On Friday, December 1, the United Justice Coalition (UJC) held its second annual summit at the Javits Center in Manhattan. UJC aims to raise awareness around key social justice issues, especially related to criminal justice reform, systemic racism, and racial injustice across America. Given UJC’s commitment to amplifying critical issues, leveraging support for on-the-ground advocacy and social justice organizations, and advancing just legislation and policies, I was eager to meet like-minded individuals and subject matter experts in an issue area often plagued by stigma and misconceptions. A few notable panelists and moderators at the Summit included radio luminary Charlamagne Tha God, CNN Chief Legal Analyst Laura Coates, Grammy-nominated recording artist Fat Joe, award-winning journalist Soledad O’Brien, award-winning commentator and lawyer Angela Rye and New York Attorney General Letitia James.
Our system wrongfully convicts Black and brown people at disproportionate rates. We must enable them and their loved ones to thrive during and after sentencing. We can do this by bringing their stories to light in their own words and seeing their humanity; using asset-based framing (defining people by their assets and aspirations before noting the challenges and deficits they face) and amplifying the voices of advocates, organizations, and incarcerated individuals, letting them know they are heard and that they are not fighting alone.
Wanting to be a better communicator on criminal justice reform and the impact of incarceration on communities of color, I took away the following key ideas from the UJC Summit on how communicators can support social justice organizations and activists in 2024:
- To stop the cycle of wrongful convictions, incarceration, and adverse police interactions, we have to speak out against it, build support networks for those impacted, and pass policies that can end it. The lack of needed resources and mental, emotional, and financial support networks can lead people to re-offend and end up in prison or their loved ones also offending. Communicators must elevate programs and experts in the media to ensure those impacted can find alternatives and more sustainable solutions, while also raising awareness about the issues they face to help bolster systematic and policy change. Communicators should work closely with criminal justice organizations and activists who deeply understand and operate in this space to build out community resources that reinforce the urgent need for solutions for families impacted by the criminal justice system.
- Meet people where they are; do not dehumanize them. When interacting with currently or recently incarcerated people and their loved ones, approach them with trauma-informed care and patience. They often face a series of high-trauma situations as a result of police and prison interactions, and it may take time and extra understanding to build trust and provide a lasting safety net. By using messaging techniques that center on their humanity, such as asset-based framing, we can encourage a comprehensive narrative shift.
- Engage in fair discourse and uplift the voices of the unheard. When discourse is nurtured, encouraged and fostered within the bounds of safe environments, it can create an increased understanding of humanity and build connections between people who might otherwise seem to have nothing in common. But when that necessary discourse is stifled, it can create real harm. In the case of incarceration and adverse police interactions, it can slow progress toward systematic and policy change. Keep encouraging the hard, but necessary, conversations – and center the voices of experts and those most directly impacted by criminal injustice.
- We have “miles to go before we sleep.” Change will not happen overnight. Mass incarceration, wrongful convictions, police brutality and the like have ravaged communities of color for centuries. While the process can at times feel daunting, there is a community of people ready to uplift anyone who has been broken, not just by adverse policing itself, but by the system and environments that have allowed it to flourish.
Our work matters; remaining committed to amplifying these voices and living by these values matters. We may have “miles to go,” before we see change, but it is a path worth walking in solidarity, together.