Thursday, June 15, 2017

'Justice is the Blood That Runs Through My Veins...'

By Elder Leslie Matthews

I have been a minister of the gospel for over twenty years, and I am the Faith Organizer for Michigan United, a statewide organization of community members and organizations fighting for the dignity and potential of every person.  Criminal justice reform is a major focus of mine. As I looked around my community, I noticed that young men were disappearing. Here today, gone tomorrow. I asked myself, “What’s going on.” I read The New Jim Crow and began to understand how diabolical the criminal justice system is.

Right now I’m working to pass a Fair Chance 4 All ordinance in Detroit to win access to quality employment opportunities for our loved ones with criminal backgrounds. Detroit is going through a big economic construction boom in the downtown area, and the companies that are coming in are not hiring Detroit residents. So we are pushing for a community benefits agreement to change that.

In doing my work, I look at things through both a racial and a gender lens. Detroit is a predominantly African American city that is predominantly populated by single mothers. African American females are the fastest growing segment in the prison population. Without policy reform, when they are released they won’t be able to find a job, and they probably won’t be able to get housing.  Most women who are justice involved have children, so now we’re talking about removing children from their mothers because they can’t find affordable housing.   I’m working on a study with Wayne State University on how Fair Chance laws affect women. There is only one reentry program in Detroit that caters to women, and  that one isn’t always up and running. So there’s a lot of work to do.

I’m also a member of the mass incarceration team at National Peoples Action where we are guiding policy that we want to see in different states. We’re looking at the issue of prosecutor accountability in a systemic way. Prosecutors cannot prosecute people under the law unless those laws are coming from our lawmakers.  We have to begin to take an aggressive approach to making sure we have lawmakers that don’t look at mass incarceration as a business opportunity for the districts they’re in. When a person is incarcerated, the money follows them. We have small communities way up in Michigan that are being fed and sustained by black and brown bodies. 

God is my joy and my strength and he shows me that I have won and I can continue to win. And I want to win, especially on the mass incarceration front.  I believe that everybody deserves a chance to have a good life—a great life. But if our children are growing up in a society that isn’t affording them that chance and that’s taking away every opportunity and every sense of normality, then I am called to help and fight. 

For me Leading with Conviction has been liberating and life-changing. It’s taking me from a place of politeness to a place where I can be much more direct.  I don’t run away from conflict any more. Instead, I swim in it, I embrace it, and I lean into it. I know that if I allow conflict to come then I can deal with it and then we can go on and work on what we need to work on. 

This article is part of JustLeadershipUSA's "Leading with Conviction" series. 

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