A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak to a group of young men at the Department of Juvenile Justice who were close to getting parole.
I wracked my brain – what could I possibly say to them? I didn’t know their stories or circumstances.
Then, I realized – it is not what they can learn from me, but what I can learn from them. I shared with them the work we are doing with 100 Million Healthier Lives to disrupt disparities in incarceration. For example, statistics indicate that black adults in America are 40% of the nation’s inmates though they comprise only 12% of the U.S. population. Furthermore, data shows that boys born into households in the bottom 10% of earners are 20 times more likely to be in prison as adults than children born in the top 10%.
I explained that we are interviewing experts around the country to understand the factors that lead to these disparities. And I asked if they would be willing to share their stories as experts in their own lives.
With their permission, we engaged in an activity. First, I asked them to share what brought them to DJJ. The stories were heart-wrenching. One note read: “Losing close friends; growing up around shooting, drugs, and killings; my mother being a single parent.” Another particularly heartbreaking one read: “Making the choice of taking someone else’s life when they tried to take my mother’s life and when she later died.”
Then, I asked them to share their hope for the future. They looked at me with blank stares.
Thinking about future, finding hope for the future, was something that seemed foreign to them.
Eventually, we walked through what I meant and they began to write.
I’ll never forget what one teen wrote: “More shelters for the homeless.” I asked him what he meant. “I used to work in Charleston by the old slave market selling straw flowers,” he shared. “If I made enough money, I would always give what 20 bucks or so to people living on the street. It wasn’t right that they had to live like that and I felt sad. Now, I want to open more homeless shelters so I can help people like that.”
Wow, y’all. Just wow.
As I left the building, I reflected with one of the guards about the experience. “What good, good kids they are,” I said. “Yeah, they are. But what is heartbreaking is they will leave here and go back to the same environments that brought them here in the first place. We have some kids who – you know, some can make money here by working in our stores and such – and some kids, they have to send that money back to their families to help pay the bills.”
The sad reality is that so many of these teens – who are genuinely really, really sweet kids – are going home to the same communities which brought them here in first place. Communities ridden with poverty, crime, poor education, poor food access, limited housing.
Through Serve & Connect, we are seeking ways to support these communities. We are finding new models of promoting safety that bring together police and communities.
In one recent meeting, an advocate from a lower income community we are working with reflected on some of the challenges youth face. “When they are younger, 6, 7, 8, they don’t know the difference. This is their life. But, then they start getting older. They see their mom working all the time. They see her struggling. Then, the gangs come up to them, buying them nice treats and goodies and promises of a better life.”
A better life. Hope.
That, to me, is the key to promoting community safety. It’s not going to work every single time, but in my experience and in the discussions I’ve had, at the heart of the matter is hope. When we strip people of hope for a better future, we strip them of their opportunity to thrive. But, when we work to seek to understand what people need to thrive and seek to connect them with the resources that can help, we can make a huge difference.
Our police do this so often – they see people in need and find ways to help. And we want to help even more of this to happen and spread. That is why we are partnering with outstanding community partners to help police get the right resources into the right hands to help drive effective change.
This is how we grow hope, people, and we are doing it together.
Thanks for joining us on this journey.