We find ourselves amid a national reckoning in this country concerning racial relations and justice. Notions of white guilt and allyship are being challenged, and people at the forefront of movements for equality are demanding more accountability in terms of becoming ‘anti-racist’.
Before and after joining FJI I was drawn to their work, it felt truly ‘important’. I didn’t know exactly how I could help the organization, but I am working with people who have dedicated their livelihood to giving voices and fighting for some of the most mistreated members of our society –the incarcerated. It’s easy to assume working in public interest litigation that it’s all black and white, that we are ‘the good guys’. I didn’t expect going into this work to be confronted with questions about FJI’s existence and involvement in upholding institutions steeped in white supremacy.
About two weeks after the national Black Lives Matter protests started, a colleague of color brought up in our weekly partnership meeting that our organization is far from faultless in the struggle against systematic racism. Prison populations are dominated by people of color, and prison labor is akin to modern-day slavery. Working towards reforms within the prison system as FJI does might relieve some of the immediate injustices faced by incarcerated people, but at the same time, it legitimizes the institution itself. The balance between immediate prison reform and long term prison abolishment is extremely difficult, but one that the organization is starting to have discussions about. Last week, we read a fantastic article about how the philanthropic industry has become dominated by white people to ground ourselves before starting our weekly discussion and acknowledge our role in upholding racist institutions.
I admire my coworker’s resiliency and willingness to work towards becoming a better and truly anti-racist organization. I especially admire my coworkers of color who took it upon themselves to start these discussions, even when they are much more emotionally taxing for them. I’ve learned that even with the most seemingly noble work, morality is not black and white.