The Learning Journey Never Ends
We are firm believers in the idea that if you really want to learn something, you must first admit how much you don’t know. Back in December 2015, a bunch of us traveled to Greensboro, NC, to learn more about racial justice and equality. It was the start of an important learning journey, a journey that recently took more than 20 of us from Ben & Jerry’s and the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation to Oakland, CA, to learn about the criminal justice system and mass incarceration.
Ben & Jerry’s, as you may know, is located in Vermont, and Vermont is one of the whitest states in the union. We like to think of ourselves as progressive and fair up here, but the truth is that we have a lot of work to do. The Ben & Jerry’s workforce, we should be clear, is also predominantly white. So we know there’s a LOT we don’t know about racism and racial justice.
We also know that white people can’t learn all that much about racism by talking to other white people in a majority white state. So, inspired by our visit to Greensboro, we’ve started working with partners like Demos, Color of Change, Dream Defenders, and the North Carolina NAACP to learn about and take action on systemic racism, the criminal justice system, segregated schools, the disenfranchisement of felons, and other critical issues.
Hitting the Road
Earlier this year, the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation organized this trip to Oakland, California to continue our learning journey. We couldn’t wait to get out to Oakland, meet new people, and learn new things. We had three goals for the trip:
- Educate ourselves about the major historical and systemic issues that shape the criminal justice system in California and by extension, the rest of the US.
- Come to a better understanding, through a local lens, of how criminalization and mass incarceration affects communities of color and learn about the work being done to advance solutions.
- Develop a deeper appreciation for the rich legacy of resistance and grassroots activism in the Bay Area—from the Black Panthers to the work being done today.
- Learn immersively and interactively about these issues through site visits and meeting and talking with local leaders and activists doing the work in impacted communities.
We came away profoundly moved and inspired by the people we met from local Bay Area groups, like Planting Justice, Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ), the Essie Justice Group, and others.
What We Learned
For some of us, what we learned in Oakland confirmed what we already knew or suspected about racism in the criminal justice system. For others, it was a powerfully eye-opening experience that highlighted the degree to which our privilege had shielded us from this issue.
Beth, Senior Administrator of Retail Operations and a member of the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation Employee Grantmaking Committee, told us afterward about some of the facts she learned that had really surprised her:
- The US spends $80 billion a year on incarceration.
- Blacks are ten times more likely to be jailed than whites for drug offenses (even though five times more whites are using drugs).
- Many prisons are removing visiting rooms in favor pay-per-minute video terminals.
- California is looking to build more jails, even as its prison population declines.
All this is bad enough. But now that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is seeking to reverse the Obama Administration’s notably sane policies toward federal sentencing guidelines, it’s all the more critical for us to learn all we can about the injustice in our criminal justice system and speak up for what’s right.
“Everybody Deserves a Chance”
It’s easy, and important, to focus on the (quite bleak) facts and figures. But we came away from this trip feeling more hopeful than we’d ever expected. When we spoke to the workers that Planting Justice hired (at a living wage, with full health insurance) right out of prison to help grow gardens for underserved communities, everyone in the room wound up crying. One man said, through tears, “I didn’t even know you could grow food. Where I grew up, vegetables came out of a can.”
And we can’t stop thinking about something we heard just about everywhere: “Everybody deserves a chance.”
We encountered so many people working hard to make that happen. The Essie Justice Group, for example, empowers women of color who have loved ones in prison. These women have too often been left to fend for themselves, stigmatized and lacking resources. But the Essie Justice Group has brought them together, advocating for their needs and fighting to end mass incarceration.
“Every single one of these groups,” Beth told us, “has hope for change and they’re trying to make it better every single day. ‘We have to keep fighting,’ they say. ‘Don’t stop fighting for what’s right and what you believe.’”
The Journey Forward
We left feeling grateful for every single moment we spent in Oakland. And we remain grateful for the time everyone took to meet with us and tell us their stories. We know that challenges remain, that gentrification, even as we speak, is pushing some of these organizations out of the neighborhoods they serve. But we also saw beautiful murals on buildings throughout the city that spoke to the pride these communities take in all they’ve accomplished—and to the hope they have for a more fair and just future.
There was one experience in particular that we’ll never be able to forget. As a night of good food and good conversation with members of CURYJ and Black Organizing Project wound down, it was announced that before we all left, everyone in the room would hug everybody else. There were at least 60 people there! At first, most of the Ben & Jerry’s team was shy, somewhat reluctantly leaning in for a light and quick embrace. But by the end of the experience, we were hugging each other as if we were old friends. Barriers had been broken down. Distances bridged. Cultures joined. A bond of common humanity and purpose permanently sealed.
Thank you, Oakland. It’s more clear to us than it ever has been that if we stand together, we can change the world.