Working to End Inequity in Criminal Justice: Art, Advocacy, Action Event

Event News

At the end of January, the Art for Justice Fund brought together a group of grantees, funders and other stakeholders committed to reforming one of America’s social ills: the criminal justice system.

In his opening statement at the event held at the Museum of the City of New York, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker thanked everyone for joining the conversation, noting that, “Empathy is the first step towards justice.”

Over the course of the two-hour event, participants discussed the dignity of, and necessity in, having those most affected lead reform efforts; how art can help heal emotional trauma and foster soft skills for those impacted by the criminal justice system; the need for a culture-shift focused on safety instead of punishment; and how to involve more people in ending inequities in the criminal justice system.

Below are additional highlights of the event and how they relate to the fund’s strategies.

Diverting Young People from Prison

The night started with the voices of young people working with Art for Justice Fund grantee Art 180, in a program that affirms that incarcerated teens are more than just crime statistics.

“If justice transforms, I would be doing work instead of time,” we heard in one part of the poem. “You would hear me say we need freedom for unity. You will see what I did as an outlet instead of a crime. Teach me math, science, reading, and language arts. Believe that I am powerful, and I will become something one day.”

Artists Bearing Witness to Injustice

Echoing Walker’s acknowledgement of the need for empathy, Los Angeles Poet Laureate and founder of fund grantee Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural Luis Rodriguez spoke of his experience of finding the arts while in jail and said that rather than being “scared straight,” he was “cared straight.”

Also speaking to the intersection of art and justice was Sabra Williams, co-founder of fund grantee The Actors’ Gang, which does theater work in prisons. “It takes so much courage because all the work does is hold a mirror up to your life,” she said. “And that is terrifying. Especially when you’re in a room with shot callers from all the different gangs in the state, all the different gangs that you’re mandated to kill, and now you’re playing together and becoming emotionally vulnerable in front of each other.”

Improving Opportunities for When People Come Out

The Ford Foundation’s Tanya Coke, who focuses on issues of mass incarceration, spoke of the need to rethink existing barriers to formerly incarcerated people entering into the workforce. One example she cited was of a person who was struggling to get a license to practice law after completing law school and passing the bar exam.

“This is some of the heroic work that people in this audience, and grantees and future grantees of the fund are doing,” she continued. “Like what Susan Burton of the New Way of Life Reentry Project, and Daryl Atkinson of Forward Justice are doing around the restoration of rights of folks who are getting out, particularly employment rights. Thing that are so basic like the ability to hold a barber license, are actually huge hurdles for people coming out of prison.”

Reducing Jail and Prison Populations

Grantee Alliance for Safety and Justice’s Robert Rooks argued that we need to focus on safety and the root causes of crime and focus away from punishment. “We don’t need a justice system in the way that we have it,” Rooks said. “We need a safety system. We need a system that looks at what it means to make communities safe, and take punishment out of the system altogether.”

Daryl Atkinson of grantee Forward Justice, similarly argued that a culture shift was going to be needed in the entire social justice ecosystem to dismantle the problem. “No one thing is going to bring this system down, because the system wasn’t built on one thing,” Atkinson said. “It was an amalgamation of laws, policies, customs and practices that created this negative system called mass incarceration. Dismantling it is going to be equally as incremental.”

Reforming the Bail System

Alec Karakatsanis of grantee Civil Rights Corps offered some thoughts on the ills of bail and similarly called out culture change as being as important as incremental policy victories. “The thing that I fear the most is that we’ll gain victories,” he said. “But then, because we haven’t disrupted the underlying power dynamics that created the money bail system, the system will reproduce something in its place that’s just as bad, if not worse.”

Join the fight

All of us can be part of righting the wrongs in the criminal justice system, and there are many ways to participate both in the Art for Justice Fund as well as acting through individual efforts. As Ford’s Tanya Coke said:

What I like to tell donors is that your contribution, however modest it may be, you are able to tell you children and your grandchildren that you struck a blow against one of the most pernicious social injustices of our time.