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Louis L. Reed in Conversation with Janos Marton and Hill Harper

As Dream Corps JUSTICE ushers in the newly appointed role of Janos Marton as National Director, actor and author Hill Harper joined Louis L. Reed to discuss the upcoming goals and priorities for the JUSTICE team.

Louis: Welcome gentlemen I am so appreciative just to be able to have two people who are very near and dear to my heart here virtually. I have been a fond admirer of Mr. Hill Harper for eons and I’ll talk a little bit about that in our conversation today, but I’m just going to first introduce myself and then I’ll pass it over to people who probably need no introduction – however, I will give them the benefit of introducing themselves as well. 

My name is Louis L. Reed, I am the Director of Organizing and Partnerships for Dream Corps JUSTICE formerly known as #cut50. Dream Corps JUSTICE is an initiative of the Dream Corps and we are co-founded by CNN political commentator Van Jones who is also the Reform Alliance CEO, and we are also co-founded by another amazing individual by the name of Jessica Jackson who happens to be the legal mentor for Kim Kardashian.

From here I will hand it over to Janos. 

Janos: Thanks so much Louis, I’m really happy having this conversation. I am the new National Director of Dream Corps JUSTICE. I am a born and raised New Yorker and I spent my career as a lawyer and an organizer working for criminal JUSTICE reform from the #CloseRikers campaign with the ACLU. I just started here last week and I’m so excited to work with the Empathy Network of directly impacted leaders to bring change at the federal and state levels for a broken criminal justice system. So really excited to be a new member of the team. 

Louis: And a man who needs probably no introduction, a face that millions if not tens of millions of households have seen in some way, shape or form – I mean, going all the way back to the days when he had blonde hair on In Too Deep – Hill Harper, you introduce yourself.

Hill Harper: All the work that you do and the commitment you’ve had to criminal justice reform is fantastic and I’m just happy to be able to have this conversation, to sit and talk.

You know, I came to this work very organically, to be quite honest. You know I wrote a book – my first book that came out was a book called Letters to a Young Brother: Manifest Your Destiny.

I got all this pushback from the publishing community, ‘cuz what they kept telling me was, you’re writing a book for young brothers, and our data says the young brothers don’t read. And I said, well your data is wrong. Young brothers read all the time, you’re just not publishing books that they’re interested in reading.

Hill Harper

We’re not going to let your systemic notion of who they are dictate what we’re going to put out. And then we put out this book and it won all these awards and did very well, and then something happened that I never anticipated; a number of judges started  assigning the book as book reports and it started working its way into mainly the juvenile system.

I started getting a lot of letters from young men and young women across the country who were involved in the system in some way another, and our lives started to become more intertwined, and ultimately all of that engagement in the work became a book called Letters to an Incarcerated Brother – working with the Innocence Project and with a number of different organizations including Dream Corps #cut50.

This is an all hands on deck issue, an all hands on deck problem, there’s a multiplicity of issues within it that requires a multiplicity of solutions, and it requires a lot of people leaning in and doing the work. I just think both of you are heroes or for the work you’re doing. I’m just happy to have this discussion.

Louis: I appreciate that, Hill. I think what you said teed us up for exactly what we’re going to go into. Just a personal point of privilege, I served nearly 14 years in federal prison. While I was incarcerated, three books were very instrumental and very integral to me recalibrating, to me discovering my inner diamond. And when I talk about my inner diamond, what I’m talking about is looking at my life retrospectively, looking at my life introspectively, and looking at my life prospectively. The first book was the Holy Bible. The second was a book by T.D. Jakes called He-motions and then there was another book (I think that you’ve probably read it before) it was Letters to an Incarcerated Brother, that book really really radically changed my life. I was talking to one of your reps about it and literally every time someone who is on the inside that we are still in contact with – both professionally and personally – has asked me for a book, that’s the first book that I put into their hands, even beyond the Bible, because I know that they have access to a Bible on the inside. 

Janos, you have personal ties that bring you to the issue of criminal justice reform. You ran for Manhattan DA, now you are the new National Director to Dream Corps JUSTICE, formerly known as #cut50. Talk to us a little bit about how it’s influential and important to be able to have influencers like Hill Harper help us springboard the notion of criminal justice reform to the larger community.

Janos: Having people like Hill involved is so important. For me, and it sounds like for you as well Hill, and certainly for you Louis, it’s experiences we had as young men that sort of shaped who we became and for a lot of people who have had contact with the criminal legal system – either themselves or through their family – we know what’s wrong with it, we know what’s broken about it, we know we need to change it; but that is not true for large percentages of the public. A lot of people don’t really understand just how awful conditions are in our jails and prisons, how twisted our parole system is, how hard it is for people to come back and be successful in society with all the baggage and collateral consequences that come with prison.

So we need to spread that message and there’s a lot of ways to do it. You can organize on the ground, that’s what I have a lot of experience doing. You can get it through popular media, but the way to reach people where they’re at is via people that they trust, people that they respect and listen to. So whenever influencers step up to the plate and elevate an issue, they’re introducing that issue to thousands if not millions of people who probably wouldn’t have otherwise heard about it. And then they start taking it in, they start doing the reading, they start going to meetings, and you can really tap them in and take them to the next level.

Hill probably doesn’t remember me because I was behind the scenes, but you did a spot for #CloseRikers a couple of years ago and that was really important to us because anybody who’s even set foot on Rikers knows it’s a horrible place, but a lot of New Yorkers had not set a foot on Rikers so it was really a combination of influencers, media, social media, and grassroots organizing that allowed us to bring the horrors of Rikers to the New York general public, get them to understand that this is a place that needs to be shut down. So there’s absolutely a whole range of people that need to be a part of change. 

 

Louis: Two years ago we were successful at being the only criminal justice reform organization – with support of a lot of other folks in the field – to get the Trump Administration to pass a bipartisan Congressional bill called the First Step Act. To date, that one bill alone has released more than 16,000 people back into our communities and when we quantify those numbers that’s more than a half a million years of human freedom restored back into our communities. 91% of those people who got released under the First Step Act due to crack cocaine are African-American.

The reason why in large part we were able to get that bill across the finish line was because of the support – specifically of the Hill Harpers of the world. Hill Harper himself, talk to us a little bit about what that meant for you – not just as a supporter of that legislation, but for you to hear those numbers fed back to you right now. How does that resonate with you? 

Hill Harper: It is so powerful. And first of all, I hope my internet connection is okay, I’m having some issues with it freezing and whatnot, so hopefully it’s good. But when I hear information like that, what it means for me is that it’s not really about the big data numbers, it’s about the one person… 

Louis: Wait, wait, I want you to hold that thought. You froze and we can’t hear you. There we go, there we go – okay, okay, here you are again…and now you’re frozen. He’ll be back in a second. Until Hill comes back in, talk to us about what being able to pass the First Step Act means to the criminal justice reform community at large, Janos. 

Janos: The First Step Act passing, you laid out how many people it helped with just the passage of the bill itself. The meaning of passing a bipartisan bill during the Trump Administration I think lends itself to so many opportunities for the future. The fact Republicans stepped up to the plate and voted yes on that, or the fact that you had a lot of people from both sides of the aisle learning about criminal justice issues really for the first time – it has been years since there have been criminal justice reform bills pass in D.C. Their members now understand the things that we’re talking about, it really just gives us so much to look forward to in this administration.

We’ve got a new Senate Majority Leader, we’ve got a Democratic House and there’s every reason to believe that we can go back in there, and, you know, they called it the First Step Act for a reason – everybody who worked on it knew that we’re going to be back building off of the successes of it, letting it go further in reform and now it doesn’t feel like we’re starting from scratch anymore. We have everybody around the country who knows what the issues are, we have people in the field pushing on certain reforms, legislators to understand what’s at stake, so I think in addition to all the individual people who help, I think it just put us in a place for even more success for years to come. 

When we talk about the First Step Act and all the different numbers, and we hear the number of folks who have been released, the most important thing to me is always that one person. It’s really not always about the aggregate, it’s about the one. You gotta remember, that one person has a family. That one person’s part of a community.

Hill Harper

Hill Harper: That one person is a part of an area, a city, a county, a state, etc. And this is what’s so critical about the work that we do and the reason why, the fact that we are 5% of the world’s population but hold 25% of the world’s incarcerated peoples is an abomination.

We have to use the words that describe this; it’s disgusting. And all of us understand as we unpack this that most of those people are actually in state prison and not in federal prison, but, the point is, is that the work has to happen in every place on every level. It has to happen locally, it has to happen statewide, and we’ve seen some real progress in different states, but the point is, there has to be (and I think there is, with these types of discussions and awareness) a mentality shift, so it’s not just about getting that one piece of legislation passed in this state; we the people, the citizens, all of us, have to be disgusted and know that this is wrong – and wrong in ways that have ripped families and communities to shreds.

Unless we see it that way, we’re going to continue to fight for incremental change. And this is why I love Dream Corps JUSTICE, I love it, because this is about justice. Amanda Gorman in her speech the other day on the inauguration talked about justice and if it’s “just us” or “justice”, what is it? It’s all of us being involved in creating justice for all of us. If we actually do this work, and those of us use all the assets that Janos was talking about in our individual disposal, we can see massive change quite quickly. This is truly a movement that has gotten overshadowed by a horrific pandemic and many other things, but now is certainly the time for us to reshine a light.

Louis: I’ve never met an influencer who has such a command of data, such a fluency of understanding around our criminal justice system. I think that Hill, you bring us into what we are going to be talking about next. You talked about the beautiful light of a young sister, Amanda, who spoke about whether it’s “justice” or “just us”. Janos, let me pivot to you very quickly: what does the newly ushered Biden Administration – two days in office – what does it mean to the criminal justice reform movement? What does it mean for leadership as it relates to those who are advocating for change, and what issues matter most to you as it relates to priorities?

Janos: I think of Dream Corps JUSTICE’s work moving forward as being really focused on three things: how can we keep people from winding up in prison in the first place, how can we change conditions in prisons so that they’re less horrible, and how can we get people home from prison quicker.

There are bills that are at the federal level that apply to all three of those things that we’re going to be working on. For people who don’t know, about 10% of people who are in prison across the United States are in the federal system, so that’s a lot of people who we can help out with the legislation we’re going to be working on. Beyond that, there are also bills that are going to be focused on incentivizing states to change their policies.

So it’s the reverse of what happened in the 90s, where a lot of policies at the federal level incentivized punitive behavior, it gave more money for police, for prisons, and gave money to states that enacted harsher laws. We have the opportunity to actually do the opposite with some of the legislation that’s being proposed now and really push money down to the states to figure out alternatives to incarceration.

So that’s why I’m really excited about the work that we have ahead. When we’re talking about federal work, that means anybody in the United States can help us – ’cuz you all have a member of Congress, you all have a senator. So anybody really who wants to help us on this effort as we dive ahead in the next few months, we have so many opportunities to take advantage of this new administration, to pass a variety of laws that are going to help people who are in prison now, and make sure fewer people wind up in prison in the future. 

 

Louis: So Hill, we asked Janos about the “what”. What’s your “why”? What drives you? You haven’t been incarcerated – last Google told me [laughs]. What’s your why?

Hill Harper: Don’t try to jinx me over here!

Louis: Heaven forbid! But what’s your why, and how is your why connected to the what that Janos just talked about?

Hill Harper: The “why” goes simply to people. The people I have had an opportunity to meet and the letters that I’ve gotten, and the folks I talk to on the phone – multiple times a week, I’m speaking to someone on the phone who is incarcerated because we’ve developed a relationship, and we’ve developed a connection. And listening to what Janos has to say – he’s so on point – I’ll add to that from the standpoint of 80% of the folks who are incarcerated are gonna be out within the next eight years; the problem is, the majority end up going back and usually they’re going back on some technical BS. It’s not because of something they actually did.

And so, there are so many things wrong, that the “why” is: as soon as you’re aware of it, if you don’t feel like you’re gonna get involved, then you don’t have a heart, because you start to realize how much injustice is involved in this systemically. The “why” is, if you have a heart, if you care, one of my favorite quotes in the world, is a quote by Bobby Kennedy, where he said, “the future does not belong to those who are fearful of bold projects and new ideas, but rather the future belongs to those who can blend passion, reason, and courage, into a personal commitment to the great ideas and enterprise of American society.” And those words: passion, reason, courage – in French “cour” means “heart”.

Louis: My grandma used to quote something all the time, that irrespective of your theological orientation, or your political persuasion, I think that the principles are transferable: Jesus said, “Whatsoever that you did unto the least of these, those individuals who have been imprisoned, those individuals who are the marginalized, those individuals who are the so called ‘outcasts’ of society, you did so unto me.”

As you talk about the heart of the matter, it pierces what it is we do at Dream Corps JUSTICE as it relates to our theory of change being legislation through humanization. I want Janos to talk about that just a little bit as it relates to how it is that we get the work done. If you could talk to us a little bit about what the Empathy Network is, and if you can talk about our theory of change and how we use the voices of those people who are closest to the problem who are also closest to the solution but furthest from resources and power, like how our good friend Glenn E. Martin likes to say. 

Janos: Absolutely, you said the quote, it anchors our work, “those closest to the problem are closest to the solution.” When we talk about large broken systems that have been oppressing people for hundreds of years, there is no one fix to it, we’re going to have to change a lot of things over the next number of years.

Who better to shape and influence the direction it takes than the actual people who have lived through those experiences, know what’s broken about our prison system, know what’s broken about our parole system, sentencing, bail, these are all things that you can read about, you can study, but it’s different to live it.

Janos Marton, Dream Corps JUSTICE, National Director

And that’s why the Empathy Network really anchors the way we do our organizing work. We have thousands of people across the United States who are involved with us, we have 40 of them who are going to be leading our Day of Empathy on March 2nd, which is going to be happening in 40 states across the country, events that lift up the stories and experiences of people who have been harmed by the system and ideas and solutions for how to change it.

I’ve been doing this work for a long time and centering people who are directly impacted is the morally right thing to do, because they are the people who have been touched by the system and have most directly felt it. It’s also the most successful way to organize because when you’re in a room with a legislator, when you’re in a room with the governor or mayor, I’ve never been in a room with the president, I know you probably have Louis, but you know, the people who have been the most directly impacted are able to connect in a way that people who may know the issue really well simply are not able to. So to me, centering people who are directly impacted’s leadership is not only the morally right thing to do, but it’s also the most effective way to enact change.

So that’s the core organizing strategy of what we’re doing at Dream Corps JUSTICE, and the Empathy Network is the path to doing that. 

Louis: Mr. Hill Harper, I know that we are just about close on time. Talk to us a little about legislation through humanization. Why is empathy important to you? We know that you’re going to be participating in the national Day of Empathy, why is empathy so important to you now? Especially considering what happened to weeks ago at the Capitol, what has happened in Minneapolis on that May afternoon in 2020, what happened in Louisville, KY with Breonna Taylor, what happened in a parking lot of Atlanta, GA with Rayshard Brooks, what happened in the suburb of Atlanta, talk to us about why it is that we need empathy in our hearts and need to be exercising empathy within our communities. 

Hill Harper: You just said that so eloquently. We have to be there for each other, y’all. That’s just it. I’ve started, personally, an ethos that I call the ethos of yes. Someone asks for something, the answer is presumptively, yes, because we have to support each other. And, the idea that we’re all on our individual path is just not true. Dr. King said “we’re all tied together in a single garment of mutual destiny,” and it’s so true! All of these events that you just mentioned show that.

The incredible thing about last year is that so many people came together with boots on the ground, to demand justice, to fight and say, we have a voice, we have agency.

Hill Harper

And that level of activism is the greatest level of activism that this country has ever seen. That activism needs to continue into specific areas where there is grave injustice, and certainly, certainly, our criminal justice reform and the work around incarcerated peoples is at the top – tip top – of that list. So when we talk about empathy, to me, what we’re really talking about is opening your heart and being there for somebody else, and what does that look like? Can you actually expand that degree of how many people you’re there for?

If you think about empathy as a little ball, can you say, oh, I’m very empathetic toward my kids, and I’m very empathetic toward my friends and my neighbors, but what happens if I actually expand that ball of empathy to people that aren’t connected to my friends and neighbors? And then, maybe to people that are connected to the people that i interact with at service places, at the grocery store, at the mall or at the gas station, and then – and you can keep expanding those layers of empathy to say hey, everybody you see or run into, or even see on social media, they’re going through something or they’re connected to someone who’s going through something. I can be there for them. And in what way can you show up?

And to me, just asking yourself those questions, the answers are here. The universe gave them already. God gives them to us already. It’s just us getting out of our own fear bases and acting on them. 

Louis: You know, as you talked about that, I thought about the good Samaritan. All of us have been on the Jericho road in some way shape or form – all of us have been hurting, and all of us have had the opportunity to help somebody else, and what made the good Samaritan good, is when you exegete that story for a second, is that, the individual who had access to resources, who had access to power, who had access to power and to affluence and influence, he got off of his place of privilege, and he got down and he got touched by the feelings of the infirmity of the individual who was hurting. And that is what we call empathy in action.

I am so appreciative of Janos Marton, our new leader at Dream Corps JUSTICE, I am exceptionally more appreciative of Mr. Hill Harper, who essentially met me when I was in a federal prison cell in Raybrook, New York, on my bunk, and his book, Letters to an Incarcerated Brother, was a pistol for me of the sort, to allow me to recalibrate my life, transform my mind, and really open my heart up to be more empathetic and to think about life differently.

I would be remiss to not talk about how people can get involved in the work that we are doing at Dream Corps JUSTICE. It’s very simple. You heard Janos talk about the National Day of Empathy, you heard us plug that Hill was going to be a part of the National Day of Empathy, how can you get involved?

Simple. All you have to do is text the word EMPATHY to 97483. You text the word EMPATHY to 97483, you are going to stay connected with Mr. Hill Harper, you will stay connected under the leadership of Janos Marton, and you will essentially be rockin’ with the best. This is Louis L. Reed, Janos Marton, Hill Harper, thank you both my brothers for being on. 

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