Ready to Work: The FORCE Campaign against Records Discrimination

Posted on: April 8th, 2013
In my forthcoming book on faith-based exit from gang life, God’s Gangs, I frame incarceration as one of the most racialized social policy issues in contemporary America. Following the 1960s Civil Rights movements, and the outright resistance against it, racist backlash emerged through the coded rhetoric of “law and order” and “family values.” The War on Drugs ensued, and incarceration rates skyrocketed. Our country has now become one of the most unfree in the industrialized world. We incarcerate more people than the top 35 European countries combined, and as of 2008, one in one hundred Americans were sitting behind bars.[i] [ii] In fact, in no country do children receive a sentence of “life without parole,” whereas in America we have thousands of such cases.
The devastating effects of mass incarceration have been sharply skewed by race. In 2001, the U.S. Department of Justice- Bureau of Justice Statistics projected that black boys born today would face a one in three chance of experiencing incarceration sometime throughout their life.[iii] More shockingly, Harvard sociologist Bruce Western found that Black men aged 20 to 34, without a high school diploma, were more likely to be incarcerated than employed in the labor market.[iv] The late 20th century shift away from an informally segregationist society, to one in which the state uses incarceration to exercise social control over communities of color, is what Michelle Alexander calls “The New Jim Crow.” 
On Tuesday, April 16th, the Community Renewal Society (CRS), a grassroots coalition of civic-oriented churches, will load up several, big yellow school buses, and send hundreds of members down to the state capitol. They will be supporting this year’s “Platform for Renewal” agenda: legislative action items promoting fair tax reform, gun control, and the sealing of criminal records. One of the main issues on Community Renewal Society’s agenda will be HB-3061, also known as the “Sealing Bill.” Advocated by Fighting to Overcome Records and Create Equality (FORCE), which is possibly the first ex-offender led community organizing group, the legislation in HB-3061 would open the possibility of petitioning the courts to seal records of non-violent felony convictions over four years old. Sealing these records would help to erase the stigma of prior convictions, and make it easier for ex-offenders to find employment after incarceration. Such employment could become vital to preventing further incarceration; ex-offenders who successfully find work after release are less likely to return to jail.
Months ago, several FORCE members applied for entry level positions at Walgreens, a company with Illinois-based headquarters that has profited from having stores in Chicago’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods while also touting a diversity policy. According to a FORCE factsheet, Senior Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer Kathleen Wilson Thompson has said, “We are insuring that we are reflecting the customers, communities and patients we serve as we recruit, retain and develop team members across our organization.” However, no FORCE applicants—including those with college degrees and work experience—were called back. FORCE members managed to arrange a meeting with Walgreens corporate representatives, hoping to hold Walgreens accountable to their diversity policy. FORCE members called Walgreens out for failing to make good on their racial diversity policy, by refusing to grant interviews to ex-offenders. FORCE members were hopeful when Walgreens representatives agreed to meet again after their initial meeting. However, Walgreens never did meet again with FORCE and neither did they respond to FORCE’s follow-up phone calls.
Too often, we replace real civic activism with band aid solutions that University of Southern California (USC) sociologist Nina Eliasoph has called “plug-in volunteering.” In a Los Angeles Times Op-ed column published last Martin Luther King Day, Eliasoph reminded us that Jane Addams pioneered the reformist tradition by using volunteering as a means for learning about wider structures of inequality—thereby fostering awareness necessary for large-scale social reform. CRS’ April visit to the capitol represents a vital opportunity for civic engagement beyond plug-in volunteering, addressing the issues of racial inequality that still mark our nation. FORCE’s Sealing Bill amounts to a big step in social reform, helping to remove obstacles to employment for some of the most marginalized in our society: ex-offenders.
As an institution of higher education with a social justice mission, Loyola offers its students service learning opportunities, with the implicit goal of addressing wider structures of inequality. I will be teaching a service learning section of Race and Ethnic Relations in the Fall, aiming to educate a class of students in how to help empower the most marginal in our society—by engaging with FORCE activities to move beyond colorblind racism and plug-in volunteering.
In the next few months, my research assistant, Jennifer Cossyleon, and I will continue to follow FORCE, understanding how FORCE helps to construct citizenship by centering people from the margins. In addition, some Loyola undergraduate students have already expressed interest in becoming involved with FORCE activities. They will learn, hands-on, the art of “stepping up” for a group while also “stepping back” to allow indigenous leadership to form. As Father Gregory Boyle S.J. proclaimed at Loyola’s 2012 commencement, rather than make the mistake of thinking we are called to serve the poor, we would be served to stand with them. FORCE campaigns such as the Illinois Sealing Bill and the Walgreens campaign will help to remove some of the barriers facing ex-offenders, but they will also help Loyola students learn how to use civic engagement to stand with others.

[i] The Pew Charitable Trusts. 2010. Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility. Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts.

[ii] PEW Center on the States. 2008. One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008. Washington, DC: PEW Charitable Trusts.

[iii] Bonczar, Thomas P. 2003. Prevalence of Imprisonment in the U.S. Population, 1974-2001. Bureau of Justice Statistics- Special Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice- Office of Justice Programs.

[iv] The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2010. Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility. Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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