In 2005, singer, songwriter and social activist Harry Belafonte called on politicians, civil rights leaders, ministers and celebrities in a gathering of the elders to discuss juvenile incarceration and the terror and conditions faced by children in the system. The meeting was spurred by a breaking news report Belafonte witnessed on television. In it, he watched Jaisha Scott, a five-year old African-American girl, being handcuffed and arrested in her classroom by three police officers. Her charge? Being “unruly.” Describing that moment, Belafonte said, “I was caught with how immoral this picture was.” His heart incited him to action.
From that meeting of elders, The Gathering for Justice was born. Using non-violence as a foundation for civic engagement, the non-profit aims to “end child incarceration while working to eliminate the racial inequities in the criminal justice system that enliven mass incarceration.”
Assembling champions for the cause, Harry Belafonte met Carmen Perez as a mentee of Daniel “Nane” Alejandrez, founder of Barrios Unidos, a community-based organization focused on healing urban violence. At Barrios Unidos, Perez organized cultural and spiritual ceremonies in prison with an inmate committee and worked with families impacted by incarceration. A longtime activist in the youth incarceration space, Carmen Perez was the perfect change agent for The Gathering to enlist.
The Birth and Growth of a National Movement
In 2008, Carmen Perez became the National Organizing Director for The Gathering, providing services like juvenile detention programming, international gang-intervention and training for youth and probation officers in Principles of Non-Violence, outlined by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The organization collaborated with communities nationwide from Little Rock, Arkansas; Columbus, Ohio; Erie, Pennsylvania; Chicago, Illinois to cities across Northern and Southern California. It soon grew to 24 regional leaders spearheading efforts in their chapters. While local organizations kept their autonomy, their partnerships with The Gathering invited participation in a higher vision and mission to end child incarceration. Different campaigns were interconnected by this common goal. As examples, Columbus focused on stopping youth violence while Chicago focused on ending the high sales of guns.
In 2013, Perez co-founded Justice League NYC, an offshoot of The Gathering to build a collective power of individuals demanding reform of the criminal and social justice system in New York City and the state. This group, comprised of criminal justice experts and activists, hip-hop artists, direct service providers and formerly incarcerated people, formed in part to connect social influencers to grassroots movements and use their platforms to amplify what is happening on the ground.
“We don’t need to be experts in criminal or juvenile justice in order for us to have compassion or a heart. You could teach the law to people, you just can’t teach them to have heart and that’s what we need.” -Carmen Perez, national organizing director for Gathering of Justice
Why People Should Care About Preventing Juvenile Incarceration?
Simply looking at the numbers, keeping children from the school-to-prison pipeline demands attention. On average, it costs roughly $10,000 to educate a child from kindergarten to 12th grade and in blaring contrast, it takes nearly $250,000 per year to house a child in a juvenile detention center, according to Perez.
Beyond financial realities, she says, “We should have compassion and also understand that our children deserve opportunities to thrive … we as adults need to create those opportunities for our young people.” Perez believes that perpetuating cycles of incarceration simply creates more hardened individuals, so to protect its children, communities must do better with providing safety in schools. As a lesson from the aggressive action taken toward Jaisha Scott, before jumping to the police, communities should invest first in counselors and in more after-school programs, identify how parents can play a role in disciplinary actions and evaluate the needs of young people. Doing so increases the safety of children and results in reductions in recidivism.
Now That You Know, Here’s Your Assignment
In Belafonte’s first gathering of the elders, activist Ruby Dee addressed the attendees saying, “So many times I have come to places like this and leave without an assignment. We need an assignment.” When DTLV asked Perez what assignment she would charge the readers of this article with, she responded, “We don’t need to be experts in criminal or juvenile justice in order for us to have compassion or a heart. You could teach the law to people, you just can’t teach them to have heart and that’s what we need.” The activist urges people to take personal initiative and find someone to mentor, “femmetor,” or simply do what they love and bring that to a community in need. “All of us have a role in this movement,” Perez says. “We just need to figure out what we’re willing to do.”