Let the Sun Shine on Democracy

by Desmond Meade, President, Florida Rights Restoration Coalition

The current grassroots effort to restore the ability to vote to over 1.68 million Floridians grew out of Florida’s failure to remove the remaining elements of Jim Crow policies.

Florida has disfranchised more than 1.68 million Floridians. With the distinction of being the worst state in the country as it pertains to restoring civil rights, Florida requires an individual to wait either five or seven years. In addition, Floridians are burdened with an approximately six-year application processing time that virtually extends the time frame to 11 to 13 years. To make matters worse, during the four years prior to the current administration coming into office, the average amount of individuals whose rights were restored slowly trickled to a measly 48,000. And during Florida Governor Rick Scott’s first year, the number of individuals whose rights were restored numbered a paltry 52. Indeed, it comes as no surprise — though it nevertheless should remain a shock to our conscience — that Florida’s disfranchisement policies remain the harshest and most anti-democratic in the country. The projected progress of Virginia, therefore, calls on us to reflect upon the lack of progress in Florida and why automatic rights restoration should be a paramount priority in our “sunshine” state.

While there are many reasons to support automatic civil rights restoration, I want to focus on two. First, civil rights restoration plays a vital role in ensuring successful re-entry back into society by encouraging formerly incarcerated individuals to become healthy citizens who make positive contributions in our communities; in the process, public safety is also greatly enhanced. But don’t take my word for it. In 2013 Virginia’s own Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli echoed the findings of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s Re-Entry Task Force in stating that “about 95 percent of those who go to prison come back out into our communities,” and just like the task force recognized, Cuccinelli agrees that civil rights restoration “benefits society as a whole by potentially reducing recidivism.” Florida Parole Commission’s own study revealed that Florida’s recidivism rate was reduced from 33.1 percent to 11.1 percent among those whose civil rights were restored.

Second, automatic civil rights restoration reflects the spiritual basis of redemption and forgiveness, which we should strive to preserve at the core of our humanity and society. Too often our policies are misinformed by knee-jerk condemnations of and callousness toward individuals with prior felony convictions, without considering that individuals — after making mistakes and serving their sentence — can change for the better. The reluctance or inability to adequately factor redemption and forgiveness into policies has unfortunately led to grossly disproportionate punishments by unfairly conferring upon formerly incarcerated individuals a permanent criminal status, a form of stigmatization that degrades not only such individuals but also the communities in which they live and our nation as a whole. Consider for a moment that, in Florida, almost 70 percent of incarcerated individuals were convicted for nonviolent offenses. Consider that, in Florida, our government routinely strips away rights even for offenses such as driving with a suspended license, disturbing the nest eggs of turtles, burning a tire in public, catching a lobster whose tail is too short, and most recently, for releasing heart-shaped helium filled balloons in an attempt to show affection for a loved one.

As a Christian I am reminded of when Jesus was on the cross and the thief asked for forgiveness. Jesus Christ did not tell the thief that he had to wait five or seven years before being able to enter heaven. Jesus Christ said, “This day! you shall enter heaven.” As Christians, we did not have to wait a probationary period before being forgiven. How then can we justify making an American citizen who made a mistake, and serve their time, wait more than a decade before being allowed an opportunity to have the right to vote restored, or a fair opportunity to provide for their family? How can we expect forgiveness for our sins if we are not willing to forgive others? Like former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, I too believe that when someone commits a crime they must be punished, but, echoing his expressed sentiments, I also believe that those who have completed the sentence for their crimes “deserve a second chance to fully rejoin society and exercise their civil and constitutional rights.”

The right of an American citizen to exercise arguably the most critical expression of citizenship should not be denied. Nor should the decision on whether an American citizen regains the rights to vote be left in the hands of a select few politicians whose decisions are often arbitrary and motivated by partisan politics and corporate interests. Over a century ago, the Framers of Florida’s Constitution drew a conceptual line in defense of individual rights, saying to arbitrary and autocratic power that, from whatever official quarter it may advance to invade vital rights of American Citizens, “thus far shalt thou come, but no further.” Traylor v. State, 596 So. 2d 957 (Fla. 1992).

Today, the time to draw a definitive line in Florida has come. Automatic rights restoration enhances our public safety, affirms our humanity, and promotes democracy. Standing by disfranchisement, standing on the sidelines, ignoring cries for democracy, and delaying restoration of rights will only serve to further entrench injustice. Instead, let’s stand together on the side of justice and make sure that when the sun shines in Florida it beams democracy on all its citizens.

Follow me on Twitter @DesmondMeade


Desmond Meade is a formerly homeless returning citizen who overcame many obstacles to eventually become the current State Director for Florida Live Free Campaign, President of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), Chair of Floridians for a Fair Democracy, Chair of the Florida Coalition on Black Civic Participation’s Black Men’s Roundtable, and a graduate of Florida International University College of Law. Full bio >>

The Case for Community

by Leah Hunt-Hendrix, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Solidaire

When we think of “human rights” we often think about the rights of an individual, up against a community, a government, or a corporation who might seek to violate those rights. These rights are something we say we deserve, simply because we are human. But to truly address our individual rights we need to also think about the health of our communities.
Over the past five years, I have spent my time raising awareness and resources for organizations that are trying to transform the fabric of society.  When Alexis de Tocqueville traveled around the US in the 1830s he commented on the thick webs of communities and civic organizations. But today, as Robert Putnam notes in Bowling Alone, our society has become increasingly fragmented. We are more and more characterized by an individualism that leaves each of us to fend for ourselves. Our country is increasingly polarized. It’s hard to imagine an America more divided than we are in this moment.
The task today is to reconstitute a sense of the common good. But to do so, we must examine the structures that hold injustice in place, and think about communities as the site of power to challenge those structures. Community is the space in which we create agreements, laws, and consequences; it is the space in which we can take collective action to shift policies and norms. Individual flourishing and community flourishing are bound together, inextricably interwoven.
At this current juncture, I believe restoring a sense of community or the common good will require at least three things: First, we have to fight for greater economic equality. Ganesh Sitaraman writes in The Crisis of the Middle Class Constitution that the founders of our republic believed that we would be a country of relative equality. They didn’t need to address class warfare in the constitution because they assumed that we wouldn’t have starkly opposed classes, as existed in the old world. But today, the contrast is astounding. The top one percent controls 38% of the nation’s wealth. While some have billions, others are working three minimum wage jobs to get by. In this context, Nick Hanauer worries that “the pitchforks are coming.” We are at risk of social collapse under the weight of this inequality and we must take significant action if we are to avert this crisis.
Second, an “all boats rise” strategy is not enough. We know that systemic racism pervades our society and it must be dealt with directly. In Dog Whistle Politics, Ian Haney Lopez shows how racism is used as a wedge, to divide those with shared interests. Seizing on the tendency towards white supremacy, the ruling class has sown antagonism between low income people in a way that has allowed those in power to roll back regulations on corporations, cut the tax rate, and allow for an unprecedented state of corporate control. Lopez argues that we will not be able to truly address today’s inequality without addressing the role of racism. We have to tackle our prejudice head on, understanding the fears that might motivate it, but unwilling to allow those fears to prevail.
Finally, to address these first two structural problems, we need empowered communities. There is a tendency, at least in philanthropy, to try to solve problems through technocratic solutions. But most of the issues regarding the abuse of human rights involve unjust power differentials. Whether it’s sexual assault and harassment, or rights to privacy, or economic rights, we will not rectify inequities without organized constituencies that are demanding change. As the saying goes, power does not give itself up willingly. “Inside-the-beltway” strategies, which focus solely on policy or high-level diplomacy, will fail unless there is sufficient community-based power holding decision makers accountable. To truly change oppressive structures, we need to build mass movements with a vision of a more just society for all. 
It is a sad and scary moment in our history. Threats abound: from climate change, to political upheaval, to our fragile economy. The only way through this is together.  


Leah Hunt-Hendrix is the co-founder and Executive Director of Solidaire, a donor community dedicated to funding progressive social movements. She has her PhD from Princeton University, where she studied political theory and philosophy, and wrote a dissertation on the concept of solidarity. The focus of her work is on progressive political power, economic justice and racial justice. She is from New York, and has lived around the world, including in Egypt, Syria, and the West Bank. She currently lives in San Francisco.  


Barefoot Lawyers, Communities, and the Earth: Legal Empowerment and the Struggle for Stewardship

By Vivek Maru, CEO, Namati

The global human rights movement has made extraordinary progress, at least by the letter of the law. Many countries now enshrine basic rights in national legislation. But people continue to struggle to exercise those rights in practice. The UN estimated that four billion people worldwide live outside of the law's protection. For them, the law is an abstraction, or worse, a threat. They can be driven from their land, extorted by officials, and intimidated by violence.

This profound global rights gap is nowhere more urgent than in the realm of environmental and climate justice. Research demonstrates that secure community land rights are a necessary precursor to successfully addressing deforestation, food insecurity, and poverty. Time and again, we see that when communities have secure governance over their lands, they choose to conserve and wisely steward their resources – creating a bulwark against the destabilization of key resources like water, soil, and agricultural crops due to rising temperatures.

Yet nearly half of the world’s people do not have secure rights to govern their lands. Meanwhile, these same lands are vulnerable to increasing foreign investment interest and speculation by national elites. As demand for (cheap, unregulated) land increases while climate stability decreases, rural communities around the world face imminent threats to their homes, lives, and livelihoods.

These external destabilizing influences often set off a cascade of multiple and overlapping intra-community challenges. Often the divisive tactics of investors create community divisions, while infrastructure development degrades livelihoods. Elites may make back-room deals with local leaders, undermining community trust of those leaders.

It is only when local communities are empowered to claim their rights – both customary rights and those enshrined in national law – and fully participate in decision-making about their customary lands, that we find positive outcomes for sustainable resource stewardship and community resilience in the face of climate change.

To help achieve these outcomes worldwide, Namati champions an approach—grassroots legal advocates, sometimes known as barefoot lawyers or community paralegals—for placing the power of law in the hands of people. The advocates are trained in basic law and in skills like mediation, organizing, education, and advocacy. Paralegals help people to understand, use, and ultimately shape the law.

For example, in 2015, paralegals in Sierra Leone worked with ten communities in the north of the country to secure a more equitable lease agreement between the communities and a logging company. They successfully negotiated provisions for the protection of traditional or sacred grounds, profit sharing with communities, and protection from environmental harm.

In Myanmar, paralegals work with farmers who have suffered land-grabbing by the military under decades of dictatorship, offering practical advice on land laws to a much larger group of people than could be assisted by lawyers alone. Since 2013, Namati and several grassroots groups have helped nearly 10,000 farmers across seven states to protect their land rights under new Burmese law. Thousands of farmers have received land use certificates, and thousands of hectares of grabbed land have been returned to small-hold farmers.

Paralegal casework can also inform lasting policy change. In India, intensive paralegal efforts on several mining cases – resulting in valuable evidence about how the laws work in practice – gave advocates the information they needed to call for strengthened federal mining regulations. As a result, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change included the paralegals’ proposed changes in an amendment to the relevant law.

Paralegals offer a practical, effective method for enabling communities to assume their rightful roles as primary stewards of their lands and resources. And paralegal experience in pursuing land and environmental justice can inform regional, national and even global advocacy on environmental protection. In the context of increasing resource scarcity and a shifting climate, respecting the rights of people closest to the land is essential to preserving our most precious shared resources. It is also what justice demands.

 To learn more about Namati’s impact click here.

Vivek Maru is the CEO of Namati. Namati and its partners deploy grassroots legal advocates to take on some of the greatest challenges of our times including protecting community lands, seeking environmental justice, securing citizenship rights and realizing the right to health. Just this year Vivek and Namati received the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship. Watch his acceptance speech here. Previously, Vivek co-founded and co-directed the Sierra Leonean organization Timap for Justice, which has been recognized by the International Crisis Group, Transparency International, and President Jimmy Carter as a pioneering model for delivering justice services in the context of a weak state and a plural legal system. He also served as senior counsel in the Justice Reform Group of the World Bank. His work focused on rule of law reform and governance, primarily in West Africa and South Asia.

From Global Warming to Genocide Warning: Climate Change and Mass Atrocities

by Dr. Simon Adams, Executive Director, Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect

In the winter of 2006 Syria experienced the beginning of the most crippling drought in its recorded history. By 2009 key crops had declined by more than half, plunging almost a million people into food insecurity. In the northeast of the country farmers lost 85% of their livestock as wells dried up and farm animals died. About 10% of the population saw their livelihoods wiped out. During the three-year drought, more than 1.5 million Syrians fled from their farms, migrating to Aleppo, Damascus, Homs and other urban centers.

Rising temperatures and declining rainfall afflicted the entire Fertile Crescent, where agriculture was first born about 11,000 years ago, but fell particularly severely upon Syria. The ruling Assad family didn’t create the drought, but decades of dictatorship and dysfunctional policies around water management and unsustainable agriculture exacerbated its consequences. Facing poverty, hunger and water scarcity, resentments accumulated on the periphery of Syria’s cities and in the countryside. Then came the “Arab Spring.”

The confluence of these events has caused some to draw a causal link between them. In the words of US Secretary of State John Kerry, “It’s not a coincidence that immediately prior to the civil war in Syria, the country experienced its worst drought on record.” Environmental disaster intensified the “political unrest that was just beginning to roil and boil in the region,” adding stress on cities plagued by crumbling infrastructure, social inequality, overcrowding and corruption. In this scenario, climate change helped ignite the most bitter and bloody civil war of our times, providing a disturbing portent of our potential future.

Threat Multiplier

Kerry is not alone in identifying a disturbing credible connection between climate change and deadly conflict. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan argued in his Millennium Report that climate change “may increase social and political tensions in unpredictable and potentially dangerous ways.” In 2014 the US Department of Defense described climate change as a “threat multiplier,” noting that a rise in global temperatures may “intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict,” posing a particular threat to already fractured societies.

These challenges may also increase the possibility of mass atrocity crimes – genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Although the UN’s Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes does not specifically address global warming, there are two risk factors that are directly relevant: motives or incentives, and triggering factors. Triggering factors could include environmental changes that drastically affect entire societies, including severe drought or natural disaster. Motives or incentives could potentially include a dramatic widening of inequality because of climate change, including food and water scarcity, environmental degradation, and the political manipulation of access to precious resources. But does the existing evidence support this grim prognosis?

In 2007 UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon linked climate change to the outbreak of deadly conflict in Darfur, arguing that a harsh drought had resulted in armed hostilities between settled farmers and nomadic herders. In 2012 deadly inter-communal clashes between Orma and Pokomo communities in Kenya’s Tana River Delta were perceived as being primarily driven by tribal animosities and political rivalries. However, the two ethnic communities were actually fighting over water access, scarce grazing land and tensions arising from land development.

Fighting between semi-nomadic herders and settled farmers has also occurred in Ethiopia, Central African Republic and elsewhere, sometimes escalating to the level of mass atrocity crimes. For example, in Nigeria rising temperatures and drought have caused Fulani herdsmen to migrate further south than ever before. In doing so, they have clashed with established agricultural communities. The fact that the Fulani herdsmen are mainly Muslim and the communities they are battling are predominately Christian has deepened animosities in a country that is already experiencing deadly conflict. While Boko Haram’s atrocities have attracted international headlines, there have been at least 6500 deaths resulting from violence between the Fulani and other communities in Nigeria since 2010.

Extended dry seasons, caused by climate change, could have a similar effect on ethnic conflict in South Sudan, where traditions of cattle raiding between competing communities of Neur, Murle and Dinka have increased in longevity and violent intensity over the last decade. Meanwhile in Yemen, growing water scarcity has had a direct impact on the conduct of the country’s civil war. Armed forces on both sides have deliberately targeted infrastructure in order to deprive rival civilian populations of access to water, effectively weaponising climate change.

Where governance is weak, the threat posed by climate change looms largest. There are predictions that accelerating climate change could potentially displace between 50 and 250 million people globally. It will also increase global hunger and the regularity of catastrophic environmental events. The resulting pressures may limit the capacity of some governments in the developing world to fulfill their basic functions.

We have already experienced this firsthand in relation to the 2014-2015 Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Understandably, the governments of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone prioritized the health emergency over programs to consolidate the rule of law, dealing with past conflicts, and strengthening human rights institutions. Similar re-prioritization may occur in the face of expanded environmental crises with a long-term impact on political stability and economic development.

In 2010 the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law released a study of African governments’ institutional resilience to potential challenges presented by climate change. Of the 53 African states studied, the ten most fragile were (in descending order) Cote d’ Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Comoros, Chad, Central African Republic, Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia. Seven of those have already endured mass atrocities in their recent history, or are experiencing them now. This is the context in which climate change could reignite old conflicts or create conditions for new predatory politics.

2° Temperature Rise = Genocide?

Nevertheless, it is important not to conflate climate change, conflict and the risk of mass atrocities. At least one study has used historical data regarding temperature variation in Africa to argue that “a 1˚ C increase in temperature” leads to “a 4.5% increase in civil war.” But predictive modeling developed from such studies runs the risk of being wildly misleading. There is certainly no evidence that a one or two degree increase in global temperatures will automatically increase the likelihood of genocide in Africa or anywhere else.

I come from a “sunburnt country” and have personally experienced extended drought. But water scarcity in Western Australia has never resulted in civil war or a refugee exodus as it has in Syria. Similarly, no one is trying to bomb Southern California’s depleted water reservoirs like they are in Yemen. And herdsmen are not migrating south from Oregon to kill people and secure access to fertile grazing lands in Silicon Valley.

This should remind us that political history and economic development play an indispensable role in all of this. Indeed, even in areas most vulnerable to climate change and extreme conflict, the results are not universally negative. Water management in the Lake Chad Basin and the threat posed by Boko Haram has actually enhanced cross-border cooperation between Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon. Climate change undoubtedly threatens the future of our planet, but it might also enhance diplomatic collaboration.

Mass atrocities are the result of a convergence of vulnerabilities, of which climate change is just one. In the future ethnic warlords, authoritarian rulers and aspiring demagogues will undoubtedly use the consequences of climate change to mobilize support. But to quote Vesselin Popovski of United Nations University, “what will drive their fight is not the rain, the temperature, or the sea level.” The primary causes of conflict will remain raw politics and naked economics.

Precisely because climate change is a global problem, it provokes us to think beyond borders. From the Paris Agreement and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, to upholding our international responsibility to protect, the solution lies in severing the link between climate and survival for those people and places that are most susceptible to the ruinous effects of climate change. This should give us hope. Mass atrocity crimes are incited, organized and perpetrated by human beings. That means that like climate change, they can still be prevented by human beings.

Dr. Simon Adams, Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, has worked extensively with governments and civil society organizations in South Africa, East Timor, Rwanda, and elsewhere. Between 1994 and 2002 Dr. Adams worked with Sinn Féin and former IRA prisoners in support of the Northern Ireland peace process. He is also a former anti-apartheid activist and member of the African National Congress in South Africa.

Making History at Standing Rock: Tribes Are Leading Action to Preserve the Planet

by Trip Van Noppen, President, Earthjustice

In North Dakota, thousands of people are now encamped on the banks of the Cannonball River to oppose the Dakota Access pipeline with the Standing Rock Sioux.  Routed through sacred sites, the $3.8 billion pipeline would transport Bakken oil under the Missouri River, where a break or leak would poison water for Standing Rock and potentially millions of people downstream.  Members of at least 280 tribes and First Nations have come from around the U.S. and Canada to peacefully demonstrate, making this the largest gathering of tribes in generations.  Delegations of indigenous peoples have come from as far away as New Zealand and the Ecuadoran Amazon, and more people arrive every day. “It’s powerful. It’s one of the most beautiful things that I’m fortunate to witness,” says David Archambault II, Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.   

It’s a historic moment and one that matters to the climate movement.  Beyond the massive Dakota Access pipeline, the Standing Rock Sioux have joined 49 other tribes and First Nations to create a united front against the full suite of new pipelines and other proposed infrastructure projects that would entrench dependence on oil.  This leadership offers new hope for keeping oil unburned.  But it is reductive to call Dakota Access the “next Keystone” as many commentators have done.  Above all, this is a fight for justice, tribal sovereignty, and fundamental rights to protect land and water, to keep culture and “survive as distinct peoples,” as Leonard Peltier recently put it.    

For my organization, Earthjustice, it is an extraordinary privilege to represent the Tribe in a lawsuit challenging the federal government’s deeply flawed process for permitting the pipeline.  This 1,200 mile-long project is going forward without any comprehensive environmental review or meaningful consultation with the Tribe, as Dakota Access secured the necessary approvals from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers using a self-service permitting scheme that is urgently in need of reform.  While the Corps has insisted that the Tribe’s concerns about threats to water are unwarranted, the pipeline’s original route was shifted toward Standing Rock when it became clear that a leak or a spill would contaminate drinking water in the relatively prosperous, overwhelmingly white city of Bismarck.  The Tribe did not have any meaningful say in that decision, and now the Tribe bears the risk of poisoned water.  Meanwhile, the companies building the pipeline have rushed to bulldoze and destroy ancestral burial grounds that lie in the route’s new path.  

For the Sioux, it’s a painfully familiar story.  As Chairman Archambault wrote in a recent op-ed that ran in The New York Times:

This is the third time that the Sioux Nation’s lands and resources have been taken without regard for tribal interests. The Sioux peoples signed treaties in 1851 and 1868. The government broke them before the ink was dry. When the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Missouri River in 1958, it took our riverfront forests, fruit orchards and most fertile farmland to create Lake Oahe. Now the Corps is taking our clean water and sacred places by approving this river crossing. Whether it’s gold from the Black Hills or hydropower from the Missouri or oil pipelines that threaten our ancestral inheritance, the tribes have always paid the price for America’s prosperity.

To say that America’s prosperity comes at the tribes’ expense is a gentle critique given the history.  Fossil fuel development and its flip side, climate change, represent a new assault on the tribes, and that injustice resonates around the world.

Indigenous people including the Standing Rock Sioux are unifying in an unprecedented way to combat that injustice, and they are enjoying tremendous success.  This past spring, the Lummi Nation successfully enforced their treaty-protected fishing rights to block the largest coal port proposed in North America.  Shortly before that, the Lax Kw’alaams First Nation in British Columbia turned down $1.5 billion from the oil giant Petronas, blocking a massive liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in fragile salmon habitat.  And these inspiring efforts are not exclusive to North America.  Invoking their traditional land rights, the Wangan and Jagalingou peoples of Australia are standing between India’s Adani Group and what would be the world’s biggest coal mine (and another blow to the Great Barrier Reef).  Meanwhile, in India, tribal protests are blocking an extraordinary number of new coal mines—at great personal risk to the protesters involved.  These are just a few examples among many.

The common thread is that indigenous peoples around the world are leading essential action to preserve the planet.  To quote Rebecca Adamson, the founder of First Peoples Worldwide, “It is not a coincidence that 80 per cent of the world’s remaining biodiversity is to be found on indigenous lands.” 

With the gathering of so many indigenous leaders at Standing Rock, there is an unprecedented opportunity —and pressing need —to support their efforts in a sustained way that honors their priorities.  Adamson makes the point that “less than one tenth of a percent of the hundreds of millions of aid and philanthropic dollars going to prevent, mitigate and adapt to climate change goes directly to indigenous peoples.”  Even putting aside the unfairness of that allocation, it is out of step with the outsize contribution that indigenous leaders are making.

Which brings us full circle to progress in the Dakota Access fight.  On September 9, a federal district court denied the Tribe’s request for a court order blocking further construction, but minutes after the opinion issued, the Justice Department and the Army Corps issued a joint statement announcing their desire to revisit approvals for the project in light of the Tribe’s concerns.  The Corps has deferred the grant of final approvals needed to route the line under the Missouri River, and the agencies have promised to initiate “a formal, government-to-government consultation,” stating that “this case has highlighted the need for a serious discussion on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects.”  While the future of the Dakota Access pipeline is still very much in question, this remarkable announcement represents a dramatic shift in position and tone by the U.S. federal government.  That shift is a testament to the power of the movement that is growing in North Dakota. Now is the time to help it grow.

Earthjustice wields the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health; to preserve magnificent places and wildlife; to advance clean energy; and to combat climate change.  We provide free legal representation, communications and other support to a broad array of clients including tribes and indigenous peoples throughout the U.S. and around the world. 

Trip Van Noppen serves Earthjustice as its President, leading the organization's staff, board, and supporters to advance its mission of using the courts to protect our environment and people's health. After earning degrees from Yale and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Trip clerked for a federal district judge from 1980–82. He then practiced law in Raleigh, NC, from 1982 until 1997, in a litigation practice emphasizing civil rights, employment, environmental, and toxic tort cases. In 1998, Trip joined the Southern Environmental Law Center and became director of that organization’s Carolinas Office. Both in private practice and at SELC, Trip has handled a variety of environmental cases and cases involving access to the courts. He was named North Carolina’s “Air Conservationist of the Year” in 1996 and has taught environmental justice as a visiting scholar at Duke University.

Imagining Freedom

By Caitlin Heising, Philanthropy Research Associate, Article 3 Advisors.

I couldn’t believe that only six months ago, the man in a suit standing onstage at SFJAZZ telling us about his three wives (Halle Berry, Sandra Bullock, and – “would you believe it” – Kim Kardashian) had been in prison. In fact, this charming man, Anthony Ray Hinton, had spent the last 30 years on Alabama’s death row, most of the time in solitary confinement, for a crime he did not commit. So, of course, Mr. Hinton had not actually married these three beautiful women. He let his colorful imagination come up with love stories and world travels to escape the daily prison monotony and occasional smells of burning flesh coming from the nearby electric chair.

Mr. Hinton is not alone in this inhumane circumstance, though he was fortunate to have Bryan Stevenson, the Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, as his lawyer. In addition to exonerating innocent death row prisoners, Mr. Stevenson puts forth a powerful argument that in our country, slavery did not end, but rather evolved. Generations later, its legacy is continuing racism in a society where a black person is six times more likely than a white person to go to prison for the same crime.

The failure to face our history and reform abusive policies and practices has served to reinforce a corrosive legacy affecting our country’s legitimacy around human rights. The U.S. now has the largest incarceration rate in the world with 2.3 million people imprisoned along with 7 million on probation or parole. Out of the 9.3 million people in the correctional system, 1 in 3 are African-American.

Currently, the prison system makes $74 billion in profit, the gross domestic product of 133 nations. There is something fundamentally wrong with this situation, which should be recognized as an unacceptable human rights abuse that also weakens America’s moral authority around the world. If we systematically disregard the rights and dignity of people within our borders, how can we expect to have a say in, let alone positively influence, the advancement of international human rights norms abroad?

Considering the extent of this broken system, Article 3 Advisors, the human rights philanthropy consultancy led by The Philanthropy Workshop board members Darian Swig (TPW 2005-2006) and David Keller (TPW 2001-2002), chose to focus on U.S. criminal justice reform for its annual event commemorating International Human Rights Day on December 10th. A3A Human Rights Day brought together advocates, philanthropists, and politicians to hear firsthand from Mr. Hinton, Mr. Stevenson, and other experts and practitioners in the U.S. criminal justice system. With more than 100 people in the room listening raptly to Mr. Hinton’s story and hearing from visionaries such as Van Jones and George Gascón about what needs to be done, we joined an important conversation with humanity, dignity, and freedom at its core.

The proximity was powerful, almost palpable, as many people were brought to tears hearing how Mr. Hinton was kept locked up even after solid evidence of his innocence emerged 16 years before he was finally released. The system in which he found himself did not have to listen to him, his lawyers, or even concrete facts. The powerful players involved could – and still can – choose to look away, or forget, or villainize innocent people for being poor and black.

What’s badly needed, according to Mr. Stevenson, is a change in the narrative we collectively tell ourselves. We need to start actively remembering our country’s history of slavery, lynching, resistance to the civil rights movement, and Jim Crow segregation, rather than continuing to try to move on by burying it in the depths of history books. Our culture attempts to suggest that slavery is a thing of the past when really it has evolved into a legacy of racial inequality. As we can tell from today’s systemic poverty, endemic institutional discrimination, police brutality, and skyrocketing incarceration levels, our current incognizance of the deep ties between slavery and mass incarceration has not served to realize “a more perfect union.”

In a significant first step to this end, Mr. Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative are embarking on a capital campaign this year to build the Montgomery Memorial to Peace and Justice, which will memorialize lives lost to lynching in towns throughout the South. To achieve real change, we need to identify and challenge some of the stories our culture tries to tell.

In another life, Mr. Hinton could have been a comedian, politician, professor – he has the type of charisma that keeps you hanging on every word. Our unfair criminal justice system denied him the opportunity to live free and realize his potential. Yet he said he has no anger or regrets; he forgives the individuals involved in his unjust ordeal. He is clearly living his purpose now, sharing his story around the country to humanize our incarcerated masses and bring about systemic change. I can say that everyone at A3A Human Rights Day was inspired by his openness, resilience, and hope. Let’s act now, following Mr. Hinton’s lead, to make our country one that truly creates opportunity and freedom for all.

To learn more about the history of racial injustice in America from slavery to mass incarceration, click here to view an animated film from Equal Justice Initiative.

The Man on Death Row Who Changed Me

Today, on International Human Rights Day, we are closing out our U.S. criminal justice reform blog series with a post by Bryan Stevenson, Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative. His post is an essay adapted from his best selling book, Just Mercy. In it, he reflects on an experience from his law school days and the impact it had on the trajectory of his career. To view the entire blog series, click here.

We’ve chosen to focus on U.S. criminal justice reform on International Human Rights Day because we believe that the failure to face our history and reform abusive policies and practices reinforces a corrosive legacy affecting domestic legitimacy; and thus, our ability to advance international human rights norms abroad.  It is our hope that by putting the U.S. criminal justice system in the spotlight, we join an important conversation with humanity, human dignity and freedom at its core.


The Man on Death Row Who Changed Me

The visitation room was 100 feet square, with a few stools bolted to the floor and wire mesh running across the room. For family visits, inmates and visitors had to be on opposite sides of the mesh. Legal visits, on the other hand, were “contact visits” — the two of us would be on the same side of the room to permit more privacy. I began worrying about my lack of preparation. I had scheduled to meet with the client for one hour, but I wasn’t sure how I would fill even 15 minutes with what I knew. I sat down on a stool and waited until I heard the clanging of chains on the other side of the door.

The man who walked in seemed even more nervous than I was. He glanced at me and quickly averted his gaze when I looked back. He was a young, neatly groomed African-American man with short hair — clean-shaven, medium build — wearing bright, clean prison whites. He looked immediately familiar, like everyone I grew up with, friends from school, people I played sports or music with, someone I’d talk to on the street. As the guard left, the metal door banged loudly behind him.

I walked over and offered my hand. The man, who had been convicted of murder, shook it cautiously. We sat down.

“I’m very sorry,” I blurted out. “I’m really sorry, I’m really sorry, uh, O.K., I don’t really know, uh, I’m just a law student, I’m not a real lawyer.” Despite all my preparations and rehearsed remarks, I couldn’t stop myself from apologizing repeatedly. “I’m so sorry I can’t tell you very much, but I don’t know very much.”

He looked at me, worried. “Is everything all right with my case?”

“Oh, yes, sir. The lawyers at S.P.D.C. sent me down to tell you that they don’t have a lawyer yet,” I said. “But you’re not at risk of execution anytime in the next year. We’re working on finding you a lawyer, a real lawyer.”

He interrupted my chatter by grabbing my hands. “I’m not going to have an execution date anytime in the next year?”

“No, sir. They said it would be at least a year.” Those words didn’t sound very comforting to me. But he just squeezed my hands tighter.

“Thank you, man,” he said. “I mean, really, thank you! I’ve been talking to my wife on the phone, but I haven’t wanted her to come and visit me or bring the kids because I was afraid they’d show up and I’d have an execution date. Now I’m going to tell them they can come and visit. Thank you!”

I was astonished. We began to talk. It turned out that he and I were exactly the same age. He told me about his family and his trial. He asked me about law school and my family. We talked about music and about prison. We kept talking and talking, and it was only when I heard a loud bang on the door that I realized I had stayed long past my allotted time. I looked at my watch. I had been there three hours.

The guard came in and began handcuffing him; I could see the prisoner grimacing. “I think those cuffs are on too tight,” I said.

“It’s O.K., Bryan,” he said. “Don’t worry about this. Just come back and see me again, O.K.?”

I struggled to say something appropriate, something reassuring. He looked at me and smiled. Then he did something completely unexpected. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back. I was confused, but then he opened his mouth, and I understood. He had a tremendous baritone that was strong and clear.

Lord, lift me up and let me stand,
By faith, on heaven’s tableland;
A higher plane than I have found,
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.

It was an old hymn they used to sing all the time in church where I grew up. I hadn’t heard it in years. Because his ankles were shackled and his hands were locked behind his back, he almost stumbled when the guard shoved him forward. But he kept on singing.

His voice was filled with desire. I had come into the prison with such anxiety and fear about his willingness to tolerate my inadequacy. I didn’t expect him to be compassionate or generous. I had no right to expect anything from a condemned man on death row. But that day, I could hear him as he went down the hall, until the echo of his earnest, soaring voice faded. When it had gone, the still silence of that space sounded different from when I entered. Even today, after 30 years of defending death-row prisoners, I still hear him.

Bryan Stevenson is the Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. Mr. Stevenson is a widely acclaimed public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned. Under his leadership, EJI has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent death row prisoners, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill and aiding children prosecuted as adults. Mr. Stevenson has successfully argued several cases in the United States Supreme Court and recently won an historic ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court banning mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger are unconstitutional. Read more >>

Open Justice: Embracing Transparency

Written by Attorney General Kamala Harris, exclusively for the A3A criminal justice blog series.

As a career prosecutor and California’s top cop, I know that neighborhoods are safer when communities and local law enforcement have a mutual trust. That’s why the national conversation about the relationship between communities and law enforcement is so important. Events in Ferguson, Baltimore, South Carolina, and elsewhere have brought police-community relations to the top of our national consciousness. This conversation is about justice for the victims and their families, but it’s also about making our entire nation safer.

We all need to come together to deliver on the potential of this momentum. That’s why my office recently launched OpenJustice, a first-of-its kind initiative that embraces transparency improve trust and policy-making in the criminal justice system. Here at the California Department of Justice, we collect a treasure trove of criminal justice data. OpenJustice seeks to make that information publicly available, so that everyday people can see what we are doing to uphold the civil rights of all individuals, promote justice in our communities, and ensure the safety of law enforcement.

OpenJustice is part of a “Smart on Crime” approach that takes a holistic look at criminal justice policy.  This means applying innovative, data-proven methods to make sure our criminal justice system is doing what it was intended to: improve public safety.  By using the universal language of numbers, OpenJustice makes it easy for the public to see how we’re doing – and where we can do better. 

As a first step with OpenJustice, we launched an Open Data Portal a public, online repository of criminal justice data – and a Justice Dashboard, which highlights key data in an interactive, engaging, and easy-to-use way. We started with three important datasets: (1) Deaths in Custody, (2) Arrest Rates and (3) Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted.  But no single statistic will provide a complete picture of such a complicated issue. So we plan to keep adding additional data to OpenJustice to broaden the conversation.

OpenJustice is our contribution to what I hope will become a nationwide, data-driven criminal justice reform movement. To help build that movement, we’ve also partnered with the White House Police Data Initiative to support more local law enforcement agencies in California open up their data and to provide a model for other states to adopt. 

Sharing this data with the public may force some difficult conversations, but it’ll also bring clarity and facts into the conversation. By being transparent about how we’re doing, by being smart about where we are focusing our resources, and by being innovative in adopting new technologies and data-driven solutions, we can make huge strides in fostering the relationship of trust between law enforcement and the communities we are sworn to serve, making everyone safer. 

Kamala D. Harris is the 32nd Attorney General of the State of California. She is the first woman, the first African American, and the first South Asian to hold the office in the history of California.

As chief law enforcement officer for the State of California, Attorney General Harris has focused on combating transnational gangs, increasing the adoption of technology and data-driven policing by law enforcement, and improving public safety by reducing recidivism. She has fought to reduce elementary school truancy in California, preserve the state’s natural resources, and ensure marriage equality for all Californians. She has also worked with the technology industry to improve online privacy and safety. Read more >>

No One Truly Knows a Nation Until One Has Been Inside its Jails

Written by Jean Oelwang, exclusively for the A3A criminal justice blog series. Title quote from Nelson Mandela. 

I grew up thinking America was the greatest place on earth, a land of freedom and opportunities.  Where my father came from humble beginnings and worked hard to give us everything we needed in life.  I grew up proud to be an American.  

Today I’m ashamed.  I’m ashamed that in this land of plenty, we are marginalising the most vulnerable people in our American family.  We spend our energy on reality TV politics focused on sound bites and cheap shots, rather than thinking about how we work together to tackle the tough issues and fix our nation to ensure everyone has a chance.  

We are only 5% of the world’s population, yet we have 25% of the world’s prisoners in our criminal “justice” system, many of them for minor drug offences, many of them people of colour.  We say the right “politically correct” things, but in our real life reality show, our systems are poisoned with racial discrimination, perpetuating the hidden apartheid of our time, right here in America.  

Mandela once stated “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails”.  If he were to visit our jails today, he would find them filled with the most vulnerable Americans; people who are mentally ill, who have addiction problems, who have often suffered abuses in their lives that we will never even begin to comprehend.   Mandela’s first question would likely be, how are we taking care of these folks?  We would have to respond that we are putting them in solitary confinement, putting them back out into the streets with a “black mark” on their records so they will struggle to find work, giving them no help with their addiction and mental health issues and in the worst case, actually executing them (it feels barbaric to even write those words).  What would he think of our nation?  

My first brush with “justice” was when I was working in a homeless shelter in Chicago and a young man who lived at the shelter was accused of pulling a knife on a woman on a public bus.  Yet there was no knife, no wound, no witnesses, nothing to implicate this young man, beyond this woman’s accusation.  A group of us went to court as character witnesses for him, a quiet, gentle soul, very excited to be training to become a chef.  During the trial he was given a lawyer who was late each day and more focused on eating his lunch in the courtroom than on defending him.  So, with absolutely no evidence, he was convicted and ended up joining the ranks of over a million other men of colour in the US prison system.  His young life abruptly interrupted by a complete lack of justice.  

Justice is a tricky thing.  It is often warped by righteousness, biases and the desire for closure.  Over the last year we’ve been watching with horror as Richard Glossip escaped the execution chamber in Oklahoma four times, each time with his children and family standing by up until the very last minute.  

The primary evidence against him is the testimony of Justin Sneed, the actual murderer, who spared his own life by pointing to Richard Glossip as the instigator of the crime.  

Today I’m ashamed to be an American.  All of us have the blood of over 1.421 people who have been executed under our watch.

How can we ever expect to be a nation leading through moral courage on the global stage if we are not demonstrating this in our own backyard?  

We can change this and bring justice back into our criminal justice system.  There are many great folks like Bryan Stevenson, Van Jones, Sister Helen Prejean, The 8th Amendment Project– and others who are already on the path to delivering positive reform.  As philanthropists, business leaders and fellow human beings, we need to step up and support their important work. 

Every single one of us can and must take action.  So we can all stand up and respond to Nelson Mandela’s question with pride, that we are a nation who takes care of its most vulnerable and one that creates opportunities and freedom for all.  

Jean Oelwang is President and a Trustee of Virgin Unite, the entrepreneurial foundation of the Virgin Group.. In 2003, Jean left her post as joint CEO of Virgin Mobile Australia to begin working with Richard Branson and the Virgin staff from around the world to create Virgin Unite. Over the last 12 years, Jean has worked with partners to create new approaches to social and environmental issues, such as the Branson Centres of Entrepreneurship and a global platform to support budding entrepreneurs. She has helped incubate a number of global leadership initiatives such as The Elders, the Carbon War Room, The B Team and Ocean Unite. In addition, Jean has been instrumental in working with Virgin’s businesses and others worldwide to put driving positive change at their core. Connect: @JeanOelwang@VirginUnite Virgin.com/unite  

The Crisis of the American Criminal Justice System is Bad News for Everyone

 Written by Richard Branson and Van Jones, exclusively for the A3A criminal justice blog series.

From the perspective of philanthropic institutions and individuals, criminal justice is not a distant problem that primarily concerns governments. The failures of the criminal justice system, from mass incarceration to egregious racial inequalities, have had such profound corrosive impacts that they can no longer be ignored. 

With 2.3 million people in the US prison system, 7 million on parole or probation, and 1 in 3 African-American men expected to go to prison at some point in their lifetime, we are facing a crisis of dramatic proportions. The system is so fundamentally broken that its very capacity to deliver justice has to be called into question. Equality before the law, the right to a fair trial and due process are frequently and often quite deliberately violated, tipping the scales to a point that conviction or acquittal are no longer a question of guilt or innocence, but rather a matter of socio-economic status and race. If you can’t pay for a good defence, the odds are stacked against you. If you are black or Hispanic and can’t pay for your defence, you are screwed. 

It’s an unacceptable status quo that also weakens America’s moral authority abroad. Indefinite solitary confinement, life without parole for minors and the fact that one in nine death row inmates will eventually be exonerated do not exactly strengthen our negotiating position when trying to stand up for human rights elsewhere. 

Beyond the staggering facts, the broader consequences are quite clear: this crisis threatens to roll back and undo years, if not decades, of social progress, much of which was accomplished with passionate support from the philanthropic community. Public health goals are undermined by everything from stress related-illnesses to high HIV transmission rates within prisons. Family formation is interrupted; children lose contact with incarcerated parents. Economic development is undercut when large numbers of African-Americans have felony convictions that lock them out of the job market. No question, if the legacies of the civil rights movement, of the fight for equality and of the war against poverty are to endure, we are all called upon to join forces and help restore justice, dignity, fairness and equality – the bedrock principles of healthy, equitable and prosperous societies.

To be frank, this is a momentous challenge many philanthropic organisations have to come to terms with as they seek to find their own role in the 21st century. Much of philanthropy still prefers to treat symptoms, rather than pushing for systemic change. It’s time to shift our priorities. 

How can this be done? First of all, reform needs champions and resources. Modern philanthropy should be prepared to provide both.

Part of the exercise is to listen to the voices of the criminal justice reform movement. The wider public, as well as mainstream media, are only slowly beginning to understand the extent of the problem. As advocates, champions and thought leaders, philanthropies can help amplify awareness of the causal relationships between a broken system and its devastating impacts. There is enormous room for positive and meaningful programmatic work to highlight best practices, vocally support reform efforts and grassroots initiatives. 

The good news is that change is happening. Ballot initiatives and legislative proposals seek to undo years of injustice. Unlikely alliances are forming across party lines and ideological positions, recognizing that the human and economic cost of these continued injustices, estimated as in excess of $80 billion a year, is not just unsustainable, but also deeply un-American 

While the window for change is open -- with so much at stake for so many -- philanthropy needs to continue working open doors of opportunity, while doing everything possible to close prison doors. Both are necessary. 


Since starting youth culture magazine “Student” at aged 16, Richard Branson has found entrepreneurial ways to drive positive change in the world.  In 2004 he established Virgin Unite, the non-profit foundation of the Virgin Group, which unites people and entrepreneurial ideas to create opportunities for a better world. Most of his time is spent building businesses that will make a positive difference in the world and working with Virgin Unite and organisations it has incubated (The Elders, The Carbon War Room, The B Team, Ocean Unite and Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship). He also serves on the Global Commission on Drug Policy and supports ocean conservation with the Ocean Elders. Connect: @virginunite@richardbranson | virgin.com/unite

Van Jones is a CNN political commentator, regularly appearing across the network’s programming and special political coverage. Jones is a Yale-educated attorney. He is the author of two New York Times best-selling books, The Green Collar Economy (2008) and Rebuild the Dream (2012). The second book chronicles his journey as an environmental and human rights activist to becoming a White House policy advisor. He was the main advocate for the Green Jobs Act. Signed into law by George W. Bush in 2007, the Green Jobs Act was the first piece of federal legislation to codify the term “green jobs.” During the Obama Administration, the legislation has resulted in $500 million in national funding for green jobs training. Van is founder of Dream Corps, Rebuild The Dream, Green For All, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Color of Change. Connect@Cut_50 | @VanJones68 | www.cut50.org