Getting Diverse Groups Talking about Race, Ethnicity and Justice

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By Lara Herscovitch, Deputy Director, Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance 
Mallory LaPierre, Policy Associate, Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance 

For the past year, the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance has been facilitating conversations about race and ethnicity and how they influence decisions adults make about children. Like most discussions of race in America, these conversations have not always been easy, but they have been remarkably honest and brave and have led to real change.

In 2013, Connecticut Public Television (CPTV) first broadcast The Color of Justice, a documentary that exposed the disproportionate minority contact in Connecticut’s juvenile justice system. The documentary also explored the concept of implicit bias, unconscious judgments that human beings are wired to make – and the fact that, despite its presence, we can make choices that result in greater fairness. The film profiled efforts to make our state’s juvenile justice system more equitable for all young people.

Connecticut’s State Advisory Group, the Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee, developed the idea for and funded the project. CPTV wanted to make sure that the documentary led to significant, sustained change. So they partnered with the Alliance, which designed and facilitated forums where the documentary was shown throughout the state. In addition to watching The Color of Justice, participants listened to a data-rich presentation on the topics in the film and had an open discussion.1 The Alliance’s mission is to reduce the criminalization of Connecticut’s children. Racial and ethnic disparities unnecessarily push children deep into system involvement. Ending these disparities is fundamental to our work.

The Alliance had created a similar format2 to promote discussion based on a CPTV documentary about arrests in public schools, Education vs. Incarceration. Because those forums worked well, we expected the Color of Justice forums to do the same. Our expectations were far exceeded. More than 2,000 and counting Connecticut residents have attended Color of Justice forums. In diverse groups, they have spent their lunch hours and evenings talking about race, ethnicity, kids and fairness. Many of these discussions have gone far beyond accepted scripts of how we talk about race and ethnicity in America, to true personal searching and a resolve to act. Using the toolkit we developed, people are holding forums in their workplaces, classrooms and civic groups.

People directly involved in the juvenile justice system have talked about how a forum informed the way they treat youth on the job. For example, a judge invited her co-workers to scrutinize her decisions and let her know if they felt any were biased. A parole officer reported that he was able to talk with a prosecutor after attending a forum with her, advocating for fairer treatment in a specific case.

Community members are using the materials to hold forums in classrooms, libraries and churches. We are proud to have helped inspire a local NAACP and police department to develop their own joint community education project.

Participants told us that the forums were effective because they:

  • Backed up assertions with data;
  • Thoroughly explained the idea of implicit bias;
  • Did not assign blame;
  • Gave everyone an opportunity to speak; and
  • Left participants with action steps they could take in their workplaces or communities.

While these forums were going on, the issues they address exploded on the national consciousness with the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the death of Eric Garner in the custody of New York City Police, and other events. This highlighted how vital the work is – and the forums themselves gave us reason to remain hopeful, in spite of the news. We continue to fill halls with people of all colors and origins, who want to learn more, to do better, to make change.

This is the second time that the Alliance has used this “watch-learn-talk-act” template in a public forum to address issues in our juvenile justice system. Each time, the forums have been greeted with enthusiasm and have supported real change. We believe that this format can be an important tool in advancing juvenile justice reform.

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Lara Herscovitch is Deputy Director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance. Involved in all aspects of its work, she has also led its efforts to address racial and ethnic disparities and reduce school-based arrests. Prior to joining CTJJA, she served in roles focused on grant making, nonprofit capacity building, strategic planning and program development, in a wide variety of content areas: community foundation philanthropy, education/literacy, early childhood development, and youth development. 

Mallory LaPierre is a Policy Associate at the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance. Before joining the Alliance, she managed a successful reelection campaign for a Connecticut state representative. As a campaign coordinator, she was responsible for organizing and running the day-to-day operation. Prior to her campaign work, she was an intern with the Appropriations Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly.