Justice, Health and Hope in Two Kentucky Communities: Berea and Louisville

Collaborative Learning Exchange Recap

On the morning following Hasan Davis’ powerful performance of  YORK: Explorer at the Kentucky Center, Louisville Family Justice Advocates and Partners for Education, Berea College gathered for our third of four collaborative learning exchanges.  Participants included teams from Louisville and Berea who work in health, criminal justice and the arts. Some have direct experience with the impact of incarceration.  All are committed to connecting our home communities across the rural/urban divide in our state.

Learning Exchange participants meet on February 5, 2020 in Louisville, KY/Hasan Davis

Hasan co-led this exchange with Dreama Gentry Davis, the Executive Director of Partners for Education. Both served as Children and Family Fellows at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Together, they combined arts-based strategies for energizing creativity with the Casey Foundation’s powerful Results Count framework. Working together, Louisville and Berea participants spent the morning building trust and imagining and mapping  shared strategies for capacity building.

Hasan introduced us to a River of Life art-based exercise that explores the successes and challenges that inform our current place and work. Each of us drew/mapped/graphed/illustrated our own river of life on a large sheet of paper. All designs or depictions were welcomed, and everyone’s river was unique. Drawing our river became a clear and visual way to explore the currents that shape us. Sharing what we drew with each other built trust and unity; especially around the advocacy work all of the participants care so much about.

Participant shares River of Life illustration/Hasan Davis

Building on that trust and unity, Dreama presented an introduction to Casey’s Results Count framework. She challenged us to think harder about the population we are focusing on in our work, asking who is at the heart of the central goal of our organization? You must be clear about the population you are serving to build the results you want. Through careful clarifications, it became clear that our focus is children and their families with incarcerated loved ones in our community. In other words, children are at the heart of LFJA as an organization.

While building results-oriented leaders to carry out our goals, Dreama pointed to the importance of recognizing that we all operate at three different levels in our social change work: individual, role, and system. The River of Life exercise helped us understand our individual motivations and values. Next, we discussed the importance of being aware of what role we are playing, or in other words, what hat we are wearing, in any given interaction. Are we speaking as a friend, co-worker or advocate? Likewise, it is important to be clear on what system we are trying to change. For example, the criminal justice system, encompasses policing, judicial decision making, incarceration, and re-entry. 

And this artmaking and results-thinking happened all in one three-hour session! We all left more inspired and informed than when we arrived.

We witnessed: the power of art to express our deepest feeling; the importance of building trust and working in collaboration; and the importance of being clear about our role and impact at the system level. This session lived up to the title of our Collaborative Learning Exchange about justice, health and hope in each of our two communities in Kentucky.

An Equity Framework Links Children's Health to Systems of Power

The health of children and families with incarcerated loved ones in Louisville Metro is at the heart of our organization. We use a health equity framework to guide our analysis of the power systems that shape criminal justice in Louisville.

Louisville Family Justice Advocates grew out of weekly artmaking activities of The Special Project. In 2017 and 2018, the Special Project partnered with the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health & Wellbeing and Center for Health Equity to assess how an incarcerated parent affects the health of a child in Jefferson County.  This Health Impact Assessment Report shows that parental incarceration harms children’s health and disproportionately affects black children in our community. You can read the highlights of this report here.

Working together, the Special Project Team, Louisville Metro, and the Center for Health Equity developed the image of tree as a metaphor to understand an equitable framework for health.

Leaves The leaves of the tree represent visible health outcomes for individuals, such as well being or illnesses.

Roots Beneath the tree, under the ground and often out of sight, are the root causes, such as income, employment and housing, that lead to individual health outcomes.

Soil The soil which feeds the roots, represents historical and current systems of power, like racism and sexism. This shapes how people experience the root causes and contributes to overall health. 

This tree is LFJA’s framework for creating more equitable policy in our local criminal justice system.

In 2020, LFJA is focused on three criminal justice policies and practices:

1. Create art activities that decrease toxic stress and increase protective factors for children and families in the Visitors Lobby of the Louisville Metro Jail.

2. Improve visiting policies and practices in the Visitors Lobby.

3. Work with District Judges to create Family Responsibility Statements for consideration with defendants who are parents.

Using the health equity framework means LFJA must work on all three aspects: children’s individual health (leaves), root causes (roots) and systems of power (soil). Collecting and analyzing health outcomes and root cause data is essential, and understanding systems of power is equally important. Personal stories, past and present, are creative pathways to realizing how systems of power develop. Through stories, we see how individual choices are shaped by the soil and roots where they are planted.

LFJA Stories: Layfierre Mitchell, Photographer

Alleyway After Rain, Photograph by Layfierre Mitchell

He didn’t really have a childhood.

When he was a young boy, Layfierre remembers his Dad being around some. He popped in and out of his life for a while. His father had multiple run-ins with the law and was in and out of the justice system. Layfierre hardly ever saw him. At one point during his teenage years, his Dad seemed to be totally absent.

Layfierre says he didn’t really have a childhood. He was always watching his nieces and nephews. He knows that is not what his childhood years should have been like. Now he knows that many people who grew up in a single parent home often experience the same situation. As a teenager, he felt like he missed out on a lot.  Now he knows the importance of taking care of his family and being able to help them.

Layfierre didn’t finish high school due to what he calls “a communications problem about the school roster.”  He was in a predominantly white HIgh School, when the principal sent for him.  The principal told him he was not on the roster for that school, so he had to leave. 

Young black men have to be very careful

Lafayierre didn’t try to get into another school or go to college. He just stayed home and “did a lot of nothing.” When he was turning 18, he began having a lot of anxiety. Family experiences were causing him stress, so he focused on calming down. He played a lot of computer games to help him relax and took long walks at night.

 “Young black men have to be very careful if you want to have the same kind of life that others do,” he says. He believes ,“You have to put all your cards on the table if you are ever going to end the game of racial stereotyping. In the words of one of his songs, ‘I didn’t choose this life, but I am rolling with it like a rebound’.”

If your reality is someone else’s imagination, you don’t have any reality of your own.

“Music is a good way to talk about life,” he says.  He also likes writing poetry, but he doesn’t think it is as respected as an art form as Rap or Hip Hop. ”In poetry, you think about the meaning,” he points out, “in RAP you are thinking about if it sounds good.”

Now in his early 20s, Layfierre has earned his G.E.D., learned job skills and become a gifted gardener. An artist at heart, he is focusing on drawing and photography. He says when he is drawing everything slows down. He is super focused. Sometimes, he says, he can express himself better by drawing than capturing an image in a photograph.

At first, his photography was more about capturing an idea so he could remember and be inspired by it. Many of his early photographs were mainly for him, but now he creates more images for others.  Photography is his most positive artwork. He believes without it, he might have ended up being in a dark place. 

Layfierre exhibits his drawings and photographs, and he is making some sales. When asked if he thinks having an incarcerated Dad influences his art, he says people might understand his images better if they know about his background. He likes it best when viewers get their own ideas first. Then, he can explain to them. He is expressing his emotions and state of mind, so he thinks viewers knowing his story may be necessary.

One thing for sure is that he does not want to be defined by who his Dad is.  As a “Junior,” he has the same name as his Dad.  So he “has to think of him” every time he writes his own name. I don’t want to be a statistic,” he insists, “doing what my Dad is doing now.” So he is going to stay out of jail for sure.

Layfierre says some of his friends may think he is weird, but really he is claiming his own personal freedom. “If your reality is someone else’s imagination, you don’t have any reality of your own,” he says. “I mean, who do you think is going to give you the answer?”

Artmaking for Family Justice: A New Resource

Sewing Card Created for Visitors Lobby of Louisville Metro Jail
Michelle Amos, Artist

By Judi Jennings, Special Project Director

The Special Project Team is happy to provide this FREE resource for strengthening protective factors and resilience for children and youth with incarcerated loved ones! The artmaking leaders use these 12 activities, along with Sesame Street resources, every week in the Vistors Lobby of the Louisville Metro Jail, so we know children and caregivers enjoy doing them. Also all of the art are can be made with free recycled or low cost materials.

Health professionals now recognize that having an incarcerated parent is an Adverse Childhood Experience. Protective factors are especially important for the health and wellbeing of children facing these adversities.  When children can express their individual strengths and engage in social interactions incorporating protective factors, the result is dynamic forms of positive adaptations, which build resilience.  https://www.health.state.mn.us/communities/ace/resilience.html

Research on Sesame Street’s Little Children/Big Challenges: Incarceration initiative documents how artmaking can strengthen protective factors and build resilience for children with incarcerated parents. This research focuses on three groups of protective factors: 1) Circle of Care; 2) Sense of Self; and 3) Emotional Understanding and Knowledge. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/300706665_Building_Resilience_in_Young_Children_the_Sesame_Street_Way

The Mayo Clinic Health System also identifies problem-solving skills as important individual assets enabling children facing Adverse Childhood experiences to build resilience. They describe these skills as recognizing a problem, creating and choosing action steps and producing a solution https://mayoclinichealthsystem.org/adverse-childhood-experiences/problem-solving-skills-and-self-regulation.Taken together, the protective factors and problem-solving skills embodied in The Special Project art activities provide concrete supports for children and caregivers with incarcerated loved ones.

How Having an Incarcerated Parent Harms Children’s Health and What You Can Do About It

Kentucky has the second highest rate (15%) in the nation of children who have had an incarcerated parent. This rate is nearly double the national rate of 8%.

Having an incarcerated parent is an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), a form of trauma. This trauma can lead to toxic stress, which can harm health. For example, Alex, a character In Sesame Street feels sad and agnry because his father is incarcerated. I just miss him so much. Sometimes it makes me want to pound my pillow and scream. See the Health Impact Report on our research page for more information.

In Louisville, Metro, as in many cities across the country, there are significant racial and socioeconomic disparities as people of color and their children are most impacted by incarceration. Jefferson County Census data shows that while Black males age 18 and older represent only 9.2% of the population, yet this demographic group accounts for 31% of bookings and 43% of the incarcerated population at the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections in 2018. This is in sharp contrast to the more proportional representation, either in booking or in custody, of White males 18 and over in Louisville Metro.

The significant overrepresentation of incarcerated Black males creates racial disparity as Black children become significantly affected by parental incarceration. In Louisville Metro, the growing effect of parental incarceration on children’s health and wellness makes action by our community imperative and urgent.

Having an incarcerated parent does not have to be a life sentence for children in Louisville. Together, we can create a healthy future, for example, by:

  • providing trauma informed education and trainings for parents, teachers, police, judges, juvenile and corrections staffs,
  • consider alternative sentencing in District Courts for defendants who are custodial parents,
  • creating innovative practices for strengthening protective factors for children and youth with direct experiences of parental incarceration
  • developing more family friendly policies and practices in our local criminal justice systems.

SIGN UP to join our work!

Doing Family Justice in Louisville, KY

A Special Project Art Leader demonstrates how to make a Wish Doll during a community meeting.

By Judi Jennings, Director of The Special Project

Louisville Family Justice Advocates is a “new” coalition, yet it is more than two years in the making. And 10 years before that, The Special Project, a lead partner in the coalition, originated weekly artmaking sessions with families in the Visitors Lobby of the Metro Louisville Jail beginning in 2008.

Now, across the country and in our own community, more people are waking up to the devastating impact of mass incarceration.  According to the Sentencing Project, incarceration in the US increased 500% over the last 40 years. There are now 2.2 million people in our prisons and jails.  An estimated 5,749,000 children have had a parent in jail during their childhood.

Kentucky is the second highest in the nation—15%–of children who have had an incarcerated parent, nearly twice the national rate of 8%. Kentucky also has the second highest rate of female incarceration in the US. Almost 71% of females in state custody are mothers with minor children. Parental incarceration is now known to be an Adverse Childhood Experience, which can be traumatic and have lasting negative effects, such as toxic stress, on children’s health and wellbeing.

Doing social justice work on the scale and pervasiveness of mass incarceration and its impact on children can be overwhelming and may seem impossible to address.  Especially now, when communities at the local, state and national levels are polarized to the point of contesting whose realities are real.  AND when print, visual and social media outlets portray different versions of what is news and what is true.    

In the midst of this chaos and division, Louisville Family Justice Advocates is a newly emerging coalition dedicated to more fair and equitable policies and practices for families with incarcerated loved ones in Jefferson County.  Purposefully grassroots, LFJA starts with criminal justice reform from the community up, where we work face to face to reduce mass incarceration.  As a community-based coalition, we are innovating, evolving and out-right borrowing social justice principles and democratic practices to help us reclaim civic equity, empathy and reality. 

Here are four principles and practices for doing social justice we are using in these trying times:

“Nothing about us without us”

Wikipedia traces this phrase to Poland in the 1500s. Who ever used it first, it is critical for criminal justice reform today. JustLeadership USA, which includes national Fellows from Louisville, rightly stresses that people with direct experience of incarceration must lead criminal justice reform because they understand the current system first hand.

Focus on creating knowledge & solutions

With the breakdown and profiteering of news sources today, social justice organizations can help fill the gap by creating new knowledge and solutions that work at the grassroots level.

Over the last two years, the Special Project expanded its weekly artmaking activities to working for more fair and equitable policies and practices for children and families with incarcerated loved ones.  In 2018, the Special Project partnered with Metro Louisville Center for Health Equity to produce a Health Impact Assessment showing how parental incarceration harms children’s health, especially children of color, in our community. Combining research and solutions, the report recommends corrective local actions to address this urgent public health concern.

Develop & maintain a strong equity analysis

According to Nation Public Radio, the “word of the year” for 2018 was “social justice.”  Based on my personal experience, there are about as many definitions of social justice as there are people talking about it, pro and con. Social justice is a great concept, yet meaningful change requires a strong equity analysis linking individual behavior, social, economic and cultural root causes, and the systems of power that feed root causes and behavior. 

An equity framework enables comparative analysis and reveals disproportionate impacts. For example, all children may be harmed by parental incarceration. Yet, an equity lens reveals that children of color in Jefferson County are disproportionately affected because of the racial disparities in incarceration.

Practice collective impact, alignment and artmaking

Coalition is another word that carries lots of different meanings.  Clearly, a coalition involves more than one group or organization, yet often how and why of coalition work is not readily apparent. Collective impact is a strong component that requires taking time for careful alignment of goals and actions. Artmaking is a valuable tool for inspiring new ways of thinking, social connections and energetic engagement, although way too seldom taken seriously in doing justice. 

Focusing on our local criminal justice system, LFJA is working on two positive actions to directly improve the health of children with incarcerated parents: 1) a pilot program for District Court judges to consider Family Responsibility Statements when a defendant is a custodial parent: 2) making the case for improving conditions for family video visitations and consider alternative technologies and practices.

Louisville Family Justice Advocates welcomes all participants. You can get involved by emailing familyjusticeadvocates@gmail.com 

Doing justice amid chaos and division requires ordinary people to take extraordinary actions to address mass incarceration and other pressing social injustices.  The more we share strategies and develop mutual support, the more hope there is for substantive social change now.

What is Family Justice? Why Advocate?

Nikkia’s story

Nikkia’s father was in and out of jail and prison from the time she was a baby. Yet she definitely had a relationship with him. She still recalls how her mother read letters to her from her Dad when she was growing up.

Growing up—and even now in her 20s—Nikkia feels like she was always on the border. When she was in school, she was angry a lot. Yet she did well in her advanced placement classes. Her father died five days after her 17th birthday, when she was a junior in high school.  She still misses him.  Looking back now, Nikkia reflects,  “If someone had supported my Dad while he was incarcerated, he might have had a different life.”

Nikkia’s mother managed the kitchen at a local nonprofit. Nikkia says she grew up in the kitchen. She didn’t realize that culinary arts could be a career option for her, however, till later in high school.  Excelling in a program she loved, she saw that adults started showing how much they cared about her. She believes having an adult care about you is one of the biggest factors for succeeding in high school.

Nikkia says she “has had a lot of opportunities” since she graduated from high school in 2015. She apprenticed with Louisville’s nationally known chef Edward Lee, for example. Now she is working to establish a culinary arts program in a local high school. Nikkia sees herself as “really strong now.” Given the challenges she faced growing up, she says she “didn’t have a choice” except to be strong.

What is Family Justice?

The Criminal Justice system hurts families and children in our community, so it is important to recognize and work for family justice. Louisville Family Justice Advocates (LFJA) looks at how criminal justice policies and practices can harm parents and children in our own community. We work to advance family justice face-to-face with local stakeholders and decision makers.

Here is an important policy change LFJA is working on now:

A pilot program to create and test the use of Family Responsibility Statements by local District Court Judges when making sentencing decisions involving custodial parents.

When a parent is incarcerated it often means a sudden separation from children and caregivers. There is little opportunity to consider the impact on families. If the parent pleads not guilty to their charge, he or she may have to await trail for several days or even weeks.  Family Responsibility Statements would give defendants, families, prosecutors and public defenders a chance to assess and mitigate the impact of children in all decisionmaking.

Why advocate?

Because there are racial disparities in the impact of parental incarceration on children’s health in our community..

In September 2018, The Special Project, a member of the LFJA Coalition, worked with the Louisville Metro Center for Health Equity to research how parental incarceration harms children’s health in Jefferson County. The research finds significant racial disparities in the impact on children of color compared with the overall impact on all children in our community.  LFJA advocates for all children, especially those disproportionately affected by parental incarceration, to flourish and thrive.

Stay tuned for more information and opportunities to advance family justice!

Portrait of Nikkia by Lafayierre Mitchell