Archive for : Criminal Justice

Takeaways from the National Memorial for Peace and Justice

A version of this article appeared in the Atlanta Jewish Times.

By Lily Brent, Director, Repair the World Atlanta

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama has a steel pillar for each county in the United States where a lynching took place. When I visited with my fellow Repair the World City Directors last month, I thought it would be easy to find the monument for Fulton County because I knew it would be crowded with the names of the 35 documented victims of racial terror lynchings in the community where I make my home. I scanned the oxidized columns one after another after another. There are more than 800. Many of them crowded with names like Lillie (mine) and Daniel (my father’s) and Adam (my brother’s) and Squire, Julia, Evan, Robert, George, Thomas, Lit, Cairo, and Lincoln. The Fulton County pillar was lost to me in a killing forest.

With the help of staff, I found our Fulton County history suspended from the ceiling, hanging heavy and ominous over my head.

The Memorial is at once a place of deep dignity and honor for Black Americans who were denied due process, terrorized, tortured, murdered, and who have gone largely unacknowledged for a hundred years or more. Or far less. It is also a place of shame. That shame is too complex to unpack fully here, but I will share a piece of mine with you in good faith.

As a Jew who worked with genocide survivors in Rwanda, I consider myself someone well-steeped in “man’s inhumanity to man.” Here in the United States, I have worked in prisons and public schools and I know we are far from freedom and justice for all.

I lived and worked in Rwanda during the final year of gacaca, the country’s truth and reconciliation process after a genocide in which over 800,000 human beings were murdered in 90 days. Looking out at the country’s stunning vistas of green hills as far as the eye can see, I marveled at how such a beautiful landscape could be so blood-soaked: that gentle ribbon of river was choked with bodies, red like a plague in April 1994. I questioned how neighbors could continue to live alongside each other when members of one family had macheted members of the other. That kind of tolerance seemed inconceivable.

What I failed to realize–and now I cannot believe the colossal nature of my ignorance and naivete, my blinding white privilege–is that we in the United States are living our own unresolved legacy of violence. Just as I walked through the Eastern Province of Rwanda and had someone point out the house of the man who killed his father, I walked through Selma with activist Joanne Bland, who pointed out the business establishment of the man thought to have murdered Reverend James Reeb. Here neighbors are also living alongside descendants of those who lynched their family members. Yet we’ve never sat together in the fields, community by community, and told our stories.

Many of us have made or will make pilgrimages to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI)’s Legacy Museum and Memorial for Peace and Justice. Many of us will be moved by re-encountering our American history from a lens of racial terror, and facing the founding “myth of racial difference” that has justified everything from slavery, to convict leasing, to casting black children as “super-predators.” In Rwanda, moving forward after atrocities called for a reckoning with the crimes committed, not through retribution, but through truth-telling. This is the movement EJI is creating. As Jews, what is our place in this movement?

At Repair the World, our mission is to make meaningful volunteer service a defining part of American Jewish life. As volunteers, we’re often meeting and serving people with whom we don’t share lived experiences. For white, affluent volunteers, this might mean entering an unfamiliar neighborhood, one that doesn’t have a grocery store with fresh produce, or a subway station, and where 40% of residents don’t own cars. We might listen to people striving to break out of poverty and running up against barriers like a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour ($1,160 per month) in a city where the average two-bedroom apartment costs $1,000 per month. We might hear a new perspective in conversation with Black Atlantans. Without understanding our shared history, we are in danger of accepting the poverty and inequity we encounter while volunteering as incidental and accidental and not part of a larger system of inequality rooted in persistent and pernicious white supremacy.

Volunteering, when done right, allows us to stand shoulder to shoulder with our neighbors. It opens an opportunity to hear the urgent needs in our community, and to strive to meet them. There is something deeply satisfying about knowing that someone will not go hungry tonight because of us. Yet Jewish scholarship teaches us to question. And as we do the important work of meeting urgent needs, I believe we are also obligated to ask ourselves “why?” Why is this work of feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, tutoring children in inadequate schools still necessary in the wealthiest country in the world? Every individual has a story filled with choices, but as Bryan Stevenson of EJI, famously writes, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done.” When we see patterns of disenfranchisement and disinvestment persist along racial lines, we have to ask ourselves why.

While Atlanta is a city with a proud legacy of Black leadership and innovation across fields, the patterns of inequity are also clear. Atlanta is tied for the city with the greatest income inequality in the nation and also “has the widest racial achievement gap of any urban school district except Washington, D.C”.  Georgia has the most people under correctional control (prison, jail, probation and parole) of any state in the U.S. and a vastly disproportionate number of people incarcerated in our state are African American. EJI is calling us to the realization that racial disparities in health, wealth, education, and incarceration stem from our unresolved history of slavery, racial terror, and systematic discrimination.

Our heroes of the Civil Rights movement made monumental progress toward the realization of all America promises. And yet the struggle is not over. In my job as Director of Repair the World Atlanta, people often share their desire to make our community more just, but lament, “What can I do?” Racism and inequity are entrenched problems on scale where it can feel hard to make an impact. At Repair, we take small and consistent steps to care for each other. We also urge you to ask the big questions. Here are a few actions you can take this month to gain a greater understanding of our shared history and the perspectives of people whose lived experience of inequity is different from your own.

 

 

Stay tuned for more opportunities for education and action and share your own ideas for applying the lessons of The Legacy Museum and Memorial for Peace and Justice to our daily lives.

Turn the Tables on MLK Day with Repair the World

“What is it America has failed to hear? …It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King’s heroic legacy of advancing civil and human rights in America lives on, even nearly 50 years after his death. But in recent months, whether in Ferguson, Missouri, Staten Island, New York, or countless other cities and towns across the country, there have been too many reminders that the work to ensure justice and freedom for all our country’s citizens is far from complete.

That is why this year, in honor of MLK Day, Repair the World is launching Turn the Tables – an initiative that promotes the principles at the center of Dr. King’s ideology, and works towards the promise of a more just society. The road ahead is long, so we must walk it together.

There are two ways to get involved over MLK Day weekend:

Host a Shabbat Supper
On January 16, turn your table into a forum for conversations about justice. Shabbat has traditionally been a sacred weekly time for Jews to gather with those closest to them. Repair the World invites everyone to use the Shabbat before MLK day as an opportunity to break bread and reflect on racial injustice issues that are on the minds of Americans following the tragic events in Ferguson, Staten Island and elsewhere.

Take Action
MLK Day is a nationally recognized Day of Service. On January 19, join thousands of Americans across the country in making our communities stronger and standing up to the challenges of racial inequality in meaningful and tangible ways. Sign up to make the commitment to make a difference for a cause you care about.

Learn more about Repair the World’s Turn the Tables initiative and get access to tons of resources for MLK Day and beyond.

Torah Tidbit: A Taste of This Week’s Portion – Vayera 5772

This Torah Tidbit is brought to you by Repair the World and our grantee-partner American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Check out the full dvar tzedek on which this excerpt is based at AJWS.

This week’s Torah portion, Vayera, is the stuff of Hollywood movies – an epic tale of right and wrong, and the story of one man fighting against the odds to stand up for what he believes in. Vayera recounts the story of Abraham (played here by a bedraggled George Clooney, naturally) trying to convince God not to destroy the people of Sodom and Gomorrah for their moral corruptness. In doing so, he puts his own relationship with God – not to mention his own life – on the line.

Read more from this week’s dvar tzedek author, Leil Leibovitz, below the jump – but be warned, there are some serious spoiler alerts in there.
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Davis Execution Cause for Reflection & Reform

Last night Troy Davis, a 42-year old man convicted of murdering police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah 22 years ago, was put to death by lethal injection in a Georgia prison.

It was a case heard, and protested, around the world by supporters including Pope Benedict XVI, Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu and former FBI Director William Sessions. Davis supporters believed that the evidence used to convict him was shaky since no murder weapon was found, there was no DNA evidence linking him to the scene, and seven of the nine original eyewitnesses recanted part or all of their original testimony. Davis maintained his innocence until the end.
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Citizenship Day Coming Up This Friday 9/17

This Friday night, September 17th, is Erev Yom Kippur – the start of the Jewish calendar’s most sacred day. But September 17th also marks another notable event: Citizenship Day.

Founded in 2004, Citizenship Day marks the anniversary of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. It’s history, however, stretches back a bit further. According to patriotism.org,

“The roots of Citizenship Day stretch much farther back beginning in 1940 when I am an American Day was initiated by Congress for the third Sunday in May. The day of September 17th was reached by citizens themselves. In 1952 Olga T. Weber of Ohio successfully convinced her municipality to name the date Constitution Day. The next year she went a step further and petitioned the Ohio government to celebrate the holiday statewide as Constitution Week from September 17-23 and the movement was soon passed.

Citizenship Day, which will celebrate its 14th year this year, gives all Americans an opportunity to express their pride in their citizenship and their country. And what better way to do that than with service? There are many ways you can get involved this Friday – from volunteering at a local retirement community or health center, to getting involved with a local campaign, or organizing a day of learning. And because of the timing, celebrating with service on Friday morning or afternoon is also a great lead into the spiritual services of Yom Kippur.

9/11 Day of Service and Remembrance

Last year, President Barack Obama amended the Patriot Day proclamation to make September 11th a nationally recognized day of service and remembrance. In the proclamation he wrote:

As we pay tribute to loved ones, friends, fellow citizens, and all who died, we reaffirm our commitment to the ideas and ideals that united Americans in the aftermath of the attacks… I call upon all Americans to join in service and honor the lives we lost, the heroes who responded in our hour of need, and the brave men and women in uniform who continue to protect our country at home and abroad…

Originated by the family members of those who lost loved ones on 9/11, the National Day of Service and Remembrance is an opportunity to salute the heroes of 9/11, recapture the spirit of unity and compassion that inspired our Nation following the attacks, and rededicate ourselves to sustained service to our communities.

In honor of the 9/11 day of service, people in towns and cities across the country are planning acts of service – large and small – to strengthen their communities and build stronger bonds with the issues and people they care about. The range of service projects being posted on 911dayofservice.org includes everything from reading to kids in an after school program, to organizing food drives, donating blood, spending a day visiting elderly people in the hospital, and giving funds to cancer research organizations.

Find out how you can help to make 9/11 more than “just another day” by doing an act of service or adopting a local charity here.

Read President Obama’s full proclamation here.

Weekly Torah: Ki Tavo 5770

This post is part of a weekly series of Torah commentaries presented by the American Jewish World Service. It was contributed by Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster.

Taking time to celebrate our accomplishments allows us to see how far we have come and to plan with enthusiasm for the future. Parshat Ki Tavo envisions a time when the Israelites are living in the Promised Land and are experiencing the blessings of prosperity that they could only dream of during 40 years of wandering. The way that the Israelites appreciated and celebrated their harvest at that time provides a model for marking our accomplishments today, particularly the strides we make in repairing the world.

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NY Times Article on Young Lawyers Choosing Service

Many non-profits struggle with finding good lawyers to help them complete the legal work necessary to keep a world-changing organization up and running and fighting the good fit. Lawyers, after all, are costly – often too costly for smaller organizations to have one on staff. And finding solid pro bono legal help can be a challenge.

But a recent New York Times article reported how the financial crisis may help to steer a class of emerging lawyers away from more traditional (and high paying) firm jobs, towards careers in public service.

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Tuesday/Elul Link Roundup

As we enter into the month of Elul – the month leading up to the high holidays – self-reflection is on the brain. Did we live the past year in the way that we hoped? Where are we now, and where might we like to be in the coming year, personally, professionally, spiritually and inter-relationally?

Amichai Lau Lavie, founder of the organization Storahtelling thought up (and will be blogging daily over at Jewcy.com about) the brilliant notion of pre-penting: “a 40-day self-reflection project, a journey/crash course/blog/conversation, off and online.” Check it out over at Jewcy, and to get your started in a reflective mindset for today, here are some service related stories and opportunities to get involved from around the blogosphere.

CHECK IT OUT

  • (JTA) The media has been buzzing lately about billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffet’s commitment to give away vast amounts of their fortunes to charity, and their call to the world’s other uber-elite to do the same. JTA’s philanthropy blogger, The Fundermentalist looks at the dozens of Jewish millionaires and billionaires who took the pledge.
  • (Rocket Lance) An online job board for freelance computer developers takes a look at the company’s real impact – and decides to make some positive changes.
  • (Jewish Agency for Israel) A group of people from the Jewish Federation in Rhode Island travelled to Israel to meet the people behind the programs they support.
  • (Learn and Serve) An inspiring personal essay about choosing to do service-learning. (And an opportunity to share your own service-learning story.)
  • (Forward) A sweet and funny poem about the three Jewish Supreme Court Justices.

GET INVOLVED

  • (Global Giving) Give financial support to the people impacted by the recent flooding in Pakistan. Just $15 will help provide a whole family with necessary personal hygiene supplies.