by Dorsey E. Nunn
“Who do you love and who would you fight for?”
I asked that question early on at our first Formerly Incarcerated People’s Policy Academy, held in Los Angeles last month. I wanted to frame public policy work as an additional important way to fight for the ones we love. Unfortunately, it is also a method we don’t use often enough.
For example, if they wanted to make a policy of mounting machine guns on top of police cruisers in L.A., typically we don’t show up to the fight until several of us have been shot. We don’t show up early on not because we don’t care, but because in general we don’t know how. That’s why Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC) is establishing a policy academy to increase civic participation by formerly incarcerated people, both locally and statewide.
Our first training drew 50 people to the Watts Labor Center in Los Angeles. It was organized by LSPC Policy Director Jesse Stout and A New Way of Life Reentry Project in L.A. Co-presenters included Jesse Stout, myself, Susan Burton, executive director of A New Way of Life, and Vonya Quarles, executive director of Starting Over, Inc., based in Riverside.
The day gave important background on mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on communities of color, as well as information about legislative advocacy, community organizing and the California legislative process. Two role-playing sessions – a legislative meeting and a committee hearing – gave attendees a chance to enact what they were learning.
Why formerly incarcerated people need a policy academy
As a formerly incarcerated Black man who has been struggling for over 40 years, I recognize that my status as a formerly incarcerated person oppresses me as much as the status of Black people oppressed them during slavery or the Jim Crow eras.
I know my incarceration rate per 100,000 is six to 10 times that of Whites and three to four times that of Latinos and that I am more likely to be assaulted or murdered. The system comes for me more often than others and I am not only incarcerated but also disempowered – then and now.
I know that, as a result of our conviction histories, $57 billion to $65 billion in earning and spending will be lost to the community. If we look at incarceration absent the race factor, we will not be able to solve the major question of our day.
To better advance our policy agenda, we need to establish an apparatus to train formerly incarcerated people, their families and loved ones, so we can develop a more effective approach to lobbying and advocacy.
Today California has over 2,400 various laws and policies that preclude formerly incarcerated people from ever fully “re-entering” or reestablishing ourselves in society. Over 40,000 policies nationally preclude our re-entry and the full and equal restoration of our rights.
These policies determine where we can work, where we can live, if we can ever touch our mothers or ever hold our children, and if and when we can vote. To better advance our policy agenda, we need to establish an apparatus to train formerly incarcerated people, their families and loved ones, so we can develop a more effective approach to lobbying and advocacy.
Moving beyond the ‘me too’ group
Over the last several years, LSPC has been working to make sure that formerly incarcerated people speak in their own voices and moving large numbers of people into public spaces to testify. We are led into a hearing to testify in support or opposition to a piece of state or local policy, a hearing that is not orchestrated by formerly incarcerated people or organizations.
The vast majority of our community – formerly incarcerated people, their families and friends – line up to play a supportive role. Usually our testimony is reduced to a two-minute utterance of “I support or oppose” this or that. After an important hearing, we often joke about joining the “Me Too Group.”
Hearing strategies are often determined by well-connected people who have more experience in working with state and local governments, but no experience as formerly incarcerated people. Too often our presentations before government entities are so influenced by others they might as well have been crafted by them.
Too often others make decisions about when and what to compromise about the policies directly impacting our lives and community. And far too often, our value is one of legitimizing the process, of just being the color but not the substance or the general but not the detail.
With too much dependency on the lead of others, these situations make us feel that we do not have the ability to empower our community. We continue to feel oppressed. If nothing changes, we will continue to seek our equality from a dependent position and outside the mainstream.
In addition to mobilizing people to speak at public hearings, it’s time for us as a community to create and advance our own policy agendas and campaigns, as well as learning how to maintain relationships with key decision makers. The shortest distance to equality is from the position of a legitimate partner, rather than that of a perpetual client.
In California a handful of formerly incarcerated people have learned how to lobby and effectively advocate – some of us through trial and error. A number of formerly incarcerated women have been well trained through the Women’s Policy Institute, a project of the Women’s Foundation.
We will draw on the skills of formerly incarcerated people, both men and women, to help develop the Policy Academy – including the creation of a culturally appropriate curriculum. Already-trained formerly incarcerated women will be an important part of the leadership from the beginning.
To better develop appropriate materials, we will survey formerly incarcerated people across the state, ascertaining educational levels as well as the community’s knowledge about advocacy and lobbying. The academy’s primary trainer, with support from formerly incarcerated co-presenters, will conduct trainings in different parts of the state.
We will also identify elected officials who would welcome some of our more promising graduates in their district offices as interns and secure funding to support this aspect of our academy. This would strengthen the purpose of the training, as well as secure and maintain relationships.
In California a handful of formerly incarcerated people have learned how to lobby and effectively advocate – some of us through trial and error.
To keep our trainees attached to our agenda of the full restoration of our civil and human rights, we will maintain a regular meeting schedule. We will also make allowances for the reality that many people invited to attend trainings could have some unique needs, including being educationally and financially challenged.
Although the first training happened in Los Angeles, we will definitely be conducting Policy Academy trainings in other parts of the state. We hope to have them in Sacramento, San Francisco, Oakland, East Palo Alto and if possible in other parts of the state, like Fresno and Riverside.
Last spring we held our first annual Quest for Democracy Day and mobilized over 200 formerly incarcerated people to the state capitol to learn about policy and advocacy work. We will do it again in spring of 2014. Only this time we’ll be bringing more people, who, thanks to the Policy Academy, will have a better knowledge of the legislative process and how they can impact it.
Larger than a job – we are looking for justice
My scream is larger than someone looking for a job; it is more in line with someone looking for justice. Expecting healthy communities without fully examining the impact of the lack of resources or the lack of real power driving questions of violence is an unreasonable expectation.
I say this not as someone in the summer or spring of his life, but as one firmly planted in my winter years. I know for me, like so many others, committing the crimes that led to my imprisonment so long ago were more than just the pursuit of resources. They also resulted from my need to be a man with some power and self-determination in his life.
As formerly incarcerated people, we have unique perspectives and concerns. To fully secure our rights and throw off our oppression, we must work on multiple levels. In light of all the challenges we face resulting from conviction histories and virtual exclusion from holding elected offices, we must ensure our voices are heard in the hallways of government as well as on the street.
There are obstacles to overcome – we do not yet have the resources to do ballot initiatives, and our voting status remains compromised. However, I am an organizer, and I believe our potential is there. By training more formerly incarcerated people to do policy work in addition to street protests and rallies, we can finally move beyond the glass ceiling.
Dorsey Nunn is the executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC), an organization engaging in advocacy and organizing work with communities impacted by the criminal justice system. The first formerly incarcerated person to direct LSPC, he also co-founded All of Us or None, a civil and human rights organization comprised of formerly incarcerated people, prisoners and their allies. For more information about the Formerly Incarcerated People’s Policy Academy or to get involved, contact Jesse Stout at firstname.lastname@example.org.