U.S. Criminal Justice Dialogues
Spurring a national conversation
With support from Yale University, the MacArthur Foundation, and a network of local partners including COA Youth & Family, the South Chicago Christian Center, and the Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative, Shared_Studios has set up a network of Portals across America.
Over the past eight months, people from all walks of life have entered Portals in Chicago, Milwaukee and Newark to discuss their experiences with the criminal justice system. Connecting heavily policed communities to one another has been deeply revealing, cathartic and powerful. Now we are expanding the dialogues further, from wealthy suburbs and tech hubs to the inside of a prison.
Over the coming months, new Portals in America will join in the criminal justice dialogues, including Portals at Self Help Graphics in Los Angeles, Lexington Market in Baltimore, the South Chicago Christian Center, and an entrepreneurship hub in Mission, Texas.
Providing a microphone to heavily policed communities
Portals gives the microphone to places like the Amani neighborhood in Milwaukee, a place where only one-third of men have not been confined in a cell.
Forming bridges between communities facing similar challenges
It acts as a bridge to other communities. It empowers residents through encouraging cross-community dialogues. It takes a difficult topic of policing, so often the source of trauma, stigma, joblessness, and community destabilization, and turns it into a space for ideas, activism, shared meaning, and resistance.
Transforming visions of what is possible
The positive/transformative potential of Portals has been on full display in the neighborhoods that have a Portal. Residents have a space to share ideas across communities, they come to see their experience as linked to strangers in neighborhoods many miles away, and they come to feel they are heard and have ownership over this issues that dog their lives.
Engage local communities in local and global dialogues, classes and events
The Portal is staffed by a member of the community – a curator - who does outreach, holds events, and describes the study.
Two things are important here: 1) the curators have longstanding connections and trust in the communities; 2) they do many things with the Portals on the days and times that conversations aren’t being recorded for our study.
Specifically, Portals are used to show movies to kids, as a space for art and performance, as a gathering spot for kids on hot summer days, and to hold chess tournaments, etc.
Program public space in new ways to control violence and create opportunities
As our Milwaukee Portal Curator Lewis Lee explains Milwaukee Portal Curator Lewis Lee explains:
I have a lot invested in this community. My daughter goes to high school here, I went to high school here. I even was shot in this neighborhood, I lost my brother in this neighborhood…. I’ve been incarcerated before. I’ve been shot. I’ve lost siblings to gang violence and gun violence. I’m a person who a lot of kids look up to in this neighborhood. I have an intimate connection to this neighborhood. And I thought who better to run this Portal than me? And it’s been working wonders for this neighborhood…..
We been utilizing it in so many ways and it’s been helping control the violence that goes on in these neighborhoods. It’s been doing a world of a difference. We have made lots of progress on this discussion of criminal justice. So what we’re trying to do is just raising awareness and have been shining a light on the fact that there is a problem of mass incarceration of minorities.
Address local challenges
Portals have also been used to convene national dialogues on gun violence, gather police members and community members to discuss common challenges, bring kids in Mumbai and South Chicago together to collaborate, and foster dialogues on fatherhood and domestic abuse both within America and around the world.
The criminal justice dialogues are recorded, anonymized, and analyzed by academics Tracey Meares and Vesla Weaver at Yale University who want a deeper insights. They write of Portals:
The Portals are unlike anything we have seen to date in the research community and beyond. It is MOBILE (we can place the portals where we want). It is INTERACTIVE (people are having face to face conversations). It is DEEP where surveys often are shallow. It transcends SPACE (we can have conversations with people in very different places. Upon entering the container, a participant is connected by life-size video and audio with another participant in an identical gold shipping container in a different city. These individuals are complete strangers, are able to dialogue and connect in real time despite their geographical distances.
Lewis coordinates Portal operations in Milwaukee, local outreach, and business development in the Amani neighborhood. Lewis is also the Outreach Coordinator for the Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative, and is a leader working on community and restorative justice his community.
Dre Meekins was born and raised in Chicago but has spent years around the globe in South Korea and China, teaching English. Dre speaks five languages and is committed to community development across America.