Reflections on the Pacific Islander Leadership Summit on Criminal Justice

I spent about 3 hours today at the Pacific Islander Leadership Summit on Criminal Justice and I wanted to share some of my reflections about what I observed tonight. I guess we should start with what I felt was very productive about the summit…

Great Food
The food was catered by Lanikai Grill and I loved it!

Great Turnout
It was wonderful to see so many Pacific Islander church leaders, community based leaders, educators, politicians, law enforcement officers, etc. there tonight. It was a strong statement about the fact that people recognize the gang issue as a problem and are looking for ways to collaborate and work together to make a difference.

Keynote presentation
The keynote speaker was an elder from the Maori community who has done extensive work on indigenous cultural interventions in NZ among the Maori population and specifically with prisoners and those in the criminal justice system. It was great to acknowledge the wisdom that elders in our community hold while also deconstructing the popular myth that assimilation to mainstream America is the only avenue for success.

okay now on to what I found extremely problematic about the summit. I begin by recognizing the hard work that was put into this summit. As someone who has worked on a variety of different events, I appreciate and understand the time and hard work it takes to put on an event like this and so my critique is not going to focus on the logistical side of organizing an event, but rather on the idea and insight (or lack of insight) that guides an event such as this.

First of all, whenever those who are organizing the event get up and say “we don’t want you to be offended” or” we are not here to say you are bad people or bad parents BUT…” (I am paraphrasing some of what was said tonight) means that you are going to be offended and they are going to indirectly allude to the ideas that are associated with what they just said they weren’t going to talk about. Lets be real, the only reason why we say things like that in the beginning is to absolve ourselves from being held accountable for the things that we say because we want those who are listening to forgive us by acknowledging that our comments were well intentioned. I understand well intentions, I work with well intentioned people everyday who tell me that the Pacific Islander culture does not value education… yeah, it was well intentioned, but the impact of your well intentioned comment, does not justify the fact that your comment is false, racists, and full of prejudice.

I give that example only to point out, that the summit was filled with many good intentioned presentations, but it doesn’t change the fact that their presentations were extremely problematic. The presentation from law enforcement focused on how to identify gangsters, gang signs, how they dress, their tattoos, how they look, how to identify them in pictures and in real life, etc, etc. In their defense, they were doing exactly what is expected of law enforcement; I mean they aren’t really the people I look to when I think about rehabilitation, intervention or prevention. We all know that law enforcement as an institution is not interested in rehabilitation, they are all about surveillance, their solution to everything is lock them up! This is why it was so problematic for me to watch this presentation, not because I was shocked by the pictures, but rather because, here we are in a room with Pacific Islander leaders (who probably have more insight about what’s happening on the ground), and instead of discussing rehabilitation we want them to take on the role of law enforcement officers and racially profile their own children and community members. Now, I know that wasn’t the intention, but when there is no context fully given for this presentation, and all we see is pictures and the looming idea that “every brown person is potentially a gangster” one leaves thinking that surveillance and imprisonment is the only answer to this issue.

In my opinion, it was a great disservice to Mr. Jones’s presentation on cultural intervention, prevention and rehabilitation to have it followed up with a presentation that focuses on surveillance and imprisonment…and then not allow anytime for further discussion of the issue. I say this to make the point that even at a Pacific Islander leadership summit, we see how our indigenous knowledge is continually pushed into the peripheries while centering and valuing western thought and epistemologies. The truth is that the majority of Pacific Islander kids who are involved in gangs were born and/or raised in the United States, they are products of the American environment, when are we going to discuss the impact that has on their behavior, their choices and the way they view themselves and the world? We talk about how culturally based knowledge and models are the solutions, yet we have a Pacific Islander summit and give the majority of the time to law enforcement and politicians. It makes no sense!!!!!

I am grateful that our communities were able to come together but deeply saddened that we missed an amazing opportunity to share critical ideas with those who work in our communities day in and day out-- about what their different organizations are doing and how we can work toward creating some kind of culturally relevant model that would fit a Utah context.

I know that it was mentioned over and over again that this is only the first meeting, but come on now, how many first meetings are we going to have before we actually move to meeting #2? Having said that, if there is a master strategy and plan behind this that I am totally missing… then please enlighten me and accept my apologies.

Disclaimer: When I say “law enforcement” I am referring to the institution, not the individuals. I know that our Pacific Islander law enforcement officers do the best they can and I am deeply grateful, but there are so few of them, that it would be completely unfair and impossible to make them shoulder all the responsibilities in addressing these issues just because they work for that institution.

Saturday, October 24, 2009