Monday, August 4, 2008

Harry Belafonte, Incarcerated Youth

A long-time civil and human rights activist, Harry Belafonte has denounced the American justice system for its "prisons filled with victims of poverty." In response to the crisis of incarcerating young people, he created The Gathering for Justice to stop child incarceration.

His many humanitarian efforts have also included serving as cultural adviser to the Peace Corps, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, amfAR board member, R.F. Kennedy Memorial for Peace and Social Justice and founding the Harry and Julie Belafonte UNCIEF Fund for HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. I saw it on a breaking television news story: Ja'eisha Scott, a five-year-old African-American child in a Saint Petersburg, Florida school being forced across a desk by three police officers, her arms pressed behind her back as they handcuffed her. It was incomprehensible, the idea that she was going to be taken to a police station for being "unruly." That was the charge, being "unruly" in the classroom! In the scene being played out on the TV screen there was no one - no teacher, no principal, no social worker to intervene on behalf of this 5 year old. In pursuing the details I telephoned one of the most informed attorneys in America on the subject, Ms Connie Rice, a poverty lawyer with a legal practice based in Washington DC called "The Advancement Project." She had already known of the case and informed me that this case was not unusual. All over America there was growing evidence that this practice of child incarceration was well on its way. My first response was to organize what I called a "Gathering of the Elders." Luminaries of the civil rights movement and community-based social organizations from all over the country came together to exchange views on why, after al the work we have done we had no engagement, no visible response to this tragic circumstance. How could this happen? We all searched for answers.

The United States of America has the largest prison population in the world. As a fact of public policy we build more prison cells than schoolrooms or health care centers. We fill these prisons with a disproportionate number of young Black and Hispanic men and women charged with nonviolent crimes. In fact according to government statistics, of the over two and a quarter million prisoners in our system, only 7% of the prisoners have been incarcerated for violent crimes such as murder, rape and armed robbery; the rest typically involved crimes related to property, drugs, immigration violations and public-order issues.
I believe that an infinitely larger number of prisoners should have been directed to social programs and/ or service agencies while they were young and provided with the opportunities for training of skills and academic engagement. Unfortunately, the lack of parenting and the absence of proper counseling in their communities and in schools around the country have forged a pipeline from the cradle to the penitentiary. To compound this tragedy, we are turning over a disturbingly large number of our prison institutions to the private sector, exploiting the labor of the inmates for the profit of special interests. This is not only unethical, it is immoral.

It became apparent that the elders, while groping for answers, could not come to workable solutions without having significant participation of the young people caught in this poverty and incarceration tragedy. We soon realized that our young should not only be taking the baton, they should be leading this movement. I began reaching out to youth leaders from various backgrounds, including those who were once lost teenagers and kids caught up in the criminal culture. The result of this undertaking created The Gathering for Justice, a movement engaging youth of all races, ethnicities and religions to end child incarceration and violence. The birth of The Gathering for Justice ignited the challenging task of embracing the Kingian philosophy of nonviolence in the building of community organizations. The purpose of the Gathering is to bring a moral voice to the table, as Doctor King, Gandhi and Christ all did. They suggested a moral argument that was irrefutable, and beckoned societies to do the right thing. This, too, is our approach.

Participants in The Gathering attend workshops studying nonviolence and its application to issues such as children being arrested, gang violence in our communities, gun control, education and unemployment. They speak directly to their concerns on what is to be done about incarceration and the closing down of our schools. We get two or three communities with different stories talking to one another and soon people begin to cross-pollinate information. When this process starts to happen on a neighborhood-to-neighborhood basis, the neighborhoods then become the city. This growth then spreads to the state, regional and national levels. So far, upwards of six thousand youth leaders from across the nation have come together, committing themselves to the aims of the Gathering.

What can you do to help? First, pull up Then go to our allies, the Children's Defense Fund, The Advancement Project, Barrios Unidos or the United Nations websites; go to any source that talks about child incarceration. Take a look at what you're doing in your community to bring citizen engagement to the table in finding solution, and ask how the rest of the country is faring in this endeavor. Could your business employ youth, even those who have a criminal background who have paid their debt to society? Will you give them the opportunity to learn new skills, develop a stronger sense of self, form bonds within communities beyond the streets and learn that they are of value and have something to offer? Our goal is community, not charity. We need to develop methodology that will help make sure young people have the choices that will take us on the right path to a positive future.

We have a responsibility to overcome the hurdles that have so dangerously inhibited our capacity to expose our young people in knowing who they are, where they come from and the history of the struggle that has brought us to where we are today. In doing so, they will become more engaged in the idea that they can affect change that will make a true and permanent difference. Ultimately, it is only through our common humanity that we can begin to heal our communities. Our human dignity is our common denominator; the one thread connecting us all. As Dr. King has said, "Either we go up together, or we go down together. Let us develop that kind of dangerous unselfishness." With this understanding, let us look upon one another with new eyes. We belong to the human family and disowning one another is not an option. Ja'eisha Scott belongs to us all. The thousands of young people behind bars belong to us all. The soul of this nation belongs to us all. For each of us who dares heed the call to action in the face of indifference, we need only ask ourselves one question, "Am I not my brother's keeper?" Launches Black Bank Initiative (BBI) For Wealth Creation, Financial Literacy, and Community Development

How many of us realize that when we deposit money in a bank we are in effect making a loan to that institution? That’s right, some of us – with only tens of dollars, are loaning money, in a sense, to a billion-dollar corporation.

As odd as it may seem, this is the case because no bank – however large or small – simply watches over your bank deposit, like a security guard, making sure no one touches your cash. In fact it is quite the opposite – a bank takes your deposit and loans or invests it, earning money – hopefully for you and them - until you need to make a withdrawal.

This fundamental understanding of what a bank actually does, is essential to understanding what a bank actually is, and why the relationship between Black America and banks must change, if economic development and growth is to occur at a level of mass prosperity.

To many in Black America, in fact for far too many – discussions of Black economic development are lost in, confused by, or strangled through ideology. Calls to action overpowered by rigid ideology and abstract intellectual debate (among other factors) have rendered previously powerful concepts and phrases like ‘buy black’ and ‘do for self,’ increasingly less potent and effective.

As a result, the science of business, the power of culture, and the principles of economics, which hold the key to improving the socioeconomic condition of millions of people are marginalized and minimized.

And cooperative economics becomes trivialized – as something to be romanticized and idealized, remembered as a history lesson, but rarely applied in a practical or relevant way.

However, every single time we deposit money in a bank we are practicing cooperative economics.

We are pooling our financial resources with people we do not even know, entrusting the proper use of that money to other individuals who we will probably never meet, in an unspoken agreement that leaves all parties involved confident that when they want their money back it will not only be available, but that it likely will be more valuable.

The simplicity of this arrangement is missed by too many of us.

And as a result some of the very same individuals in the Black community who say that we as a people are incapable of practicing cooperative economics, don’t realize that each and every one of us with a bank account is doing just that - often as part of someone else's business model.

It is with that context, and with that insight – that the bank, (with the possible exception of the family unit), is perhaps the ultimate example of cooperative economics - that we at ( are proud to launch our Black Bank Initiative for Wealth Creation, Financial Literacy, and Community Development (

Beyond promoting this cause with words, our Initiative launches with an endorsement of a product offered by a Black-owned Bank - OneUnited Bank's Unity Gold E-Savings Account:

This endorsement is the first of many more to come with interested and progressive Black-owned lending institutions.

With this Initiative we hope to not only promote cooperative economics by encouraging Black Americans to form a closer relationship with their local commercial lending institution of choice, but also we hope to re-define what the concept of a bank is, so that all of us – as members of organizations or kinship systems – families, fraternities, sororities, religious institutions, community groups, and businesses – realize that we can informally pool our financial resources in incredibly powerful ways through such vehicles as investment clubs, and rotating credit associations.

In that sense each one of us can ‘bank’ with one another turning our family reunions, conventions, and gatherings into opportunities to support and create wealth with one another through loans to those in need, investments in our most promising entrepreneurs, and funds to our longest serving small businesses.

Through formal and informal ‘banking’ the possibilities are almost endless in how we can end poverty, create wealth, and develop our communities.

The Black Bank Initiative is not seeking to become another organization, duplicating the work of others.

Our insight is that Black America has enough organizations with the right mandate, message, and membership to accomplish all that we need. We have enough leaders and followers to take care of the business at hand.

What we lack is operational unity and follow-through.

What BBI is seeking to become is a catalyst and conscience for all of those individuals and organizations who know what they should be doing to serve the Black community, economically, and are not.

Through our effort:

- We will work to promote and support efforts to educate Black Americans of all ages into a deeper understanding of finance, business and economics.

- We will encourage Black Americans to ‘bank’ with one another through vehicles and traditions like investment clubs and rotating credit and savings associations, and through forums like family reunions, conventions, and conferences.

- We will work to challenge Black Americans who currently have no relationship with a Black commercial lending institution to form one.

- We will work to encourage our Black-owned banks to provide better customer service, broader services, and more innovative services to their clients, and to become more visible agents of community development in distressed urban and rural areas.

- We will work to make the Black community aware of available and innovative products and services offered by Black commercial lending institutions.

- We will work to encourage our numerous athletes, entertainers, politicians, community leaders, and celebrities who come from the Black community to open savings and checking accounts at Black-owned banks and promote their fans and supporters to do the same.

- We will work to encourage a better and closer relationship between Black entrepreneurs and small business owners and Black-owned lending institutions.

None of the above, however can be accomplished without the individual enthusiasm, will-power, and commitment of not only the members of the ‘Business and Building’ Community, but also that of all of us who sincerely desire change for the better in our struggling communities.

There is no such thing as something for nothing, or living life on a luxury basis, without pain and sacrifice. And there will be no such thing as progress in the important areas of financial literacy, wealth creation, or community development without the same principle at work.

But through unity we have all we need to succeed.

Please get better acquainted with what we are striving to accomplish at our official website:

And let us know how we can serve and work with you.