Behind the stand, six poster boards cover the wall. They are collaged with vibrant magazine cut-outs and bold hand drawn words — out of place in this setting of law and formality. Almost all of the players are in position: lawyer, parole officer, bailiff, non-attorney guardian ad litem, an audience of John Lewis Fellows filling the wooden stands. Judge Turner’s juvenile courtroom is now in session.
I anticipated a code of conduct like that of the courtrooms I have previously witnessed alongside my family and our limited navigations through the criminal-legal system: depersonalized, tense, and un- naturally constructed. Here, people’s fates are often but a task to complete on a daily checklist of to- dos.
Our Monday morning in Judge Turner’s place of work, however, unfolds quickly as something differ- ent. With each juvenile offender — child — who comes into this room and faces the judge, a bigger story of systemic understanding is given space to breathe. We are witnessing the exception to the rule… a glimpse into how things should be.
The poster boards behind the judge which immediately caught my attention are soon explained as “vision boards.” These were assigned to juvenile offenders as a process to imagine a world beyond their own. Judge Turner encourages the children she encounters to think not just about what they want in life, but exactly who they want to be. A mother smiles and points out her son’s vision board on the wall during his probation hearing. It is decorated with imagery which references living a healthy lifestyle, playing sports, driving a nice car, feeling happy, and making a positive impact on the world. When we ask Judge Turner about the vision boards, it becomes clear how the craft fits into the grand scheme of her practice. With every case, she naturally engages children in conversation about their plans, their school, their goals, and even gives an abridged motivational speech of sorts. She knows that each child is so much more than the worst thing they have done in their lives.
We are witnessing the exception to the rule… a glimpse into how things should be.
This is her choice, not her job description. The code of conduct is caring, but not condescending. When a child returns to her courtroom, she can refer to them in the context of their personhood — not their crime. When a juvenile makes progress, she ends their hearing with a congratulatory handshake or hug, not a dangerous dismissal of their efforts.
Amidst a system designed to kill the soul, I am grateful to witness radical humanization in action.
In our fight for collective liberation, optimism is often a point of contention. There have been moments when I and many others view “hope” as naivety (at best) and a buzzword (at worst) in the context of mass suffering perpetuated at the hand of man. Yet today, I am proudly claiming the fact that hope has become a central practice of mine, in spite of what presents as endless despair. This Fellowship has been critical in helping me understand not only the importance of “keeping the faith,” but why it is in fact my personal responsibility to be audaciously optimistic at the prospect of a better society.
Though I could not articulate it at the time, hope was the palpable energy of community members that confused and energized me while I bore witness to daily dehumanization.
“Hopelessness” has been the sentiment expressed by many of our most inspiring guests throughout this month. For example, Dr. Carole Anderson layered our collective understanding of voter suppression as extremely embedded in law. I was surprised, then, that I found ironic comfort in the recognition that hundreds of years of active injustice are man-made, and therefore can only be man-undone. Civil rights attorney Gary Spencer similarly analyzed the current state of our racist criminal (in)justice system as unequivocally hopeless. Again, despite this analysis his lecture inspired me with just a glimpse of an alternative future, when he paired a message of despair with incremental evidence of progress.
In the context of our rigorous human and civil rights education, I am reminded of the brief time I spent in occupied Palestine. Though I could not articulate it at the time, hope was the palpable energy of community members that confused and energized me while I bore witness to daily dehumanization. Every day in this Fellowship, I also think of my friends who are incarcerated, and the role that they play in resisting the paradigm of oppression. That is — as Professor Ward Churchill articulated — a paradigm that must be refused if we are serious about this thing called liberation. Though the incarcerated individuals I know face every imaginable barrier to an existence of agency, many yield hope as a subversive tool. Many have also been condemned to live out the rest of their existence as incarcerated people, isolated from society.
Who the hell am I to write off hope as a frivolous exercise of the blindly optimistic?
My friend Sandra, a fellow from war torn Bosnia and Herzegovina, articulated that with war, there is always an end in sight. With mass incarceration, that end isn’t so obvious. This framing scared me more than I anticipated and left me grasping hopelessness as a natural pathway. But as I sit here writing this reflection today, I see that ugly pity has existed in the back of my mind for individuals experiencing incarceration, and I have never fully valued their undying hope as legitimate. To lose the faith now is an affront to their humanity, because if they can hold both hope and despair, I must too.
More directly, who the hell am I to write off hope as a frivolous exercise of the blindly optimistic? People are experts in their own reality: if they make the choice to believe in a better tomorrow, no statistics that I intellectualize can undermine that decision. In the quest for true self-determination, hope is more radically powerful than I have ever considered. As Dr. Deborah Richardson reminded me most directly, “this is not about us, but something bigger.”
The human capacity for hope is not just a thing of beauty, but actually critical to our interwoven struggles.
The price of liberty is indeed eternal vigilance. The John Lewis Fellowship has been central to my understanding that we are allowed to mourn and must constantly critique, but hopelessness ends the fight. My role in our community is to supply hope so that fighting is a little easier. In other words, I am allowing my heart to ache and letting it push me forward.
Each day in Atlanta has provided me with contradictions and realizations, internal struggle and collective grappling, pain of facing history and a joy of understanding victories. The human capacity for hope is not just a thing of beauty, but actually critical to our interwoven struggles. Today and everyday forward, I am keeping the faith.