A number of yearly meetings have been addressing the issue of mass incarceration, in some cases asking Friends to read Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and encouraging monthly meetings to hold discussion groups about the book.
Then what? The book is compelling enough to motivate readers to action, but this often means frustration as Friends try to figure out where to begin. So it was good to discover this slim booklet with the cover photo of black hands grasping the bars of a prison cell, the same photo that appears on the cover of Alexander’s book.
Actually, this guide could be useful to anyone working for change. While the examples given relate to criminal justice, the principles would apply to the environmental movement, for example.
We are good at educating ourselves through workshops and discussion groups. But to bring about change we need to organize; we need to build a movement. The book’s three chapters tell us how.
Chapter one, “Roles in Movement Building,” tells us that “movements are forces of collective energy, channeling deep emotions like anger and love and mobilized by hopes and dreams for large-scale change.” They require a variety of people filling different roles.
The role of Helpers is to offer shelter, food, and caring to those in need; they connect directly with those they help. Advocates, such as lawyers and social workers, help people navigate the system. Organizers look to the system for root causes of suffering and bring people together to solve problems. And Rebels bring fire and energy to a movement; they are not afraid to take risks and they are willing to shock, to be “in your face,” to speak truth to power. All these roles are essential, and individuals need to consider what roles best use their particular gifts and personalities.
Chapter two, “Building Strong Groups,” describes in some detail the Montgomery Bus Boycott, refuting the myth that Rosa Parks was just an individual who refused to give up her seat. The community had been looking for a test case for some time, and through strategizing together and building relationships, people were ready when the time came to develop a campaign that brought change.
Effective groups combine individual strengths to work for goals. They choose actions that will fire up their own constituencies, not just influence the larger public. They network to reach other groups that might potentially join forces with them.
Groups working for criminal justice need to combine the experience and knowledge of professionals, concerned citizen volunteers, and people who have first-hand experience of being incarcerated. All are important for the knowledge, skills, and energy they bring to the table.
Chapter three, “Creating Effective Campaigns,” draws a sharp distinction between actions in response to wrongdoing (e.g. taking to the streets after the shooting of an unarmed black man) and campaigns that take the initiative to work toward achievable goals. The goals need to relate to a bigger goal. The author cites Gandhi’s leadership of a campaign for the right of people in India to make their own salt—a small goal that gave the Indian people confidence that they could stand up to the British, and that led ultimately to the end of British rule.
[Bringing change] is not easy. It requires us to connect with our humanity and our love, taking risks and facing down a monstrous system that’s both external and inside us. It requires that we build a new public consensus that values each and every human being’s worth and dignity—especially poor people and people of color who are demonized, whether as felons, criminals, or any kind of “other.”
I found this book incredibly exciting and energizing, and I have been recommending it to my fellow members of the Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform. I think it will help us ask the right questions of ourselves as we organize for a second year of lobbying for criminal justice reform legislation. If you are wondering what to do after reading Alexander’s book, this one will help you get moving.