In between a barrage of emails from his JustLeadershipUSA team and a dizzying pace of faxes, Glenn Martin sat down with Marlon Peterson to discuss Glenn’s complex journey of love from a stick-up kid in Brooklyn to a father and advocate whose goal is to reduce America’s prison population by 2030. Here is an excerpt from our conversation:
Marlon: So, Glenn, tell me about the beginning of your love.
Glenn: That is not a question easily answered.There are two versions to the beginning of my love. There is the love I had before I went to prison and the love I was able to have years after exiting prison. And they were two very different kinds of love. One was the love of money.
As someone who grew up in poverty in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn from a single parent household, I just remember being so poor that we couldn’t afford to buy a shirt to go to graduation, so we missed every graduation.
None of us made it to proms, graduations, any sort of assemblies, anything where you have to spend money…class trips. We were just that poor that we couldn’t afford anything extra like that. Remember saying to myself I would never grow up to be that poor, no matter what happens.
I remember sort of being angry about the situation I grew up in and promising myself that everything I did as soon as I had the capacity to would be about not growing up poor. I thought that money was the answer to all of that pain and all of that hatred. I just really fell in love with money. Money started driving me, every morning, every day, every night, every minute. But, when I went to prison, particularly when I got to Rikers Island, I realized that I needed to do everything I could to be less human every day.
Marlon: I’d like to back up a little bit. Your family isn’t from America?
Glenn: No, I was born here in the United States and then immediately sent to live in the Caribbean for a few years, while my mother tried to make her way here. I know what made us poor. What made us poor was that my mother came here with no foundation here in the states. Just looking for a better life and believing in the American Dream and I had a father that wasn’t supportive financially or otherwise.
And so here you have this woman, new to this country, at a time where there weren’t as many Caribbean people new to this country as there are today. And I just remember having a Caribbean accent and trying to get rid of it as soon as possible because I was so embarrassed by it and I’d be teased about. But, I also remember my mother ending up on welfare and trying her best to get off welfare and every time she would get a job, the job would pay just enough to match what welfare was paying, but without healthcare. Which meant that it was actually better to be on welfare because you would at least have Medicaid. And I just remember her going on and off from you know crappy jobs.
People ask me now ‘why don’t you take vacation?’ I barely do and when I do it’s because someone else planned the whole thing. People don’t get that when you grow up that poor, the word vacation is synonymous with unemployed because you don’t have the kind of jobs that you can say, I’m taking a vacation. In low wage jobs you work every day or you don’t work.
Marlon: Was your mother someone that was a very nurturing person? Would she say, “I love you, Glenn” and hug you and kiss you?
Glenn: I didn’t even call my mother, mom until like I was 30. I don’t think my mother learned love either. I think my mother lived a tough life, moving around from one Caribbean island to another. I grew up in a family where people were in the military and I think that her father didn’t show her love, so she didn’t know how to show her children love. I remember kissing my mother for the first time I came to the United States and then I remember not kissing her again until I was about 25-years old.
Marlon: How old were you when you came back to the United States?
Glenn: Eight…so yeah, that’s a good question. How do you practice love when you were never taught love? And yeah, my mother’s version of love definitely fit in most people’s definition. I mean clearly she loved us. That’s clear today. But at the time, it was strange. I mean, I grew up around so many different people that I literally didn’t know who my mother was. I remember getting out of a cab in New York, in the snow—in the dead of winter and I remember my grandmother telling me, “you’re here to meet your mother now.”
Marlon: Do you blame your mother for any of that?
Glenn: You’re getting me in trouble. Yeah, of course I do. The worst point in a person’s life is when they realize they are smarter than their parents. At that point, I started being judgmental about the decisions my mother made because suddenly they weren’t the decisions I would have made. It took me a long time to stop using my frame to make decisions, unfair decisions, about my mother’s decisions. And two, I got locked up. I was ten hours away from New York and they didn’t come. My mother didn’t come to see me too often in year one and then by year two, I told everyone not to come see me.
Glenn: Because I thought I was trying to be a stand-up guy and deal with the punishment alone and not expose them to it. What I was really doing, probably, was being selfish, denying people access to me, which is selfish. Also not wanting to be confronted with people, I needed to explain to why I caused them so much pain. You know, I can see how people turn around and re-offend because you are so disconnected from society, you feel so dehumanized and then you also do it to yourself to some degree and then there is trauma there too. Like the interesting thing about associating trauma with prison, for instance is people don’t realize that you form these bonds in prison and then you got to walk away from them and parole tells you, you can’t associate with those same people.
Marlon: Let’s talk about your son Josh.
Glenn: Joshua was a surprise, not in the way most people would think. He was a surprise because I thought that I wasn’t going to be able to love this child. I knew I would be able to care for this child because I had the resources now, but I didn’t think I would be able to love him.
Marlon: So you made a distinction between care and loving?
Glenn: Yeah, I do it with my mother. I respect her. I care for her.
Glenn: Josh I love because he is not in a position to judge me. He lets me practice. It’s a safe space to practice love and so something I won’t get from anyone else on this earth, I get from him—non-judgment. The kid doesn’t judge me, you know, and, and I try not to judge him. It’s a beautiful relationship in that way because I feel as though most of the people I grew up with, judged me on the way up, and when I really tried to turn things around, people continued to judge me and it felt so fucking unfair. It still feels unfair.
I get judged by people all the time about stuff I have no control over. “Oh you don’t smile enough.” “Oh, you don’t go to enough small events.” “Oh, you don’t talk enough when you’re in small groups.” “Oh, you don’t stay with women long enough.” It’s just like people don’t get it. I don’t know where the book is on that stuff, but if you don’t learn it growing up, like it’s hard to practice it because people don’t give you any room.
Marlon: JustLeadershipUSA and Josh?
Glenn: In 2030 Josh will be 18. That’s where cutting the prison population in half by 2030 came from.
Marlon: Thinking about Josh?
Glenn: Yeah, that first email I sent December of last year and I told people I am sitting in my living room thinking about Josh and doing this whole organization [JustLeadershipUSA]. Black men don’t make it to 18 without going to prison. This kid [Josh] has to make it to 18.
So I got to do something about this system before he makes it to 18, and I got to get the rest of the world to come along. So mobilizing the rest of the world to do something about mass incarceration is my love for Josh.
Marlon: It’s amazing particularly how you have realized two things: Justice is love and the fact that you can equate that with what is now becoming your life’s work, which is fairness and justice. You equate that with the biggest love of your life, which is Josh.
Glenn: Yeah. Maybe my love for justice was a great segue into my love for Josh, and I can’t have it with anyone else, definitely not with adults. It’s just not the same. I tell people I love them, but I don’t know if I really do because if I compare it to how I feel for Josh, it’s not the same.
I don’t feel like I need to try to figure out how to love the rest of the world. Although if I could save the world and Joshua at the same time, that would be a good thing, but if I could only save Joshua that would be a good thing, too.
Marlon: Do you think Josh’s love for you is all the love you need? Let me rephrase that. Do you ever wish that you had more than just the love from Joshua?
Glenn: I don’t. You can’t miss what you never had. I don’t crave love from other people. I do crave it from Joshua though. When he is in a mood and he is not showing me love, it bugs me, man. He is so smart. He can’t do anything wrong, as far as I’m concerned. He just can’t. At least not right now.
Marlon: Well Glenn, I want to close out.
Glenn: That’s about as vulnerable as I get. You got a lot just now. I think I have done something like this like three times in the last fifteen years.
Marlon: Well thanks for that also. I know you are always very clear about how your message and voice resounds.
Glenn: Yeah, I learned a lot in this conversation, so I appreciate it, too. I never thought about that journey from what it felt like to not love to how I got here. I never thought about that and you helped me out with my whole idea of going from loving money to loving justice and the whole idea of equality and fairness to loving Joshua. That crystalized for me in this conversation. In a way I just never thought about before. I knew it was the truth, but I just never really put it together.
Glenn Martin is a national leader in criminal justice reform. He is the founder of JustLeadershipUSA which aims to cut the prison population in half by 2030. Visit www.justleadershipusa.org to learn more. Follow on Twitter: @justleadersusa