The foundation of my career was built on the First Amendment and the promise of a free press and the protection of free thinking. Before becoming the Prison Project Director for the ACLU of Alaska, I was slinging copy for peanuts on local TV and newspapers.
I was proud to be a journalist and proud of some of my work – like the piece I wrote about Destry Murphy, a young man hardly old enough to drink who died at a homeless camp and was treated like nothing but a statistic.
I’m less proud of other pieces, mostly reporting on policing and the court system. A journalist's job is to objectively inform the public and to do so while creating the least amount of harm possible. In that way, I failed. I followed the template of cops and courts reporting that has perpetuated harm, racism, hate, and oppression for as long as the press has existed.
There was so much I didn’t know and still don’t, so I keep trying to learn more.
I don’t regret being a journalist, though. I was proud. I still am. I will support a free press and pay to subscribe to quality news sources for as long as my heart beats -- and you should too. Being a journalist taught me to question everything, to keep learning, and about the power of the pen, and the duty one has when given the opportunity to have a voice. These lessons are the principles of how I work now as Alaska Prison Project Director.
I just wish I knew more before.
Today, I believe it’s my job as a civil rights advocate, voter, and community member to continue to educate myself about the world I live in, the one I’m fighting for. But to do that, it also requires that we fiercely protect the First Amendment, which is always under attack.
I’m sharing my literary journey in hopes that it will inspire you to pick up something different than you might normally reach for at the library or your local bookstore. Within the pages of the book listed below, I began to see the world much differently than I had experienced it from within the walls of my south Anchorage childhood home. I began to learn the historical context in which institutions like education and criminal legal systems were built and how they impact the way society functions today.
Through each word, I have found empathy, forgiveness, compassion, self-acceptance, and healing. In each book, I am continually humbled by the reminder that we do civil rights advocacy today from the shoulders of giants who bled and died to make the United States safer, more equal, and freer. These giants used the opportunity to be free thinkers to make changes within their own communities that had far-reaching ripple effects.
That is power.
And that is precisely why oppressors fight to keep many of these books out of school and prison libraries around the country – because the most dangerous thing you can be in this world is educated.
Here are my book suggestions that might help guide your literary journey. If you read a book on the list, shoot me an email or drop me a message on X or Threads and tell me what you think. You can also continue to track my book list on Goodreads.
“Dread” by Ai. These poems are a fiery and tragic reflection about the loss of innocence in the United States, and the individual impact these perverse corruptions have on all of us. Each of us likely has a different laundry list of triggers that cause the feeling of dread, although I suspect there is often commonality, but reading Ai’s work was like watching her process and figure out how to continue to work in real time, while experiencing dread. Global pandemics, police officers and jailers killing innocent people, sexual assault, the capitol insurrection, global warming – my list could go on – but figuring out how to function with the nagging feeling of dread is required to sustain yourself in this world, especially as an advocate which requires you don’t close your eyes to the ugliness of the world we live in. You can’t solve a problem until you admit there is one.
“Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” by Ibram X. Kendi. Kendi writes: “Time and again, racist ideas have not been cooked up from the boiling pot of ignorance and hate. Time and again, powerful and brilliant men and women have produced racist ideas in order to justify the racist policies of their era, in order to redirect the blame for their era’s racial disparities away from those policies and onto Black people.” This book completely flipped my perspective on what drives bad policy on to its head, and I think about this passage every time I hear “tough on crime” rhetoric, fear-mongering propaganda about immigrants, and purposed book bans on history books like “The 1619 Project”.
“In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance” by Wilbert Rideau. Rideau, an 8th grade dropout, and resident of the segregated deep south, kills a white bank teller in a robbery gone wrong. He’s sentenced to death and begins his story of redemption from death row in Angola (where this year, detained juveniles were being held). Through the journey of Rideau fighting to escape his death date and then to be free, you start to see that the problems with the criminal legal system are holistic, and not exclusive to prison conditions, police, and prosecutors. Everything is connected. And when Rideau describes a safer, more rehabilitative Angola – where incarcerated people have more opportunity to live a purposeful life and in turn a notoriously dangerous prison becomes safer, I was reminded of Alaska’s own Spring Creek under the supervision of former Superintendent Bill Lapinskas. Under his leadership, incarcerated people had the opportunity to be leaders, and to create positive changes as teachers, advocates, mentors, family members, and even healers. But like Rideau demonstrates in his story at Angola, those opportunities at Spring Creek only lasted as long as the powers at be did not find them threatening to their political agendas. When the Dunleavy Administration took over, those opportunities ended abruptly. Now, today Alaska’s are more deadly than ever.
“Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America” by Gilbert King. Thurgood Marshall is one of the most prolific lawyers in American history. When he was on his way to arguing the landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education before the U.S. Supreme Court, he met the Groveland Boys. The deadly case changed the civil rights movement, killed innocent black men, and almost killed Marshall. The Groveland Boys were victims of a racist and misogynistic system during the Florida orange industry boom in 1949, when a 17-year-old white girl said she was raped, which quickly lead to the arrests of four innocent young black men and sent the KKK on a terror of furry through black neighborhoods.
“We Do This ‘til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice” by Mariame Kaba. I know the A-word makes people uncomfortable, but hear me out. The institutions of the U.S. – prisons, the criminal legal system, healthcare, education, etc.… are built on the foundation of colonialism and racism. Today, Black and brown people, women, the queer community, the mentally ill, the poor, the elderly, immigrants, and those with a felony on their records are still considered three-fourths a person by the institutions running outr society. This was how our country was built. The Constitution was not written for me, or anyone else on that list. “Fixing” only goes so far, as these systems aren’t broken – they are operating exactly as they were built, to treat too many less than the rest because they were built on the foundation of racist, homophobic, classist, and misogynistic ideas. That’s why I believe in abolition more strongly than I believe in the Red Sox or the healing power of fresh air and sunshine. You might be wondering, “Well if you abolish it all, what do you do instead?” Kaba explores that very question in this series of essays. (Spoiler: It’s on all of us to figure it out.)
“Crying in H Mart” by Michelle Zauner. This probably doesn’t seem like an obvious choice for my book list. It’s not controversial, and I don’t think anyone has tried to ban it. However, I believe activists are also usually part healers – people who use their tools, time, and talent to make the world a little bit better. But it’s hard to heal others without working to heal ourselves. My mom died in 2018, after a short battle with neuroblastoma, a rare form of brain cancer. Her death wasn’t quick; she died a little bit more each day until she fell into a drug-induced comatose state inside my childhood home, where I watched her take her final breath. My mother was my greatest protector when I allowed her to be, and always my biggest cheerleader – but we had a complicated relationship. I had a good childhood in many ways, but not on all days. I’m part of a family that has for generations, ignored mental health and never talked about the generational trauma that has infected all of us because “we all turned out OK.” I walked on eggshells, found emotional safety in my brother, and then rebelled against it all. Everything got worse when I was a teen. I was mad. I was undiagnosed bi-polar. I experienced suicidal ideation. Then I was raped. Again, it got worse then, and so did my relationship with my mother. I told myself that not telling her protected her, but all it did was break her heart because her baby girl was no longer the same and she couldn’t explain why. She just thought she failed. I apologized the Mother’s Day before she died. She cried. I hated myself more. This book helped me grieve, process, and forgive myself, and, it made me cherish my memories with her more than I ever had – even if at times, our relationship was strained.
“American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment” by Shane Bauer. I read before bed and sometimes, it’s a terrible choice. I’m an emotional person, and anger is what I felt at bedtime every day until I finished this book. This book explains the business of prisons and the economy of people – which did not end when the 13th Amendment was enshrined into the U.S. Constitution. While Bauer goes inside a private prison, which many consider much worse than state-run prisons, like Alaska – these different versions of human warehousing have more in common than you might think. The Alaska system operates beneath the same veil of secrecy without a trace of accountability.
“Loving vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case” by Patricia Hruby Powell, Shadra Strickland. In 1955, when two teenagers fell in love, they broke the law. Their story changed the course of history. A love story as powerful as the Lovings deserves the beauty it’s told in this illustrated book that is, in full disclosure, for children – but adults must read it too. Some say that Loving v. Virginia could never be overturned, but the same legal reasoning Judge Alto stated to turn over Roe v. Wade, could be used to overturn the case protecting interracial marriage. We cannot get complacent, and we must act vigilantly to protect it. Love is love.
“Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History” by Art Spiegelman. I love a graphic novel, especially a work of art like “Maus I” which won a Pulitzer. Spiegelman tells the harrowing story of his father during the Holocaust while weaving in details of his own tortured relationship with his father. I sobbed as I flipped through the pages, as the author is telling a real-life account of an unspeakable human tragedy while unpacking the legacy of trauma in families – like many of us in this country experience.
“The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone and the Media” by Brooke Gladstone and Josh Neufeld. I read this only months before I retired from my short career as a journalist. Reading it made me feel a wave of guilt for not fully understanding the power I was wielding as a journalist. Every young whippersnapper with ambitions of changing the world in column inches, radio waves, and airtime should read this before ever publishing copy. And every consumer of news – from Facebook link clickers to Fox viewers and New York Times Sunday subscribers must read it, too. The press, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, has incredible power over how we vote, what we believe is reality, and how we see and treat each other. Remember what Winston Churchill said: “Where there is great power, there is great responsibility.” This sobering graphic novel explains it all.
“Leading from the Outside” by Stacey Abrahms. Queen. If I ever meet Stacey Abrahms, I will fangirl. Before you come for me, know I am undeclared and unregistered. I have voted red and blue. I pay attention to a candidate’s stance on issues, I could care less about their political affiliation – and I fact-check every word during campaigns regardless of their party affiliation. I admire Abrahms because I admire her work ethic, the strategy of her life and ambitions, and her morality – because trying to be an agent of positive change in this world will test your moral compass. I often feel like an outsider at the ACLU (many of my colleagues around the country have Ivy League educations, but I don’t) and as the lead of a project that is very much a legal project, as a non-lawyer. I almost didn’t graduate from high school, and I am not wealthy. I am determined, though, so I am learning to harness my own power, how to share it with other outsiders, and how to be less intimidated by and a better student of my peers. This book showed me where to begin.
“The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander. This book guides my life. Alexander (a former ACLU staffer) puts the entire criminal legal system on trial. (I don’t call it the “justice system” as there is very little justice in it, it’s a system of punishment. Justice and punishment are not the same.) I can’t explain it better than the synopsis, so I will leave you with this: “Today, it is no longer socially permissible to use race explicitly to justify discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. Yet as civil-rights-lawyer-turned-legal-scholar Michelle Alexander demonstrates, it is perfectly legal to discriminate against convicted criminals in nearly all the ways in which it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once labeled a felon, even for a minor drug crime, the old forms of discrimination are suddenly legal again. In her words, “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”
Join Megan and the ACLU of Alaska in celebrating Banned Books Week October 1-7. See our staff picks list from the list of 56 books currently challenged and being reviewed by the Mat-Su School District Library committee.