been difficult to leave Reynoldstown after 65 years while implementing a new strategic direction in a new location.

It was tough to discontinue the Reynoldstown programming that had served certain families for many years. Our departure from the well-known/infamous “blue building” has also left some of our longtime supporters feeling disconnected from a place they once held synonymous with the Stewart Center.  In Pittsburgh we are learning to navigate the realities of rented and shared space while embarking on a housing rehabilitation initiative, working with new partners and immersing ourselves in the Pittsburgh community.

Pittsburgh has the potential to be a place of hope and opportunity.  Currently that potential is strained by abstract factors such as the neighborhood’s child poverty and crime rates and tangible factors like the prostitutes that utilize the nearby corner and the substandard houses that many of our after school children call home.

I had hoped that the move would provide me with much needed energy for the work ahead, but the endless administrative tasks, continuing delays in our construction projects, and the abject poverty of many people in our community has left me wondering when, if, and how we will help bring about community transformation.  The Stewart Center has been serving in Pittsburgh since the summer of 2012 but it was not until we moved our base of operations to the neighborhood that I began to understand the magnitude of the work ahead.  Strategies conceived with good intentions are now realities demanding resources and practical solutions.

Despite the challenges, there are many reasons to be optimistic.  Multiple organizations and individuals are working to transform Pittsburgh; the Stewart Center has an engaged group of after school families that are committed to making the program better and supporting their children; Pittsburgh has many residents working and praying for a healthier community; and we have been blessed with positive partners in the neighborhood like Stewart Avenue United Methodist Church and Blueprint 58.  I am most encouraged by the work of our program staff.  They have managed to navigate various obstacles to create a high-quality learning environment for over 40 elementary school students.

At times like this I resonate with the story of Hank Aaron, not because we have any shared experiences or because I have ever broken any records, but because it took Hank Aaron over 20 seasons to break Babe Ruth’s home run record.   On the night Aaron hit 715 he was the home run champion, but he would not have been there without home run number 1, and number 367, and number 603, and all the rest.  Aaron was not the flashiest player, or the most charismatic, but he may have been the most reliable hitter in baseball history.  So it is with loving and serving our neighbors. Breaking records, crossing the finish line, or reaching a strategic goal is the exception, not the rule.  Loving and serving our neighbors is about being on the journey with them, about enduring relationships where each act of love blesses both the giver and the receiver.

It is my hope that the Stewart Center and all those that serve their communities will value the journey and those with whom we are fortunate to serve.  And who knows, it may turn out for us like it did for Henry Aaron, who was told by a famed sports writer after his second season that he would never set any home run records.


The Rest of the Story

From the 1950’s until his death in 2009, Paul Harvey was one of the most recognizable and influential voices on American radio. Over the course of his career Harvey was engaged in a variety of news formats but he is best remembered for his twice-daily News and Comment and The Rest of the Story.

I was introduced to Paul Harvey when I was a youth riding around town in my father’s pickup truck as we ran errands on Saturday mornings. In particular I remember The Rest of the Story in which Harvey would relate a story about a well-known person or event but keep the name or defining details hidden until the end. Usually the stories uncovered little known facts about a person, contrasted a unique perspective with that of the mainstream, or introduced a critical, but little known, element to a defining historical event.

Paul Harvey was the first to tell me that before FedEx was a multi-billion dollar company it was an economics paper at Yale…that received a “C” grade. Those radio spots also taught me that Jasper Newton Daniel smuggled booze during the Civil War and learned distilling from his Primitive Baptist Preacher long before he founded Jack Daniel’s, and that Abraham Lincoln was not the keynote speaker at Gettysburg on November 19th 1863 and that before he gave his two minute Gettysburg Address Edward Everett had already given a two hour oration.

Some of Mr. Harvey’s stories may have been trivial or slanted but the concept for The Rest of the Story resonates with the reality of our lives. It is not simply a rhetorical style; the rest of the story defines our experiences and relationships. Throughout my life I have been guilty of knowing people and things by name only. I have a tendency to accept headlines or other people’s perspectives as fact and only later realize that my experiences paint a very different picture than the ones I have inherited from others.

Though Paul Harvey taught me many facts, the most important thing I gained was an understanding that there is always more to a story than the headline. The truth, that life is lived below the headlines, is at odds with the way I often consume news, approach faith, make purchases, give of my resources, and judge my neighbors. Whether it is due to a lack of time or a short attention span I frequently want quick answers to questions like: Who do I vote for? What should I invest my money in? Where should I send my child to school? What’s God’s will? What’s the best neighborhood to live in? And where should I contribute my charitable dollars? I can’t be an expert at all of that, somebody tell me what to think!

In September I attended a fundraising seminar in preparation for our end-of-year campaign. The training provided me with a lot of valuable insight but an unnerving reality set in as I listened to the presentation and reflected on the Stewart Center’s fundraising efforts – we must generate headlines to compete for charitable dollars. In print, on-line, and in speech we must validate the Center’s existence in 180 characters or less. Pictures, statistics, and vignettes must tell the story of the Center and our children.

Maranda has been a part of the Stewart Center since she was three or four years old, long before I arrived on the scene. She is in tenth grade at Maynard Jackson High School and is currently a part of our youth group and serves as an assistant counselor in our after school program. Maranda is strong willed and tender, sassy and smart, determined and indifferent. She has grown up in the neighborhood and has aspirations to be a doctor, join the Navy, travel, and ultimately return to Atlanta to make a difference in the lives of her neighbors. She’s been raised by a single mom although she has lived on and off with other relatives and spent over a year in foster care. She has survived the death of close family members, struggled with her grades and was dismissed from middle school a few years back. At one point she and I were at such odds that I forbid her attendance at youth group meetings.

During a particular Bible study when she was being especially disrespectful I abruptly stopped the session, looked her straight in the eye and told her that I didn’t care if she gave me the middle finger in her mind while I talked so long as she sat there and kept her mouth shut. Maranda and I have both grown since that day and our relationship has never been the same. We have an understanding and respect for one another that would not exist without an engaged relationship.

These few facts about her life do not begin to reveal the beautiful, complex, intelligent, vulnerable and driven person that is Maranda. Her story is only one of the many at the Stewart Center, and that is the point, it is her story, not my story, not the Stewart Center’s and I only give it now with her permission and with the fear that it might objectify her in the eyes of some.

I love and respect Maranda and because of that I cannot summarize her life and our relationship in a headline so that others will value the Center’s “work.” Maranda is a huge success story, but it is her success, to be experienced by her and those involved in her life. I have no solution for the tension within me, I must represent the Center but I must never use someone’s life as fundraising fodder.

Here’s hoping that in 2015 we read a few less headlines and experience more of “the rest of the story.”


Drawing Outside the Lines – by Ashley Hicks

I was at the beach a few weeks ago and I was doing one of my favorite things: people watching. I watched families play with their children, I saw people riding their bikes and drawing in the sand, I saw people relaxing with an umbrella drink in hand. One thing that kept my attention the longest though was a little boy, knee deep in the ocean with a fishing net. I watched him as he scooped the net through the water and would excitedly check to see if he finally caught anything. Nothing. He would do it again. Nothing. He repeated it with excitement each time until he ended up catching something. I’m not sure what he caught but I could see pure enjoyment on his face as if he had discovered the answer to life’s hardest questions.

This sense of curiosity gets lost as we get older, doesn’t it? We enter school. We are overwhelmed with pre-assessments, post-assessments, one-answer questions, standards, worksheets, and more. We ask questions, not out of curiosity, but so that we get it right on tests. We become easily frustrated. We become unmotivated. Instead of raising kids as collaborative problem-solvers and critical thinkers, we are raising them as independent, by-the-book students and we wonder what is going wrong. Too many kids are falling through the cracks and being passed from grade to grade as schools transition to new “rigorous” standards. As a educator, I understand how it has gotten this way, but as a educator, I’m not okay with it. It’s time to draw outside the lines. And that’s why I’m excited to be the program director for a place that values education. I certainly don’t have everything figured out but that’s what being a life-long learner is all about. When I tell our staff about some of my plans, I’m constantly saying, “I know I’m crazy, but I have a purpose. There’s a reason why I’m doing this.” What is the purpose? To foster intellectual curiosity, to promote academic enrichment, to support our little readers and critical thinkers and problem-solvers outside of school walls…I want to draw outside the lines.

One thing I learned about the Stewart Center is that it has a way of drawing people back. The Stewart Center promotes building relationships with our kids, families, and the community. We learn each other’s story and push each other to reach our full potential. My story with Stewart Center began when I was a 7th grader. I’m now a college graduate and working somewhere that has had my heart from the very beginning. In middle school, I came to the blue center twice with a group to volunteer for a week. A few years passed, and as a senior in high school, I came back to the center with a different group. At the end of our week there, Clayton Davis told us that if anyone was interested in interning the following summer to let him know. Without much thought, I knew exactly what I wanted to do the following summer. I could tell the Stewart Center was a special place and I wanted to be a part of what was happening. Little did I know, I would be back after the first summer. Again. And again. For 2 summers, I worked as a summer camp counselor and then the following summer, I was the Jumpstart leader for our Pittsburgh site. I recently accepted the position as program director.

One thing I can tell you about the Stewart Center is that is has a way of drawing people together. I’m excited about being a part of this special family, to work with this organization, and to grow as an individual, leader, and teacher. If I haven’t met you yet, I look forward to meeting you in person. You are welcome at the blue center any time!

Ashley Hicks