Dr. Imari Obadele (center) is Toldson's stepfather. (United Press International/EmPower Magazine)

In a piece for EmPower magazine, Dr. Ivory Toldson reflects on the effect his relationship with his own stepfather (a member of the Republic of New Africa) and with Tupac Shakur's (a prisoner at the penitentiary where Toldson worked as a psychology intern) had on his own understanding of oppression and activism.

By the time I became a prison psychology intern, the nonviolent drug offender population had eclipsed all of the violent offenders in the federal prison system, in number and length of sentence. The inmates, with whom I worked, some former college students, entrepreneurial geniuses, artists, and a host of other talents, were keenly aware of the system they served. Many could trace their demise to state sponsored efforts to build the capacity of the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua through crack revenue from poor Black communities. After the dust settled from the Iran-Contra scandal, the War on Drugs continued to function as the middle passage between poor Black neighborhoods and prison industries that thrived on cheap prison labor. Inmates with better health and lower security risk typically worked for a prison industry called UNICOR for about 23 cents per hour. From this, one can surmise that a system that gives longer prison sentences to less violent offenders can generate a healthy profit. In 2008, UNICOR reported $854.3 million in sales, nearly twice their earnings of 1996.

As COINTELPRO and the nomenclature of the War on Drugs fades into infamy, I reflect on something an inmate told me. As if he rehearsed his lines for days and had been building up the nerve to express his point, without reserving anything, he marched into my office, sat on the seat before me and said:

I see you walking in here every day, wearing a suit with your briefcase, looking like you've done something with yourself. When I was growing up, I never saw anyone look like you in my neighborhood — a young Black man with a profession. When I was growing up, all I saw was hustlers and dealers and drug fiends. Maybe if I saw you back then, I wouldn't be here today. So, what I really came here to tell you is: Talk to the kids!

Enamored with the line, "Talk to the kids," I repeat it often in public speeches. However, I am not naive to the fact that the Black community needs much more. As an optimist, I believe many problems will be corrected through the universal potential of Black empowerment and the undaunted spirit of a community responding to oppression.  Inexorably, every day I wonder how this will actually look.


Read Dr. Ivory Toldson's entire piece at EmPower magazine.

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Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D., is the president and CEO of the QEM Network, a professor at Howard University and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education. Previously, Toldson was appointed by President Barack Obama to be the executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. He also served as senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and contributing education editor for The Root, where he debunked some of the most pervasive myths about African Americans in his Show Me the Numbers column. Follow him on Twitter.

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