Cultivating conversations that impact communities across the nation is a hallmark of Lipscomb University’s College of Leadership & Public Service.
The college’s Fred D. Gray Institute for Law, Justice & Society is a place that fosters these conversations as it engages its students in significant dialogue from a justice and civic change point of view.
On Nov. 26, the Fred D. Gray Institute convened conversations examining criminal justice reform and the influence mass incarceration has had on marginalized communities. The conversation featured Marc A. Levin, vice president of the criminal justice program for the Texas Public Policy Foundation (which he founded in 2005) and Right on Crime, and Udi Ofer, deputy national political director for the ACLU and director of the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice, which is dedicated to ending mass incarceration in the United States. The pair examined the very timely topic at the third annual Evening with the Fred D. Gray Institute for Law, Justice & Society.
A crowd of more than 200 patrons of the college, including Gray, judges, attorneys, elected officials and other community leaders joined the Lipscomb community for the special conversation. Judge Sheila Calloway, juvenile court judge for Nashville and Davidson County, moderated the discussion, which took place in one of Nashville’s most unique venues, the 21c Museum Hotel. From its commitment to sustainability to its exhibits centered around America’s history with race, the venue served as a reflection of the College of Leadership & Public Service’s mission.
“It is so important for this college to focus on these issues,” said Lipscomb President L. Randolph Lowry. “Sometimes in that focus it’s not easy and sometimes those issues stretch and push us. But this is a college that is doing important things for this community. We are deeply honored that Udi Ofer and Marc Levin joined us to discuss recent legal victories and policy changes that have effectively led to declines in crime and incarceration as well as explore varied legislative and advocacy strategies meant to challenge the criminal justice system in this very important conversation.”
When discussing ways to bring more attention to America’s mass incarceration problem, Levin notes that criminal justice reform often centers around the cost to communities.
“Saving money is the appetizer that brings people to the table (for a discussion),” said Levin. “But the main course is public safety, keeping families together, redemption, getting people back into the workforce.”
He notes an increased interest from the business community to employ those who have criminal records or who have been to prison.
“We still have a lot more to do,” Levin said, “but I think there are a lot of reasons why criminal justice reform is taking off. It taps into people’s values that are pretty universal about the fact that people can change. The person they were years ago is not the same person they are today. The tangible results are also part of it.”
Though helping people successfully re-enter into society after incarceration is a priority for activists on both sides of the aisle, Ofer says he considers himself “the prison breaker.”
“I consider success by the number of people we got out of prison or jail or how many people we prevented from going there in the first place,” he admitted. “The goal of 50 percent de-carceration is an incredibly audacious goal. I will say the day we launch that goal, we will then launch a new 50 percent de-carceration.”
Levin suggested an examination of the pre-trial system is a place where reform can begin.
“I am a realist. There are people who need to be incarcerated to protect the community,” said Levin. “So, we do need prisons. But they need to operate much differently than they do now. However, we have gone way too far in locking people up who aren’t a danger to society. We also need to look at judgment systems like probation.”
But Ofer encouraged the audience to think of the human element when considering this issue.
“Changing hearts and changing culture is a place to begin,” Ofer offered. “One of the things that excites me the most about the movement right now is that we are elevating the leadership and the voices of those currently or formerly incarcerated. When you begin to humanize the issue, it helps people relate and understand it in a different way.”
The discussion was a part of a larger goal for the event, which exists to honor Gray’s legacy and further development for the Fred D. Gray Scholars program.
Steve Joiner, dean of the College of Leadership & Public Service, recognized Gray and his contributions to the civil rights movement and social change. He also this year’s scholarship recipients are Grant Brown, Katherine Climaco, Kristiane Higgs and Paulina Martinez.
“We are honored to have your name associated with our Institute for Law, Justice & Society,” said Joiner. “The College of Leadership & Public Service understands that to live in a just world requires those with the skills and knowledge to make cities work. Our greatest goal is to produce others like Dr. Gray, and that is why we encourage future leaders through the Fred D. Gray Scholars program.”
Senior Madison White spoke on behalf of the scholars.
“The Fred D. Gray Institute for Law, Justice & Society is a place that not only allows students to ask difficult questions, but actually expects them to,” said White. “It’s a place where students are taught to wrestle with discomfort and to critically evaluate their beliefs on complex issues. We are never told what to think, but we are trained in how to think.”
Climaco also shared thoughts on how the scholarship has had an impact on her life.
“Dr. Gray embodies the true definition of leadership,” said Climaco. “His career has focused on representing marginalized people who have not always had the funds to pay for legal assistance. My dream is to follow his path in helping other people in my community who cannot afford legal representation. My plan is to one day become an attorney who, like Dr. Gray, seeks justice for all people. On behalf of myself and all recipients of the Fred D. Gray Scholarship, thank you.”
Randy Spivey, academic director of the Fred D. Gray Institute, told attendees “It is important that the students here tonight see that conversations like this are important to you. The conversation like this one tonight is an extension of our classrooms. It’s an extension of Mr. Gray’s story. It is an extension of that story that hopefulness and determination will lead to equality and justice. The conversations we have with our students are about seeking systemic and sustainable solutions. I’m excited that tonight you get to be part of that extended classroom in the conversations we have here.”
Housed in Lipscomb University’s College of Leadership & Public Service, the Fred D. Gray Institute for Law, Justice & Society is based on the idea that legal change is one of the surest means to effect social change. Here, students consider America’s legal system from a multidisciplinary perspective to get a fuller understanding of its mechanisms, practice and consequences. The institute is home to an undergraduate major that focuses on socio-legal issues in order to encourage critical thinking, good writing and a passion for justice. The program prepares students for law school, public policy or governmental work, and work with nonprofits. Students, faculty and mentors examine how law and society work together and how justice is built in the midst of that. In addition to the academic work of LJS, the institute has hosted conversations involving immigration, human trafficking, Christian/Muslim/Jewish relations and health care for low-income families. As part of the institute’s involvement in the legal community, LJS partners with the Tennessee Bar Association to host a summer Law Camp for high school students interested in a career in the legal field.
Lipscomb University’s Fred D. Gray Institute for Law, Justice & Society is committed to convening conversations about issues that are significant to our community. Over the past three years, Lipscomb’s College of Leadership & Public Service has convened community discussions on transit, offered free legal clinics and a law camp for local high school students and educated graduate and undergraduate students to serve the needs of our diverse, growing community. Additionally, the college led city-wide conversations about equity and race in support of a mayoral initiative, and continues to lead key entities in the city and state through difficult cultural and organizational issues.