October 2, 2019
Theatre 2 at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY) was filled to capacity for the opening of the 14th annual CUNY Black Male Initiative (BMI) conference on October 1. This year’s event, Restorative Justice Education: We Are All Justice Involved, featured keynote speakers—hip-hop artist, activist Talib Kweli and activist, organizer Shaun King. CUNY Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez also spoke.
The all-day event included panels focused on transforming advocacy into action in communities that experience justice involvement and issues related to re-entry and higher education transitioning strategies.
Improving access to education reduces recidivism rates numerous studies have shown.
Chancellor Rodríguez commended conference organizers for diving deep into conversations surrounding ways institutions such as CUNY can be more supportive of individuals, particularly men of color, who are currently incarcerated or are returning to the community after serving time.
“Each life is important to CUNY. We want to be supportive, we see potential and promise in every student no matter what their background is,” said Rodríguez. “I’m committed because its the right thing to do, from both a moral and public policy perspective.”
He also affirmed CUNY support for BMI’s many programs and services. “Know that you have a friend and believer and I will do all I can to support your work,” said the Chancellor.
BMCC Interim President Karrin E. Wilks told the audience reforming the criminal justice system is one of the most profound social justice issues of our time.
“This conference contributes to the vital dialogue by challenging the stigma and barriers to success associated with justice involvement, telling stories that must be heard, and sharing sources and promising programs that are central to the imperative of criminal justice reform,” said Wilks.
The president also shared news about BMCC’s Project Impact, a program designed specifically to support the success of the college’s justice involved students.
Project Impact has received funding from the Pinkerton Foundation as well as grants from the BMCC Foundation, the Black Male Initiative (BMI) and CUNY, totaling $200,000.
King told attendees the nation’s justice system is not broken but instead, operating exactly the way it was designed to function, to punish, not provide safety.
“How you fix a thing that’s broken is with a few tinkers. How you confront something that was actually unjustly built is very different, it’s a very different problem to confront,” he said.
King encouraged CUNY students to visit both the National Museum of African American History in Washington D.C. or the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.
The underground railroad involved individuals who created a network from the south to the north through which enslaved people could escape to freedom. Technically, upon crossing the Ohio river, they crossed over into freedom.
“Mass incarceration was built into the house of slavery. Programs like the CUNY BMI are modern underground railroads from mass incarceration. This is the modern day version of the systems and structures who are saying let me help you escape (through education) something that if you are not careful, will chew you up and spit you out,” said King, who also stressed the importance of maintaining a good GPA, which he called a passport to success.
More than half the attendees at the BMI conference event raised their hands when asked whether or not they had a friend or loved one who is currently incarcerated. Almost as many raised their hands when asked if they had been impacted by gun violence.
“Right now this nation is the most incarcerated place on earth,” said King adding, “last year was the deadliest year for gun violence in the United States.”
King told students it’s not enough to want change. “You have to organize for it.”
Students join the conversation
BMCC Political Science major Darleny Suriel said King’s speech provided students valuable information about the power of organizing in their own communities.
“I think this is information that can change people’s lives,” said Suriel.
New York City College of Technology (CUNY) Education major and SGA President Timothy Hunter said all the speakers had been inspiring.
“It’s important we keep what we learn here today on our hearts,” said Hunter.
The significance of BMCC hosting the BMI conference
BMCC Urban Male Leadership Academy Director Ashtian Holmes said he was proud BMCC hosted the annual conference.
“This conference highlights the incredible restorative justice efforts taking place within CUNY, throughout New York City and beyond,” said Holmes. “This event brings together experts, community stakeholders, activists, advocates, educators, and students to develop and share strategies to educate and empower those who have been impacted by the justice system. Our aim is that the conference can spark meaningful conversation, collaboration, and action toward justice reform and educational equity.”
- CUNY Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez said CUNY sees potential in all students
- BMCC President Karin Wilks says criminal justice reform profound social justice issue
- Shaun King tells students it’s not enough to want change, they must organize