Traverse City News and Events

Groups Launch Campaigns To Fight For Social Justice

By Beth Milligan | May 11, 2019

Three separate nonprofits are launching new programs or campaigns in Traverse City this week advocating for social justice, including reforming local and state criminal justice systems and promoting clean water, racial equity, and youth empowerment.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) will host a Traverse City launch party today (Saturday) at State Street Market from 4pm-6pm to bring its Campaign for Smart Justice to northern Michigan. The campaign is an “unprecedented, multi-year effort to eliminate racism in the criminal legal system and reduce the U.S. jail and prison population by 50 percent,” according to ACLU. The organization says Michigan is one of the worst states in the U.S. for mass incarceration, noting that more than 40 percent of individuals in local jails – such as Grand Traverse County Jail – are there because they can’t afford bail, not because they’ve been convicted of a crime. The ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit against the 36th District Court in Detroit last month to challenge what the group describes as an “unconstitutional cash bail system that discriminates against poor people, locking them up because they cannot afford to pay while allowing those who have money to go free.”

Anna Dituri lives in Traverse City and will serve as ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice field organizer in the Grand Traverse region. She says the organization is focused on three key initiatives: reforming the bail and bond system, working with the Michigan Legislature to change sentencing guidelines – overhauls like the recently approved “Raise the Age” bill, which will try 17-year-olds as juveniles instead of adults – and educating voters on prosecutorial discretion and accountability.

Electing prosecutors who believe in restorative justice – an approach that emphasizes rehabilitating instead of merely incarcerating offenders – is also a priority for Darcie Pickren, co-founder of Before During and After Incarceration (BDAI) in Traverse City. Her group, which provides support to those who are or have been incarcerated and their families, is co-sponsoring today’s ACLU launch. BDAI is also hosting a public event Monday (May 13) at Central United Methodist Church from 6pm-7:30pm that will focus on ways to address criminal injustice on the local level. Two more sessions will follow in July and September, culminating in a large-scale community gathering at Central United Methodist on October 3, at which BDAI hopes to attract 500-600 people representing various segments of the legal justice system and community at large to coalesce around a plan of action.

Pickren notes that prosecutors in all 83 Michigan counties are up for reelection in 2020 – what she describes as a key opportunity to revamp the system. “Our main goal is to find people who will run for those positions who believe in restorative justice,” she says. “We want to inform people there’s a different way to handle people who are hurt by criminal activity – not only the victim, but the offender. The offender can be restored to the community and become a productive member of society, instead of being incarcerated for years and years without seeing the error of their ways. It also helps the victims forgive and move on."

Part of the Campaign for Smart Justice will focus on addressing racial discrimination – including in northern Michigan, where ACLU data showed a disproportionately high number of incarcerated African-Americans and Native Americans compared to their overall population in the Grand Traverse region. Racial equality is also one of three main focus areas for Title Track, a new nonprofit founded by northern Michigan singer-songwriter Seth Bernard. Born out of the work of the Neahtawanta Research and Education Center – and receiving that organization’s assets after it recently dissolved – Title Track held a launch party at Kirkbride Hall in Traverse City Thursday. The group will hold another launch event tonight in Detroit to introduce its mission of promoting racial equality, clean water, and youth empowerment initiatives throughout the state.

“I see a great need for people to be able to come together to engage in meaningful, restorative experiences and to work for the common good in these times,” says Bernard. “Great challenges must be faced and embraced with a sense of imagination and possibility…I’m thrilled to be launching this fresh new organization with a diverse, multi-generational group of change agents.”

In addition to Bernard and several Detroit-area representatives, Title Track’s board of directors features Short’s Brewing Company CEO Joe Short, Neahtawanta founder Sally Van Vleck, former Inland Seas Education Association president Jack Seaman, and Traverse City attorney Holly Bird. Programs planned for the nonprofit’s inaugural year include a Clean Water Campaign for Michigan, a youth ecological program called RiverQuest featuring canoe trips led by indigenous leaders, Title Track programming at the Earthwork Harvest Gathering in Lake City this fall, and the launch of a new Earthwork Detroit festival.

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