Why Mothers for Justice and Equality Matters

From the Mothers for Justice and Equality website, from Day 1 Conference, Oct. 19, 2017

Mothers for Justice and Equality (MJE) held its national conference on October 19th and 20th, and true to its mission, shared the voices and visions of those across the country who came to Boston with messages about the fight against violence.

The video above gives a short summary of the conference and highlights some of the stupendous work of President Monalisa Smith, as well as many other supporters and members of MJE.

According to the MJE website, the organization was founded by mothers who lost children to community violence. What was stressed throughout the conference is that the pain of a mother who has lost a child to death or prison is palatable, tragic, relentless. Such violence is “not okay” and “not acceptable in any child’s life.” To help those left behind who deal with ongoing loss, MJE developed the “You Matter: Personal Leadership Training” in 2013. In 2014, MJE began a Youth Peer Leadership program, and a year later, a Workforce Readiness Initiative. In 2015, they expanded to work with prisoners inside and help those formerly incarcerated men and women coming back to their communities.

 “When my son died, a part of me died,” a woman said in a short video that kicked off the conference, highlighting MJE’s work. Another woman who first dealt with trauma by drinking eventually found MJE, but not before wanting to destroying herself. “To most mothers, justice has never been about getting revenge,” she said.

Reverend Janie Dowdy-Dandridge talked of how she lost her grandson to street violence. “Everybody has a breaking point, ” she said, quoting the story of Rizpah, a mother of murdered sons from the Old Testament, a woman who was like many: “beat down by death, defeat, or discouragement.” But she found her way. Likewise, Victor Santana, who lost his brother in a tragic accident, saw how stress seeped into his daily life, and coped by developing a workshop on resilience. Robin David, from Tennessee, lost her son, and has since become a motivational speaker. “My goal is to help women learn to live in their truth,” she said.

While there were many panels and speakers that gave hope to those who had been victims of violence, there were a variety of participants, indicative of a variety of perspectives. One participant said that she attended because, “I need to learn how to hold on to my son.”  Boston Mayor Marty Walsh addressed the conference and spoke highly of MJE’s work, saying he had now established an Office of Returning Citizens, and is working on hiring more men and women returning home from prison. he said, “Kids need to feel they belong even if they are just coming out of jail.” 

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An interesting panel included three young black men talking on race and justice from a youth perspective. When they were asked “What do you think of when you hear the term race and justice?” they gave a variety of answers. Cedric said he thought of young Black males losing their lives, which  “challenges me on a daily basis.” He added that the membership of the police force “doesn’t reflect us or our community.”

Corine asked “What is race and why is it called race?” He pointed out the irony of the word “race” as in running, used as a verb, and implying a “best,” i.e. “Race matters because we are running a race.” And “When I am just walking down my street, why aren’t police officers speaking to me? Would they, if I were white?”

Shaygun said “Race informs justice.” He clarified: “It may not be a definable term, but I know when it exists. I shouldn’t be in the streets demanding something that my grandmother demanded 50 years ago. Justice means resolving issues still plaguing us today.”

They all said that injustice is informed by simple things like busses not coming as frequently in Mattapan as in Brighton. Air pollution is worse in communities of color, they agreed. Cedric said that free time is toxic for him. If he is with friends who hang out on his street, he is constantly harassed. An example he gave was when police assumed that when he gave $3.00 to a friend for “munchies,” it was a drug transaction.Three Young Men at MJEPhoto by MJE 

The title of this conference was “Empowering Women to Action.” And MJE’s operating model, per their website, hinges on two key mechanisms: “1) Education empowers MJE members by providing the leadership tools they need to take action and make change; and 2) Engagement includes public actions and campaigns that challenge the normalization of violence, providing members with opportunities to act as catalysts for change at home and advocates for change in their community.”

This conference is a great tool to both educate and give participants a boost towards action.

Lillie A. Estes Defines Community Justice

 

Lillie in Action

Lillie Estes in action at a May Day march, 2015. Photo, courtesy of Lille Estes

Lillie Estes is a force of nature. There really is no other way to say it. When she took the stage at Harvard Law School for “Justice Works: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Community Justice,” it was clear that the term “community justice” embodied her lived experience. At a time when Massachusetts’ advocates are hoping to get criminal justice reform passed and are depending on legislation to help transform lives, “community justice” is an alternative, vibrant, and hopeful path towards achieving change.

Community justice, as defined on the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice’s (CHHIR&J) website is “the process of building public policy by incorporating the voices, knowledge and aspirations of individuals living and working in communities decimated by decades of disinvestment, neglect and over-policing.” The CHHIR&J has been pioneering community justice programs at the law school in order to present viable alternatives to the overly harsh and often misguided policies permeating today’s punishment system. On October 3rd, “Justice Works” was one of those programs and featured a variety of speakers who had found ways to demand change on a local level— engaging those who are most impacted and encouraging them to speak out against injustices and for progressive policies.

David Harris, executive director of the CHHIR&J, calls Lillie Estes “the heart and soul of Richmond, Virginia.” In an email, he added, “She has devoted decades to make real the common idea that people in communities must guide their own destiny.”

In a phone interview, Estes called herself a “community strategist.” She spoke about how she has been on a “spiritual journey” from her first efforts to improve the community as a high school student in Newport News, Virginia, and soon after as an active member of the NAACP Youth Council. She moved to Richmond more than 35 years ago.

One of her current passions is RePHRAME or Residents of Public Housing in Richmond Against Mass Eviction. In an op-ed, which Estes co-wrote for the Richmond Times-Dispatch with several other authors, she stated “In Virginia, someone would have to work 128 hours per week at minimum wage to afford a two-bedroom rental home at fair market rent. And in Virginia, landlords have many more rights and protections than tenants.”

To help protect citizens in public housing, Estes said she co-founded RePHRAME, and it has become an example of community justice at work. Estes lives in public housing herself. She said the challenge and the key to getting residents involved is approaching folks on a personal level, letting them know that “Even if I have the power, I will acknowledge your wisdom in your capacity.” She is not above knocking on doors to get residents engaged in change, what she calls a “labor of love and work in progress.” Community meetings and consensus are part and parcel of her process. Estes said it took her five years to convince someone to join the board of RePHRAME because “so many people [in public housing] feel they don’t have any value.” She “pitches it so they don’t get captured by other people.”

RePHRAME’s ambitious work includes: making sure residents do not lose their public housing if redevelopment occurs; as planning for newly created public housing units takes place, insisting that employment, education, and other opportunities from development go to public housing residents; assuring that residents have a voice in decisions regarding their housing and their communities; working to avoid late fees tacked on to rent because of posal system delays. Estes already has helped implement a residents’ “bill of rights” for redevelopment.

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2016 article in the Richmond Free Press detailed a few of Estes’ other efforts. She serves on the advisory board of the city’s Maggie L. Walker Initiative for Expanding Opportunity and Fighting Poverty. According to the Sun, “The group presented an action plan to Mayor Dwight C. Jones in 2013 to help alleviate poverty in Richmond, where one in four city residents lives at or below the poverty level.” She was instrumental in developing a position in the mayor’s Office of Community Wealth Building to help implement poverty-fighting initiatives. Estes serves on the board of the Virginia Poverty Law Center. She is also behind the 2017-18 Community Justice Film Series in Richmond which is using film as a catalyst for community engagement and promoting “forward-thinking dialogue” around themes such as education, housing, publlc safety, whole body health, transportation, job creation, and wealth building.

Part of improving public housing is improving all of the above issues for residents. Indeed, it is not insignificant that those issues contribute to the life expectancy in the public housing complex where Estes resides—63 years, the lowest in Richmond. According to a Virginia Commonwealth University report, in a suburb just five miles away, people are living twenty years longer.

David Harris pointed out in his email that Estes has continued “to work tirelessly against great odds to identify and amplify” voices of members of impaced communities. Estes told me that her eldest son was murdered in 2010, three days before his 24th birthday. Her son’s best friend, she said in a Richmond Times-Dispatch article,was shot to death on New Year’s Day in South Richmond. Another son is in college and hopes to be a lawyer, and he attended the Harvard event with her. She has worked hard to fight against violence of any kind and to hold her city accountable. She shared that when her mother had a stroke when she was young, Estes learned to speak for her, an art that has truly helped her understand others.

Mothers for Justice and Equality, a national group based in Boston whose mission is to empower mothers to end violence in the streets, awarded Estes a “Mother of Courage Award” in 2016 for her work. Surely there is no one who is more deserving.

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Head shots courtesy of Lillie Estes

As Lillie Estes continues to work for justice in Richmond and surrounding communities, the Houston Institute continues to present important events to amplify the voices of those living and working in communities hardest hit by crime and violence, and to feature activists who champion these issues around the nation.

Prison Abolition Conference

 

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Please read and share my newest on Truthout: “Abolitionists From Around the World Gather to Plan for the End of Prisons.” It starts like so: “In July 2017 more than 200 people from across the globe met for four days in New Bedford, Massachusetts, which was once home to abolitionist Frederick Douglass and a major stop on the Underground Railroad. Meeting intentionally in a place with such historical significance to the abolition movement, conferees came together to learn more about the relationship between the carceral state and struggles against colonialism and slavery.”

Above is a picture of Massachusetts activists Elly Kaulfis (R) and Rachel Corey (L), not included in the article but there workshop is discussed

Prison Writer Slammed With Another Stint in Solitary

 

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Please see my newest on HuffPost which begins: “It shouldn’t be surprising to hear federal prisoner and prisoner rights advocate Christopher Zoukis, who has written four books and produced countless articles for outlets such as the New York Daily News, Prison Legal News, and the Huffington Post, is under fire once again for his writing activities. Accused of running a business, so far he has served 30 days in solitary confinement. This is the third time Zoukis has received sanctions for his writing actions, with five months in the hole being the most severe punishment to date.  MORE