Not Just Reimagining Justice, But Reimagining Advocacy

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Last week Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy and first lady Cathy Malloy hosted a two-day conference called “Reimagining Justice” that invited people from around the country to explore the impact of crime and mass incarceration.

As someone who works on juvenile justice reform in Connecticut, I was delighted to see the Malloys’ leadership on these issues. But I was also torn.

As the conference started there was a March for Justice in Hartford, just a short way from the convention center where all the traditional “experts” like me were meeting. Hundreds of protesters chanted, “Nothing about us without us.” They felt that as people directly affected by our country’s incarceration practices, they deserved a seat at the table.

They were absolutely correct. But I stick by my initial impression that the Malloys care about these issues and want to do the real work that goes into making change.

What I learned — again — last week is that change is hard. For as long as I’ve been doing juvenile justice work, the field has consisted primarily of privileged people talking to each other about the experiences of urban youth. I would not dream of slamming those people, even if I didn’t happen to be one of them. We’ve done good and necessary work; but, being human, we’ve done it imperfectly.

We all too often feel that we’re being inclusive if we have a family member or formerly incarcerated person on a panel. There were a number of people who had been part of the system at Reimagining Justice. I know from experience that it takes commitment to get such representation — and again I applaud the Malloys for making that effort.

But it’s only hard to get representative panels because we have set up a world where we — the professionals, the middle class, the white … pick your mark of privilege — are the gatekeepers. We are the ones who invite people to events. What we should be doing is supporting communities in leading conversations about justice reforms. Families should be deciding whether we merit an invitation; not the other way around.

That means we stop relying on the networks we’ve spent years building. It means we stop looking only at each other as experts. That is something that can only be done with humility and faith.

I saw a good bit of both at Reimagining Justice. I was heartened by the commitment I heard over and over to go beyond incremental reform. Believe me — I’m a fan of incremental reform. We’ve done a lot to chip away at the criminalization of children over the past decade by tackling injustice one policy at a time.

But to truly end the criminalization of children, which should be the goal of anyone working in juvenile justice, we need to do more than debate fine points of law. We need to change our relationship to communities. The protestors outside the convention center, and the people inside the convention center, were both talking about how decent housing, excellent schools and access to good jobs are all necessary if we want to end mass incarceration. How can we merge these two separate conversations?

We are talking about lifting up communities, work that cannot possibly be accomplished from the outside. We need to honor good work that already goes on within communities. Much of that work may be unknown outside of locals if it does not connect up to larger structures, catch the attention of a journalist or fit within a best practice model — a model that of course was developed outside the community. We need to adequately resource communities to define and solve their own problems rather than remove young people and dictate a state-level solution.

We need to be leaders; and we need to get out of the way. There is no roadmap to follow here, because the work is new. We need to be prepared to fail, to listen to criticism like that voiced at the March for Justice and to keep correcting our course.

This is different from the work that advocates like myself have traditionally been trained to do. I have always thought how lucky I am to be able to advocate for issues that matter to me. Now I think how lucky I am to be shaping a new form of advocacy that not only promotes justice, but is itself a kind of justice.

Abby Anderson has been executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance since 2008.  She is co-chair of the board of the National Juvenile Justice Network.  

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