Over the last year, the Bush fellowship has afforded me the opportunity to pick the brains of some AMAZING community leaders and policy makers working to transform juvenile justice in some of the most difficult cities across the country, including Atlanta, GA, Oakland, CA, Detroit, MI, Chicago, IL, Milwaukee, WI, and Washington, DC. I have learned so many lessons along the way, and my leadership has grown and changed in ways that I am still trying to fully understand. Below, I’ll speak briefly about one of the lessons that I am currently putting striving to implement in my life…If you believe that your community needs something…BUILD IT…even if no one will pay you for doing so.
I have always been a great rule follower; and I have approached my leadership from a place of following rules and working within systems to improve outcomes for the Black community. It is because of this that when I reflected on my childhood, growing up in South Minneapolis, and found myself dissatisfied with the high rate of incarceration and premature death among my peers I went to school to gain a more “full understanding of the issue” and to learn how to “solve the problem.” And, when hiring managers told me that my bachelors in social work wasn’t sufficient to give credence to my proposed solutions and/or to qualify me to direct reform efforts, I continued on to get a Masters and then a law degree and then a doctorate…all based on the notion that the “right solution”, or at least credibility for my solution, was just around the next bend.
This first year of my Bush fellowship shook my approach to its very core. Not only did the transformative leaders I interacted with not always have advanced degrees, but in our conversations about the origins of their greatness, they often harkened back to their earliest experiences with systems and injustice and what they intuitively knew was needed. These conversations brought to my remembrance questions I asked of my mother as a child about why my brother’s probation officer thought that sending him away from his family was going to change his behavior; and of my friends about how they were supposed be different when they got home from jail if the only thing that had changed about their situation was them. The 10 and 15 year old Carmeann knew then what I wracked up over $200,000 in debt looking for someone to validate. She saw that the system was misguided in its focus on youth to the exclusion of their families and communities. And knew that existed within the loving people and programs that she interacted with everyday.
The leaders that I interacted with put feet to the visions of their childhood selves. And what was particularly surprising is that many of them did so without any compensation for their work. Government employees joke about wearing “golden handcuff.” The joke references the ability of a high salary and good benefits to lull a person into such a state of complacency that they abandon the ideals that drew them to their work in favor of retaining their comfort. As a woman who grew up in poverty, I can understand how this happens. Money is a necessity in a capitalist society, and not having it…well, for lack of a better word, sucks. The fear of poverty gave me considerable pause myself. I overcame this fear by keeping my approach within the comfortable context of system approved solutions. But, during the first year of my fellowship, I’ve encountered leaders who took a far bolder approach. Leaders who saw that the system was failing their children and developed a new system of their own. They provided their solution because it was what their community needed; and they gathered evidence of the efficacy of their solution until they were able to demonstrate that their approach was preferable.
I have an opportunity in the second half of my fellowship to develop the solutions that I believe are needed; and I have a safety net in the financial support that the fellowship provides. The leaders that I have come into contact with thus far challenge me trust my instincts and to look within for solutions. Their stories serve as reassurance that my “credibility” can be found in my lived experience and in my passions for the young people that I serve. As with any growth experience, I’m certain that I will revert to my comfort zone from time to time. But, thanks to my fellowship, I have video and audio files to refresh my memory. :)