Report to California Endowment – October 2014

Report to California Endowment - October 2014

Parts I and II
Living Room Conversations introduced a new type of conversation to Fresno and San Joaquin Counties of California. We reached out to community leaders, faith communities and school communities to recruit co-hosts Living Room Conversations. Additionally Living Room Conversations hosted two community events that were open to the public. Overall, people gathered in 36 small groups to talk about Realignment with subtopics on: Recidivism, Mental Health & Substance Abuse, Race & Incarceration, Impact of Gangs and an Overall topic. Materials can be downloaded here.

Inviting and Creating 30+ Living Room Conversations
Our initial concept was to work with one coordinator/organizer and collaborate with Californians for Safety and Justice plus organizations who are part of Building Healthy Communities. We discovered a need to shift strategies and reach beyond to the general community. We hired eight organizers, four each in Fresno and San Joaquin Counties, to recruit, co-host and invite people to participate in the project. This strategy was very successful in creating conversations and utilizing networks from many individuals.

Why participate in or host a Living Room Conversation?
Early on, organizers encountered challenges in recruiting co-hosts for the conversations. In many cases, people did not want to take on the responsibility of hosting and providing refreshments for their friends. Other objections included a concern for their social capital with friends and neighbors. But more than 90% of people wanted to participate in conversations about Realignment. We turned the hosting reticence into an opportunity to organize Community Living Room Conversations, where pizza and beverages were provided. From these two events, more people were willing to host Living Room Conversations. We ran out of time to pursue these additional hosting opportunities formally, but at least two organizers are continuing to use the format and co-host conversations.

Conversation Findings (Detailed schedule and conversation notes are here.)
Conversations have included people from county chaplains to social workers to blue collar workers to bankers and business owners, gang members, teenagers and AB109rs. One of the most surprising trends in organizing and observing Living Room Conversations has been the willingness...even eagerness of AB109rs and their families to share their struggles and triumphs from California’s Realignment.

Participants who had personal experience with AB109 and/or incarceration (either themselves or family members) were unified in expressing the need for more cohesive program management and follow up. When programs were offered, there were challenges to find them and often the programs were full. There was a belief that racial bias still exists within programs, with white offenders more likely to be accepted into programs.

Victims of crimes (i.e. burglary, car theft) talked about the need to “stop the revolving door” and “quick fix” by addressing underlying problems of addiction and mental health. At the same time, there was a sense of frustration that police have been so overwhelmed with gang suppression and other violent crime, that response to burglary or other non-violent crimes is largely missing. The sense of “I have to take care of myself” is present in both communities.

Participants who have not been touched personally by crime asked questions such as “what are we doing to strengthen families?” and “why aren’t we addressing substance abuse and mental health issues in a more appropriate manner?”

In all cases, participants learned about our criminal justice system, recidivism and understood that the community as a whole would be safer with an organized and/or cohesive plan for addressing low-level offenders outside of jail. Additionally, many of the participants who work with offenders were insistent that each offender needed to make the choice to adopt a lifestyle other than the criminal lifestyle. When gangs are involved, this choice would likely result in the rejection of all friends and family from their life to that point.

Another point stressed in the path of rehabilitation was the need for each person to have a mentor or sponsor who would be available to walk with the offender as they transform their life. Even one person who cared about the offender was enough to make a difference.

Many participants were inspired to participate with the knowledge that this report would be delivered to California Endowment AND the Community Corrections Partnership in Fresno and San Joaquin counties. The opportunity to be “heard” by those in the position to make budget decisions was an added benefit.

Video taping
Organizer Ron Tate received permission from a group in late September to video tape and publish their Living Room Conversation. This was outside of our budget and timeline and the project remains in process.

Online engagement
Early in the project and online forum was established. It has been underutilized as participants and organizers preferred other means of communication.

Follow up possibilities
Six of the eight organizers have expressed a desire to continue working on this project. Working with leadership in San Joaquin County is now a possibility and the opportunity of media coverage is far greater given the results of the concluded conversations. Many participants of the Community LRCs have expressed interest in hosting or participating again. This provides us with tremendous momentum now.

One organizer in San Joaquin would like to explore using Living Room Conversations about community safety into Sacramento County. She has been working with communities of color and the police departments to explore options in social justice. The three town halls that were held have not yielded results such as being heard and understood by each other. She has asked to work with Living Room Conversations to improve community relationships between the police and the people they serve. Another organizer is continuing the Realignment conversations within a faith community that also serves recently released offenders. Both understand the continuous learning or experimental culture of Living Room Conversations. They have also expressed their belief in the process because of their experience with the quality of relationships that emerges, which creates new possibilities for action.

We are exploring an option include Living Room Conversations about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) in the criminal justice reform work. When counselors and probation officers were casually polled during this project, they estimate 95-100% of offenders suffered from ACEs. Connecting ACEs (childhood trauma) to criminal behavior also leads to a potential prevention strategy by exposing this connection to promote working with families, children and school districts.

I have been convinced of the transformative nature of the Living Room Conversations process; where people can come together in a social setting and have a respectful conversation about a challenging topic that allows for the sharing personal experiences. When this intimacy is created, it moves people towards compassion and empathy, which is always beneficial to our communities.

We thank you for the opportunity to improve relationships and therefore communities in the San Joaquin Valley of California. We look forward to our next opportunity.

for Living Room Conversations:
Debilyn Molineaux, Managing Partner
Joan Blades, Co-founder