by Bob Simmons
Council for Children’s Rights is a partner in Race Matters for Juvenile Justice, participating on the Leadership Team, the Speakers Bureau, and various other committees and initiatives. Last fall, with the rest of the RMJJ partners, we approached September 19, 20, and 21, 2016 with particular excitement.
After more than nine months of making connections, meeting, and providing information, members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force and 35 other community leaders were scheduled to attend the two-day Racial Equity Workshop (then known as Dismantling Racism) on September 19 and 20.
At the same time, the RMJJ Speakers Bureau was scheduled to launch the first of six semi-monthly community presentations on September 21 at Nations Ford Community Church.
We hoped these three days would enhance the awareness and impact of our work: providing education about bias; about structural, systemic, and institutional racism; about the data showing disproportionate system involvement and disparate outcomes; and about our vision of a juvenile justice system – and a community – where race and ethnicity do not adversely affect the circumstances of children’s lives and the paths of their childhoods.
September 19 passed as expected. When the Task Force and their guests returned to Hope Haven the next day, they told us that the first day had not only challenged them but also caused them to reevaluate all of the work they had done for the preceding 18 months. Now, they shared, they understood that racism was a root cause of inequitable economic mobility in our community – what their March 2017 report of findings and recommendations would call a “cross-cutting factor” underlying all of the other determinants.
By the end of day two, events had occurred in our community that would confirm the truth of their new understanding. We walked out into the news of the killing of Keith Lamont Scott by a CMPD officer and into the expressions of pain and anger that were sweeping a portion of the University Area.
The next day was tense, and protests were planned Uptown, but after consulting with the leaders of Nations Ford Community Church, we decided that we must proceed with our community presentation. Six of us made our way to the church in the traffic jam of office workers who had been urged to leave Uptown early.
As we met before the presentation, we realized that it was not a time for the distance of Power Points with history and data; it was a time for the closeness of sharing difficult truths. That evening, we spoke directly about the events of the past day. We spoke about the truth of both facts and feelings. We listened and worked through tough questions – seeking understanding in real time with those attending of how our community, our work, and our lives were changing in the harsh light of a reality that could no longer be ignored and must be faced together.
It was after 9:30 before the last conversation ended with the folks who lingered past the meeting. Some of us headed home. Some of us headed towards the demonstration that had by then turned into confrontation when police stopped the movement of the crowd, followed by escalating conflict, violence, damage, and another death.
One year later
A year later, it is still fresh in our minds and in the work we do here at the Council. A year later, we still see children of color disproportionately involved in the juvenile justice system and suffering disparate outcomes at the hands of that system. That truth has not changed.
But we remain hopeful for our children, their families, and our community because it appears there has been a change of heart. In our community, we see a growing awareness of inequity, a real curiosity about its origins and scope, a genuine acceptance that racism and bias are present and not past, and a real desire to listen, to learn, and to engage in a meaningful cycle of action to go beyond charity to justice.
The Opportunity Task Force took a brave step with their report in March, and our community responded with applause and engagement. The Board of Education moved forward in May with Phase II of their revision of the student assignment plan, adjusting some assignment patterns to reduce concentrations of poverty. In June, the Board of County Commissioners voted to put the full school bond on the ballot, and the General Assembly voted to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 15 to 17 effective December 20, 2019 – a change that, at least initially, will have a disproportionately positive effect on the outcomes for children of color because of their disproportionate involvement in the system.
At this first anniversary of those three days in September, we cannot say any of the problems of inequity facing our community – problems 400 years in the making – have been solved. The transition of the Opportunity Task Force from research, findings and recommendations into the planning and implementation phase called “Leading on Opportunity” has proceeded slowly. The work of the Board of Education and the Board of County Commissioners to bring greater equity into our schools has met resistance, and the General Assembly has opened the door to the possible deconsolidation of CMS – which would likely increase the inequity of access to education for many children in our community.
Even so, today most of our community remembers the truth of what those days last fall forced into our collective consciousness, and most of our community is still at least talking about how we can make right what is wrong for our children and our families who still suffer the inequity embedded in our socioeconomic structure, our systems, and our institutions.
None of us can un-see what we have seen. None of us can un-hear what we have heard. We cannot be who we were. As we are different, we will act differently. Together we will dismantle racism for our own sake and the sake of our children. That is our new truth on this anniversary.