From this Episode:
I went in thinking the system was broken. It has been through growth and experience that I’ve learned that it’s actually not broken. It’s working as it was intended. That’s what the lens of history helps us to conclude.
When we ask people what does safety mean to them? What does it look like when they feel the safest?
We hear things like: walking along the street, kids being able to go to their neighborhood school, being active in their school, engaging with their neighbors. We never get the answer: What makes me feel the safest is more police.
Anytime we have some progress, we can pretty much guarantee the backlash is coming. We saw movement. For the first time to have a reparations bill get out of committee, and to look like we’re going to have some movement on this issue.
What was that based on? It was an understanding of the history. It was because so many people testified and brought those stories–including your own story–of the history behind how we got here, and it helped to move the needle.
So what’s the response? Let’s erase the history.
On this episode, we are joined by Jamila Hodge, executive director of Equal Justice USA (EJ-USA). Jamila brought 15 years of criminal justice experience as a prosecutor, policy advisor, and technical assistance provider to her role at EJ-USA when she joined the team as their new leader in 2021.
EJ-USA is a national organization that works to transform the justice system by promoting responses to violence that break cycles of trauma. EJ-USA works at the intersection of criminal justice, public health, and racial justice to elevate healing over retribution, meet the needs of survivors, advance racial equity, and build community safety.
In light of the proliferation of gun violence, police violence and the corresponding temptation to incarcerate our way out of this problem, “Jami” joined the conversation to help us dream of a new way to do public safety together.
We’d love to hear your thoughts. Folks can follow Freedom Road on Substack at freedomroad.substack.com. You can also Tweet @LisaSHarper or to Freedom Road at @FreedomRoadUS. And, keep sharing the podcast with your friends and networks and letting us know what you think!
[00:00:00] HARPER: Coming to you from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the city of brotherly love and sisterly affection. I’m Lisa Sharon Harper, president of Freedom Road, a consulting group dedicated to shrinking the narrative gap. Welcome to the Freedom Road Podcast. Each month we speak with national faith [00:00:20] leaders, advocates, and activists to have the kinds of conversations that we normally have on the front lines.
It’s just that this time we’ve got microphones in our faces, and you are listening in. And this month we are joined by Jamila Hodge, who goes by Jami. Executive director of Equal Justice USA [00:00:40] Jamila brought 15 years of criminal justice experience as a prosecutor policy advisor and technical assistance provider to her role at EJ-USA when she joined the team as their new leader in 2020. Now, EJ-USA is a national organization that works to [00:01:00] transform the justice system by promoting responses to violence that break cycles of trauma. They work at the intersection of criminal justice public health and racial justice to elevate healing over retribution.
Somebody say healing.
[00:01:16] HODGE: Healing.
[00:01:17] HARPER: Yes, that’s what I’m talking about. Now [00:01:20] they meet the needs of survivors, advance racial equity and build community safety, which is what we wanna talk about today, public safety. So I invited Jami to speak with us today because in light of the proliferation of gun violence, police violence, And the corresponding [00:01:40] temptation to incarcerate our way out of this problem.
I wanted Jami to help us dream of a new way of doing public safety together. So we’d love to hear your thoughts. So go ahead and tweet to me or Instagram, me or Freedom Road at Lisa S. Harper, or Freedom Road at Freedom Road us, and keep [00:02:00] sharing the podcast with your friends and networks and letting us know what you.
All right. So Jami, I am so excited to have you with us today. Thank you.
It’s been amazing actually to watch you in your first years at EJ-USA. I think it help help the organization to turn an actual like real [00:02:20] corner in terms of its impact. And I think a lot of it has to do with your strategic plan.
So I was inspired to have you come today because I’m on your mailing list and I got your strategic plan, so I wanna make sure we talk about that. But before we do, I wanna hear more of your story. Just we wanna know who you are. So you led EJ-USA through a [00:02:40] powerful process to discern a new strategic vision, and it is focused like a laser on redesigning public safety in American urban centers.
So first I wanna ask, with the proliferation of gun violence and police violence this last year, how have you been taking it all [00:03:00] in? And honestly, I’m thinking about Tyre Nichols. I’m thinking about the latest mass shooting. how are you taking this in? As someone who is focused on public safety,
[00:03:13] HODGE: Yeah. Well first, Lisa, just thank you for having me. You’re not just on our mailing list, but you were one of the founding members of our [00:03:20] Evangelical network and we are just grateful to be partnered with you in all of the incredible work you do out in the field. So thank you just
[00:03:27] HARPER: thank you.
[00:03:29] HODGE: And. You know, I take this all in and through lots of lenses, right? Not just the lens of being a black woman and knowing how much violence [00:03:40] disproportionately, particularly violence from the system, disproportionately impacts black people, not just as someone who’s seen violence up close. You know, having a father who suffered a traumatic brain injury behind a robbery when I was in high school.
also not as, just as someone who’s seen the system up close. I, I would have a brother who [00:04:00] was incarcerated after a substance use disorder. But then as someone who worked in the system, so I was a prosecutor for many years, and so all of those lenses filter through how I see what’s happening in the world.
[00:04:13] HARPER: Mm-hmm.
[00:04:14] HODGE: For me what brought me to EJ-USA is really the understanding [00:04:20] that the system is never going to be the solution to our violence prop. The system is only equipped to punish, it’s to police, prosecute and punish. That is what the system does. Violence is. . So much more complicated. The drivers, we know what they are.
They’re things like poverty. We know that trauma, you [00:04:40] know, exposures, trauma is certainly a driver isolation. The way the system responds to violence. If you think about what happens when we punish, when we incarcerate someone, we exacerbate those very drivers. We put them in a place where we take their name, we make it exorbitantly expensive to even be able to talk to your family members.
And [00:05:00] often you’re sent to a rural place that’s hard to get to if your family members wanna visit. We very much isolate you. We take. Your opportunity to make money, so you’re paid pennies for any labor that you do in the, in our carceral system. And then we know just from all that we have [00:05:20] seen through writings, there’s some incredible writers who write about what happens on the inside who have the experience of being incarcerated themselves.
It is completely dehumanizing. There is so much violence that happens behind the walls. So again, if we think of those drivers, isolation, poverty, exposure to violence, trauma we essentially [00:05:40] take someone and we pour gas on the fire, and then we wonder why when it’s time for them to go home that our recidivism rates are so high.
So what brought me to Equal Justice USA was to find out that there was this organization. That was focused on violence. [00:06:00] Because I’ll say before I got here, after working in the system, I worked for another large nonprofit where our job was really to try to minimize the harm of the system. I led a program for prosecutors elected on platforms of change, and that work is important.
You need to minimize the harm that the system is causing, and that’s through all the, you know, [00:06:20] bell reform and increasing diversion and things like that. But what I found in that work is people are willing to try things except for when it involves a violent crime. That’s always the exception. So if you’re gonna try something different, it, it’s usually has to be low level, it has to be non-violent.
And we’re never gonna end mass incarceration unless we address violence [00:06:40] differently. So that to me is what excited me, the excites me the most about the work we do is we start with that hard thing. We start with violence.
[00:06:48] HARPER: Wow. I do love that. And you know, I mean, I, my own family, I think, hon, honestly, I wonder if every black family has some experience, some interaction and intersection with the [00:07:00] criminal justice system. I mean, my second cousin was recently, a few years ago placed in jail without the ability to even pay bail.
And it was the weirdest thing because they actually had just passed a law that, that made it impossible, made it so that there was no bail, but it was supposed to help [00:07:20] her and this hurt her.
[00:07:22] HODGE: Wow.
[00:07:22] HARPER: And it was, it was all the things, you know, it was something. It was a violent crime that she did not do, but she was the girlfriend of one of the people accused of doing it.
And so they got her in a drag net in order to make her quote flip . But she, [00:07:40] she maintained her innocence the entire way through. She was like, I never did anything. And, and the truth is, I don’t believe that her, her boyfriend did anything either that he, but you know, that’s just, That’s the way that our justice system works. So I learned a lot. I learned a lot. And this is New Jersey. I learned a lot about the ways that our [00:08:00] prosecution system is 100% punitive and doesn’t really quite honestly care if somebody really did it. They just want blood,
[00:08:10] HODGE: Yeah, yeah,
[00:08:11] HARPER: They want retribution.
[00:08:12] HODGE: yeah. And that and. To me, one of the important lessons that I really learned after the fact, you know, because I [00:08:20] think when you’re in it, you’re doing the job. Most people who take the jobs, whether they’re police or prosecutors, they’re doing it because they care about community. They’re doing it because they care about victims and they wanna help victims.
They’re doing it because they wanna be public servants. There’s no one who will raise their hand and say, oh, I’m doing it because I want to put as many black and brown people as [00:08:40] possible in prison. You know? But, The ideals behind what brings people into the system are just not. When you have a chance to step back and look at it, what is actually happening?
So if you’re doing it because you care about victims and you wanna support victims, what you’re doing when you’re prosecuting a case is not. [00:09:00] What the victim needs or even wants is not your first responsibility. Your first responsibility is to get a conviction. You know, it’s to investigate. You’re answering the question, is this the right person?
What’s the crime they committed? Now what do I need to prove it? And that often comes at the expense of the victim. So if you, [00:09:20] if a person asks for a trial or if it’s a felony and needs to go through a grand jury, you’re asking that person to then get on a stand to re-live often the worst day they’ve ever had in detail in front of strangers, you know, to experience that trauma again so that you can prove your case.
And while there are some services what the [00:09:40] victim needs and what is needed for healing is not what the system is set up to do. The system is set up to punish.
[00:09:47] HARPER: So Jami, how did you come to this work?
[00:09:51] HODGE: Yeah. Um, Come to the work as prosecutor or EJ-USA I, because I think they’re different journeys.
[00:09:59] HARPER: Well, I mean, [00:10:00] honestly, I’m really thinking of this work of public safety, this work of justice system, and I think you’ve literally been through every edge of it. I mean, every nook and cranny. So, but what was it that, that attracted you to it?
[00:10:15] HODGE: Honestly, the answer to that is God, because it [00:10:20] was not a plan. I, my only plan was to go to law school. And then after that I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. And I’m the first in my family, you know? So, I was in a private firm for a few years and it was a mentor who suggested to me to go to the prosecutor’s office here in DC at the US Attorney’s Office and. [00:10:40] AndI was kind of side-eyeing him, right? Like, you know, I’m from Detroit, we don’t do police. Why would I wanna go and you know, be a prosecutor? But it was a real conversation about who holds power in the system. And if you see that the system has problems, why not hold some of that power and do something different?
And [00:11:00] it was really the first time I had a chance to learn about things like diversion and that there were drug courts and veteran courts and mental health courts. And there were other things you could do besides just punish. But the thing that I’m really clear about when I talk to people about my time as a prosecutor is those options are not for the wide majority of cases, right?
[00:11:20] Like, again, those options are for your low level. There’s a lot of parameters, often very limited criminal history or prior contact with the system. So in many jurisdictions, those programs have costs associated with them. And so I’m really clear that my time as a prosecutor wasn’t that I was just sending [00:11:40] people to treatment.
No. You know, I was part of a lot of harm because as you got to more serious cases, the only option you had was to prosecute and punish. And I did that. So I, I’ve had to reckon what the role I’ve played in what the system does, particularly to black people. But I went in thinking the [00:12:00] system was broken. It has been through growth and experience that I’ve learned that it’s actually not broken.
It’s working as, as it was intended. Right. You know, and that’s what the lens of history helps us to conclude.
[00:12:12] HARPER: You know, so that actually helps. It, it, it’s a great segue into my next question, which is how [00:12:20] does your approach, how is it distinguished by the fact that you are a black woman?
[00:12:26] HODGE: Yeah. Yeah. I think this, one of the things that I love about the work I get to lead at EJUSA is that racial justice is front and center of how we approach the work. If we think about, you know, [00:12:40] the goal of creating, we, we talk about our vision of being a world where violence is rare, and if we think about who’s most impacted by violence, those are black and brown communities because they are often the most under-resourced communities.
Right? Again, thinking about what drives violence, and so part…
[00:12:58] HARPER: well, wait, wait, [00:13:00] wait. Cuz you just said thinking about what drives violence. Explain that because I know, I mean, there was a study that came out several years ago, said that the greatest driver of violence is actually not poverty. It’s inequity.
[00:13:13] HODGE: Mm-hmm. Yes,
[00:13:14] HARPER: How are you seeing that? How does that apply to what you were just talking about?
[00:13:18] HODGE: Oh, I think that goes back to that. [00:13:20] Lens of history, right. You know, so history tells us that when slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment, it carved out this exception except as punishment for crime for those who are duly convicted. So this is why people like Brian Stevenson talks about the fact that slavery never ended.
He says that it evolved. And it [00:13:40] evolved into what we see in our criminal legal system today. So having that important lens of who’s most impacted and why. So there was intention in how our system was set up because right behind that was of course the black codes that criminalized everything from being out on the street without employment.
[00:14:00] And just any possible thing to ensnare the newly freed back into a system that was oftentimes people call, refer to convict leasing as even worse than slavery
[00:14:10] HARPER: Oh yeah.
[00:14:11] HODGE: right. Many people died and you could just request another one. It wasn’t your property anymore. So there was no real incentive to keep people alive.
But [00:14:20] yes. So because of that history, so much of, so much of our work at EJ-USA is about uplifting the solutions to violence from the folks who are most impacted by violence. We believe, you know that we know how to keep each other safe. We’ve had to do it for generations outside of systems that weren’t set up [00:14:40] to keep us safe and what we wanna do is help uplift those solutions and help resource them. Right. You know, because so many times these are the aunties who, when a shooting happens, they show up, they go out, they check on the family, they see what people need. It is the churches who, who stand in the gap and come and [00:15:00] try to meet needs and try to be there, particularly in the moments of trauma.
And so many people do it out of their own pocket. They don’t do it through an official organization, but they are the ones preventing the next violent act. They’re the ones bringing the healing that’s necessary. And how do we resource them? You know that? So that’s a part of our work is we do grassroots [00:15:20] capacity building where we will help you.
If this is what you wanna do, take your vision, get a 501c3. Write a strategic plan, apply for your first grants so that this real important work you’re doing in your community can be resourced and expanded. And then how do we bring you to the table with your mayor, with your city [00:15:40] council, with those who are making these policy decisions when you really are the expert because you’re closest to the problem.
So, it is really an incredible opportunity to not just reduce the harm as as, that’s what I think about in my prior roles of how do we minimize the harm, but actually point to solutions and uplift solutions.[00:16:00]
[00:16:00] HARPER: Jami, can you share kind of like one of the most amazing interactions you might have had with one of those aunties or uncles or grandmoms, who actually had the solution for their community and only needed a platform to share it.
[00:16:16] HODGE: Oh, I mean, I think one of our longest standing partners has [00:16:20] been Dr. Dorothy Height, who has, and I think she’s based right there where you are. But mother’s in charge, you know, so, so many like our founding ed walked hand in hand with her to help her set up her organization, get her first grants, and now she is, you know, big organization. It’s been there a long [00:16:40] time. She’s now one of the folks who’s part of our, we have an advisory group of healers that we now help pair with others who are coming behind them. So, she’s senior in the movement now
[00:16:51] HARPER: My goodness!
[00:16:52] HODGE: she’s been doing her incredible work for a long time. But lots of folks like that.
The other person who comes to mind for me is Altareek, who’s in. [00:17:00] New Jersey who started The Hub, which is an organization focused specifically on youth in dealing, responding to trauma. So it’s a beautiful facility that he has there where you can come, they have a studio where you can record your beats, you can record [00:17:20] podcasts or, or interviews.
There’s art and you know, but then there’s also grief counseling, you know, there’s also therapy. There are mentors there to walk us alongside these young people. and so much of this both, when you think about Dr. Dorothy and Altareek, it comes outta their own experiences, you know, of the really, their [00:17:40] pain that they experience, and now turning it into purpose.
[00:17:44] HARPER: These are our stories. You’re listening to the Freedom Road Podcast, where we bring you stories from the front lines of the struggle for justice.
[00:00:00] HARPER: So Jami, Why did the founding executive director of EJUSA push for a conscious decision to change the leadership? What does the makeup of EJUSA staff–predominantly people of color–say about the work that you do?
[00:00:17] HODGE: Thank you for that question. And I, and I wanna name her, [00:00:20] her name is Sherry Silverstein. And I, I do consider it the greatest privilege that she could found and create something, and then trust me with her baby, you know, she was here for 21 years, building this work from the ground, and then made an intentional decision to step back and [00:00:40] to look for a leader of color to come and take the helm.
And there were. One of the reasons that she expressed about that was not just the composition of our staff, which is probably 75% or maybe even a little higher staff of color. We’re a team of 35. But also really because racial [00:01:00] justice is so central to how we do our work. And I think there was also a recognition that we have done so much of our work, which really grew out of the anti-death penalty movement.
And this expansion into really dealing with violence, not just in the, the confines of the death penalty, but more broadly [00:01:20] came from years and years, decades of work with black and brown survivors in that murder victim, family members in that anti-death penalty movement space. And understanding the role trauma was playing the world, that systemic racism was playing in all the things that would lead to these awful situations where someone would [00:01:40] then be condemned.
And taking the lessons. Right. And one of those lessons was, the reason we were successful in ending the death penalty in 11 states and counting is because there was a conscious decision to uplift the voices, you know, of the victims and survivors who were not typically uplifted. So [00:02:00] usually victims were seen as white people, white women and very rarely when people were talking about victims and survivors and what they needed, were they talking to black people and
[00:02:12] HARPER: That’s something else. Wait, can I just say very good. That is really, first of all, very striking because we know that. in [00:02:20] group violence is much more prevalent than intergroup violence. So you’re gonna have many more people who are white who have been the victims of violence by white people than white people, victims of violence by anybody else, and vice versa, black with black you know, by black people as [00:02:40] opposed to by anybody else.
So that, that was the narrative is just striking and telling.
[00:02:46] HODGE: Yes. Because again, if we, we go back to that history of the intent of the system, right, which is to control and oppress, that was what the system was used for, control and oppress the formerly enslaved. And it has continued to [00:03:00] play that role to control and oppress and so, how we were successful was to counter that narrative and actually uplift the voices of those who weren’t normally heard.
And that is very much the same method we use in our work. Now, it is going to those who are closest to the problem, who usually [00:03:20] are in those, in the communities that are dealing with violence on a daily, not just when it shows up in the news. You know, they are typically not the most resourced communities, and they typically are black and brown, and so part of the thinking was we had been doing our work behind the scenes for decades, both in our death penalty [00:03:40] space and in this broader violence intervention and prevention space.
But there is a recognition that the world needs to know. That there are solutions other than police. When we talk about violence, you know, we, we often see the media and even our president, right? That just happened in the State of the Union this past week. He did it in the first State of the Union [00:04:00] address where he calls for more funding for police in response to the violence problem.
And part of that, I personally believe is that it’s a lack of ability to vision, ability to see that there’s something else you can say. There’s something else you can point to. And so there’s a need to really shift the [00:04:20] narrative, right, about violence, about what safety means. When you ask, we do this all the time in our work, we ask people what does safety mean to them?
What does it look like when they feel the safest? We hear things like walking along the street. Kids being able to go to their neighborhood school, be active in their [00:04:40] school, them engaging with their neighbors. We never get the answer. What makes me feel the safest is more police.
[00:04:46] HARPER: That is so true.
[00:04:48] HODGE: You know, we never get the answer.
We need stiffer sentences. That’s what makes me feel safe. It is all the things that allow a community to thrive, to have the presence of wellbeing like [00:05:00] that is what gives us safety.
[00:05:02] HARPER: Can I just say very quickly, I just wanna, I wanna, I just wanna add a couple things to that because what makes me feel safe is more lights on the streets.
[00:05:09] HODGE: Yes.
[00:05:10] HARPER: When your, when your streets are well lit. What makes me feel safe is when you have children playing in playgrounds and in parks, like more green space makes [00:05:20] me feel more safe.
Isn’t that something? But it’s really true. Think about that. The places where you’ve gone, where you’ve seen more green, meaning trees and grass
[00:05:29] HODGE: Mm-hmm. absolutely.
[00:05:31] HARPER: feel safer.
[00:05:32] HODGE: Yes. Yeah. And if you think about even in what are usually the most sought after neighborhoods and whatever region of the country you’re [00:05:40] talking about, those sought after neighborhoods have those things. They’re well lit
[00:05:44] HARPER: They do
[00:05:44] HODGE: They have beautiful recreation spaces. They have very little police.
[00:05:49] HARPER: That is exactly right. And you feel the safest there.
[00:05:52] HODGE: Yes, yes. You know, so it’s not a foreign concept. I think there’s an intentional kind of[00:06:00] narrative that makes us think that, oh, something bad happened for us to be safe, we need more police and punishment. That is how we get to safety. So there’s a need for us as an organization to come from behind the scenes.
We need to be out front pointing to these solutions, pointing to [00:06:20] different models so that there’s something else because the bad things are gonna continue to happen. As long as we have the proliferation of guns that we have in this country, we are going to continue to have these shootings and we’re gonna, and not just the mass shootings, but the daily shootings that are taking lives.
And we’ve got to be able to point to something to other than police and prosecutors and [00:06:40] punishment as the answer.
[00:06:41] HARPER: Yeah. Wow. So tell us a little bit about your process this, this strategic plan process. What was the process and where did you guys land?
[00:06:51] HODGE: Yeah. So the process was a little longer than we anticipated. About seven months, you know, of.
[00:06:58] HARPER: I’ve had people go through [00:07:00] several years, so y’all are one up
[00:07:02] HODGE: Okay. Well that makes me feel better because I, I did at the end think we’re, we were, we were a little longer than we were anticipating. But we have been through some essentially phenomenal growth as an organization, like more than I think half of our staff joined our staff within the last [00:07:20] two years. So we, you know, Sherry started this organization with her and one other person and it was, you know, small team for a long time. Then as we expanded into this violence intervention and prevention work, we received a transformative gift that really allowed us to grow that work and hire more staff.
And so I feel like since then [00:07:40] we’ve kind of been in a spring of growing. Right. And of course weathering a global pandemic and everything else, right, that
[00:07:45] HARPER: Was in the middle of that. Yes.
[00:07:48] HODGE: And that, and then an ED transition, you know, her decision that she needed to step back, you know, which I just think is such a powerful example cuz we don’t see it in enough spaces [00:08:00] where someone will say, we need to let those closer to these issues, closer to these problems, lead.
Not just be on the team but lead. You know? So I
[00:08:09] HARPER: I just literally, I got chills,
[00:08:12] HODGE: Yes. We need to applaud her, you know, and the example that she set, because we need more of it. We need more people to step back, [00:08:20] So going throughout that transition, I felt like this strategic planning process was really the first time we could kind of take our breath, stop, take stock, you know, and then say, what do we need now? You know, and, and how does our work change at a bigger size?
[00:08:38] HARPER: Yeah.
[00:08:39] HODGE: with this bigger [00:08:40] focus, how have we made sure to incorporate all of our incredible anti-death penalty work within our full mission? And, what it allowed us to do, one thing I’m proud of is that in our strategic planning process, we were intentional that this wasn’t just gonna be external facing.
Right? You know what? What do we need to plan [00:09:00] for our programs and our external facing goals? We were just as intentional about internally as an organization, what do we need? What do our staff need to be able to do? What is incredibly difficult work? Right? You know, on the ground walking alongside, you know, so many folks across the country who are trying to [00:09:20] build something, you know, against, against what feels sometimes like a tidal wave of saying, you know, of the status quo, essentially. And so taking that time to really think through what are the structures that we need? You know, we need to, we, we are now, we’ve moved to one of the [00:09:40] platforms for our project management that’s an electronic platform. So we can all see moving from things like Google Sheets, right to. HR systems, right? You know, like those kind of internal things. But then externally, one of the things I was clear coming in as a new executive director is I’m not coming to change who [00:10:00] EJUSA is, or what EJUSA does. I am attracted to this mission and what we do. I think my goal and what God really has brought me here to do is to expand it. How do we take what is incredible work and get to more impact? And so having this process to be able to think that through. What does more [00:10:20] impact look like when so much of our work is dependent on building trust in the communities where we work, walking alongside an accompanying them.
And we’re not changing that model, you know? And that takes time. So places we work, we’re not there just for six months. The places where we go deep dive. We’ve been in Newark probably seven or eight [00:10:40] years. You know, we are now in Baton Rouge, I think going on our third or fourth year, you know, so this is, we go in, we build relationships, but for me it was, what are the pieces though, while we do that deep dive work that we could break out and share more widely, you know? And so there are pieces of our work, like our Trauma to Trust [00:11:00] program, where we bring law enforcement and community together to create a healing space by learning about trauma together. And I…
[00:11:08] HARPER: wait a minute. Wait, because I now, anybody who has known me for like the last 15 years or so, you will know that the work that I did in, in New York City was actually launched [00:11:20] around conversations, We called it Conversations for Change through Everyday Democracy.
[00:11:25] HODGE: Uhhuh.
[00:11:26] HARPER: it was actually doing that. Exactly.
Building relationships with trust between the police and the community in the South Bronx. In our, in our case, we were really focused there and so I, I mean, I wanna know what is the work that you’re like, how do you do that? Because [00:11:40] we had a very particular model and it actually worked on a small scale.
We were never able to scale it to the whole city, which is what the goal was really because of pushback within the department. They just kind of, the person who was with us was with us, but they, they couldn’t get us past them.[00:12:00]
[00:12:00] HODGE: Hmm. Yeah.
[00:12:01] HARPER: up to the upper echelons to have this a training thing and, and instituted as part of the training with, of the police officers, having them be in conversation with the community before they hit the streets
[00:12:13] HODGE: Yeah. Yeah,
[00:12:14] HARPER: So how are you doing it?
[00:12:16] HODGE: Yeah. So, the things you were naming, having [00:12:20] buy-in is so important, right? So, that definitely was what allowed us to be able to do the work and, and be able to do the work for so long in Newark is the first place we really started that program and have been doing that program and have now had more than 300 officers and 700 community members.
Now, this is over some years, right? [00:12:40] You know, go through the training together
[00:12:42] HARPER: that’s huge
[00:12:42] HODGE: We’re about to launch in Baton Rouge, in fact, this year. But we have taken the time to go down, build relationships. There’s an advisory committee that has, you know, helped have input on the curriculum adjustments for Baton Rouge.
And to make sure that we’re hearing from them, before we just come in with [00:13:00] something, so that it’s reflective of their, of those specific concerns in the Baton Rouge community. But you have to have that buy-in. So in Newark, you know, the Mayor Ross Baraka really came in. He has been a community activist generationally, right?
If you think about his parents and when he was elected mayor in 2014, you know, he declared violence to be a [00:13:20] public health issue. And so having that kind of leadership in Newark gave us the opportunity to implement trauma to trust there. And so in Baton Rouge, it’s Chief Paul who if you remember when Alton Sterling right was killed, you know, issued an apology.
And there’s just an openness [00:13:40] to, we need to do some things differently. So you gotta have that buy-in, right? It’s not gonna work if you don’t have leadership that’s willing to send officers and to engage in something different, And essentially we bring them together for 16 hours of training that’s usually done over two days. [00:14:00] And it is, learning together about trauma, you know, historical trauma, interpersonal trauma, how it shows up what the responses are, how it impacts things, and what that does, particularly when we get in historical trauma. Right. You know, that’s where we’re talking about racism and why, you know, the origins of policing [00:14:20] as slave patrols and why, particularly in black and brown communities, a cop car rolling up on the block actually doesn’t make people feel calm and safe, but creates the exact opposite feeling. And the other thing is actually for community members to learn a little bit more about the trauma police officers are under as well.
[00:14:40] Which, you know, they are, can show up at a scene for a shooting, come in and then be sent right back out, you know, for another thing. And you don’t know what they’re coming into that call, you know, as they show up on that call, what they’re carrying. And so being able to work with the departments too, you know, to understand the role trauma can
[00:15:00] play in how police, police officers are showing up. Right. You know, and how it impacts them and for community members to have, you know, a lens, you know, to peel back that, that layer a little bit. But what we find is over that time together is that essentially, there’s more in common than there is that separates us, right? You know, we find that all the time. And [00:15:20] often, depending on the community, these officers grew up in these same neighborhoods, and
[00:15:25] HARPER: Wow.
[00:15:26] HODGE: these roles because they cared. It’s like, like what? what I was saying about prosecutors. I’m not saying that there aren’t some, you know, I, I, I’ve encountered some who you do question why they took the role and, wonder how, you know, , like, what their intentions were.
But [00:15:40] there are so many officers, I saw that even in my own work who did it because they care about their community and they, they actually like walk in the block and getting to know the kids and, you know, but they’re brought into a culture and into. Right. You know,
[00:15:55] HARPER: Yeah. And a system, a way of doing things.
[00:15:58] HODGE: Measurements, that [00:16:00] they’re arrest numbers being something that they’re measured against.
Right. You know, that even with the best of intentions, the culture’s gonna eat policy every day of the week. and so, it brings us back to that point of why we have to have something different. Because a system rooted in racial oppression is always gonna produce the things [00:16:20] that we see, we have to have, the space to create things rooted in healing, rooted in love, rooted in something other than, this awful history that our current system is rooted in.
[00:16:31] HARPER: So, I mean, I’m thinking about the strategic plan that you put, you put forward, and it’s a plan that specifically focuses in on [00:16:40] public safety.
[00:16:41] HODGE: Mm-hmm.
[00:16:41] HARPER: you know, we saw the internalized white supremacy of the five black police and the one white police officer
[00:16:52] HODGE: Yeah. Later,
[00:16:53] HARPER: who still has not been charged. Hello and whose picture still hasn’t been posted, you know, on you.
[00:17:00] That is something else. And he was the one who threw the first punch. He’s the one who did the tasers. So, come on now. But we see, we see the internalized racism, the internalized white supremacy within the black police officers. And, and we see that because they thought of Tyre Nichols as being expendable.
[00:17:20] And it was his expendability that led, led them, I believe, to let loose on him. Basically beat him to a pulp. But then they didn’t realize, what they forgot was that they too were expendable.
[00:17:33] HODGE: Yeah.
[00:17:34] HARPER: were expendable. They were, they were basically publicly lynched by their own, by their own [00:17:40] department, and by the media that would normally support them if they were white.
So I wonder like seeing that, seeing just how bad the system is that five black men could just desecrate a human being. Another African American [00:18:00] human being the way that they did, you know, it’s not because they don’t know, you know, black people. They think that we’re all a certain way. You know, it has something to do with the measures.
It has something to do with what they were commissioned to do. They were brought to the force to do because of this [00:18:20] scorpion unit and the way that they use these basically death units
[00:18:25] HODGE: Mm-hmm.
[00:18:26] HARPER: and, and that, it’s just a great illustration of what you were saying earlier, that we only address this issue, we address violence with more violence as opposed to what would actually, what do we [00:18:40] really need to heal?
So I’m just wondering if you can really kind of get to it, like what is it, what are the solutions that that EJUSA is pursuing? that would help us to never see another Tyre Nichols again.
[00:18:52] HODGE: Yeah, I mean, I think. There was so much in what you just said. That is exactly right. Like all of the reforms, right? That [00:19:00] people call for body-worn cameras. They had them, you know, diversify your force. You had that,
[00:19:06] HARPER: You shown up at that,
[00:19:08] HODGE: you had those things and it, yet it did not prevent another black, unarmed black man from being killed.
Right. You know, so, so I think his situation, his tragic death, just highlights the [00:19:20] need for something else. And so for us, the something else really is going to the communities and seeing what they’re already doing, so there are so many survivors, folks who themselves experienced harm.
Or who experienced systemic harm, you know, were incarcerated who then come out and [00:19:40] they do all kinds of things. So some of the examples are the frontline violence intervention. So when Newark, that’s the Newark Community Street Team and Baton Rouge. Yeah, it’s the Baton Rouge Community Street Team.
And yeah, I give so much credit to Aquila Sherell, who really brought that model was Mayor Baraka, who called him. He was, you know, known for a lot of, [00:20:00] peace-building work he was doing in California to come to Newark and to set up some frontline violence intervention. And essentially these are the credible messengers.
The folks who have walked it, lived it, and can be heard, by often young people, right, who are engaged in violence. And so they show up [00:20:20] and, and what’s special about Newark is how all these different pieces are working together. So the police will refer to the Newark Community Street Team. You know, they will call them in to help address the situation.
The same way they will refer to the hub I mentioned Altareek and his organization. [00:20:40] They encounter youth on the street and they can, instead of making an arrest call and make a referral to the hub where that young person can be connected with services and they’re just, you know, there are the folk, the folks that we often refer to as healers who are helping people process the trauma. So when [00:21:00] you’ve been harmed or you’ve lost a loved one to gun violence or some other form of violence be creating those spaces where you can process your trauma, process your grief so that it’s not, it doesn’t become internalized and then come out in some harmful ways.
Right. You know, so, all of these things are things that are happening [00:21:20] across, and again, even going back to poverty, the, one of the things that the Newark Community Street Team does in Newark is safe passage. Which is, basically assisting students who are walking to school.
So they provide, you know, like they just show up. They’re there, they’re on the street. They’re helped to be able to[00:21:40] diffuse any situations. But what they also see then sometimes are needs so young people who may not have a coat, you know, in the wintertime. And because they’re plugged into a broader network of support they can reach out to another community member and ask for a coat or another organization and then have it the next day for the [00:22:00] kid, you know, who’s walking to school. It’s those kinds of things like meeting immediate needs that we need to resource and build up because these are the things that are actually preventing the next shooting, the next, you know, violent attack.
[00:22:16] HARPER: Walking Freedom Road from coast to coast [00:22:20] and around the globe. This is the Freedom Road podcast.
[00:00:00] HARPER: Wow, Jami. Oh my God. So I’m, yes, You are so doing it and you are partnering with people who are doing it. And the, the thing that really strikes me about the work that you just described, particularly that work that’s happening in Newark, and I know that you’re working in lots of other locations, I believe here in Philly [00:00:20] too.
Hello. So, so we need to talk about what you’re doing here in Philly cuz I, I really do want to get more involved. I wanna get involved actually on the ground, but it strikes me that to be that person who is one of the interveners, right? One of the people who is standing out in the street, who knows the community, knows the kids, will see that child [00:00:40] walking in a, on a cold day with no coat and come back the next day and have a coat.
That literally brings tears to my eyes to imagine, because it takes courage, actually. It takes courage for any, anyone and, and love. Courage fueled by real [00:01:00] love.
[00:01:01] HODGE: Yes.
[00:01:01] HARPER: For people,
[00:01:03] HODGE: Yes,
[00:01:04] HARPER: people to go out beyond your own house and your own, you know, Instagram screen and your own living room where you make your TikTok videos.
I’m not kidding. Right? Or your, or your own friendship set. [00:01:20] set where, I know in California when I lived out there, everybody pretty much chooses who they wanna interact with. And, and you just drive from place to place to place. You don’t really go anywhere in between, in between, you’re in your car, right?
So, so you don’t ever have to interact with, you don’t know. So in, in today’s [00:01:40] world, especially in today’s world where violence is so prevalent and, the risk is real. It takes courage and real love, for real people to get out on that street and just be an intervener, like, that’s beautiful.
[00:01:56] HODGE: So many of the people who do that work, Lisa, are folks who [00:02:00] have seen some of the worst, right? Like the, these are primarily men and women who have been in the system, who are formerly incarcerated, who raise their hands and say, I’ll stand out in the cold and make sure these babies don’t have to deal with what I dealt what I dealt with and I have seen that.
I mean, I [00:02:20] had an opportunity even early, back when I was a prosecutor to partner with some amazing returning citizens around some work we were doing in schools. But I tell you like folks who have often seen the worst, right? You know, experienced the worst, can often love the hardest, and it, we just don’t do a good job of[00:02:40] moving the obstacles and barriers to put that love and passion to use, so some of what we can do, and part of our work is creating the spaces, and then helping community members advocate for removing those barriers. I’ll give a quick example. In Newark these same men and women who are doing safe passage, [00:03:00] there was a need for crossing guards in the city, like a shortage and wanting, needing to hire.
And, because you can’t have a criminal record. They could not apply. And so there was some advocacy done to say, Hey, we’re, we’re essentially doing the job, you know,
[00:03:17] HARPER: Yeah, actually, yeah.
[00:03:18] HODGE: and through advocacy, [00:03:20] they’re reconsidering now those restrictions and how to remove some of those barriers. But that’s a big part of the work.
It’s harnessing. It’s not just, the grassroots capacity building, helping folks be able to live out. This purpose or this vision of, you know, serving. But then it is how do we then take their collective voices and [00:03:40] advocate and get resources allocated and remove barriers that are in place. And it is, it is incredible to be able to support these efforts.
[00:03:51] HARPER: I just got a thought too, and I just wonder, I mean, how, how often are you partnering with churches, you know, the church mothers, the church [00:04:00] fathers, the church uncles and aunties who are looking for ways actually to reconnect with their communities because they’ve kind of aged out of hanging out with the, with their friends on the street.
You know what I mean?
[00:04:09] HODGE: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:04:11] HARPER: Now they, they are, they are feeling more isolated, but they have so much to offer and are looking for ways to connect. I could [00:04:20] imagine that you could actually, you would be able to recruit, especially black churches and black communities to become safe paths. That would be a beautiful and powerful program in black churches everywhere.
I wanna, I wanna be part of that.
[00:04:34] HODGE: Yes.
[00:04:36] HARPER: I mean, are you all, do you already partner with black churches in that [00:04:40] way?
[00:04:40] HODGE: I would say a lot of the work that Sam leads through our Evangelical network and now especially in partnership with CCDA, you know, just really uplifting how do we partner with churches around these issues of, both with a race equity lens and service, and then we just intentionally, Sam [00:05:00] partnered, Will on our team who leads our violence reduction initiative to do a series of lessons in some churches in Virginia to really try to bring this, this work that we’re doing in the violence intervention and prevention space, specifically to church communities and how their voices are needed, not just in the advocacy, [00:05:20] but in the work itself.
So we’re, I think we’re beginning to do a more targeted approach to do that coming together, but certainly more could be done.
[00:05:29] HARPER: I mean, I could just tell you, I know that this program would completely take off in my own church. And, and I really do believe that CCD I love CCDA, the CCDA [00:05:40] space. The, the multi-ethnic evangelical churches space, like they’re, they also are gonna have people who are gonna be eager to engage in this.
And that’s gonna be powerful, but you will have no more powerful church response than the black church, historic Black church. And so I would be very, eager to connect you [00:06:00] with some of the, the gatekeeper people that I know in that, in that space. So, I mean, I can think right off the top of my head, Trinity UCC up in Chicago.
Oh my gosh. Like they would just take this and they would eat it up. They would love it. And they have people all over Chicago who would be able to help with that, join, something like that. So do you mind if I shift gears [00:06:20] here.
[00:06:20] HODGE: Yeah. Not at all.
[00:06:21] HARPER: want to go back to about a year ago EJUSA joined an effort called Black Fortune Month.
Um, When we launched Fortune Into the World, my book that was asking the question of how did race break the world and how do we repair it? And the whole [00:06:40] point really kind of, it all kind of flowed to the question of reparation, truth telling and reparation, and then forgiveness in the end for those things that can never be repaired for the sake of the oppressed to release, right?
And so you guys were such huge partners in that. And I will absolutely never forget your remarks when we met with representatives from the [00:07:00] White House. Oh God. I’m like, you’re, it was so powerful. And so having seen what you have seen, why do you say reparations are necessary to heal our nation?
[00:07:12] HODGE: Yeah, I mean, of course I go back to violence, right? Like being kind of my primary body of [00:07:20] work that, that God has clearly called me to. And the direct connection between poverty and violence and we just, we’re never gonna catch up, Lisa. Just as a black community with the generational wealth that has been stolen we, I don’t care how many jobs we,
[00:07:38] HARPER: Talk about violence.
[00:07:39] HODGE: [00:07:40] Right, right. We will never, we’ll never, never be able to just work our way out of this inequity. I think I saw a recent number. That the average black household makes somewhere just above 20 something thousand dollars. The average white household’s wealth is [00:08:00] 188,000 plus. It is. More than seven times, you know?
So, and I think part of what we forget, right, because that whole bootstrap pull yourself up by the bootstrap narrative never acknowledges that that wealth wasn’t just on the backs of those who were enslaved, but it was also from the government giving away land [00:08:20] setting up colleges so that people could learn how to work the land.
Like the, that wealth came from government investing in, you know, a new people who were trying to get their bearings. And so we, if we ever want to have some semblance of equity, and especially when we think [00:08:40] about wealth equity in this country, it is going to require government intervention to help right the wrongs of the past.
It’s essentially just really unfair that the expectation, what we, what we’re told from the time we’re little is we, it’s, you work your way to [00:09:00] wealth, you work your way to success. And that’s why that Martin Luther King quote when he says, you know, it, it, it I can’t forget. Forget the adjective he used, but something like it’s a tragedy to tell a bootless man to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, right? You know, so they go hand in hand. If we know that when you live in a community that is [00:09:20] under-resourced, that doesn’t have a good public structure in terms of lighting, in terms of green spaces, in terms of all those things, right? That promote wellbeing to, to have access to those neighborhoods, right.
Requires money, requires you know, jobs and credit scores and all those things.
[00:09:37] HARPER: And that is all by design. , I mean by [00:09:40] design and just like you were saying earlier, it is intentional. I was, I’m reminded actually of the, of the chapter of my mom Sharon when she was a little girl, she had trees lined the neighborhood that I live in right now. I, I moved back into the neighborhood where she grew up in order to have really to, to have more [00:10:00] communion with the land and, and with, with the space. That was my family’s land, right? So I literally live a block from where she grew up. And what she told me about this neighborhood is that there were trees that lined every block and there was trees that lined her elementary school. And then one day she woke up and trees were gone.
[00:10:20] Literally overnight
[00:10:21] HODGE: Yeah.
[00:10:22] HARPER: They cut down all of the trees in her neighborhood. And the, the, the black, I don’t know, I don’t think it’s actually known like definitively exactly how that happened. But the story on the block for many years was, well, they just didn’t want to, [00:10:40] they didn’t think it was worth it to, to care for our trees.
Like the black folk in the community said, look what they did. They didn’t wanna, they didn’t wanna care for us and to keep care of the trees and rent in our neighborhood, so they just chopped them down. It turns out later, decades later, they found out that actually it was the Italian [00:11:00] immigrants that had newly moved into the community
[00:11:03] HODGE: Mm-hmm.
[00:11:03] HARPER: and they were, they were accustomed in their, you know, in Italy to leaning out the window up above and being able to call the people down the street, Hey, so and so, da, da, da, da, you
[00:11:14] HODGE: Oh
[00:11:15] HARPER: and so, but they couldn’t see because of all the trees.
[00:11:17] HODGE: yeah.
[00:11:18] HARPER: So they petitioned the city to [00:11:20] cut down all the trees.
[00:11:21] HODGE: Wow.
[00:11:22] HARPER: And the city did it without any reference to people of African descent, which had already been here for decades and actually centuries in this community. And so, the cost of racial hierarchy has really hit us on every, like from every angle.
So I [00:11:40] love what you’re saying. I love your connection
[00:11:42] HODGE: yes.
[00:11:43] HARPER: to public space and reparations. We don’t normally think of it that way.
[00:11:47] HODGE: Yeah. Yeah. And if you think about, just thinking about resources, right? They say a budget is a moral document, right? Like, you know how much of the resources we now put into [00:12:00] policing. Prosecution court systems at the expense of those social safety. Like we cut education, we cut healthcare, we cut all those things again, and who bears the burden of that most?
Those who don’t have their own resources, who really need to rely on what the government provides. And so if the government’s cut that healthcare budget this [00:12:20] is why. Reparations where money is provided so that if those decisions are made by your city council, by your leaders, for wealthy people or even, you don’t even have to be really wealthy, you know, just, just folks who have means and resources, they find ways to still get those needs met [00:12:40] outside of what the government can provide.
But anytime we’re shifting those budgets and funneling so much into courts and policings, we bear the brunt of that even worse.
[00:12:49] HARPER: Wow. So how does this sit in our current environment where we’re seeing staggering resistance to learning about and [00:13:00] understanding
[00:13:00] HODGE: Oh my goodness.
[00:13:01] HARPER: of race in the US, right?
[00:13:03] HODGE: Yeah. That I, I think it’s, none of this happens by accident. Right. anytime we have some progress, we can pretty much guarantee the backlash is coming. So if we think about, like, we saw movement, you know, and you and your advocacy and so many others [00:13:20] contributed to this, but for the first time to have a reparations bill, get outta committee, right, and to, to look like we’re gonna have some movement on this issue.
Well, what comes? Right? And, and what was that based in? It was an understanding of the history. It was because so many people, you know, testified and brought those stories, including your own [00:13:40] story of the history behind how we got here and it helped to move the needle.
So what’s the response? Let’s erase the history,
[00:13:48] HARPER: Isn’t that something?
[00:13:49] HODGE: It is, it is so connected. That it, if we’re make some progress, we’re gonna, oh, that’s what did it. We’re gonna, let’s get this out the way, let’s get the books out, the [00:14:00] libraries, let’s make it harder for people to learn. We weren’t teaching it anyway in our normal schools, but
[00:14:06] HARPER: That’s really true.
[00:14:06] HODGE: now we’re gonna, we’re gonna move it from the library, so you can’t even go learn it on your own because when you start to really inject
that lens of history and really understand what this country has done, it requires something of you. it requires [00:14:20] if you, if you move from spaces of fairness, of love, of what’s required for healing, you can’t help but be moved to know that some action of repair is required. So now the responses we’re gonna, we’re gonna take that away.
[00:14:34] HARPER: I, I, I think that erasing the history erases the need for accountability, right? [00:14:40] So it kind of, it erases the bill. So it literally like takes the bill and puts it in a shredder
[00:14:47] HODGE: Yeah,
[00:14:47] HARPER: so they don’t have to worry about it anymore. When you erase the history, you erase the bill. But the problem with that is that there is a God.
[00:14:56] HODGE: Yes, yes.
[00:14:58] HARPER: You can only think [00:15:00] that way if you don’t believe in God. And I think it’s the most ironic thing, isn’t it,
[00:15:05] HODGE: Yeah.
[00:15:06] HARPER: that the very people who do that, who are, who are proponents the strongest proponents for not studying CRT, which nobody is studying CRT
[00:15:16] HODGE: Unless you’re in law school, right? You know? Yes.
[00:15:19] HARPER: [00:15:20] Exactly, or, or not, not studying anything, having to do with race, basically, or gender.
I mean, you’re not gonna, the, the same people who are saying this are the same people who say they are followers of Jesus
[00:15:33] HODGE: Yeah, but it’s no different than Jesus’ day, right? You know, the Pharisees and the [00:15:40] Saducees were not the ones who were following him or believing in him. It was, you know, they were the ones who were trying to get him crucified, you know, and calling him blasphemer, so it’s not that different than what we’ve seen in the Bible.
[00:15:55] HARPER: You are, you are preaching.
[00:15:57] HODGE: Yes.
[00:15:58] HARPER: Go on. Okay, so now I want you to tell [00:16:00] me how do you apply the scripture to your work? Cuz you just brought in the Bible. I wanna know like,
[00:16:06] HODGE: Yeah.
[00:16:06] HARPER: are you, are you what they would call a Bible-led leader or a scripture led or a faith-rooted leader?
[00:16:13] HODGE: So I, it is interesting. I feel like this is really the first time in my career that there’s an [00:16:20] opportunity for me to say that out loud, right? As a person who worked in the government for many years, as you know, in, in unfortunately many of our movement spaces, Are not always open, you know, to a faith perspective.
I, I feel like for me, it’s so rooted in who I am. It’s [00:16:40] always been part of how I, you know, I prayed over my cases. I prayed over those sentencing hearings even as a prosecutor, because it is, it is, it is part of who I am, and I, I have never believed that I walked into any of these doors. I always knew God opened them because no one from my background should be in the places I’ve [00:17:00] been.
No one. You know, that did not come from money. I did not come from connections. You know, first in my family to graduate college and go to law school, God has opened every single door. So I can’t separate it from how, from who I am and what I do, but this is the first opportunity I’ve had to be public about it, which I’m just grateful [00:17:20] for.
And for me, I mean, I will tell you this week and what I’ve been really thinking about is God’s love, you know, and thinking about First John, chapter four that talks about perfect love drives out fear. And you know, there’s, I, I think about scriptures like that because that is what fear and, and that the rest of that [00:17:40] scripture says, because fear has to do with punishment, right?
And so much of this work requires you, you mentioned this before, courage. We’re trying to do things that don’t exist, bill paths that, that haven’t been elevated before. Have systems. Actually, our goal is to get systems out of the picture, [00:18:00] right. You know, to, to send the folks to the communities and the community-based organizations that know what they do, but or to have the systems operate differently.
Those things take courage and fear, and particularly a narrative of fear keeps us locked into the status quo. And so knowing that love really is the answer to that, and especially [00:18:20] God’s Perfect Love is the answer to that, and that definitely motivates me.
[00:18:25] HARPER: The conversations leaders have on the road to justice: this is the Freedom Road Podcast.