RISC’s comfort with conflict fuels change

October 26, 2014. The Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Poster-size fact sheets about local education, crime and transportation issues decorated the walls of a Union Presbyterian Seminary sanctuary last week, serving as reminder to about 150 people from Catholic, Protestant and Jewish congregations that local problems are numerous and complicated.

Representatives from 16 congregations and the seminary that span racial and geographic lines gathered last Monday for the 2014 Community Problems Assembly to decide which issue would be the next focus of Richmonders Involved in Strengthening our Communities, or RISC.

“When you look around greater Richmond, what makes you angry? What keeps you up at night?” asked outgoing RISC Co-president Chandra Wright.

Tashira Brown decried the “senseless violence that has plagued our city” and shared about when her teenage son and his friends left minutes before an employee of the McDonald’s on Nine Mile Road was shot in the parking lot in July. Michael Raymond Bailey Jr., 22, later died of his injuries.

Brenita Younger gave a passionate speech about fewer resources for her children attending Overby-Sheppard, the Richmond elementary school that took in an influx of students from now-closed Clark Springs and has had two playground fires in the past two years.

“When will our children really become our future?” she said, challenging both city leaders and group members gathered at the North Side seminary.

Tension follows the group as it addresses stakeholders — including public officials and civic leaders — on topics such as education, health care, criminal justice and affordable housing. The group does not seek to create long-term partnerships with the powers that be, but presses for results for those in the community.

Collectively, the nonprofit steers away from providing services to individuals, though many of its member congregations individually provide food or shelter to the community. RISC’s goal is to address root causes on a systemic level and demand answers and solutions, organizers say.

Rather than attacking a variety of issues at once, the group settles on one issue before settling on one action within that issue to change a part of a local system to aid people in the community.

Adding weight to the approach, the group draws large numbers from the community — 1,500 at its spring rally.

The nonprofit’s $110,000 budget is mostly from member dues, with a small percentage coming from local businesses and other community groups, said Charlie Summers, a former RISC board member and pastor of First Presbyterian Church, which is an active RISC member.

Several speakers at Monday’s assembly ended with the phrase “because justice … demands RISC,” a play on words to denote risk related to the group’s work. The group finished the motto in unison before breaking up into its members’ respective congregations to discuss which issue to address and cast votes based on how many members showed up to the event.

Education won by a landslide, initiating six months of research into problem areas in Richmond the group could address. Previously, the group went before the Richmond School Board for the creation of a intervention program for elementary school suspensions in 2010 and a $1 million truancy task force in 2005, after which the truancy rate dropped 15 percent, according to numbers provided by the organization.

Most recently, the group urged the Richmond City Council to follow through on the creation of an Affordable Housing Trust Fund, approved by the City Council in 2008 but left dormant without a dedicated revenue stream or an advisory board.

During the research phase, the group found that in 2011, 48 percent of Richmond residents paid more than 30 percent of their income on housing, the standard of affordability used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The group provided further numbers that indicated 22 percent of city households paid 50 percent or more of their income on housing.

After two years of negotiations with stakeholders and input from other groups invested in the issue, several members of the City Council pledged their support at RISC’s annual Great Nehemiah Action rally, where member congregations bring their people in force.

It’s at this rally where the tension mounts.

Council members lined up in front of the pulpit and were allowed only “yes” or “no” answers to questions about the policy and commitments to the cause. The council members attempted to explain their viewpoint but were asked to stick to “yes” or “no.” If the answer was not satisfactory to the crowd, a “deafening silence” would ensue, said Henrico County Supervisor Tyrone E. Nelson, a former RISC president.

“The whole process is not created to create friendships,” Nelson said of the group’s challenge to elected officials. “We need more organizations like RISC to be honest to hold leaders accountable.”

Nelson, who also is pastor of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, a RISC member congregation, added that the group’s diversity and comfort with conflict makes it stand out from traditional faith-based advocacy groups.

“Faith groups aren’t really used to conflict. I think once you get past that you realize you have to have that to make stuff happen sometimes,” he said. “Not everybody wants to be responsive, but again that’s just a part of the process. … It’s a different approach you don’t see that often around here.”

Summers, the RISC president, said the tactic is used to get officials on the public record so that when the group follows up, it is armed with tangible promises.

“There is such a strong tendency to talk out of both sides of our mouths,” he said, adding that all invitees receive the list of questions beforehand. “When a group comes in and says, ‘Here’s another thing we want you to look at,’ it can get tense. … We see it as grass-roots democracy.”

When asked if the group is aggressive in its demands, Summers said, “Well, some faith groups get out on the streets with a bullhorn. I find that a lot more aggressive than anything we do. … We are direct.”

City Councilwoman Ellen F. Robertson, 6th District, worked closely with the group during the affordable-housing initiative, an issue she said she has been advocating for since the beginning of her tenure. She has spoken at two of the past three Great Nehemiah Action rallies and attended this year’s rally without speaking, she said. She called RISC’s research and contributions “exceptionally valuable” to the trust fund’s viability, but criticized the confrontational nature of the rallies.

“They bring good information to the table, but when it comes to the rallies I find it to be not productive,” she said, adding that some council members have told her they would continue to work with the organization but not return to the annual rallies. “It doesn’t lend itself to any meaningful educated conversation with their membership to understanding affordable housing and how governments are accountable for affordable housing. … ‘Yes’ or ‘no’ doesn’t work for me.”

The group will launch its research phase and narrow its focus area in the coming months before rallying in April.

“When we address some piece of the status quo, the natural flow of the community is to resist change,” Summers said, stressing that the group is not after donations toward a cause but action. “We ask for a change. We do not ask for a gift.”

CLOUT demands school discipline changes

April 21, 2014. The Courier-Journal.

They prayed, they sang, they held up signs and they made demands — for an end to zero tolerance policies in Jefferson County Public Schools that have resulted in 9,093 suspensions so far this year — 68 percent of them of students who are black.

About 120 members of CLOUT — Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together — crowded into a school board meeting Monday and insisted that the district adopt “restorative practices,” in which misbehaving students are dealt with in school, through conflict resolution, rather than being sent home and onto the streets.

Taylor Johnson, an eighth-grader at the Brown School, testified that it doesn’t do any good to suspend a pair of students who fight — unless their issues are resolved — because they will fight again when they return.

“Zero tolerance is a disservice to all students,” she said.

Brandon Porter, another eighth-grader at Brown, said zero tolerance keeps students from aiding students who are bullied — for fear they also will be suspended — and makes schools more dangerous.

Paula Broyles, a teacher and parent, cited the story of a boy who she said was pulling some change out of his pocket at a school concession stand when his pocketknife came out too.

He had to be expelled, she said, over the protests of teachers, because he had a weapon.

Members of the Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together group held a prayer vigil and demonstrated in front of the Jefferson Co. Public Schools Board of Education on Monday night. April 21, 2014  (Photo: Michael Dossett, Special to The CJ)

And Chris Harmer, the head of the Louisville chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, said that in Boston, which adopted district-wide restorative practices a few years ago, only about 150 students were suspended last year — about 1 percent of the number in Louisville.

But Superintendent Donna Hargens was unswayed.

She said CLOUT, with which she’s met 16 times since her appointment in 2011, insists on imposing “one solution to a multifaceted issue.”

Defending the district’s approach, which includes what it calls “positive, preventive and supportive approaches” — but also making sure students understand the rules — she said, “We are not going to reduce suspensions by ignoring misconduct.”

– See more at: http://opuesta.net/dart1/wordpress/press-room/2014/04/clout-demands-school-discipline-changes/#sthash.iGeUa2JI.dpuf

Pinellas revises school arrests agreement

April 11, 2014. Tampa Bay Times.

At Tuesday’s school board workshop, Pinellas director of operations Michael Bessette is scheduled to present an updated agreement with area police precincts on student misconduct.

The goal of the plan, which has evolved over the last few months, is to cut down on the number of student arrests at schools by establishing what an arrestable offense is and what lesser options are available for disciplining students.

Bessette met with area police chiefs in January.

In March, a community group of churches called Faith and Action for Strength Together, or FAST, challenged Superintendent Mike Grego to do more with the collaborative agreement. They asked him to create a discipline matrix like that of Broward County, which lists every possible punishment for every possible infraction, down to the occurrence.

Grego said he “absolutely” would create such a matrix, to the applause of FAST.

This revised agreement doesn’t appear to have such a matrix, but it’s possible the district will wheel it out at the workshop (it’s not uncommon for public documents to appear the day of the workshop, although they are supposed to be posted as soon as they are created). It’s also possible that Grego will create the disciplinary matrix separately.

Gradebook will be at the workshop to update when we get more information about whether the promise made to FAST is coming to fruition.

St. Pete leaders, advocates target ‘school-to-prison’ pipeline

April 7, 2014. St. Petersburg Tribune.

ST. PETERSBURG — Gospel music blared as hundreds of people filed into an unusually large venue – the outfield at Tropicana Field – to confront local leaders about social issues.

The group, Faith and Action for Strength Together (FAST) Pinellas, is a collection of religious groups throughout the county that gathers annually to ask mayors, the sheriff, and other officials to take a stand on social justice issues and helping the disadvantaged.

“All of those here want to pull up ourselves by the bootstraps, but we know that requires bootstraps,” said Elder James Myles of Bethel Community Baptist Church.

A major focal point Monday night was what some call the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Youth advocates say too many minors are arrested for offenses such as fighting or throwing things for which they could be disciplined differently, only to have their early tangles with the law come back to haunt them when they’re adults looking for work or financial aid.

“The problem is that these records stick with kids forever,” the Rev. Willie McClendon, a pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church in Largo, said in a press release ahead of the event.

In St. Petersburg alone, estimates on youth arrests in 2013 range from 1,700 to more than 2,500. Statewide, 78,195 youths were arrested in 2012, according to FBI statistics.

In March, FAST proposed that Pinellas authorities adopt a model similar to what Broward County is using to curb youth arrests, which includes dozens of offenses that could be handled through an alternative civil citation program, not the sheriff’s department.

At the time, Pinellas schools Superintendent Michael Grego was enthusiastic about the proposal.

So were officials who attended Monday, including Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gaultieri and State Attorney Bernie McCabe. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman did not attend, but Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin came in his stead, and was asked if the mayor would commit to hiring a police chief who would pursue a policy of not arresting children.

All said “yes” when asked if they would pursue an alternative.

“We stand with you on this issue,” Gaultieri said. “We need to make sure our children don’t go from the school house to the jail house.”

The unanimous support invigorated the crowd.

“There’s now hope for our young people,” said Ron Shelpy of Blessed Trinity Catholic Church. “Children who make nonserious mistakes don’t need to end up with arrest records.”

The event was not without tension.

Earlier, the group made a presentation about jobs for former criminal offenders, and asked Tomalin if the mayor would commit to creating a mandatory local hiring ordinance if construction companies do not take advantage of incentives for hiring disadvantaged residents, including former criminal offenders.

“We want to be absolutely transparent and thorough with our answer, and ensure you that we’ll work to find the best solution,” she said.

The coalition took that as a no.

“Tonight we are disappointed,” the Rev. Robert Teagle said.

The coalition also addressed affordable dental care, and asked county commissioners if they would support allocating $5.9 million for indigent dental care. The three commissioners in attendance – Ken Welch, John Morroni and Janet Long – said they would. Commissioner Charlie Justice was unable to attend because of illness.

FAST Pinellas has been lobbying local governments on a range of social issues for about a decade. Officials are asked to either agree with the group or disagree on a given issue, without equivocation.

Local and state leaders to talk about solving community problems

March 31, 2014. CBS Miami.

PACT article

MIAMI – Community leaders will come together Monday night to talk about ways to solve community problems including police-community relations, out-of-school suspensions and juvenile justice.

People Acting for Community Together or PACT organized the meeting.

PACT is made up of 37 congregations and two universities in Miami-Dade County and considered the largest grassroots organization in the area.

Police Director J.D. Patterson, Deputy Mayor Russell Benford, State Attorney Katherine Rundle, Public Defender Carlos Martinez, Juvenile Judge Orlando Prescott and Juvenile Services Department Director Morris Copeland are expected to be at the event along with an anticipated 1,500 people.

Members of PACT hope to receive commitments from the community leaders to address the issues.

According to PACT, students that are suspended outside of school contribute to higher crime rates and have overall poor academic performance.  PACT hopes by reducing the number of out-of-school suspensions will reduce the crime numbers.

PACT reports Florida arrested 78,195 youth in 2012. Of these, PACT stated 73,371 were for non-violent offenses and the arrests resulted in criminal records that keep students from getting jobs, scholarships, and other opportunities in the future.

PACT wants Miami-Dade to work at reducing the number of non-violent offenses arrests.

In addition, PACT wants to see a Neighborhood Resource Office set up in Miami Gardens similar to offices that are already functioning at Miami-Dade Public Housing communities in Perrine, Goulds and Naranja.

The event will be held at New Birth Baptist Church on NW 135th Street in Miami at 7:30 p.m., March 31.