Micah Project Organizes Communities Around Issues Of Mass Incarceration

May 20, 2015

The Micah Project develops a base of youth leaders to mitigate gun violence and eliminate the school to prison pipeline.

Meet Dolfinette Martin.

“I did 7 years, 4 months, 26 days in LA Correction Institute for Women. That was my 4th prison stay but by God’s grace, my last.”

Dolfinette Martin had five children when she went to prison – for shoplifting – what she saw at the time as her only way of providing for her kids.

“A lot of what I went through was due to my choices,” says Martin. “I didn’t know a lot. All I knew was what the streets taught me. I had dope dealers saying: here, you can help your mama pay the bills. That started the cycle.”

Martin ended up a teenage mother. Then she ended up on the dope she was selling. She says it was a viscous cycle.

“I was 15 years old I dropped out of Mac 35 to sell dope because my mama was struggling,” recalls Martin. “That’s what I learned in my hood, and like I said, it was my choices, but I wasn’t given many. You go with what’s best at the time.”

“This is what it’s all about: when you hear the stories,” says Minister Rosie Washington, the Executive director of the Micah Project, a faith based community organizing group which addresses issues of mass incarceration. And there are many. Micah holds youth workshops on the school to prison pipeline, they advocate for prisoners’ rights — looking into issues such as bed size in jails and pre trial services. They do anti-gun violence work, and they help to lessen the barriers folks returning from prison face: getting a job, finding housing, and getting over the stigma of having been ciriminalized.

“We’re talking about the fabric and foundation of our families being torn apart by a criminal justice system that doesn’t necessarily have to operate the way it does,” says Washington.

The Micah Project works with fourteen congregations across Jefferson and Orleans Parishes, representing around 17,000 folks. Washington says it’s by doing this work — building a base of people having conversations about the issues of mass incarceration, and helping communities organize and advocate for what they need – that will bring change to our city. Washington says it all starts with hearing stories like Martin’s, and helping these people unlock their power.

“So when we speak about speaking to City Council or going to Baton Rogue, we’re really talking about people who are impacted by the issues, leading for themselves, and telling their own stories about why we must change,” says Washington. “And so it really is about, in the end, empowering folks to do something differently in a very public way.”

There’s a responsibility that comes with being empowered: working with young people in order to stop the viscous cycle Dolfinette Martin spoke about.

Jahnta Tate is a senior at Warren Easton High School. She’s done lots of workshops with the Micah Project, including a role-play where some people were civilians and some were police officers.

“It was amazing how they were so quick to be aggressive in the role of the police officer,” recalls Tate. “You have to know your rights, but also trust that they’re doing their job, and if they aren’t, then it’s your job to report to other people so they can do their job. It’s all about keeping yourself safe and others safe.”

Jahnta says through the Micah Project, she’s learned how to protect herself, and also, that her choices make a difference.

“You dictate your future,” says Tate. “There’s always a 2nd option. You determine your path in life.”

But Washington is quick to add that adolescents — all adolescents — make mistakes. Our job, as society, is to correct those mistakes in a stern but loving manner. Not to criminalize young people.

“We’ve talked a lot today about personal decisions and individual choices that we’ve made, but there’s another side to this,” says Washington. “There’s a system side to this. The side that talks about: why is it there’s only one option for a certain group of kids in a certain neighborhood.”

Washington says our job is to make sure we maintain healthy children and thriving families, and anything that departs from that must be addressed.

Written by Eve Abrams for the Community IMPACT Series and produced by WWNO in partnership with the Greater New Orleans Foundation. Learn more about the Micah Project.