It used to be when something like our visit from a White House representative was in the works, I’d call my dad, political activist, retired lawyer, a man who has always believed deeply in the importance of civic responsibility. If he’d known I was going to meet a representative from the White House who was coming to hear about POPS, he’d have been over the moon. But my dad, who is almost 92, is in a rehab center following a treacherous surgery; he hasn’t been up for phone calls. So after I’d called my sister Karen, I called Larry, a beloved cousin and friend, dad’s brother’s eldest son and another policy wonk, another retired lawyer, a research maven.
Ten minutes after Larry and I hung up, I received three emails from him, SUBJECT LINES: Elias Alcantara; More About Alcantara; Still More. That is how I learned that Mr. Alcantara is Associate Director (since May 2012) in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs as a liaison for local officials; that prior to his service at the White House he was a United States Fellow with the Organization of American States, that he holds a Master’s Degree in International Studies from La Universidad de Chile in Santiago, Chile; that he worked for a year for the US Department of Commerce, taught at Lehman College, was an intern in the New York State Attorney General’s Office and in the White House. https://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/iga/about-iga
Thanks to Larry I also knew that Alcantara was originally from the Bronx, 181st Street and Grand Concourse, to be precise, and how I knew that in January 2011, when Alcantara was a graduate student in Chile, residents of the city of Puerto Natales began protesting the government for raising gas prices. The day the protests began, Alcantara and three friends were planning to leave the city to drive to Calafate in Argentina. An official told them they couldn’t leave—everyone was being prevented from entering or leaving the city by bus or car. Later Alcantara explained to a reporter that “Everything I had been studying in terms of negotiation and international law played a role in me being knowledgeable…I just kind of fought my way into meetings where decisions were being made.” At first, he told the reporter, he paid little attention to the ban. He and his friends thought they’d just leave the next day. But they wound up stranded for six days, held hostage with tourists from Germany, Canada, Japan who all were in the same boat. And they were becoming angry. They needed someone to fight for them, and Alcantara became their collective voice, negotiating with Chilean officials, involving the U.S. Embassy, the official spokesperson and liaison to the government. His friends called him “a natural leader.”
I also knew his family was from the Dominican Republic, that he was bilingual, and from everything I read, I suspected I’d like him.
I had expected him to be handsomely dressed and dapper—an Obama-esque gentleman, soft spoken and articulate. What I hadn’t expected was someone so warm and easy going, especially since he had just endured a drive through two hours of L.A. traffic in the rain. And it was now 12:45, the hour he’d told us he had to leave.
Paradyse made the introductions, telling her story about pressing that business card into his hand. She stepped away, offering him the podium, but instead he pulled up a chair and said, “Let’s just sit around in a circle.”
From the back of the room Dennis called out, “Just one question to start. Yankees or Mets?”
“Yankees!” he said. “I grew up near Yankee stadium in the late ‘90s—I went to games with my dad, was a member of Yankees kids. Besides that was the best Yankee team ever—Paul O’Neill, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada…”
We chatted baseball for a couple of minutes, but pretty soon he dug in, and told us about how he was one of the lucky ones in his neighborhood, how his parents sent him back every year to spend his summers in the DR and he how hated it, but that he up bilingual, and being bilingual had offered him so many opportunities; he told us about the White House internship program and the way he found himself in the White House.”
“Who knows about the White House internship program?” he asked.
Paradyse raised her hand.
“Yeah, the White House doesn’t do a good job of getting the word out about that…we need to do better…”
He began to talk about his President. Whatever one thinks of what President Obama has done or hasn’t done, he told us, he is focused now in his last year in office on the criminal justice system. That’s why Alcantara was here. Just last week, in fact, a number of exonerees had been invited to the White House. The President wanted to hear about the challenges they face. What could help them most, he had asked? And the answer was clear: One of the greatest needs for prisoners remains the needs of their families. As we at POPS know, when someone goes to jail or prison, the family suffers in a thousand ways. And those families have too long been ignored.
So, he said, when Paradyse told him about POPS the Club, he knew he had to come out and hear about who we are and what we are doing.
He asked us to tell him just that.
Now, once again, those young people blew my mind. I was watching the clock, but one by one, students were standing up, introducing themselves by name, talking about why they came to POPS. Glorious, tough, tall, gorgeous Glorious who grew up in South Central and had just read to us about how writing had changed her life began to talk about her life at POPS, about this family she has now. She choked up. She looked at the floor. “I don’t cry…” she said, but she couldn’t get the next words out, so Iona rescued her and stood up and told her story—family again. “We’re all family here,” they kept saying, and John Bembry one foot away from Mr. Alcantara, stood up and looked him in the eye and told a story I had never heard. He talked about the fact that back in 2013 when he was in Mr. Danziger’s class, he was just out of juvie, sure he was bound to wind up either dead or in prison. That looked like his future. But writing, he said, and Danziger, and POPS, and Amy, and this whole family here was what saved him, he said, and he talked about how that year he graduated at age 17 but he returns to Venice, to POPS meetings almost every week even though he’s almost 21 because this is home, this is family, this is what helped him survive all the hurdles he’s faced; Bianca was next, shy Bianca with the beautiful smile who always writes about what her smile hides; she talked about how her brother went to prison eight years ago, how for the first six and a half years she was just angry and wouldn’t speak to him, and how she kept all her rage and sorrow secret, and then she came to POPS and began to tell her story, and now she and her brother are close again, they write to each other and things are better, and he might get home sooner than she’d imagined…how she hopes that’s so… And then the quiet twins, Rosa Maria and Rosa Isela who almost never talk, stood up, one at a time, and said this was the place that made them feel at home. On and on they went, one after another around that room.
Damn that mascara.
Sheldon said, “Five more minutes…Mr. Alcantara has to leave soon…”
Seven or eight people hadn’t yet spoken, and it was close to 2, but Alcantara waved away the concern. “Let’s hear from everyone…” I turned and noticed Principal Weidoeft in a Venice baseball cap had walked in; even under the cap I could see her eyes welling up; and Tsege Haupte’s twins were pouring over the anthologies. When it was their turn to speak, they said they’d come today to support Paradyse, she was their friend, but now they were POPS family, too.
When Danielle Williams began to talk about the Outcomes Research she is doing, Alcantara’s eyes lit up. “Oh, the President loves this stuff. He’s going to want to know about this,” and I told him, yes, there are the hard research numbers, but when he reads the stories and poems our students write in the anthologies, when he hears all their stories, he’ll know the soft research, the power of POPS that’s harder to measure.
I wish I had a recording of the day, of all those stories, but I’m also glad I don’t because as so often happens at POPS meetings, that room became a temple, a sacred space. Holy things were happening.
A little after 2, after the photo ops, we all said our goodbyes. Alcantara promised he was going home to bring the POPS program to the attention of the President. Cruz said he wanted us to talk about how the Mayor’s Office can help to support POPS.
And then we all went home, but I knew so much more than I had the day before about the power of POPS the Club.