makeshift family

makeshift family

Re-entry services for the formerly incarcerated.



That week, I found myself sitting in an unusual place off near the left side of the heavy wooden desk in the office of my internship supervisor, rather symbolically halfway between where he sat and where sat the client across from him. Since beginning my internship at Madison-area Urban Ministry (MUM), a non-profit that offers re-entry services to former inmates returning to the community from prison, I had sat in that office too many times to count, but often I sat where that client was then, across the desk, a visitor. These times were different – the power differential was altered by the client’s presence. I was now promoted to being my supervisor’s right-hand man – or, rather, left-hand woman.

One of MUM’s most renowned services is its Circles of Support, a program which puts a group of volunteers in a “circle” around a client in order to provide friendship, compassion, stability, trust, and – most importantly – support. In a world aptly named the Information Age and interrupted incessantly with facts, statistics, graphs, and polls, often the importance of emotional health and well-being falls to the wayside to make room for more percentages of recidivism and more statistics on the number of people incarcerated, for how long, and why. Having support is too intangible, too “soft,” to be deemed important by a prison industrial complex run on politicized funds and mass incarceration. No one can deny that people need food, housing, a job; yet, it is difficult to grasp these needs and rise above one’s mistakes and one’s lot in life entirely alone. MUM uniquely catered to this most intangible of social needs. It was for support that the client came to MUM that week.

He was an African-American man in his early 40’s, sitting in his chair as if he wanted to melt into it and disappear. He had recently been released from prison after serving five years for assault, his first offense. He hardly made eye contact while he spoke, but, before he uttered anything, I often saw him look nervously at me – a young, white, female face in the room between an older ex-offender black male supervisor and an older ex-offender black male client. Beyond the fact that he was clearly uncomfortable in my presence, he was uncomfortable with the entire situation: his story was punctuated with him muttering “I don’t like to talk about myself,” he gave the shortest answers possible to any question asked, and everything about his body language, from his flickering eyes to his clasped hands, loudly screamed nervousness, overpowering his quiet voice. He was here because my supervisor had insisted upon it. The client suffered from serious health problems that prevented him from being able to work, which rendered him unable to get into programs that could have helped with his government aid and housing situations because so many require that a client be actively searching for a job. His family was unsupportive and fractured. Essentially, he held very little power; he was at the mercy of MUM, an organization with many programs that may be able to benefit him if he could become officially associated.

My supervisor suggested that he get a Circle of Support in order to talk about these issues. “I like to solve my own problems,” the client mumbled, a strangely unreceptive candidate for an entirely optional program. At this point, as I recall this story in my head, I imagine my supervisor nervously looking towards the handwritten note from his supervisor that I know he had received earlier that week. It stated that if a significant number of new circles were not created within the next two months, the program’s funding was in serious jeopardy. My supervisor then said, “Everybody needs to talk about their problems. When can you start?” We organized a circle around him. It consisted of three white women and one white man.


MUM is an organization run with the best intentions by excellent people – I can confirm this, having spent a significant amount of time with them. Unfortunately, it exists in a world where there are limited resources – money, time, and volunteers. These limited resources make it difficult for MUM or any social work-based nonprofit to perform their services to the maximum level that they could.

When my supervisor insisted upon giving the client a Circle of Support, I was struck by how forcefully he did it. While surely the client did not know about the agency’s funding issues, I knew and my supervisor knew, and I could not help but feel as though the client was being used more as a means to an end than as an end himself. This is in no way to say that my supervisor did not care about him or that he was using him 100%; I think my supervisor truly believed a Circle could help in some way. However, for a Circle to be effective, the client being encircled has to want it, and the client sitting across from us that day did not seem ready to want it yet. However, he was in a position where it was hard to say no – a shy, embarrassed recent ex-inmate sitting across from two figures of authority in a small office, seeking help in any way but finding many programs unable to do so. It is odd to think that in this case I too was a figure of authority; perhaps in this way I played an unwitting part in his becoming a Circles client.

It is unusual too to think of how the fact that I look different than the clients in my race, gender, and age affected how effectively I could provide MUM’s services to them. In the case above, it was fairly obvious that the client was noticing all these differences before he said anything, especially any sensitive information regarding his crime or family. Perhaps the right phrase is not that I was not taken seriously, but that is often how it felt; rather, I think many of the clients thought (and probably rightly so) that I could not possibly really, truly, deeply understand what they were going through and found it difficult to open up to me. Granted, I am young, inexperienced, and privileged; I am not insulted by their reaction. However, it is a reaction I very naively had never really considered before beginning my internship. I often felt as though I was being perceived as some condescending white person who just wanted to help the poor black people, and I would be lying if I did not sometimes feel that way about myself a little bit. While there are many people of color and ex-offenders working at MUM, there are many white people, especially women, with no criminal history whatsoever. It was clear that there was a color imbalance between the authority figures and the clients. Was I just another white authority figure to them?

These musings become especially interesting when I reflect upon the Circles program in itself. I think the idea of the program is excellent and I think that support is an important aspect of the human social world that cannot be forgotten when it comes to healing a hurt person. However, the Circle volunteers are almost all white and are overwhelmingly women. These women certainly have the best intentions, but I wonder just how effectively a group of white middle-aged women can truly offer support and understanding to the young black male ex-offender. If we had more people of color, more men, more variance in criminal history and personal history, the service would probably be taken to a whole new level of effectiveness. If I were a client in a situation in which I was the only one who came from my socioeconomic background and who had done what I had done, I would find it difficult to open up and difficult to not feel like some charity case myself. However, as mentioned before, all non-profit agencies rely on whatever resources they can get. We needed volunteers and we genuinely appreciated them for all that they did (and continue to do); however, the racial inequalities, I think, may degrade the quality of the service more than anyone is willing to talk about.

Upon reflection, I have realized how difficult it is to implement the services that MUM provides. There is such an inexactness associated with a person’s emotional well-being – it is not something that can be quantified. Therefore, it is hard to measure success and impossible to have mathematical precision when it comes to who would benefit from the services. It is difficult to place any sort of blame on the agencies that attempt to help those who find themselves without support if their programs are less than perfect. I see these problems – the whitewashed volunteers, clients who are skeptical about the program, funding issues – and I too cannot think of any better ways to run Circles of Support. If there is one overarching and general lesson that I took from my experience, it is that offering Circles of Support (or any similar program) is a complex endeavor. There are seemingly limitless factors that can affect all the different players who come together to eventually make the program happen. Life is complicated, for clients especially, but also the volunteers and the program coordinators. It is actually quite amazing that for an hour and a half once a week, all of these separate complex lives come together for a single purpose: supporting another person along their personal life journey.

A few weeks after the client’s circle began, I was in the MUM office working on the computer. I had not been in to see the circle that was occurring that day. When the hour and a half or so was up, the volunteers exited the room, laughing. The client left last, a smile on his face that was much larger and much more genuine than anything I had seen from him before. One of the volunteers touched his arm, remarking: “You are so funny!” The group seemed as if they were all old friends who had met for dinner, not part of a volunteer program which had begun only a few weeks prior. I was a little surprised and very pleased to see such cohesion and the beginnings of what clearly was a lot more than four volunteers taking on a charity case. It seemed as though friendship was blooming. Most importantly, the client seemed, for the first time, at home in his surroundings. In the weeks that followed this turning point, which happened far more quickly than I ever would have predicted, the group transformed into a group of friends. Although brought together by unusual circumstances, they appeared to be real friends, people with a true connection to each other. The client seemed to have forgotten his previous skepticism.

Throughout all of this, my supervisor seemed pleased in a quiet, knowing way. Perhaps he just got lucky that the client took to the circle so much better than I, at least, had predicted; maybe there is something to be said for the experience my supervisor had surely acquired through years of working at MUM. Either way, that same group still meets each week, coming together in the back room of the MUM office to discuss their weekends, future plans, hopes, dreams, fears, problems. For all of the program’s imperfections, for all of the cultural and social issues that come to the surface when it comes to the inequalities of the criminal justice system, there is a sort of perfection that can come of it when all of the factors align just right. Only time can tell what will happen from the client’s participation in a circle of support, but perhaps, despite his initial reluctance and my initial predictions, he will get the family he needed more than he knew.

Images: anonymous

inner dialog

inner dialog

The Power of Persuasion.


As part of my internship, I spent a little bit of time with the police officer from West High School. The experience was very interesting and so I wanted to write about it. I chose to write an inner dialogue between someone’s right side and left side of their brain. The ‘someone’ is meant to be anyone – if they were a police officer about to start working in a high school. The inner dialogue is supposed to be an argument (kind of like someone’s angel and demon arguing except there is not necessarily a good or bad side) about how to interact with the students.


Left:    Your best option is to befriend the students. By being friendly and respecting them, they will surely listen to you!

Right:  Nonsense! Don’t listen to him, he’s a fool! These kids don’t even listen to their own parents and teachers, what makes you think they would listen to you? Befriending them may work for the well behaved ones, but it won’t work for the problematic ones. They will just try to take advantage of the friendship you offer them.

Left:    No, no, no, he is soo wrong! As their friend, they won’t want to disappoint you and so they will listen to what you have to say. They will behave in a way to try and make you proud of them.

Right:  My god! Please do not listen to this utter nonsense coming out of his mouth – it makes me cringe. You aren’t here to make friends; you are here for a much more important purpose. The purpose of having these kids come to school is for them to get an education. Your job is to ensure they have that opportunity to get that education by making sure they actually go to class, stay out of trouble, and don’t do anything to detract from other student’s educational experience. To do this you need to demand respect. The students need to know that when you tell them to stop, go to class, or something else, that you mean business. As a police officer you have both formal and informal persuasive powers, and it is important that you utilize them.

Left:    Ha, persuasive powers, eh? The Badge won’t get you very far in here. Unless you are threatening to arrest them or give them a ticket they won’t care who or what you are. You are just another authority figure telling them something they don’t want to hear – and they don’t like it. Many of these problematic students already hold negative views towards the police, and if you are going to be strict and stern with them, it will only feed into this negativity. That is why it is absolutely imperative that you act as a friend. Show them that the police don’t have to be the enemy – you can be their ally, their friend!

Right:  Wrong yet again. Your naïve side over there doesn’t seem to comprehend the importance of utilizing both formal and informal persuasive powers. Some of the students may not appreciate your Badge, but by being stringent and tough, they will learn to respect it. Demanding respect is the key. Once they begin to respect your authority, you will be able to effectively carry out your duties and responsibilities. Don’t you see, if you simply try to befriend these students you lose your formal persuasive power – and you need to utilize both formal and informal persuasive powers to effectively do your job.

Left:    Oh come on now, don’t listen to your lesser half! Friends respect each other and even if you aren’t great friends with the students, they will respect the fact that you respect them.

Right:  Your slow side over there is making me sound like a broken record – how many times will I have to repeat myself to get the point across?? If you did befriend these students, your friendship would not be the same as, say, their friendship with other students their age. And if you were their friend, many of the more problematic students would continue to cause problems and think that you won’t stop them because you are their ‘friend’. Similarly, if you ask them to stop or to go back to class, they might not take you seriously. On the other hand, if you demand their respect, they will know you are serious and they will be more likely to listen. It’s just like tough love. You need to be stern and strict with them – but ultimately, you are doing it for their benefit.

Left:    Interesting that he brings up doing it for their benefit. If you are strict you’ll just end up continuously punishing the problematic students – and probably end up expelling them or arresting them. How is taking them out of school going to benefit them? If you were really doing it for their benefit, wouldn’t you rather keep them in school to keep them away from the streets and jails? Being friendly with them truly is for their benefit because you will help keep them in school.

Right:  Funny, I’ve been here this whole time and yet I don’t remember ever saying that being strict with the students would cause you to arrest and kick them out of school more frequently than if you befriend them. Your other side is hopeless; why do you continue to listen to him spew lies and fallacies? As an officer you have something called discretion. I know you know that, but I’m just saying it so Genius over there understands. Being strict doesn’t mean you arrest the students at every chance you get. Being strict doesn’t mean you try and kick out the bad students. Being strict simply means that you will be firm with them. You will let them know what is acceptable behavior and what is not acceptable behavior. Punishment may be required – but you can use your discretion when the time comes. You can hand out citations, give verbal warnings, or even suggest they go to some type of counseling. Arresting the students or recommending that they be expelled should be your last resort – and only used if nothing else works.

Left:    He says this now, but look at the statistics – they don’t lie! The more schools entertain and put into practice these ‘get-tough’ policies, the more students are being arrested and expelled. I know you want to do your job and help these students out – you don’t want to be a part of those ‘get-tough’ policies.

Right:  Sigh, some people just can’t understand something until they see it work – and it appears my other half is just like that. Discretion! Discretion! Discretion! There may be times when you need to arrest a student, but the vast majority of the time you will be able to rely on your own discretion. YOU will be able to choose if you arrest a student, give them a citation, or give them a warning. It’s the exact same if you are friendly with them – the only difference is they will be more likely to take you seriously if you are strict (so you won’t have to punish them). The decision is yours.

Image: anonymous

two perspectives

two perspectives

Culture and the Perception of Violence.

hamp johnson

Is it acceptable to raise your voice in public? Is a police officer’s perception of a situation enough to warrant unnecessary physical contact or violence? These are a couple of the questions that I had to wrestle with at the Public Defender’s Office while helping investigate a case.

According to the police report, the incident began on a Saturday night around bar time when a couple of police officers had set up their “safety initiative” at the corner of University Ave. and Frances Street. This is right outside of Wando’s Bar. The report said that one of the officers observed a white male walking backwards and yelling obscenities at the people that he was looking at. From the officers’ perspective it seemed as if the man was getting increasingly more angry and was about to fight some of the people. One of the officers observed Jason (a pseudonym) flash a gang sign at another man walking by. What happened next was quick and unexpected, and led to a brief, yet serious, physical altercation. The police officer that was observing Jason ran over to him, notified him that he was a police officer, and when the man didn’t stop being an aggressor, the policeman grabbed him and slammed him on the ground. The man then got on top of the officer and began to hit him in the face. Meanwhile, the other policeman was being grabbed by this man’s girlfriend from behind by his utility belt, and was forced to push her on the ground. The police officers continued to struggle with Jason and the crowd around them became more and more agitated. Jason’s girlfriend got up from the ground and again tried to pull the assisting officer off of Jason. He was then forced to use his night stick to give her a jab in the stomach. The police wound up directly pepper spraying one of Jason’s friends, and blanketing the entire crowd with pepper spray. They also arrested both Jason and his girlfriend. The aftermath of this event was two battered and bruised individuals, and two cops who did not show much signs of a struggle outside of a swollen ear.

After hearing these facts from the police report it seemed pretty clear that the man deserved for this to happen. But a week later I had a talk with my supervisor, who told me that he had spoken with some of the witnesses of this incident that were friends of the defendant, and had been walking with him at the time when the fight broke out that night. Interestingly, they all had given similar accounts of what had happened that night that did not correspond to the police reports.

All of the witnesses said that Jason had been walking backwards and talking to them, and not other people, and was explaining that some guys had tried to start a fight with his girlfriend. Of course, he wasn’t happy about that fact, but wasn’t intending on going to fight anyone and was just strongly voicing his emotions to them. While the defendant was walking backwards, one of the policemen came running over and grabbed him from behind and slammed him on the ground. The defendant, drunk and not knowing what was going on, began to struggle and try to punch the police officer while he was being forced on the ground. From the witness perspective, things escalated from there as the defendants’ girlfriend tried to step in and help by dragging the policemen off of her boyfriend, only to also get beaten up. All of Jason’s friends who were witnesses reported that the police officer that tackled Jason did not identify himself before doing so, and that Jason was blindsided. One of Jason’s friends tried to tell the policemen that Jason had had enough and that he was not resisting, but he was subsequently pepper sprayed. Travis looked like he had just gone two rounds with a professional MMA fighter. One of the police officers suffered a swollen ear.

After hearing these facts and drawing my own conclusions from them, I completely switched my stance and belief of what had happened that night. What makes the police so credible? I conceived that it was easy for a misjudgment on their part to unfold into the type of situation that occurred that night. If it did, I would believe that police officers are easily in a position to cover up their wrongdoings rather than admit to them. It seemed to me that this was the underlying story to this particular event.

I attended Jason’s trial, where police testimony was insufficient to convict him of a felony. I was happy to see that the justice system had worked and that lack of supportive evidence on behalf of the state and the presence of evidence by the defense had led to a man receiving a misdemeanor rather than a felony, for a charge that could so easily have sent him to prison for a significant amount of time

This case and the opposing perspectives surrounding it really allowed me to think deeper into the underlying reasons why this altercation happened in the first place. Even after hearing one of the police officer’s testimonies at Jason’s trial, it was clear to me that they were not sure that Jason was going to fight, but it simply looked as if he was. This was hard for me to come to terms with. There was no doubt in my mind that the officers had meant to do well that night. They perceived something bad happening, and were in a position to prevent a situation from getting out of hand. What is baffling is that instead of preventing a fight from happening, they initiated one, and caused an unnecessary commotion, injuries, and discomfort to many people. Jason was indeed causing a scene, raising his voice, flashing gang signs, and walking backwards, but what he wasn’t hurting anyone. From the accounts of himself and the witnesses, he also wasn’t intending on doing so. It is understandable that police officers see a lot of these types of behaviors on a regular basis, and that often they do lead to fights and disturbances. What is not acceptable is that the police officers resorted to physical violence instead of first trying to talk to Jason and assess the situation. That would be perfectly understandable and warranted. Instead, they tackled him and started a huge fight, which was what they were trying to prevent in the first place.

It was clear to me that differences in culture and what is perceived as violent or deviant behavior can have harsh outcomes. The most important takeaway that I had from Jason’s case is that we all communicate and express our feelings in different ways, and these can be perceived by others to have completely different meanings than what we intend or even expect them to. Although police officers are accustomed to acting on hunches and their initial perceptions, it would benefit them and other people if they make sure to fully digest each situation that they are in, rather than to act off of foreseeable outcomes that are built off of stereotypes. Communication is vital, because a situation isn’t always as it seems. Jason’s case and trial taught me that, and gave me a valuable lesson that I will not forget as I continue to work with the criminal justice system.



Jail imprisons both the keepers and the kept.

benjamin hale

Life behind bars affects two types of men. Men who have lead very different lives but have ended up in the same place.

One has been in and out of the system since the age of 14. Raised in a single parent home, his mother was rarely around due to work and he never knew his father. His absent parents lead to trouble in school, and being kicked off the soccer team. He sought what he couldn’t find at home. Love, attention and belonging. Like many youths in his situation he found gang life. This only compounded his problems as he began using drugs and committing crimes. First it was just stealing from local stores, nothing serious. But it escalated quickly. He was most recently found guilty of two accounts of armed robbery and assault, and one account of second-degree murder. He is awaiting his transportation to a nearby prison to serve his time. At the age of 22, this is nothing new to him. He is being held in the infamous 7 West block of the Jail. An area reserved for maximum-security inmates, those dangerous to the Deputies or other inmates as well as those with special health needs. He has been through this dance time and time again yet somehow it does not cease to have an effect on the young man. The initial arrest is always infuriating, both internally and externally. He was mad at the cops for catching him but even more angry at himself for being caught. Then in booking he felt outwardly angry, feeling that the way he was taken down at gunpoint and the use of physical force was wrong. He vents his feelings at Deputies and his outburst is met with handcuffs and an increased number of Deputies escorting him through the booking process and to his isolated cell. During his hearing he felt defeated, he felt that his public defender less than properly represented him and that the judge handed down a severe punishment. In his cell he feels alone. He feels angry. He feels that the world has dealt him a bad hand and he cannot do anything about it.  The jail is loud, inmates are constantly yelling, banging on the walls, the tables and bars. The jail is cold, not only physically, but emotionally as well. The cement floors suck the heat from one’s body. The metal bars and cement blocks are painted a bleak pale cream color that seems to steal the energy from inmates. The walls, floors and ceilings blend together until they are nearly indistinguishable from a distance. The hallways amplify every sound, from a shouting voice to a cup clattering across the ground. The Deputies speak in loud voices to be heard about the constant buzz that echoes through the jail. The inmates yell and argue. Fights break out over the smallest things. These conditions do not just affect the inmates.

The second man is a young Deputy. Just like every other Deputy, he career starts here in the Jail. Working the third shift. Showing up to work at night, entering a dark building, an empty, quiet building. One void of any activity from the second floor on up, or at least that is how it appears from the outside. He goes through three sets of large steel doors to enter the jail. He enters a different world. One where the majority of the people around him would like nothing more to make his job more difficult, to hurt him, to attack him or even kill him. He walks down the same bleak hallways, hears the same endless noise and feels the same cold radiate from the walls, floors and ceilings. His relieves the second shift deputy and takes his place in the seat. He watches the flickering screens. He struggles to keep his mind on task. The inmates are sleeping. Things are quiet, there are no other Deputies in his office. He struggles to keep his mind from wandering to his wife, to his kids. To the missed soccer games, to the arguments and fights he has had with his wife. To the shortness he feels after 14-hour shifts. The lack of energy he feels both physically and emotionally. The jail is his own. Though he is not behind the bars, he feels trapped. He feels a strange connection to the inmates. The jail seems to not only trap those sentenced to time behind bars, but all those who enter its doors.

shelter stories

shelter stories


john kreuser, briana eaton and anonymous shelter residents


J: At the Dane County Juvenile Shelter I’ve been meeting with kids caught up in the juvenile justice system. Some are here for delinquency issues, but most are here for reasons beyond their control, such as those they may be experiencing at home.

B: The group dynamic and limited space inside Shelter sometimes made things chaotic. So many different conversations going on, and people trying to talk over one another, the environment was often noisy. These kids were animated, spunky, and full of life.


B: I learned that a lot of kids were in Shelter because of concerns about their safety and well being in their home environment. Shelter was a way to protect them.

One of the girls I spoke with talked a lot about her relationship with her mom. She told me the story of how her mom got pregnant with her at age 16. When she was born her dad moved away and started another family, and her mom returned to partying. Her grandparents were the ones who raised her until she was 12. For all those years growing up, she barely heard from her mom or had any relationship with her. But after 12 years, her mom decided that she was ready to be a part of her life again, and asked her to move to Madison to live with her. She explained how she resents her mom for being absent all those years, and how the tensions in their relationship seem to be reaching their peek now that she is a teenager:

“Yea, we’re friends, but when she tries to be a mom it’s like…I feel like I’ve earned the freedom I have, I don’t disrespect you, I don’t skip school, I have a job, I earn the freedom that I have now. She thought different…”


B: I discovered that the meaning of family is different for everyone. “Family” isn’t limited to relatives, it often includes gang members. But that doesn’t take away from its importance.

“Family, yeah, not friends, I ain’t got no friends, I ain’t trying to make no friends…”

“My brothers and sisters…they’ve learned how to be more cold-hearted. They used to be really warm-hearted just like me, but that doesn’t really take you nowhere. If you’re nice to people, it doesn’t really matter. My mom the one who taught me, she told me when I was a young kid, if you keep lettin’ people step on you, you’re goin’ to be stepped on for the rest of your life. You’re the one who’s supposed to be doin’ the stepping.”


J: Each week we had the kids do an activity that revolved around the theme of the night. Race made its way into the conversation most nights…often with a Bob Marley, Rastafarian influence.

“The main reason my family cares so much about race, would be because race is still a big problem. Considering how black people are more likely to get arrested, most of the prisons are full of black people, stuff like that. My mom didn’t want me to become one of those statistics.”

“Well, if you was white, you would not be here…[laughter] yeah, think about it. [She white, and she here!] Well, her dad wanted her to be here. She got sentenced here.”


J: Racial terms could be a form of endearment between friends, known as flaming, that increased social cohesion within Shelter.

“Flaming is basically when you talking about somebody…Dissin’ each other, you’re basically talking about somebody, but in a cool way, it doesn’t have to make sense. If I said your head looked like a nugget, doesn’t make sense to people who aren’t black, how does your head look like a nugget, but it makes you laugh [laughter]…sometimes my friends say I look like a “black a… this, or “black that,” and they were naming off everything that had to do with a person being black, but it wasn’t racist.”

J: When these comments occurred between strangers, there was a whole new meaning.

“So there was a time I was walking with my friends, a group of black people. And a car full of white people drove by and said ‘You Black Niggers!!!’ We yelled back ‘Fuck You Bitch.’ So then as we still walked they came back and said ‘We’re gonna lynch you Niggers.’ Then we said ‘Come do it Bitch we’ll beat your Fucking Ass.’ So then they pulled the car over and I had a pellet gun. So then I shot them…”

J: The kids told me that racial biases don’t get in the way during their time at Shelter, because the staff there care about getting their lives back on track.


“Life is one big road with lots of signs
So when you riding through the ruts
Don’t complicate your mind
Flee from hate, mischief and jealousy
Don’t bury your thoughts
Put your vision to reality
Wake Up and Live!”

Bob Marley




bucky badger

Being a college student at UW-Madison definitely plays into my culture. In the fall, every Saturday morning I wake up early, put on as much red clothing as I can and walk over to Camp Randall only to sit on the cold concrete in 30-40 degree weather, for three hours before they will let me into the stadium. A big part of the UW-Madison student culture is going out and drinking. Although I consider being a student here as a huge part of my culture, I do not take part in that aspect of it.
* * *

Binge drinking and heavy drinking are very common in UW-Madison culture. I struggle with judging excessive alcohol use, for the sole purpose of getting drunk. I see this kind of behavior as destructive to oneself personally, as well at to relationships. While I know that some people are genetically predisposed towards problematic substance use, I am very uncomfortable in situations where people are imbibing large amounts of alcohol. This is my internal reaction. Externally, I am often hesitant to express my disapproval. Mainly, this is because I am afraid that people will make snap judgments about me if I express my differing views. I also find that expressing disapproval of another’s lifestyle choices causes wedges in relationships and often closes relational doors.

* * *

The facet of my culture that is most difficult for me to share in public would have to be my education/intelligence level. It’s not exactly that it’s difficult to share, but I think I just don’t know how to share it properly. The fact that I attend UW-Madison and have been on the Dean’s List every semester is something that I’m very proud of, but I feel as though it’s difficult to illustrate this without sounding like I’m being arrogant. I’ve always worked extremely hard for my grades, but I feel as though I have to hide it because I don’t want other people to think I’m trying to act superior towards them. For example, when we get back an exam in class and one of my peers asks me how I did, I usually say I did worse than how I actually did, so that he or she doesn’t think I’m bragging. As I write about it now, it seems like a very trivial and superficial problem, but I always feel like I have to act that way, and I don’t know why.

* * *

The facet of my culture that is most difficult for me to share in public would have to be my education/intelligence level. It’s not exactly that it’s difficult to share, but I think I just don’t know how to share it properly. The fact that I attend UW-Madison and have been on the Dean’s List every semester is something that I’m very proud of, but I feel as though it’s difficult to illustrate this without sounding like I’m being arrogant. I’ve always worked extremely hard for my grades, but I feel as though I have to hide it because I don’t want other people to think I’m trying to act superior towards them. For example, when we get back an exam in class and one of my peers asks me how I did, I usually say I did worse than how I actually did, so that he or she doesn’t think I’m bragging. As I write about it now, it seems like a very trivial and superficial problem, but I always feel like I have to act that way, and I don’t know why.

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I have a learning disability and this is something that I have been ashamed of sharing with others for most of my adult life. This is true for close friends as well as with people in general. The reason I am ashamed is because I am worried that if I told people they may look down on me and unfairly label me as being incompetent. This may be an irrational fear but it persists nonetheless.

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 During my school years in China, I have learnt the culture of traditional Chinese students to be hardworking, taking grades as the priority of life. Unlike American students, children in China learned to study hard. Parents and teachers always emphasize the importance of grades, and we do not have many opportunities to get exercise, to do activities, to cooperate with others within a group, to practice leadership. We have experienced through elementary school to be aggressive and worry about grades, to not challenge teachers, to follow whatever parents or teachers tell us to do, etc. Such experiences determine our personality and the ways we do things.

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First and foremost, my identity as a gay man is difficult. I struggled in reflecting on this as to whether or not this is actually a “facet of my culture,” but if culture is something that includes ways of thinking and looking at the world, as Gates is suggesting, then this is something I feel the need to keep in mind. I struggle in sharing this identity in public on two levels. First, there is a part of me that feels like it is not necessarily anyone’s business but mine. This might stem from any number of things, but I am just not the sort of person that broadcasts my personal life. Second, I recognize that I am in a minority that is viewed negatively by some portion of the population, and I am frankly scared of the rejection I might receive from classmates, peers, or even strangers on the street. By no way does this facet of my culture make me feel ashamed. I actually feel quite comfortable sharing this portion of my life with the people close to me, and I frequently have discussions with friends and family about this aspect of my culture they do not have in common with me.
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My family holds traditionalist views about personal relationships. My grandpa could not accept the idea that my uncle is homosexual. Whenever my uncle’s partner joins us for a family event, my grandpa does not speak a word to him. I think he is using this as a way to convince himself that his son really is not gay. This is a part of the culture that I grew up in that I choose not to share with most people. I have been able to distance myself from these ideas and would not want people to know that there are members of my family who think this way, or that I was raised with these prejudices around me.

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on space time foam, samuele ghilardi

There is also the concept of personal space. For many others and me common courtesy is important. Many international students I have seen will walk five across on the sidewalk when there are other people who are also trying to walk on the street. Many international students here on campus will walk uncomfortably close to you or sit/stand at a close distance. I struggle with these minor incidents because I am quick to assume that they should know these simple rules of everyday interaction and I forget that they are from other countries and maybe in their culture what seems disrespectful to me may be common courtesy or a common practice to them. The way I react when I run into these minor instances is I will display unfriendly body language, such as rolling my eyes or I may breath heavy, and how I react internally is having very rude thoughts such as “They are in America now they should act accordingly” or “maybe they should go back to China” (or wherever they are from). I know I shouldn’t have these types of thoughts because it makes it seem as if there is something flawed about people from other countries and that I don’t appreciate their differences. I also know that back in the day or even in today’s age many Europeans felt/feel the same about African-Americans like myself.
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Although to many it may seem petty, I find myself often judging others that walk on the “wrong” side of the sidewalk. I have always been told that when walking on a sidewalk, you stay on your right side. Just like highways and other roads, having a universal side to walk on allows smoother flow of foot traffic on city sidewalks. However, I find people from other cultures walking on their left side of the sidewalk on a daily basis, which often jams up traffic and causes issues. Whenever this happens I get a little perturbed and often find myself thinking that the individual must be stubborn and unwilling to pick up on the cultural norms of the area, since they are still practicing their own cultural norms. If I were in their shoes, I like to think that I would be able to pick up on their customs quickly (such as walking on the other side in different countries). That being said, I am sure I would follow my norms frequently because it is what I am accustomed to and am comfortable with.

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Privacy is important to me because I think that every person needs a certain degree of personal space and feeling of security within themselves where they do not feel in danger of being publicly exposed about an issue or secret. I cherish privacy a lot in my own life. I think that it is important for myself and for others that we all have a certain degree of privacy in our lives and I think it is an important quality that can go sometimes unnoticed. When privacy is spoiled, it can really hurt a person’s reputation or life in general.

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One very tough facet of my culture I have difficulty sharing might seem harmless to others, yet I still seem to struggle with it: timeliness. While I was being raised here in south-central Wisconsin, I have always been taught that being on time is everything, and that it is not enough to blame being late on a transportation issue (such as a blown tire) or another individual, such as a parent or friend. In my experience I have found that many other cultures, in general, tend to be more relaxed when it comes to timing. In fact, I have acquaintances from my same hometown that were raised differently than me, and these people were raised to regard timeliness as less important than other factors. It is very difficult for me to share this part of my culture with others for a variety of reasons. Primarily, I always seem to struggle explaining why being on time matters to me, beyond just saying I was raised this way or that it is just respectful to be early or on time. Up until this exercise, I had always viewed tardiness as disrespectful and a sign of carelessness. However, other cultures stress being on time less than other values. This is not right nor wrong, just different from my cultural practices.

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