Written by: Alex Frank, GARE’s Director of Root Solutions to Public Safety
“History, despite its wrenching pain cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” – Maya Angelou
The above words are inscribed on the wall outside of the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama where last month we convened racial justice leaders from four jurisdictions to engage in a Learning Exchange Retreat about the history of enslavement and mass incarceration. This marked an important milestone for GARE–the implementation of our new Root Solutions for Public Safety work, housed within the newly formed Transformative Strategies and Learning team at GARE.
Across the country, states and localities have seen meaningful reductions in the use of pre-trial jail because of system reform efforts, legislative changes, and decreases in rates of crime over the past two decades. However, these changes have disproportionally benefited white people and harmed Black, Indigenous and People of Color evidenced by a worsening of racial disparities nationwide.
In 2022, GARE kicked off work with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge II [SJC2] supporting sites engaged in a focused racial equity project in acknowledgement of this reality. Cook County, Illinois; Pima County, Arizona; City of New Orleans, Louisiana; and City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania were selected by the Foundation to implement projects that would advance racial equity in pre-trial jail systems. As a reflection of the importance of this work being driven by the people most harmed by the justice system, these projects are driven by community-based organizations in partnership with the four government agencies.
The Learning Exchange Retreat included 18 participants from the four jurisdictions, including eight government practitioners and 10 community partners. Our three days together included a visit to the Legacy Museum, the Memorial to Peace and Justice, which remembers those who lost their lives to racial terror lynchings, and a day in meeting space. The memorial includes signage created by the Community Remembrance Project, which mark sites of collective memory related to our history of racial terror lynchings. One of the signs that caught my eye was the “Union County Jail Raid Massacre” in Union County, South Carolina in 1871.
The sign reads: “The devastating Union County Jail Raid massacre was one example of how racial violence was designed to terrorize the Black community during reconstruction. In early 1871, white mobs abducted 12 Black men from the county jail on January 4 and February 12. These men… were either hanged or shot in the ‘hanging grounds’ before any determination was made of their guilt…”. As a former jail administrator, [at Rikers Island Jail in New York City], I couldn’t help but remember the tragic story of Kalif Browder who, at 16, was sent to jail for three years [including two years in solitary confinement] waiting for a trial that never happened, and then lost his life to suicide upon returning home six months later in 2015. His story is all too common, and is a reflection of the history of the island dating back to the 1800’s when Black people in New York were sent there under the Fugitive Slave Act by a former judge, Richard Riker.
History repeats itself, and knowing our collective history impacts our ability to address the root cause of racism in our public safety systems. To this end, Avik Das [Director, Cook County Justice Advisory Council) shared a powerful reflection: “This wasn’t my first time visiting the museum/ memorial, but it was my first time visiting while in this role. Standing in the timeline room [a room in the museum with a floor to ceiling timeline showcasing the historical markers from enslavement to mass incarceration], I was able to see how my role is upholding all of this, and now I can see how my role can disrupt it.”
Following the visit to the museum and memorial, we convened for a day to roll up our sleeves and connect the dots between what we learned, how it applies to the work of the cohort, discuss complex challenges the cohort is facing in their jurisdictions, and co-create solutions. We discussed an example of applying historical analysis to systems change work, and ways to anchor work with steering committees, and other entities in such a historical analysis. The impact of that conversation, the learning that happened, solutions that surfaced, and opportunity to be in community with one another cannot be overstated.
By way of example, during this interactive session, the community partner to the City of Philadelphia, Why Not Prosper, printed and handed out a copy of the report they recently published as part of their SJC project, and opened the door for ideas on how the collective cohort can support the release of this report. The spirit of solidarity, co-creation, and building collective impact was deeply reflected in this moment. Moreover, the fact that it was led by “formerly incarcerated Black and Brown women” from Philadelphia and supported by government is a prime example of the ways in which this project is challenging and changing the norms for how reform happens.
While this Learning Exchange Retreat in Montgomery was an important milestone, it is only the beginning. The sites will come together for two more Learning Exchange Retreats, as well as convene online in-between to support their place-based work. In addition, we are engaging partners and allies to inform our collective analysis of what it means to create “innovative” solutions and incubate next generation ideas to advance racial equity in public safety. Most importantly, we are committed to doing this in partnership with the people most harmed and impacted by the justice system including system-impacted Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, families, as well as frontline staff and leadership working in the systems.
As people across the country demand “the system” [government] to change, and an investment in community driven solutions to address violence, the work of racial equity is more important than ever. The Root Solutions for Public Safety work will continue to evolve and respond to the field, and we will be reaching out with updates and opportunities along the way. In the meantime, we want to encourage those on that frontline to reach out with your concerns and red flags, as well as your successes and hopes.
*For more information about this work, please contact Alex Frank, Director of Root Solutions for Public Safety at email@example.com.
For the hanged and beaten.
For the shot drowned and burned.
For the tortured, tormented and terrorized.
For those abandoned by the rule of law.
We will remember.
With hope because hopelessness is the enemy of justice.
With courage because peace requires bravery.
With persistence because justice is a constant struggle.
With faith because we shall overcome.