To say that 2020 has been a bit rough would be quite the understatement to most of us! Colossal natural disasters, massive demonstrations highlighting social unrest, and a devastating pandemic are but a few of the phenomena that we have grappled with this year as a global community. Notably, with respect to the last of those, in the United States, COVID-19 numbers have continued to climb at unfathomable rates. As expected, those who could flee to their remote villas or vacation homes for respite did. And, in synchronized lock-step, many of us who have been fortunate to retain our housing have socially distanced, donned masks and stowed away in our residences in hopes to flatten the curve. These adjustments have not been without their challenges—more for some than others. While many of us have experienced the inconveniences of going out to secure PPE, medication, or sanitation materials from our store of choice; it is imperative that we keep perspective and do not forget that some of our most vulnerable populations of incarcerated friends and family do not have the option to go out at all or choose how they would like to protect themselves from the virus.
Often, there is a notion that incarcerated people owe society a debt beyond the time they are already serving, but I reject that and challenge us to change our paradigm. The corrections facilitation arm of the criminal justice system has long owed a debt to the individuals who occupy imprisonment facilities. This debt has accrued unprecedented interest in 2020 and COVID-19 has been a catalyst. To state it clearly, the exposure and vulnerability of the incarcerated community is an underreported crisis. At the end of June alone, 84 incarcerated individuals had died of causes related to the pandemic in Ohio, 68 in Michigan, and at least 79 in Texas. Since June, the numbers have gotten worse. At the time of writing this article, California has reported nearly 7,000 cases of COVID-19 in the state’s prisons and 39 deaths. Coupling this with the known environmental injustices, and instances of police violence that many communities are (and have been) dealing with, makes many of us wonder...where will justice be served? An answer to this question has become clear to me, as individuals we must create our own justice. We have to start our own reform from the inside out, and I am happy to declare that Defy Ventures helps people to do just that.
It has been almost one year to the day that I was fortunate to join a Defy Ventures Business Coaching Day trip to Avenal State Prison. Despite having family and friends incarcerated and being very familiar with the statistic that as a Black man I have a more than 1 in 3 chance at becoming incarcerated sometime in my life3, it was a different feeling being inside the facility that day. I felt a special kinship to the men I met there. In them, I saw my uncles, father figures, mentors and friends. Through the workshops I got to know some of the men. Several other business coaches and myself played games, shared stories, and talked business with the men who are a part of the Defy Entrepreneurs in Training (EIT) program. Listening to the EiT’s passion and expertise inspired me! Having a professional background in diversity and recruiting I was delighted to be able to look over resumes and business portfolios of so many amazingly talented and charismatic men. In short, my experience was transformational, it changed the way that I see myself in the world, and led me to want to do more. As a result I joined the Defy Ventures Associate Board and in pursuit of change I have continued to educate myself on how we can address the mass incarceration crisis at its core.
I believe to truly target the social inequity at the heart of this crisis, a comprehensive remedy is desperately needed. Systemic solutions need to be aimed at the root causes of institutional failings. Not to be limited to but including the following immediately necessary interventions: abolishing the school-to-prison pipeline, infusing anti-racism rhetoric into our daily discourse, whole scale policy reform, changing antiquated sentencing laws, providing more access to affordable healthcare and mental health services, and central to all of these alterations -- ending and reckoning with the centuries-long wars that have been waged against indigenous peoples, the economically oppressed, and communities of color. Doing these things would be a start... However, a thoughtful and strategic dismantling of the incarceration system needs to happen now more than ever. Again plainly stated, lives are at stake.
If you are reading this, I encourage you to join Defy Ventures as we support the Entrepreneurs in Training build pathways forward. I am confident that spending a day with the EiTs will alert you to many opportunity gaps and justice voids that exist. Using our privilege to encourage and introduce social change is of the highest nobility and we must not forget our connection and relation to those being influenced by an unbalanced, inequitable system. Accept this as your call to action. We need your help in this human rights work. Each of us can do something and we encourage you to advocate in a way that makes sense for you. For some it may be opening your checkbook, for others it may be offering your services or expertise, for some it may be coming on a Defy trip, and for others writing or talking to your networks. Regardless, we all have a part to play in supporting currently incarcerated and recently released people who are our kindred community and family.
PS. To those who are reading this who were recently incarcerated, we never, and / or have not forgotten about you, you are still a part of communities beyond what you can see. We see you, are here for you, we love you and are fighting for you daily.