This week, Charlotte hosted two community events on criminal justice on the same evening.
The Harvey B. Gantt Center’s free monthly community conversation, ‘Talk About It Tuesday,’ in conjunction with its newest exhibit, “… and justice for all,” focused on the intersection of art and the lived experiences of incarceration. The moderated panel included a directly impacted artist (Sherrill Roland), a directly impacted Charlotte native (Gemini Boyd), and community members who currently work in the criminal justice sector (myself and Dr. Keith Cradle).
The other, a paid, ticketed event held at Belk Theater, was organized by Queen’s University Learning Society and the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice. The conversation featured Michelle Alexander, a best-selling author and national speaker on criminal justice.
By default, these events reached two different audiences. The occurrence was a stark reminder that we live in a city of “two Charlottes.”
While we know that grassroots and grasstops advocates must work together to impact systemic change, the irony of these discussions taking place on the same day is not beyond me. It brings into question the subversive existence of “The Charlotte Way” — a small, elite group of individuals with power who drive decision-making about the direction of our city.
In her book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” Michelle Alexander suggests that racial hierarchies established during European colonization recalibrate during periods of social, political, and/or economic disruption to restore a social order dominated by the system of white supremacy. Also, it is this built-in system of ‘quality control’ that sustains a racial undercaste.
Two community conversations – one free, one not – happening on the same night at the same time attended by very different audiences – one with majority power and one with majority experience – is a reflection of not only the social order Alexander describes, it is a reminder of the systemic inequity we’re all committed to dismantling.
How then, do we confront this reality and do the work that centralizes lived experience at the fore of our advocacy?
The experience of those like Sherrill Roland who shared, “… I did the Jumpsuit Project for myself because of what was going on inside of me after that experience [of being unjustly locked up].”
Or, Gemini Boyd who said, “My first interaction with the system was when I was 5 years old…, later entering the juvenile system at 16 years old, and eventually going to prison at 22 to serve 20 years of a 50-year sentence…I’ve spent more time in prison than out.”
Transforming Charlotte to offer more opportunity and equity for upward mobility requires engaging those with proximity to the subject. I’ve learned from formerly incarcerated people in my work, “nothing about us without us,” an adaptation from the disability movement that impacted people should be at the center of and included in all decisions about accommodations that will impact them.
Justice-involved individuals deserve the same prioritization.
If our goal is equity for all, we cannot continue to bypass the ways existing power structures preserve the social order Alexander discusses in her work. We must have the will to relinquish power to reimagine community, together.
What can we do differently in the future?
Before any social justice work is addressed, advocates should consider the relationship between power, race and class for that issue.
- Who has the power related to this issue?
- Is that power consistent with the racial/economic hierarchy established during European colonization?
Advocates should reflect on their role — personally and professionally — in sustaining or disrupting harmful outcomes.
- How has my worldview been shaped by this issue?
- Who’s missing from this discussion/decision-making?
- Do I have the will to relinquish my power to ensure equity throughout this process?
Advocates should take steps to actively close the gaps before work begins.
- Is there equitable representation?
- How is power distributed internally?
- Have we centralized those closest to the margins in our work?
As a community advocate, I implore our civic and business leaders to pause and assess the city’s traditional approaches to racial equity and economic mobility. We can make great progress if we educate truth, expose systems, and engage action in efforts to address systemic inequities.
These outlined steps will set us on a path to equity, where I believe the real value of two events happening on the same night about the same subject could, in the future, be a demonstration of interconnectedness and not more of the same “two Charlottes.”
Patrice Funderburg is an emancipated corporate HR professional, now founder and chief visionary of Educate To Engage LLC, a Charlotte-based boutique consulting firm that focuses on developing people and organizations for transformational change – from self to systems – through education, exposure, and engagement. Her firm also offers a free community book club on mass incarceration.
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