Politicians often take guarded stances when writing about contemporary issues since they need to worry about approval ratings and not alienate their constituents during the next campaign cycle. For Ashley C. Ford, hiding her opinions did not work for her, leading to a very honest and real approach in her writings that has granted her “a really beautiful reality-based filter.”
Ford is a New York Times bestselling author, writer or guest editor at numerous publications (including The Guardian, Slate, and ELLE Magazine), and was named among Forbes Magazine’s 30 under 30. She joined Free the Facts for the first conversation of the 2022 Summer Event Series, where she discussed honesty, empathy, and criminal justice reform alongside the immediate steps we can take to implement these attitude shifts at a personal and national level.
Lindsay Hayes, moderator of the discussion and CEO of FtF, kicked off the event by asking Ford about her ability to remain honest and present throughout her writings. Ford stated that at a young age, she thought pretending “was the way you do things” and was the avenue for obtaining wealth and security. However, she quickly realized that “pretending doesn’t work for me” and only dug herself into a deeper hole while honesty went much better for her. Taking on this honest approach enabled her to have people who “genuinely support me” and eliminated worries about whether people liked her actual personality or a fake persona.
In response to the unrealistic expectations social media creates regarding career success, Ford stated that “it’s not fair to people to present my life as some great story that embodies the American dream. Just because I got out doesn’t mean I was the special one there.” She said comparing her trajectory to others in her hometown community or in similar circumstances “has a lot more to do with luck than anything else.”
People feel better lying and hearing lies about the sole importance of hardwork when discussing success, Ford explained. However, she believes it is not true that a person can only blame themselves for their current situation and wants to “allow people to have more compassion for themselves.”
Ford stated that creating better conditions for everyone’s success on a national scale is dependent on our ability to be honest with ourselves and having a commitment to community. We need “to see what’s actually going on around you,” a goal that Ford believes requires connecting to the community. She discussed the worsening homelessness problem in LA and found that “people are not necessarily upset with how many homeless people there are, they’re upset with how often they have to see homeless people.”
However, “when we separate ourselves from those people…we are losing the opportunity to do something about it.” Ford believes we need to have a bigger imagination about the day-to-day lives of these people rather than limited imaginations about the circumstances that brought them to this point.
Similar to community members who supported her during her adolescence, Ford asserted that caring for children is a quiet avenue for us to improve the world because “children belong to everybody.” Teachers and community members who helped take care of her had no obligation or responsibility to do so but recognized the humanity in her and acted in a compassionate manner despite them being “no different from anybody else.”
Ford was given help from others in a way that enabled her to work it off and not be embarrassed by simply accepting cash but asserted that “it’s fine to just give people money.” “Money should not be used to control people that you love and care about,” Ford stated. Having more money does not mean that you know better than the other individual, Ford explained, just look at rich dumb people.
Ford described her experiences growing up with an incarcerated father and not seeing him from the ages of six months old to thirty years old. His incarceration cast a shadow over her adolescence since “my family was considered part of my father’s punishment.” She asserted that the criminal justice system is set up to create that suffering, believing that it will act as a deterrent, but it ends up criminalizing entire communities and families.
People treated her differently as a child due to her father and she could not talk about his circumstances since it was considered rude and harmful for other children to hear about her suffering. While she has happy experiences with her father now, they are always tinged with sadness at all the missed events - a sadness that is both partially his fault and the system’s fault.
Ford believes this familial pain can be alleviated by creating opportunities for children to bond with their incarcerated parents. Making it easier for prisoners to have frequent phone calls with their families, father-daughter dances, or bail bonds for Mother’s Day are some opportunities to return some humanity to the system. Ford said the current system attempts to deny the humanity of the prisoners and leaves us with two options surrounding their conditions: “continue to deny it and spiral…or accept it and have a bigger imagination” about how to improve it.
In the Q&A section of the event, Ford talked about the need for twenty year olds to have some compassion for themselves and understand that these years are for figuring things out. During college, you need to learn how to love yourself, including the hard parts, and not place your mental health and emotional issues on the backburner, Ford said. Placing too much emphasis on your career or advocacy goals over personal goals “doesn’t ground you, it buries you,” leading to an eventual burnout.
Ford concluded by acknowledging the struggles inherent to her identity as a Black queer woman, stating “the world does not necessarily open doors for me” and “sometimes I trip” over the potholes of life. Despite this, she never groveled for institutional validation and was able to continue her successful trajectory even if institutional figures would not give her the same respect as her peers.
She asserts that “relentlessness counts a lot” and that you should not “just accept flaws, actualize them.” “Show up with your bad attitude,” Ford said “don’t let them take that from you.”