Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution
The organization I founded, JustLeadershipUSA’s, slogan is “Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution.” It’s a slogan based on history. No movement for social justice has ever succeeded without the full participation and leadership of those most affected. The incredible movement to vanquish HIV/AIDs would never have happened without Act Up. The same can be said about the historic achievements of the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement and the LGBTQ movement.
By the same token, without reform efforts led by formerly incarcerated people, many of them graduates of Leading with Conviction, the leadership training program run by our organization, the movement to end mass incarceration in the U.S. will not get to the finish line. Without our willingness to push the envelope and bring the sense of urgency needed to overcome decades’ worth of misguided, reactionary criminal justice policymaking, the country may squander its chance to bring about transformative change. Such change is possible, but only if we have a seat at the table and a role in deciding what’s on the menu.
In spite of the stigma and marginalization experienced by people with criminal convictions, we have built a vibrant human rights movement that challenges the most basic premises upon which this country’s criminal justice system is based. If I had to pick an event that marked the beginning of our movement it would be the 2003 founding of All of Us or None in California by Dorsey Nunn. All of Us or None went on to launch the Ban the Box campaign which has done such an amazing job of raising awareness about the collateral consequences of a criminal record. This work led to the passage of hundreds of local “ban the box” laws and, most importantly, has opened the door to fair employment practices for tens of thousands of people who would otherwise have been shut out.
This was followed by the publication of Eddie Ellis’s “language letter,” another powerful landmark in our movement’s history. Eddie Ellis (1941–2014) founded the Center for NU Leadership in New York City, and in 2007 he wrote “An Open Letter to Our Friends on the Question of Language.” The letter urged allies to reject terms like “inmate,” “convict,” “prisoners” and “felons” which were “devoid of humanness” and to refer to us as “PEOPLE in prison,” PEOPLE with criminal convictions,” etc. “ He wrote, “We believe we have the right to be called by a name we choose, rather than one someone else decides to use.” This was an empowering moment for us.
Susan Burton is another pioneer of the formerly incarcerated people’s movement. She founded A New Way of Life back in 1998 and called attention to the terrible conditions of confinement for incarcerated women and the barriers they faced when released.
These early grassroots efforts gathered momentum, and exactly a year ago the Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People, and Families Movement held its first national conference in Oakland, CA. More than 500 people from more than 30 states came together to unite behind a 14-point platform whose first point reads:
“The first goal of changing the criminal justice system is to create and implement alternatives to incarceration, working toward a society where prisons do not exist. We demand the end of mass incarceration and commit ourselves to fighting the notion and the practice of building new prisons, juvenile detention facilities and immigration detention centers.”
Yes, we fight for incremental reforms in order to alleviate suffering. But we never forget that our long term objective is to build a society where restoration, not incarceration, is the answer. We understand that if we shoot for an audacious goal then everything else becomes low(er) hanging fruit. This is the strategy we have successfully employed in the #CLOSErikers Campaign which was launched by JustLeadershipUSA a little over a year ago. By sticking to our uncompromising demand that Rikers Island could not be reformed but had to be shuttered, we hastened the removal of young people from the island, won limits on solitary confinement, put a spotlight on the inequities of New York City’s bail system, AND pressured a reluctant mayor to announce that closing Rikers is now the city’s policy.
Bold and audacious efforts to end mass incarceration led by formerly incarcerated leaders are going on all over the country: campaigns to raise the age of criminal responsibility, to restore voting rights to people with records, to close prisons and jails, to end mandatory sentencing, and to shut down private prisons, to name a few.