Xavier McElrath-Bey: So, I’ve been with the campaign now for seven years, and a very important part of our history as a movement occurred in 2014. [Co-executive director] Jody [Kent Lavy] had the vision of an organization, of our movement, being led by directly impacted people, along with others who articulated this vision. What that meant at that time, in 2014, was helping to create a national network of former incarcerated leaders. At the time, we didn’t have a name. When I was hired on in 2014, we had seven founding members, and I remember us going back and forth about the title of ICAN, and we’re like—well, it became ICAN, but like, “What is the title? We need to come up with a name.” And one day, while going through a number of different title options, we landed on ICAN—the Incarcerated Children’s Action Network—and the criteria for that membership, of that network, would be you had to have been convicted of a homicide-related offense and/or sentenced to life without parole when you were a child.
Having only seven founding members and being amid a movement that, at the time, we didn’t have the momentum we have now, obviously. (Seven years ago, I think it was only 12 states that had banned this practice.) Having created ICAN, that articulated the vision—that was to help advance advocacy, to help educate strategic stakeholders and the allies, to travel the country and speak before conferences, to submit our stories and amicus briefs, help inform the state and the US Supreme Court. Working alongside other partners, other former incarcerated leaders, slowly we began to grow, and with reforms in Nevada, and then in Utah, North Dakota, South Dakota, we started seeing members, more people coming home, and we started to create our own membership. And interestingly, fast-forward to today, we now have about 180 members nationwide.
Between now and then, working for a national campaign, coming on as someone who had no experience in advocacy, for me personally was, to be quite honest with you, quite frightening. I never had stepped foot into a state capitol before, never spoke to legislators. I felt like I was allergic to courtrooms. So there’s a lot going on there. I was someone who was given an extreme sentence when I was a child. I was convicted of homicide when I was 13, something I was deeply remorseful of. And so, coming and joining a movement like this that was to help advance fair sentencing of kids and to ensure that kids are treated in an age-appropriate and trauma-informed way, meant a lot to me.
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Throughout the years of advocating and working alongside other ICAN members, we began to hire more of them into our staff. Eric [Alexander] joined us and became a youth advocate. We work side by side along with other ICAN youths across the nation. Soon after, Eddie Ellis became an outreach coordinator. And soon after that, Abd’Allah [Lateef] became our Pennsylvania ICAN coordinator. Our roles began to evolve as well—meaning, coming on in these sort of entry-level positions, and suddenly, now, fast-forward down the road, we have the same individuals, along with others on staff who were directly impacted, leading positions that they had never envisioned for their lives after having served extreme sentences.
And—so this would be clear—when we talk about evolving into an organization that’s led by directly impacted people, we’re not just talking about any directly impacted people; we’re talking about those who meet the criteria of ICAN. Many of us who came out of prison after years of incarceration since childhood didn’t even know how to drive. We never had a pair of keys, never owned property, never had adult relationships, never…you know, literally, in so many ways, we were like children inside of adult bodies.
And so the long vision of us leading this movement entailed—had to entail—a lot of support from other staff members who were not system-impacted. It had to entail great professional development opportunities, opportunities to help us evolve as an organization and collectively embrace one another in meaningful ways, and to educate ourselves, and to be in uncomfortable places. You know, having to walk through the Legacy Museum and see the racial terror and lynchings, to have to walk through the Memorial and look up at names that look familiar and resonate with memories of those who are still inside.
There are so many things that manifested over the past seven years. But ultimately, I think what happened, and what really brought to fruition this amazing opportunity, was this really deep-seated commitment to continue to do all it took, to do all it takes to advance the movement, and that being elevating directly impacted leadership. That meant working hand in hand with those who are not system-impacted in building out a vision that is rooted in equity and racial justice and inclusion to the point where we literally just dismantled our manager’s meeting, and we’re trying to, you know, we’re going through creating pods, and…we can get into all that later. But the point I’m trying to make here really is this: to be an organization that operates according to our values meant taking a lot of risk. It meant believing and trusting in one another. It meant creating a graceful environment where we can make mistakes, learn, and continue to thrive with one another. And so that’s the exciting moment that we’re in today, and we’ll share more.