#KnowJusticeHarlem: Circles of Support Hosts Event to Raise Awareness about Mass Incarceration and its Impact on the Harlem Community
On Monday, May 23rd, more than 400 people gathered at Saint Philip’s Episcopal Church in Harlem to raise awareness about the injustices of mass incarceration, and its impact on the Harlem community. The event, titled #KnowJusticeHarlem, was hosted by Circles of Support, a network of faith and community partners providing services to previously incarcerated men and women returning to Harlem on parole.
Each year, hundreds of previously incarcerated men and women return home to Harlem, one of the country’s poorest neighborhoods. Here they are faced with a number of challenges, including discrimination in the job market, racially biased policing, and unstable housing. Bryan Stevenson, best selling author and social justice advocate, shed light on these challenges and urged community members to remain hopeful and continue raising awareness.
“Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists,” he said. “I have never seen injustice overcome by only doing what is convenient.”
Actor and poet Craig “muMs” Grant served as the Master of Ceremonies for the evening, and stressed the need for criminal justice reform.
“People often look at crime as an individual choice, but we need to change that narrative,” he said. “The U.S. incarcerates people at higher rates than any other country in the world. This system focuses on punishment and incapacitation as opposed to rehabilitation and restorative justice.”
The event included a panel of community members who discussed a range of issues affecting Harlem, for example, the impact of incarceration on families, and the ways in which limited access to jobs and quality education contribute to crime. Panelists also touched upon the harm of sentencing children to adult prisons. Bryan Stevenson answered the panelists’ questions, and thanked them for sharing their personal experiences.
A steering committee comprised of community members affected by mass incarceration helped plan and execute the event. Aaron Talley, a member of the steering committee, noted the importance of the night’s panel discussion.
“I encourage everyone to pay attention to the issues that the panelists spoke about at the Circles of Support event, said Aaron. I was moved by their stories about their transformations. These were issues that matter to all of us from jobs and the economy, to education and our schools to criminal justice reform. Whatever it is that you care about, make sure you use your voice.”
Douglas Duncan, who is also a member of the steering committee, explained how he was moved by the panel discussion.
"Being able to hear from individuals directly impacted by mass incarceration deeply resonated with me as both an ex-offender and citizen. Being intimately immersed in the pool of mass incarceration, I realize that I was blinded to the multi-faceted effects it had on my family and community," he said.
At the end of the night, members of the audience were able to participate in the Raise the Age letter-writing campaign by signing and sending letters to the New York state legislature, urging them to raise the age of criminal responsibility. Currently, New York is one of only two states in the country where the automatic age of criminal responsibility is still 16 – a policy resulting in harsh sentencing for children.
“This evening we have been able to listen and learn from the families most involved in our criminal justice system, and we are committed to continuing our support for the work here in Harlem,” said Chris Flowers, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the J.C. Flowers Foundation.
The event was sponsored by a diverse group of partners, including J.C. Flowers Foundation, Church of the Heavenly Rest, the Interfaith Center of New York, the Harlem Community Justice Center, and Network in the Community.
Thomas Edwards, the head of the steering committee and communicate engagement specialist for Circles of Support stressed the need for more conservations like the one held on the 23rd.
“Tonight’s event is just the start of an important conversation,” said Thomas. “The speakers and panelists drew much needed attention to issues disproportionately affecting our community, such as mass incarceration and re-entry. This type of community engagement is critical to building a stronger community and stronger families.”
The steering committee will continue to advocate on behalf of the community and raise awareness about the effects of mass incarceration.
"The #KnowJusticeHarlem event was a substantial success for the steering committee, and the collective community of Harlem,” said Emmanuel Brown, a member of the steering committee.” We placed a small dent on a grandiose issue, while acknowledging that we still have a tremendous amount of work to do. As a committee, we will continue to build on small wins, such as the event, until we can tackle the greater issue of mass incarceration in New York City.”