Despite the Pall of National Politics, We Are Bending Toward the Light of Justice

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Despite the Pall of National Politics, We Are Bending Toward the Light of Justice

By Michael Hamill Remaley, Senior Vice President, Public Policy & Communications

At this very darkest time of the year, it is hard not to dwell on the setbacks we’ve experienced in 2017 for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. While the nonprofit sector must reckon with the Winter that is coming (click here to read how the passage of the GOP tax plan will negatively impact us), we must also recognize and shine light upon the progress that is being made locally, specifically the important progress we are making to end the injustices that fester on Rikers Island.

“The beginnings and ends of shadow lie between the light and the darkness and may be infinitely diminished and infinitely increased. Shadow is the means by which bodies display their form. The forms of bodies could not be understood in detail but for the shadow.” – Leonardo da Vinci

Shortly after the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform released its landmark set of recommendations last April to close Rikers Island within ten years, Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo endorsed its core recommendations and both pledged to move forward with the massive reforms to the entire system that would enable closure in ten years to happen. 

These announcements took place amidst a growing philanthropic swell of commitments to justice reform and Philanthropy New York’s own work to foster a network of funders interested in learning and coordinating around justice reform. In the first half of 2017, we gathered funders together around our “Ending the Criminalization of Poverty” series, which examined funding opportunities and nonprofit strategies around the ramp-up of immigrant detention, the injustices of bail, bonds and fees, and the inarguable links between housing insecurity and incarceration of poor people.

With growing interest in the topic from our members, we formed a steering committee of 17 funders to shape what would become the Funders Summit on Justice Reform: The Nation’s Eyes on Rikers.  This gathering of national and local funders took place on December 14 and had more funder interest than our seating capacity could accommodate.  It was an extraordinary opportunity for funders to learn from and ask questions with formerly incarcerated leaders in the reform movement, the chair of the Independent Commission, the director of the Mayor’s Office for Criminal Justice Reform, the chief counsel to Gov. Cuomo, the Brooklyn D.A. and the director of the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance, especially focusing on the many complicated aspects of reform that need private support.

The last two portions of the full-day summit had funders discussing what strategies they are currently employing in justice reform. This led to a discussion of what supports would help them share information and better coordinate to increase effectiveness in the deployment of resources necessary to get to the massive structural reforms at the City and State level to lead to the closure of Rikers. The funders also discussed the closure model that #CloseRikers represents and how it could be extended to jails and prisons all across the United States. 

It was an immensely informative, and deeply inspiring conference. As I listened to the community, government and philanthropic leaders enumerate the many challenges ahead, I saw the light shining on a clear path to real change in our broken justice system. That does not mean we are anywhere close to the end of the dark and winding road that lies ahead.  But between the darkness and the light, the shadows do indeed show us the outline of the new form taking shape. 

Philanthropy New York will produce a report on the key learning points from the summit, and we hope it will help our members and justice reform funders all across the nation illuminate the road ahead.  The plan is to produce and distribute that report quickly.

As is the tradition of many cultures during the observance of the solstice, I am now taking the time to reflect on the seeds that we have planted, and to celebrate the rebirth that will come in the spring.  I am drawing inspiration from the wisdom of the filmmaker and activist Valarie Kaur, who gave an immensely moving speech in which she asked:

“What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?...What if this is America’s great transition?”    

The dark can be a scary place to be. But we must look into the shadows and make out the forms taking shape. We must shine our light where we can. 

I wish you a solstice season of peaceful contemplation and joy in small things. 
















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