Across the country, racial justice organizers and advocates are turning the tide of the failed, racially biased War on Drugs by changing laws to reduce mass incarceration. This is a growing, vibrant movement, primarily led by people of color and by those who have experienced incarceration first hand.
It’s time for the vast array of children’s advocacy groups to join this movement in a more visible and assertive way. It’s time for those who advocate for preschool expansions, for children’s health insurance and for public education to get with it. It’s time.
Mass incarceration is a kids’ issue.
Mass incarceration has hurt kids in a profound way. It has been a major driver of generational family poverty; it has caused kids to grow up without a parent; it is a source of shame, humiliation and stigma. It is a source of lasting trauma.
According to the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated:
An Education Week article summarized the impact:
Studies show that parental incarceration can be more traumatic to students than even a parent’s death or divorce, and the damage it can cause to student’s education, health and social relationships puts them at higher risk of one day going to prison themselves.
As with mass incarceration, the African American community is bearing the brunt of this trauma. Yale University found that one-quarter of black children born in 1990 had a parent in jail or prison by the time the child was fourteen.
The War on Drugs has been a War on Black Children.
Latino families have also been disproportionately impacted and have experienced a collusion between the drug war and anti-immigrant deportation policies. Kids can be separated long term from a parent who is arrested on a minor drug charge and then deported.
In my experience, children’s advocacy groups are typically white-led, while the racial justice movement is led by people of color. This may explain why many children’s advocacy groups have yet to take a clear and consistent stand in support of ending mass incarceration. Those of us who are white, including myself, are distant from the problem.
It’s time for us to get behind and support those leading the way; it’s time to endorse the bills and the ballot measures and to put time and resources into educating the huge base of white children’s advocates about this issue.
One big step forward in the campaign to reduce mass incarceration is to decriminalize marijuana. Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow notes that arrests for marijuana possession account for nearly 80% of the increase in drug arrests in the 1990’s. 
Thousands of kids have lost their parents to prison simply for marijuana possession. That has to stop.
A terrific documentary Invisible Bars has just been released that illustrates these issues. See the trailer here.
 Sarah D. Sparks, “Parents’ Incarceration Takes Toll on Children, Studies Say,” Education Week (February 24, 2015).
 The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, (New York: The New Press, 2012), 60.
In their new book on the Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything, Becky Bond and Zack Exley tell some great stories about their volunteer-driven campaign strategy and in doing so lift up “rules for revolutionaries.”
The most salient rule is “The revolution will not be staffed.”
During the Bernie campaign, Zach and Becky held a fundamental belief that people, when given the opportunity, the respect and the structure, would step forward, act on their values, and would become a driving force in campaigns at the highest levels. They challenge us to face the truth that “There will never be enough money to pay all the organizers the revolution needs.”
Becky and Zach share how their strategies evolved over time and how they turned more and more of the campaign over to volunteer leaders, including having volunteers organize phone banks, teach each other how to organize and to run the campaign’s technology.
“Most of the hard work will be done by teams.”
In the Bernie campaign, volunteers built thousands of teams across the country and through those teams, people held one another accountable to getting the hard work done. In the middle of most teams was a not a paid staffer, but rather a volunteer.
“The revolution is not just bottom up; it’s peer to peer.”
In a peer to peer strategy, the organizing grows exponentially because the dynamic goes beyond the usual “organizer to volunteer” dynamic to “volunteer to volunteer.” Once volunteers are recruiting their friends, family members, and co-workers in a structured way, then the math really takes off, beyond addition to multiplication.
“Give away your passwords.”
The book is stocked with examples of how technology can support the creation of teams and the capacity of volunteers to recruit and build relationships with one another. But to grow exponentially the paid staff have to give up a degree of control and provide volunteers with access to campaign technology.
While I believe the book overall makes a real contribution to our thinking and know-how about grassroots campaigns, I do have a few bones to pick with the authors.
The writers recognize that the Bernie campaign failed to focus on race and multi-racial leadership, and they stress the importance of grounding a campaign in a racial equity perspective. But while they offer this recognition, they do not integrate this perspective in their strategies and thus remain at a superficial level throughout the text.
In addition, there were several parts of the book in which I felt the authors overstated their case and were dismissive and uninformed regarding other organizing experiences. At times they skimmed along the surface of topics that required more time and analysis. It’s easy to use dichotomies to make your case (in their case, “big verses small,” “new verses old”), but binary thinking is simplistic and doesn’t really contribute to a deeper understanding of the field.
Becky Bond and Zach Exley, Rules for Revolutionaries:How Big Organizing Can Change Everything (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016).
Jim Keddy assists social change organizations in growing their capacities in community organizing, advocacy, policy analysis and development, organizational growth and fundraising.