Thursday, August 10, 2017

Meet Tari and Nicholas: The 2017 'Leading with Conviction' Fellows

 Tari Williams
"I am the Organizing Director for the Greater Birmingham Ministries (GBM), a civil rights and social justice organization founded in 1969 by a group of far-sighted faith leaders from the Birmingham community."

Voting rights is one of my highest priorities. Disenfranchisement is a huge issue In Alabama, especially for African Americans and especially for formerly incarcerated people. Alabama’s 1901 constitution stripped voting rights from anyone whose crime involved “moral turpitude.” The term was left intentionally vague and was a major tool for disenfranchising African Americans during the Jim Crow era, and it functions the same way today. In Alabama, 90 percent of the people who can’t vote because of felony convictions are African American.  In May, the Governor finally signed a bill that defines “moral turpitude” with more specificity, but we are still fighting to overcome the barriers that prevent justice-involved people from voting.

Our biggest recent victory was passing a bill restoring people’s eligibility for food stamps. Back in 1996 a federal “war on drugs” bill barred people convicted of a drug felony from ever receiving food stamps, welfare and public housing. Until recently, Alabama was one of only four states that had not lifted the food stamp ban. It took us three years of organizing and coalition-building, and in February 2016, tens of thousands of Alabamans had their rights restored.  Next we’re going to take on the public housing ban.

I was aware of these issues before my own criminal justice involvement.  I became a lawyer in order to work on juvenile justice issues, and I spent several years interning at the ACLU of Alabama working on the “driving while black” campaign.   But it was my own brush with the system that woke me up to the everyday impact a criminal record has on people’s lives.  Because of my legal background, I was able to   navigate through it.  But I met and saw people every day who were just like me who, through no fault of their own, couldn’t access the very opportunities that would have allowed them to succeed.  I realized I had to work on issues that impact the everyday lives of people.  I have a 17-year-old son, and every time he walks out the door I am nervous and fearful.  But that fear also feeds the fire in me to make the world a better place.

Being part of JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA) has allowed me to shine brighter so that I can be seen.  Those of us who have been through the incarceration experience often want to shrink up, be small, and pass through as best we can without making waves or rocking the boat. The truth is you engage with someone who has been involved in the criminal justice system every day; you just don’t know it. Leading with Conviction is allowing me to be proud of who I am and what I’ve gone through, and to use my background as an advantage rather than a disadvantage. 

 Nicholas Buckingham

"When I first came home from prison, I knew I wanted to do something great."

I wasn’t sure what it was, but I wanted to be successful.  But after being turned away so many times from housing, from my family, and from jobs because of my felony conviction I started believing that the stigma would forever hold me back. I became so frustrated that I actually violated my parole and went back to prison. When I came home to Detroit that time, I decided that I was never going to allow this felony stigma to get the best of me. I wanted to start opening up doors for myself.  So every day I look in the mirror and tell myself I’m going to “dominate” my day.  My past is not who I am today. 

Today I work fulltime for criminal justice reform. I am the lead organizer for an organization I helped to found called Detroit FORCE (Faithfully Organizing Resources for Community Empowerment).  Our mission is to connect directly impacted people with opportunities to create policy solutions to the problems they are dealing with. Detroit is going through dramatic changes and those of us who have been affected by mass incarceration need to have a voice.  Right now our priority is stopping a new jail from being built. The city is planning to close 15 schools while at the same time spending $40 million on a new jail.  This just guarantees a bigger school to prison pipeline.  The last thing Detroit needs is another jail.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking to crime victims, and what I’ve learned is that they really want to tell their stories to somebody who will listen; not somebody who will hug them and feel sorry for them, but somebody who will listen and take the opportunity to change things for the better. I’ve learned about how the community looks at individuals who commit crimes.  They don’t necessarily want to see people just thrown in prison. They’d rather see them redeem themselves, come home, transform their lives, and do something great.

I’m a big believer in restorative justice and bringing together the victims and perpetrators of crime. I’ve seen cases where a person has actually committed murder, then come home and received forgiveness from the victim’s family, and now they work side by side. I’ve seen how this transformation can work.  Just because somebody commits a crime you don’t have to give them 100 years. Instead, start to implement some restorative justice strategies and reduce the sentences people get. Right now I am in the process of trying to meet with the victims of my crime.  I want to look them square in the eyes and apologize and ask for forgiveness.  I want to work with them to make things better.

Working with JLUSA is the greatest experience I’ve ever had in my entire life.  Out of all my leadership and organizing trainings, Leading with Conviction is the best. One of the most valuable things I’ve learned is to lean into conflict.  Every time I have conflict I call David [Mensah] and say, “David, I’m leaning into conflict today,” and since I’ve learned that technique, great things have been happening. That’s JustLeadership for me.


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