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2015 Spring Seminar Recap

For the last 48 years, the Unitarian-Universalist United Nations Office has hosted annual Spring Seminars on pressing social, economic, and political issues. Participants in these seminars learn about a topic and are also asked to consider their own connections to the issue and develop the capacity to take action on behalf of meaningful change. This year's seminar, "International Criminal Justice: From Punitive to Restorative," detailed the myriad flaws of the punitive model of criminal justice and called on all attendees to work for a more just system. In this post we hope to share some of what we learned and experienced during the seminar. UU-UNO Director Bruce Knotts opened the seminar with a stirring invocation of the memory of Unitarian-Universalist civil rights martyr Viola Liuzzo, who was killed while fighting for equal voting rights by members of the Klu Klux Klan. America no longer has laws that take away rights on an explicitly racial basis, but it does have a criminal justice system that in more ways than one emulates the infamous Jim Crow system of oppression. By remembering the strength and courage of those who have fought for civil rights, while drawing upon our own conviction and determination we can help make the "New Jim Crow" history. UU-UNO Director Bruce Knotts kicks off the seminar After the introductory remarks, attendees introduced themselves to other members of their collaboration groups through an icebreaker. The first panel of the day was an overview of the numerous problems facing the American criminal justice system. Scott Paltrowitz hammered home the inhumanity of solitary confinement as it is practiced in the American criminal justice system. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has declared that more than fifteen days of solitary confinement is inhumane, but in America there are prisoners who have spent decades in solitary confinement. Reverend Anthony Sandusky enumerated the ways in which the criminal justice system discriminates against people of color. Pardiss Kebriaei denounced the use of torture and indefinite detention as part of the so-called "War on Terror." From this discussion, a clear connection could be seen between the War on Terror and the War on Drugs. In both cases a war that was launched against an amorphous enemy led to systematic violations of the human rights of people of color. Reverend Anthony Sandusky on Panel 1: International Criminal Justice The second panel provided insight into the experience of people who have been victimized by crime and also by unfair criminal justice systems. Saied Najifi, an Iranian musician, shared how his Western-style music ran afoul of the repressive Iranian government. Florrie Burke, a longtime anti-human trafficking activist delivered one of the most memorable lines of the seminar when she criticized the idea that fighting human trafficking was a way of "giving voice to the voiceless." Victims of human trafficking, she explained, have their own voices- what they need is support and affection, not someone presuming to speak on their behalf. Malea Otranto contributed further to the discussion of the causes of human trafficking and the steps that can be taken to reduce its prevalence. Melba Sullivan spoke of her work on helping victims of torture overcome mental health issues. After the panel, we watched a TED talk given by Karen Tse, a Unitarian-Universalist Minister who has dedicated herself to ending judicial torture. She explained that in many countries torture is the default means of obtaining a criminal confession, but also offered hope by noting a step as simple as giving the accused access to a lawyer dramatically reduces the rate of torture. The third panel focused on incarceration and crime prevention. Renowned Canadian criminologist Irvin Waller, spoke on the connection between victim's rights and crime prevention. Many people argue that lengthy prison sentences are the best way of helping victims, but according to Dr. Waller what matters is prevention-harsh punishment does not undo a crime and lengthy punitive sentences have not been shown to reduce crime by a significant amount. Sean Pica, who spent 18 years in prison, recalled his experience in prison and discussed his work with Hudson Link, a non-profit that provides a college education to prison inmates. Jack Beck shed further light on conditions on prisons and the effects of incarceration on inmates. After the panel concluded, we watched Zero Percent a short documentary on the Hudson Link program that made clear the link between education and preventing recidivism. Professor Irvin Waller speaking on the topic of crime prevention After arriving at the UN Church Center we watched a video on policing reform created by the Commonwealth Institute for Human Rights. It was a potent reminder that many of the same problems that exist with police forces in America - excessive use of force, corruption, discrimination against disfavored ethnic groups - can be found around the world. The final panel took place in a large conference room in the UN and was recorded for all to see on the UN's website. You can watch the entire panel here! The panel began with a video interview of Dr. Cornel West by one of our very own interns, Lenka Opalena. Dr. West denounced the rank injustice of the American system of mass incarceration, but also took pains to remind attendees that other countries had there own injustices and human rights violations. Human rights advocate Rick Halperin gave an impassioned attack on the inhumanity of death penalty. Johnny Perez, who was put in solitary confinement as a teenager, recounted what led to his imprisonment, the many difficulties he experienced in prison, and the steps on his road to rehabilitation. Hans Hallundbaek described how and why he transitioned from a career in business to working in prison ministry where he works to restore dignity to prisoners. Panel 4 at the United Nations After the panel at the UN, we returned to the Church Center to work on the seminar statement. Working in collaboration groups, attendees drew out the common themes of what they had learned during the seminar. The fundamental connection between racial discrimination and mass incarceration stood at the forefront of the discussions, but numerous other topics were brought up. Participants emphasized the importance of rehabilitation, which had been highlighted by the religious leaders, activists, and formerly incarcerated who had shared their experiences over the previous two days of the seminar. Showing love and respect to all, no matter their situation or past actions, is a cornerstone of Unitarian-Universalism; by treating those who have been incarcerated like we would treat other humans we both exercise a moral duty and increase the chance of ex-convicts making a productive re-entry to society. Collaboration groups summing up what they learned and formulating plans of action Saturday morning began with a powerful worship service highlighted by Dr. Rebecca Gordon's homily. Dr. Gordon delivered a potent attack on the many manifestations of injustice, drawing particular attention to the question of torture. Throughout, she emphasized the moral duty to stand up against injustice, no matter how powerful the perpetrator. The last hour of the seminar showcased the talent and creativity of the participants, as people of all ages read slam poetry, sang, danced. Following this, youth performed a series of skits designed to highlight the plight of the incarcerated or those directly affected by incarceration. It was inspiring to feel the energy as participants molded together their own experiences and beliefs with what they had learned over the previous three days. Participant Marietta Tanner discussing racial injustice For those already thinking of next year, we can provide you with a sneak preview of the possible topic of the next seminar: weapons. From ICBMs to small arms, weapons are inextricably bound into the fabric of modern society. What effects do they have? What can we do to mitigate these effects? See you soon! "As the Seminar Chair, I must say that there is nothing more rewarding than seeing my participants enjoying their experience. For most people, the quality of experience always comes before the knowledge and other aspects of any event. It might be the first time for many of our seminar participants to be in New York City, or to be on a panel at UN that is live streamed. These memories will likely to stay with the participants for the rest of their lives. Hopefully some of the participants will be inspired and motivated to pursue criminal justice down the road. We are living in a world where kindness and inspiration are contagious. We are grateful for what we receive from our communities, and therefore we want to give back to them. I hope that the 2015 Seminar on International Criminal Justice had been an education opportunity for our participants to deepen their understanding of privileges, oppression, racism, diversity, equality and human rights. But what I hope more is that our participants were able to take away the positive experience, the friendship, and the inspiration back to their communities, so they could be better advocates for human right issues as well as better people themselves." Danning Zhang, Seminar Chair "From start to finish, the 2015 Spring Seminar was an amazing experience for all of us at the UU-UNO Office. In the weeks leading up the seminar, we had been feeling a mixture of tension and excitement as every day brought us closer to April 9th. Now, though it is a relief to be done preparing, I can only say that I’m sad that it’s over! In three short days, we had the chance to enhance our understanding of one of the most pressing social questions of our time and the opportunity to meet with people passionate for positive change." Written by Jonathan Hall-Eastman, UU-UNO Intern