Q&A: Shakti Belway, J.D., Author of Bearing Witness


Earlier this month, we mentioned a report about Baltimore done by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) entitled Bearing Witness, which jumped out to JJ Today as an outstanding example of advocacy work. The piece blends personal accounts with data and recommendations, which combined produce a piece that serves both as an indictment, and a roadmap out of, the current criminal justice process in the city. While much of the report-writing world leans on numbers and is wary of the anecdote, the blend of both here makes for a product with the potential to have an impact.

What would it take to do a piece like this in your community? For starters, about $50,000, which is what JPI estimates it spent. The project was funded by Open Society Institute-Baltimore.

For more details on how it came together, we got in touch with Shakti Belway, the principal author of Bearing Witness. Belway has since left JPI to pursue freelance projects.

JJ Today: Talk about the conception of this piece. Was it something you guys came up with just among yourselves and pitched to OSI-B, or did OSI come looking for a piece on Baltimore and let you set up how it would go? 

Belway: During this past year, OSI-Baltimore prioritized elevating the voices and perspectives of affected communities in its criminal justice reform work. At the same time, Justice Policy Institute was looking for ways to ensure that its work was accessible to people working at the ground level. While the project was the result of these two factors, JPI could never have produced a report of this magnitude without the vision, support and guidance of Monique Dixon, OSI-Baltimore's director of Criminal Justice Programs. While Monique clearly had a deep respect for JPI's data rich policy analysis and legislative work, she challenged us to think of creative strategies to engage communities in our research and communications advocacy. A community documentation project was the perfect fit --it allowed JPI to put its research and communications skills to use in the community with which and for which we are trying to affect change. Through this project JPI also put its research and policy analysis into the hands of communities and organizations that otherwise may not have accessed our work.

JJ Today: What was the budget for this project? Break it down as much as possible, I think people would like to know what they will expect to spend on the different aspects of this kind of undertaking.

Belway: A project like Bearing Witness takes many more hours than just the actual time in the interviews and the writing. Time is truly the largest expense. We also found we under-budgeted for printing; usually we rely on web-based distribution and print enough hard copies for policy-makers and those involved in the project (funders, participants, etc.)  This publication has generated a tremendous amount of grassroots interest in "real" copies, including from independent booksellers who want to carry it in their stores.

JJ Today: What was the process for finding people to interview?

Belway: Overall, it was a highly organic process. At the inception of the project, JPI had relationships with grassroots organizations in Baltimore City, but not at a level that allowed instant acceptance of the project. Honestly, it required a considerable amount of face time, and by that I mean just kind of getting to know people before jumping in and asking for their "story." 

First and foremost, coming into Baltimore as an "outsider," I knew that I had to proceed cautiously and respectfully. I deferred to the local expertise and perspective of those who are working to create safe and healthy communities on the ground level on a daily basis. I worked diligently to treat each person and organization with respect and a degree of deference. Once a base level of trust was established, referrals and introductions began to grow naturally. This approach is challenging and time consuming, but well worth the investment, in that the end product tends to contain a high level of depth and authenticity.

The other essential aspect of a project such as this, that involves interviewing people who have overcome immense obstacles, is to recognize that these are sensitive issues. In fact, many people interviewed were still dealing with the pain of their life's circumstances. It is incumbent upon us as advocates to be considerate of this and proceed delicately. This means that sometimes we (the advocates) cannot focus on just telling the best stories without first thinking through the repercussions of doing so. People must always come first.

I'm incredibly grateful to the many project partners in Baltimore who chose to trust me and allow me into their communities and work. Without their generosity, this project would not have been possible. I hope that we as professional advocates will honor each other and focus on building trust throughout our various initiatives, so that our efforts grow in a mutually beneficial manner.

JJ Today: How much did the final product look like the blueprint you all had before you started on this?

Belway: The blueprint was simple: find out what people wanted in terms of criminal justice reform, and specifically with respect to the War on Drugs. Through the foresight of Open Society Institute, Monique Dixon and former JPI Executive Director Sheila Bedi, I was granted the flexibility to create a final product that would reflect a wide array of Baltimoreans interests, rather than a pre-determined analysis. Therefore, this report did fit my blueprint because I truly believe that our work is strengthened when we put people first, over agendas and institutions. When doing so, the work speaks for itself.

JJ Today: JPI comes into something like this with somewhat of a predisposition to the idea that, current strategies to deal with crime aren't working all that well. So a lot of these interviews basically humanize what you guys already believe. But what did you learn from this research, that you did not already know?

Belway: The original loosely-defined plan had been to document the impact of the War on Drugs on Baltimore City and its impact on residents. Once the interviewing process began, I quickly discovered that those issues were only part of the problem. Fortunately, we were granted the freedom to change course and create a report that reflected the priorities of the people who work and live in Baltimore. The accompanying policy pieces were written after the interviews, not before.

Three things struck me most:

1) The strength and resilience of Baltimore's people, both young and old, who have overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to improve their lives.  

2) I was literally stunned by the complex analysis and insight of the people interviewed for this project, many of whom lacked formal education or had spent years, even decades, behind bars. The natural brilliance of people shone so brightly throughout this project, so as to be undeniable. This reinforced for me the critical need for policy and advocacy groups to truly build initiatives that reflect the experiences of people who have lived through the systems or situations we are trying to change. Failing to do so is short-sighted and unlikely to solve the issues.

3) The degree of consensus found among the various constituents interviewed was both surprising and inspiring. I found that both members of law enforcement and so-called "formerly incarcerated individuals" called for the same shifts in policy and resources - we must focus on the front-end and invest in solutions.  

JJ Today: What was the biggest obstacle or problem you guys faced putting this piece together, and how did you deal with it?

Belway: The biggest obstacles were two-fold: time and trust. As could be expected, upon starting this project I quickly saw how valuable these interviews were. With more time, I could have delved deeper into some of these issues and included additional perspectives. The trust factor is essential. Without first building trust, our work runs the risk of inadvertently becoming coercive, rather than uplifting. With this project, however, I was forced into an approach that perhaps should be interwoven into the work of professional advocates at every level. In essence, I had to just be quiet and listen and let people lead the way. This trust factor relates back to the time constraint. As the project progressed and trust grew, the quality of discussion during interviews deepened.

JJ Today: One aspect of the criminal justice system that comes under heavy criticism from your subjects is probation/parole. There are no judges or parole/probation officers quoted in this report; did you guys attempt to interview them for Bearing Witness?

Belway: This report was intended to highlight the perspective of people who otherwise may not have had the opportunity to be heard by the public. Of course the perspectives of those who design and work within these governmental systems are important - in fact critical - to improving our society. However, those who work within these systems have ample opportunity to share their perspectives and influence policy. Furthermore, JPI has already produced several compelling reports with input from administrators and system "insiders," including one that focuses almost exclusively on the Maryland judiciary.

JJ Today: Were there specific goals for this report in terms of impact: attention from the media, legislation introduced, anything you guys had in mind basically from the start? Now that it's out there, what is JPI doing to maximize the impact and proliferation of it?

Belway: Our first priority was to elevate the perspectives of people with first-hand experiences and perspectives about how to reduce crime and create a stronger, more vibrant Baltimore. More than anything, I hope that the report fosters dialogue among the residents of Baltimore about these issues and how to solve them effectively. Of course we welcome legislative and policy changes that focus on solutions and meaningful opportunities for people to improve their lives. Along with the other staff, LaWanda Johnson of JPI has created an outstanding media strategy, which has already produced several radio interviews and news stories.