From Amazon to AWJS, is the future of social justice activism post-partisan?

With many activists fed up with the slow pace of change in Washington, they’re turning to business for help ending mass incarceration, Josh Marcus reports from the American Workforce and Justice Summit

Tuesday 30 August 2022 01:57 BST
In this file photo taken on April 24, 2022, US Senator Bernie Sanders walks next to Amazon Labor Union leader Christian Smalls (R) during a rally outside the company building in Staten Island, New York City
In this file photo taken on April 24, 2022, US Senator Bernie Sanders walks next to Amazon Labor Union leader Christian Smalls (R) during a rally outside the company building in Staten Island, New York City (AFP via Getty Images)

A curious thing is happening among some of America’s most passionate social justice activists. They may be fired up and fighting for change, but they’re increasingly done achieving those ends through politics. They’re looking for new avenues of reform.

On Thursday, advocates and business leaders converged in Atlanta for the second day of the American Workforce and Justice Summit, where The Independent was reporting live as a media partner.

At the summit, attendees and speakers outlined an approach to reforming the US’ harsh criminal justice system that works well outside the sclerotic, partisan confines of Washington and state legislatures, instead forging new partnerships with businesses and community groups.

Desmond Meade, a Florida-based activist, told the crowd that, ironically, the key to leading the state to passing 2018’s Amendment 4, which cleared the way for millions of formerly incarcerated people to get their voting rights back, was avoiding the “cesspool” of party politics and partisanship entirely.

“We were able to bring people together across partisan lines, racial lines,” he said. “We were able to elevate one of the most controversial topics, letting people with a record vote, not based on fear and hatred, but on love and redemption.”

To truly reform the criminal justice system, we must look at what happens after prison

Later in the afternoon, Ohio-based entrepreneur John Rush, whose companies offer supportive jobs to justice-impacted individuals and people in addiction recovery, delivered a similar message. He said he considers himself a “Republicrat”, and that the criminal justice system is so massive in the US it’s a rare institution that almost everyone has some close link to, opening the chance for a real dialogue.

“That’s where criminal justice reform provides a lot of opportunity for folks from all different perspectives to talk about something that impacts mass numbers of people’s real lives, and there’s not as many extremes,” he said.

It’s not as if the biases and excesses of mass incarceration – or the reforms needed to roll them back – are news to policymakers at this point, noted Kendrick Davis of the University of Southern California Race Equity Center. We’ve known for decades about the high numbers of people of colour being locked up, and the majority of people who eventually end up back in prison once being released, thanks to too few opportunities for rehabilitation.

“We are not in a dearth of solutions,” he said, adding, “does there exist the collective political will to get it done?”

Perhaps not coincidentally, a similar conversation was playing out in Washington during the summit in Atlanta, as another coalition-builder, Amazon union organiser Chris Smalls, testified before the Senate and visited the White House.

"I think it’s in your best interest to realise that it’s not a left or right thing," Mr Smalls told GOP Senator Lindsey Graham during his tesimony. "It’s not a Democrat or Republican thing. It’s a workers’ issue, and we’re the ones that are suffering .... you should listen, because we do represent your constituents as well."

Amazon union leader addresses Lindsey Graham in labour hearing

During his time in Washington, Mr Smalls also visited Joe Biden in the White House, whose administration has positioned itself as a major union ally, while also continuing to award billions in government contracts to companies accused of having anti-union stances like Amazon. In the Capitol, allyship only goes so far it seems.

Throughout AWJS, the attendees outlined just how diffuse and multi-faceted the problems with mass incarceration really are, from life-long barriers to employment that come from having a record, to the unique impacts on communities and families like the growing number of women behind bars, to lesser-known practices like charging indigent people to use public defenders and other court services, putting them in debt from the moment they enter the system and long after they leave it.

“There is somebody around you who is impacted,” said Sheena Meade of the Clean Slate Initiative. “You just may not know it ”

In other words, even if a major policy change did manage to make it through Washington, the thousands of “collateral consequences” of time in the justice system would remain, which is why many of the AWJS attendees urged for business to be considered as a major tool for social change in this arena. They’ve got the money, the lobbyists, and the sway in local communities that few other institutinos have, they argued.

“Business should be interested,” said Priya Sarathy Jones of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “You are all in pursuit of prosperity for yourselves. That is what a business is. We should want that for everyone…The more prosperous more people are, the better off we are as a society.”

The summit showcased numerous and varied businesses who have already gotten on board with this premise, from financial giants like JP Morgan, which hires a substantial number of new hires in the US with justice-impacted backgrounds, to nationally recognised consumer brands like Ben & Jerry’s, which loudly advocates for racial justice and voting reform, to manufacturers like Ohio’s faith-inspired Nehemiah Manufacturing Company, which offers new employees on-staff social workers, housing assistance, and other supports as they transition out of the justice system.

According to Mr Rush, whether businesses get involved through their own hiring processes, or in public advocacy, it can kick off a flywheel where other corporate leaders want to get their companies more involved.

“It goes beyond just writing the check,” he said. “Engage your team. Engage yourself on the issues you’re most passionate about. Your customer base will learn. Your team learns…You’ll start to get questions from other businesses in your communities.”

The trick to engaging businesses as partners, according to Georgia Power Company’s Doug Jenkins, is to understand that many companies don’t speak the language of social justice, even if they have immense power in terms of how they spend their dollars and lean on elected officials.

“The majority of business leaders know nothing about the criminal justice issue that’s going on. It’s a big issue,” he said. “The business leader out there is worried about getting product out the door, keeping the lights on. You have to put this in their vocabulary if you’re going to get them involved.”

One way into this conversation, argued Nehemiah’s Chris Lahni, was to make the business case alongside the moral one.

“The moral case is there. We’re all human. We’re all made equal in God’s eyes. We all should get a fair chance,” he said at the summit. “There’s a business case as well.”

He noted that typical manufacturers have high rates of turnover, sometimes approaching 75 to 100 per cent a year, and that Nehemiah spends about $3,500 per employee on the onboarding process. That quickly adds up.

Those dollars could be better spent, he said, looking for committed applicants like those that come from the justice system, and providing the sort of services needed to keep them on board, despite what struggles they may bring to the table.

“Why not invest that in the family members you have, build them up, and invest in that,” he said. “By doing that, the efficiencies improve as a direct correlation to your bottom line. This is good business, and it’s a good moral case.”

Keilon Ratliff, of staffing firm Kelly Services with an initiative placing justice-impacted people, made a related point, noting that many of the companies he works with don’t begin by thinking about hiring people from formerly incarcerated backgrounds, but quickly see it’s the more efficient business approach, before eventually coming around on the moral dimension as well.

He noted that Kelly is working with companies to fill about 35,000 open positions at the moment, and it makes little sense to automatically eliminate justice-impacted people who might be a good fit.

Still, despite the enthusiasm for working with businesses as a criminal justice reform partner, they won’t be a panacea, many of the AWJS speakers argued.

Matthias Stausberg of the Virgin Group made the point that despite big promises of change after the 2020 US racial reckoning and the George Floyd protests, many corporate commitments amounted to little more than “Black-washing” and internal “soul searching” with little concrete change.

“A lot of what we saw was not particularly sincere and didn’t particularly have longevity,” he said. “What has really changed fundamentally? Yes, there is increased awareness, but has policy changed fundamentally? Have practices changed fundamentally?...That requires work every day and it’s difficult.”

Others, like USC’s Mr Davis, were skeptical that to make real change, criminal justice reform needs to be put entirely into business-speak and stripped of its pointed particulars, especially around race. Businesses likely already know what to do to become more engaged in social justice and ending mass incarceration. What’s missing is the drive to go all-in.

“Your conversation about racism will never be as uncomfortable as it is for the people who experience it, so get over it and take action,” he said.

And it’s not as if the criminal justice reform movement itself is a monolith. Key debates like whether to work through or against the justice system, or corporate America, played out at AWJS just like they have in numerous activist forums around the country.

“What is the difference between good profit and bad profit?” asked Michelle Cirocco of Televerde, a company which employs and trains currently and formerly incarcerated women in corporate jobs. “That’s where businesses need to get involved in policing themselves and policing each other. Let’s face it. We have people in prison. That will be a fact forever. Those millions in prison deserve to have the things they need to live a decent life.”

Some attendees, many of whom are full-on prison abolitionists, appeared to take issue with the comments, with one audience member pointing to the often exorbitant price prison service providers bill individuals for to access basics like phone service to their families.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Autumn Griffin urged the AWJS attendees to remember the words of activist and theorist Audre Lorde, that, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” and called for a commitment to working beyond the confines of traditional institutions to achieve a more just justice system.

The future of criminal justice reform, in other words, is anything but a settled debate. Even if some policymakers seem half-heartedly committed to moving the needle on mass incarceration, it’s clear numerous activists, advocates, and business leaders are, and a lively debate will continue in and out of the halls of power. And they wouldn’t have it any other way.

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