Five Lessons in Ecumenical, Interfaith, and Extrafaith Organizing

The Princeton New Jim Crow Project is a coalition of local organizations working for awareness and reform of injustices in the criminal justice system. The group takes its name from Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010). The book has sparked a conversation across the country on racial injustices within the prison system in a way few texts have. Buzz about the book has infiltrated divinity schools and seminaries as well. Entering students at Yale Divinity School were even given a copy of the book upon their arrival last fall. This year’s Diaspora conference Lutheran students on the east coast is focused on criminal justice reform as well. I was introduced to the Princeton New Jim Crow Project through the outreach committee at my contextual field education site, Trinity Church.

The Read Out started as a rough sketch of an idea, but over the past year that idea came to fruition in the form of a week-long public education program and petition drive to rectify injustices of the prison system. Each night included music, adapted excerpts from the book, testimonials from those affected by the criminal justice system, and poetry written by inmates. Throughout the organizing process, we have often asked what momentum or change the Read Out can make. As someone interested in social activism in the church, I have also been struggling with questions about how to make events like the Read Out successful. How can we maximize our reach? How can groups with different interests and commitments work together? Now that we are on the other side of the event, we will have to ask ourselves, What have we learned? Below are five of the biggest lessons we’re taking away.

Moving Beyond Education

The “So What?” question loomed large for us throughout the organizing process. We often say that the first step of social change is education, and we felt confident that the Read Out could raise awareness. By holding the event in a high-traffic pedestrian square after working hours, we were able to reach many people leaving work who stayed for all or part of the Read Out. But education and awareness are not enough to make social change. For the event to have real substance, we had to provide a way for people to convert that awareness into positive action. One way we were able to do that was by identifying key active legislation such as a bill in the NJ House to reform phone contracts that raise state revenue at the expense of families with loved ones in prison. We also partnered with Ban the Box, another local group working to make it easier for ex-inmates to find employment. Petitions were available for both projects and a state assemblywoman was present to answer questions about pending legislation. Breaking prison reform down into concrete, achievable pieces helped us translate education into action.

Partner Broadly and Creatively

Participating groups in the event included not only churches, but also educational institutions, a popular bookseller, the area arts council, and local justice groups. Drawing from a wide range of institutions had numerous advantages throughout the planning process. Some unexpected players turned out to be hugely important to the success of the event. The bookseller agreed to discount the book to increase awareness and provided indoor space for inclement weather. The public library (while not a sponsor of the event), provided seating and a sound system that gave our event a little more gravitas. Drawing from churches also helped us expand our geographic reach. Though Princeton is not a large city, partnering with churches in Trenton and speakers from New York City helped us expand our geographic draw.

Three Degrees of Separation

In Connected (2011), Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler argue that the people that influence our lives the most are people two or three degrees removed from us. We found this to ring true in finding speakers and stories for the Read Out. The best stories and experiences did not come from people within the committee, but from parishioners of friends and coworkers of clients. Going two or three degrees outside of our committee yielded stories we had never heard from people we never could have found on our own.

Don’t Speak for, Give Voice to

In the faith community, we often take our responsibility to speak on behalf of the voiceless. But perhaps we should go a step further and let people speak for themselves. After working for months to plan this event, it could be tempting for some members of the planning committee to hold on tightly to the reins. But by stepping back, we were able to find stories with exponentially greater force. Some of the most powerful pieces of the Read Out came from personal testimonials from people affected by unjust laws and systems. It is one thing to hear an exposition on the theological or sociopolitical ramifications of unjust laws, but it is another thing to hear a story from someone who has lived in the system. The best way to empower people is not to speak for them, but to hand them a microphone.

Build Momentum

This is the biggest question for us now. Where does the movement go? There has been talk of organizing similar Read Outs in other cities and towns and legislation will be pushed forward over the next legislative session, but where will this movement go in the long run? As Michelle Alexander argues, the criminal justice system needs comprehensive reform. Can we convert state-level awareness into national victories? Before this week I was optimistic. But now I’m hopeful.

To see a few examples of Read Out, see here, here and here.

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