By Emma Yingst
WASHINGTON—Over seventy people gathered at the Washington Center for Academic Seminars on September 23rd to attend Hostelling International Washington DC (HI DC’s) annual peace conference.
The topic of the 2017 peace conference was mass incarceration and its negative impact on marginalized communities. The conference was made up of three panels consisting of diverse speakers, who provided varying insights on the topic and brainstormed ways to mitigate and possibly eradicate mass incarceration.
The conference kicked off with an engaging panel discussion with Cherise Fanno Burdeen, CEO of the Pretrial Justice Institute; Eric E. Sterling, Executive Director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation; Nicole D Porter, Sentencing Project Director of Advocacy; and Thomas Mariadason, Justice Project Director of Advancement Project. They spoke in depth on how they view mass incarceration and gave a general background on its prevalence in society. The panel mainly discussed the school-to-prison pipeline, a system which favors punishment over education, and which singles out minorities for harsher punishments than warranted for their actions in school. Sterling said that there is “out-of-due justice” for those unnecessarily incarcerated.
The conference proceeded with a touching poetry reading about incarceration by Gabriel Feldman, writer-in-residence at Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop. The Free Minds Book Club is a non-profit organization with a creative approach, serving sixteen and seventeen-year-old youths who have been charged and incarcerated as adults in DC. The book club focuses on creative expression, job readiness training and violence prevention outreach to help incarcerated youths find new paths for themselves. An excerpt from the end of Feldman’s poetry reading demonstrates the creative expression Free Minds Book Club hopes to inspire in incarcerated youth. Feldman said, “My opportunities are bare, hoping that when I am free, the land will still be there.”
After the poetry reading, the panel spoke on breaking the cycle of mass incarceration and their own experiences with racial profiling. The rest of the panel consisted of John I. Dixon, III, former Chief of the Petersburg Police Department and Speaker of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) and Selvon M. Waldron, Founder of Mentor Post and Director of Student Transition at Carlos Rosario School. The discussion was facilitated by Marc Carr, Founder of Social Solutions. Waldron highlighted how he became involved in the fight against mass incarceration after he was victimized by racial profiling. He said, “What I propose, is nationwide mentor programs in all of the schools.” This touches on the importance of keeping youth on the right track, even in the face of the “school-to-prison pipeline”. Waldron’s idea of a mentor program may not stop the pipeline, but it could efficiently support at-risk youth. Along with this, Chief Dixon spoke on the importance of building alliances to tackle the issue of mass incarceration in communities.
The conference ended with the emotional personal stories of Muhsin “Boe” Umar and Wallace “Shubaka” Kirby. Both spoke about their struggles with mass incarceration and about the success they later achieved with Hustlers to Harvesters, an organization they created to help support the community with green initiatives and gardening projects. Umar and Kirby both strongly believe in community support as the most efficient strategy in breaking the cycle of mass incarceration. Therefore, both stayed active in their local community. For instance, Umar is the Ward 7 ambassador for the “My Brother’s Keepers Initiative” in DC, and he is also the Ward 7 commissioner for the Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Event. Additionally, both Umar and Kirby are designated community engagement analysts for the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, Mary Morgan. Kirby said, “Change yourself, then change your household, then change your neighborhood, then that community.”
As mass incarceration targets specific marginalized communities, the goal of HI DC’s peace conference was to raise awareness about this current issue and to inspire the attendees to help break the cycle. This topic is significant because mass incarceration hinders the advancement of equal rights and human rights. The topic tends to be pushed under-the-covers, but it rears its ugly head every day in schools around the nation as well as in our jails. In the first panel, Burdeen said that “the process is the punishment” and that it is worse for marginalized communities. This speaks on the process of incarcerating people at length before judgement is passed, because the incarcerated cannot pay bail to leave.
Due to the inequity instilled in the incarceration system, HI DC felt the need to bring this topic further out of the dark during their Sleep for Peace week. Sleep for Peace is held each year by Hostelling International hostels to celebrate International Peace Day with a week of events that bring hostellers together in the pursuit of fostering friendships and spreading peace. In fact, HI DC works to foster a deeper understanding of people, places and cultures in their aim to promote the messages of peace.
The Peace Conference marked the end of HI DC’s Sleep for Peace, a culminating effort of months of planning by the dedicated Peace Conference Committee. Attendees of the conference walked away saying that they received valuable insights. One attendee said, “I learned the root of the issue and ways we can prevent it, make a difference in communities, and re-direct our people from becoming a part of the system.” Another attendee said, “this is critical for advocacy.” These attendees hit HI DC’s purpose of the conference on the mark, which was to raise awareness of the issue and figure out strategies for solving it. Along with the thoughts of those two attendees, many others, as well as HI DC’s staff, said that the conference was eye opening. At the end of Sleep for Peace, the staff of HI DC, the volunteers, the hostellers and the conference attendees walked away with new friends, new insights and the knowledge that we are one step closer to peace.