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It's one thing for a president to shorten someone's prison sentence. It's another thing entirely to take them out to lunch.

On March 30, 2016, President Obama granted early prison releases to 61 individuals who were serving time for nonviolent drug-related crimes. Over the course of his presidency, he's issued 248 such commutations (sentence reductions) — more than the previous six presidents combined, according to the White House.

But this time, he decided to surprise a group of formerly incarcerated individuals — some of whom had just been released from prison that day, others who had been released in years prior under Presidents Clinton and Bush — at a White House meet-and-greet. "Turns out I've got an opening in my schedule," he told them. "So let's have some lunch."


The president took the group to a nearby restaurant, where he gave them each a chance to share their stories and talk about how to fix the U.S. criminal justice system so that more people like them don't end up spending their entire lives behind bars.

President Obama leads the group to lunch at Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C. Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images.

Phillip Emmert, for example, was sentenced to 27 years in prison for methamphetamine charges.

Meth is a major problem in rural Arkansas, where Emmert grew up. His original sentence came with no opportunity for parole, even though it was his first offense and a nonviolent one.

He was granted clemency by President Bush in 2006 after serving 14 years. He found work as a housekeeper at the Iowa City VA soon after. But that's not so common — less than half of ex-convicts find employment in their first year after release, and there are nearly 800 occupations that ban the hire of applicants with criminal records.

President Obama and Phillip Emmert. Photo by Nicholas Kamm/Stringer/Getty Images.

Then there's Ramona Brant, who was sentenced to life for conspiracy to sell cocaine.

Her boyfriend was also charged. She confesses that she was aware he was selling drugs, but she denies any active involvement. Like Emmert, this was a nonviolent crime and her first offense.

But a 1984 law laid down strict per-kilo punishments for drug dealers, so the specifics of her case were irrelevant in the eyes of the law.

Brant is also black, and according to the NAACP, African-Americans are 10 times more likely to be imprisoned for drugs, even though white Americans use drugs at a rate five times higher.

After 21 years in jail, Brant had her life sentence commuted by Obama in 2015. She walked free on Feb. 1, 2016.

Ramona Brant and President Obama. Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images.

Serena Nunn was 19 when she, too, was sentenced to 15 years for conspiracy to distribute cocaine.

Like Brant, she says knew what her boyfriend was up to when she dropped him off at meets. But she says her involvement stopped there. Yet, thanks to mandatory minimum sentencing laws, she faced more than 15 years behind bars while the drug ring leader — who had prior drug, rape, and manslaughter convictions — got away with only seven years because of a deal with the prosecution.

In 1999, Nunn became the first woman at her federal prison to earn a community college degree. One year later, President Clinton commuted her sentence. And as of 2012, she's a licensed attorney in Georgia.

Serena Nunn (far left) at lunch with the president. Photo by Nicholas Kamm/Stringer/Getty Images.

Finally, meet Norman Brown. He was sentenced to life for selling crack cocaine.

Brown did have two prior counts against him for minor offenses, which certainly didn't help the harsh sentencing. But neither did the fact that federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws set in place in the 1980s punished crack cocaine dealers at a rate 100 times harsher than powdered cocaine dealers — despite the fact that crack is just a different form of the same drug. Put another way, the punishment for 5 grams of crack was equal to the punishment for 500 grams of powder cocaine.

And, of course, more than 80% of the prisoners serving time for crack are black, like Norman Brown.

The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced this ratio to 18-to-1, and Brown was given clemency by President Obama in 2015 after serving 24 years in prison. He's committed himself to working with underprivileged youth in his community to help them avoid the same mistakes he made.

Norman Brown (front right). Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images.

"They're Americans who’d been serving time on the kind of outdated sentences that are clogging up our jails and burning through our tax dollars," President Obama said on Facebook. "Simply put, their punishments didn't fit the crime."

In a letter that he sent to each of the ex-convicts who received commutations that day, the president added:

“I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around. Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy, and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change. Perhaps even you are unsure of how you will adjust to your new circumstances. But remember that you have the capacity to make good choices. By doing so, you will affect not only your own life, but those close to you. You will also influence, through your example, the possibility that others in your circumstances get their own second chance in the future.

President Obama is right: Everyone deserves a second chance. But his lunch dates also brought up a huge, systemic problem.

When I started reading about each of these cases, I was appalled by the trends that emerged. The fact that a one-time drug infraction can destroy someone's life is hard to believe; the fact there are a hundred thousand more stories just like these is equally as depressing.

Consider this: Before mandatory sentencing laws were enacted in 1980, there were about 24,600 incarcerated U.S. citizens. By 2013, that number was nearly nine times higher — and half of those charges are drug-related.

It's like we're spending all of our time and money trying to catch the water leaking from the pipes instead of fixing the leak. Yes, drug use can destroy lives. But so can an obscenely harsh prison sentence. And neither one actually solves the poverty, mental health struggles, addiction, and general sense of desperation that leads to heavy drug use in the first place.

While there are still a lot of problems with the American justice system, it's a step in the right direction that our president is listening to the people most affected by these federal laws. But I hope Obama is listening closely — because we have a long way to go.

Check out the video below of President Obama surprising these formerly incarcerated individuals with a lunch date:

Photo courtesy of Girls at Work

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via Lewis Speaks Sr. / Facebook

This article originally appeared on 02.25.21


Middle school has to be the most insecure time in a person's life. Kids in their early teens are incredibly cruel and will make fun of each other for not having the right shoes, listening to the right music, or having the right hairstyle.

As if the social pressure wasn't enough, a child that age has to deal with the intensely awkward psychological and biological changes of puberty at the same time.

Jason Smith, the principal of Stonybrook Intermediate and Middle School in Warren Township, Indiana, had a young student sent to his office recently, and his ability to understand his feelings made all the difference.

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All images provided by Adewole Adamson

It begins with more inclusive conversations at a patient level

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Adewole Adamson, MD, of the University of Texas, Austin, aims to create more equity in health care by gathering data from more diverse populations by using artificial intelligence (AI), a type of machine learning. Dr. Adamson’s work is funded by the American Cancer Society (ACS), an organization committed to advancing health equity through research priorities, programs and services for groups who have been marginalized.

Melanoma became a particular focus for Dr. Adamson after meeting Avery Smith, who lost his wife—a Black woman—to the deadly disease.

melanoma,  melanoma for dark skin Avery Smith (left) and Adamson (sidenote)

This personal encounter, coupled with multiple conversations with Black dermatology patients, drove Dr. Adamson to a concerning discovery: as advanced as AI is at detecting possible skin cancers, it is heavily biased.

To understand this bias, it helps to first know how AI works in the early detection of skin cancer, which Dr. Adamson explains in his paper for the New England Journal of Medicine (paywall). The process uses computers that rely on sets of accumulated data to learn what healthy or unhealthy skin looks like and then create an algorithm to predict diagnoses based on those data sets.

This process, known as supervised learning, could lead to huge benefits in preventive care.

After all, early detection is key to better outcomes. The problem is that the data sets don’t include enough information about darker skin tones. As Adamson put it, “everything is viewed through a ‘white lens.’”

“If you don’t teach the algorithm with a diverse set of images, then that algorithm won’t work out in the public that is diverse,” writes Adamson in a study he co-wrote with Smith (according to a story in The Atlantic). “So there’s risk, then, for people with skin of color to fall through the cracks.”

Tragically, Smith’s wife was diagnosed with melanoma too late and paid the ultimate price for it. And she was not an anomaly—though the disease is more common for White patients, Black cancer patients are far more likely to be diagnosed at later stages, causing a notable disparity in survival rates between non-Hispanics whites (90%) and non-Hispanic blacks (66%).

As a computer scientist, Smith suspected this racial bias and reached out to Adamson, hoping a Black dermatologist would have more diverse data sets. Though Adamson didn’t have what Smith was initially looking for, this realization ignited a personal mission to investigate and reduce disparities.

Now, Adamson uses the knowledge gained through his years of research to help advance the fight for health equity. To him, that means not only gaining a wider array of data sets, but also having more conversations with patients to understand how socioeconomic status impacts the level and efficiency of care.

“At the end of the day, what matters most is how we help patients at the patient level,” Adamson told Upworthy. “And how can you do that without knowing exactly what barriers they face?”

american cancer society, skin cacner treatment"What matters most is how we help patients at the patient level."https://www.kellydavidsonstudio.com/

The American Cancer Society believes everyone deserves a fair and just opportunity to prevent, find, treat, and survive cancer—regardless of how much money they make, the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, gender identity, their disability status, or where they live. Inclusive tools and resources on the Health Equity section of their website can be found here. For more information about skin cancer, visit cancer.org/skincancer.

Isaiah Garza took a 100-year-old veteran to Disneyland for a day of joy.

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Thanks to Rihanna being photographed wearing one of his jewelry designs on the cover of a French magazine, Garza has gotten to fulfill his dream. His successful design business has enabled him to spend a chunk of his money and time making people's days a little brighter and sharing the effects of simple, kind and generous acts on social media.

For example, Garza recently invited a 100-year-old veteran he bumped into to spend a day with him at Disneyland. The man uses a walker, and most people probably wouldn't think to ask a centenarian with mobility challenges if they want to go to a theme park, but the day they had together speaks to the power of reaching out without assumptions about limitations.

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Pop Culture

'90s kids share movies that will 'take you back to a better time'

It was a magical time when animals played sports and yet somehow things were just simpler.

YouTube/Upworthy photo illustration

Honey, I shrunk the kid named Matilda while jamming in space!

Everyone knows that '90s movies just hit different. From sports movies to rom-coms to even horror, there was an undeniable innocence, without being overly simplistic or juvenile. They didn’t have nearly the amount of money going into production as they do today, but somehow managed to transport us to magical places.

Movies of the '90s are so iconic that there have been several attempts to reboot beloved titles. Which, let’s face it, tends to be a fool's errand at a cash grab. These movies are so timeless that simply viewing the original is more than fine.

Not sure which movie to start with? You’re in luck—a Reddit user by the name of YouBrokeMyTV asked ’90s kids to share movies that took them “back to a better time,” and because the internet can be a wonderful place, tons of people responded with some beloved classics.

These answers certainly don’t make a definitive list (there are just so, so many gems) but they're a fun glimpse into what made '90s cinema so special. A nostalgic romp through memory lane, if you will.

Enjoy these 14 titles that just might leave you jonesing for a rewatch:

1. "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids"

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A perfect example of how '90s movies were silly, but smart at the same time. And oh so wholesome.

2. "The Sandlot"

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It taught us nothing about baseball, but everything about friendship, rooting for the underdog and (most important) how to make s’mores.

3. "Drop Dead Fred"

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Critics might have run this cult classic through the mud during its inception, but audiences fell in love with the bizarre charm of this story about a mischievous little girl and her anarchist imaginary friend. So take that, snotfaces!

4. "The Goonies"

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Everyone just wanted to set off an epic quest with their friends for pirate treasure after seeing this movie.

5. Tim Burton's "Batman"

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Before the superhero genre was the behemoth it is today, a quirky director and the dude who was best known for playing the creepy demon in "Beetlejuice" breathed new life into comic-book movies. Marvel might be the leader on creating stories with adult themes that are digestible for kids nowadays, but this DC film was the first of its kind. Plus, that soundtrack … forget about it.

6. "Hook"

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Pretty much any '90s film starring Robin Williams was an absolute gem, but this one in particular is timeless. His gift of balancing childlike humor with emotional gravitas lent itself so well to playing the now grown and cynical Peter Pan, who must learn to reclaim his joy (relatable, millennials?). It was a bang-a-rang-er, no question.

7. "Space Jam"

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It had Looney Tunes, it had aliens and it had Michael Jordan. That’s a winning combination.

8. "Matilda"

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I don’t think I’m out of line when I say that this movie helped a lot of kids make their way through difficult childhoods.

9. "The Parent Trap"

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Even '90s reboots were awesome. And how fun it is to see that Lisa Ann Walker—the actress who played Chessy the housekeeper—is not only yet again gracing the screens in NBC’s “Abbott Elementary,” but is also being revered as a style icon on TikTok for her ultra casual looks in the film. We all knew she was onto something with long button downs and shorts.

10. "The Land Before Time"

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No cartoon, not even “The Lion King,” was a better depiction of childhood grief. And yet, despite encapsulating tragedy, director Don Bluth still left viewers hopeful. The subsequent 14 (yes 14) sequels definitely pale in comparison to the original, but "The Land Before Time" continues to stand the test of time nonetheless.

11. "Richie Rich"

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The scene where they play tag on four-wheelers is simply iconic.

12. "Dunston Checks In"

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Man, the '90s were the golden age of animal-centered films. And not just monkeys either—we got sports playing golden retrievers and not one, but two movies starring talking pigs. What a time to be alive. These films were made before CGI had reached the levels it’s at today, and the authentic interactions between humans and creatures reached right through the screen.

13. "George of the Jungle"
george of the jungle, brendan faser

Watch out for the tree!!!

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Have I seen this movie at least 20 times? Probably. It doesn’t get any better than this in terms of silly action films with bird puppets. It’s crazy to think that this role would eventually lead Brendan Fraser to "The Mummy" franchise, turning him into a household name. Though his career has had some tragic ups and downs, we are all grateful for the glorious comeback he’s been having.

14. Anything involving Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen
mary kate and ashley

Yes, they were professional detectives.

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Whether vacationing in London, Paris or Rome, whether playing magical witches or making a huge billboard so their father could find love … Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen offered zany, whimsical entertainment while wearing fun outfits. Sometimes, that’s all you need.