Leading With Conviction: The Transformative Role of Formerly Incarcerated Leaders in Reducing Mass Incarceration
Date:  06-01-2017

JustLeadershipUSA supports the concept that those closest to the problem are closest to the solution
(Full disclosure: Reentry Central Managing Editor is a JustLeadershipUSA 2017 Leading with Convicition Fellow.)

The Executive Summary of Leading With Conviction: The Transformative Role of Formerly Incarcerated Leaders in Reducing Mass Incarceration:

This report, published by JustLeadershipUSA and the Center for Institutional and Social Change at Columbia Law School, documents the roles of formerly incarcerated leaders engaged in work related to reducing incarceration and rebuilding communities, drawing on in depth interviews with 48 of these leaders conducted over a period of 14 months. These “leaders with conviction” have developed a set of capabilities that enable them to advance ransformative change, both in the lives of individuals affected by mass incarceration and in the criminal legal systems that have devastated so many lives and communities. Their leadership assumes particular importance in the era of the Trump Presidency, when the durability of the ideological coalitions to undo the failed apparatus of mass incarceration will be tested.

Our analysis of these interviews indicates that a particular set of qualities equips this group of formerly incarcerated leaders to serve as organizational catalysts. Organizational catalysts are individuals with knowledge, influence, and credibility who are in a position to mobilize change. They operate at the intersection of communities and systems that do not usually interact, and bring a track record of commitment and an ability to communicate across different backgrounds and cultures. They can transform organizations and networks by (1) mobilizing varied forms of knowledge to promote change, (2) developing collaborations in strategic locations, (3) cultivating new organizational catalysts, and (4) maintaining pressure and support for action.

The leaders share three important characteristics contributing to their evolution into organizational catalysts: (1) first-hand experience with the criminal legal system, (2) education that legitimizes and enhances their knowledge and leadership capacity, and (3) jobs and activist positions placing them at the intersection of different communities and systems. This combination affords them multifaceted insight into the needs, barriers, and opportunities for transformation, as well as the legitimacy and influence needed to mobilize change based on that knowledge.

In other words, the leaders with conviction have developed the capacity to mobilize unusually diverse forms of social capital—a term scholars use to refer to resources that are shared through networks of relationships. The leaders use their social capital both as an engine of mobility for those affected by mass incarceration and as a vehicle for catalyzing change. Their varied knowledge and experience equip them to speak the language of many different communities, and thus to communicate effectively with different audiences. They build trust with people who have experienced consistent stigmatization and dispel myths among people who hold stereotypes that have prevented them from learning the realities of the criminal justice system. They overcome the barriers to communication that flow from the widespread stigmas and stereotypes associated with having a criminal record.

As such, formerly incarcerated leaders are bonders (maintaining ties and sharing resources among those with a common identity linked to experiencing and seeking to transform the criminal justice system), bridgers (connecting individuals who would not ordinarily come in contact), and linkers (linking those with direct experience and knowledge of criminal justice to people in positions to influence public policy and change the public narrative). They combine bonding, bridging, and linking social capital, in service of reducing incarceration and building thriving communities, by:

  • Remaining deeply tied to individuals and communities affected by incarceration as they become upwardly mobile, while infusing these relationships with resources and relationships developed through their education, employment, and activism. Leaders with conviction may provide the only meaningful connection that justice-involved individuals and communities have to high quality social capital.

  • Bringing their narrative and multiple forms of knowledge into venues where they form relationships with influential people who have had little or no direct contact with people who have been in prison, and who have had no exposure to people who have turned their lives around and become leaders. Their education and boundary-spanning employment puts them in contact with many high-impact situations and people beyond the reach of many people who have been to prison.

  • Developing relationships with people who influence institutional and public policy and shape public discourse and have had limited interaction with those directly affected by mass incarceration, and linking them with each other and with communities directly affected by mass incarceration. Their growing connections to the policy world enable them to build a movement among people with shared interests, and link that movement to people in positions to reshape public policy.

    Three structural supports emerged from this study as crucial building blocks of leaders with conviction: (1) relationships with people who believe in them and support their development, including when they struggle, (2) education and training that cultivates their identity and capacity as leaders, and (3) institutional and policy design that makes them full participants in the decision-making process. Continue reading >>>