The Charleston Area Justice Ministry, 30 congregations strong, is becoming increasingly activist in going up against social injustice in the region. Created five years ago, it targets inequality in education, employment, housing, health care and criminal justice, including incarceration, among other areas.. CAJM's strategy is inspired by the Old Testament lesson of Nehemiah, the cup-bearer to the King of Persia who became the prophet who led the rebuilding of the Wall of Jerusalem in 52 days through a combination of prayer and a mass but decentralized program of construction.
Beyond Catfish Row had this recent virtual talk with CAJM staff, including Lead Organizer Treva Williams, about the Ministry's mission and its objectives in 2016:
How serious of an issue is inequality for blacks and other minorities in Charleston, according to CAJM?
Very serious. In the past 3 ½ years, CAJM has worked on multiple community problems. All of the areas in which we have worked have shown wide disparities and inequities. Inequities exist in the education system, criminal justice system and economic system just to name a few.
Is the trend line in progress on closing racial gaps heading upward or down?
We have not seen any data that shows that the gaps are closing. In many areas (educational performance, incarceration, unemployment, household income) those gaps are widening. However, more than ever, as a community we seem to be open to wrestling with these gaps and the reasons they exist. Being able to truthfully acknowledge that these gaps exist because of racism and white privilege allows us as a community to change policies and practices in order to close those gaps.
What areas in racial inequality is CAJM focusing on in 2016?
We are focusing on racial discrimination within policing practices. Hundreds of stories came out of our house meeting process about police harassment in predominantly black neighborhoods. We are in the process of researching the police practices of pretext or investigatory stops that have been shown to increase racial profiling. North Charleston and Charleston lead the State of South Carolina with the numbers of pretext stops. The use of pretext stops has been shown to erode community trust since officers stop individuals for minor traffic violations for the sole purpose of trying to uncover evidence of additional criminal activity. While only a small percentage of individuals actually commit the crimes in those neighborhoods, the entire community is treated as potential suspects, destroying community and police relations. We are also focusing on school based arrests. Over 50% of juvenile arrests are coming from within our school system and the majority of those arrests are of black youth. Arresting a kid in school for non-violent offenses tends to be detrimental to the student, school and community and further enforces the school to prison pipeline.
Are you seeing interest from more congregations as potential members of CAJM?
There has always seemed to be a strong interest for being a part of CAJM. However over the past year, there does seem to be more individuals willing to put in the time to push their congregations to join in the work.
Blacks students in high-poverty neighborhoods in Charleston and North Charleston are lagging academically far behind white students. CAJM has attended meetings of the recently formed Excellent Education for All Students of Charleston County schools. Does CAJM support the major education reforms that the group is discussing?
CAJM will always support the use of best practices that are made available to ALL students. It is very likely that major reforms are needed. However, there are a lot of best practices that could be implemented now in the current system that could transform the outcomes and experiences for many students of color.
Is CAJM happy with progress from the work it's been doing to reduce student suspensions and the incarceration of teenagers for non-felonious offenses?
While we are happy with the progress, we recognize that there is much more work that is needed to be done. There are still kids being locked up because there wasn’t a parent in which to release them. There are still students being locked up for status offenses like truancy and running away. While suspension rates are dropping there are still schools who have not embraced the use of Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports and Restorative Practices.
What is CAJM's message to worshipers whose congregations are not members of CAJM? If they want to see more action on racial equality, what can and should they do as worshipers, especially if they're not hearings messages of action from their pastors and other congregation leaders?
CAJM has three full time organizers on staff ready to meet with clergy and lay leaders who are interested in working on problems that impact racial equality. Our success as an organization is directly connected to our power of people. We are always working to engage more people. More people involved means more people are educated about the problems in Charleston County, the best practices to address those problems and with that growing power of people, we are able to show our public officials what we want for our community.