What does it take to change such complex problems as high rates of unemployed young adults and children landing in the criminal justice system?
Maybe a host of progressive pastors, an Episcopal priest, the city's only female rabbi, black ministers, white ministers, a rocking gospel choir and a nearly full North Charleston Performing Arts Center.
Include a superintendent, school board members and a mayor, and the Charleston Area Justice Ministry rallied some 2,000 people for the second-annual Nehemiah Action Assembly.
However, the rally also brought awkward moments when ministry members tried to pin officials on stage to promises to adhere to their specific solutions.
The nonpartisan interfaith ministry unites about two dozen diverse local faith-based entities to identify serious social justice problems and then develop and promote specific solutions.
At Tuesday's rally, ministry members noted that despite local unemployment rates below the national average, and construction projects obvious around the area, young adults ages 16 to 24 here face far higher rates of unemployment.
They asked local municipalities for hiring policies that mandate 25 percent of all entry level jobs in publicly funded construction projects go to unemployed young adults who have undergone job training.
"We want this policy to be permanent because this permanence reflects our community commitment to the success of all of our young adults," said the Rev. Wendy Hudson-Jacoby of North Charleston United Methodist.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley pledged to push a hiring policy by September that would increase the numbers of young adults hired for publicly funded projects. But he refused the ministry's 25 percent mandate.
The Rev. Charles Heyward of St. James Presbyterian, however, argued that the goal is reasonable for entry-level jobs alone. "We know the 25 percent is a good number."
"This is an excellent additional challenge to our community, and I welcome it," Riley said. Percentages of how many young adults might be appropriate, however, fluctuates based on the demands of various construction projects.
"I will work for an appropriate goal in each construction project," Riley said to applause. "We've got to make sure it's realistic to the form of construction we will be doing."
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey did not attend but sent a statement which the Rev. Danny Reed of the Unitarian Church in Charleston declined to read to the crowd.
Meanwhile, the ministry wants to reduce two factors that can lead youth away from education and into the criminal justice system. Their research found that more than 1,700 juveniles were arrested last year mostly for fighting, disturbing schools and probation violation misdemeanors. Also, 4,254 Charleston County students were suspended last year.
Ministry members asked school leaders to audit the 10 schools with the highest suspension rates and recommend ways to lower those rates including use of "positive behavior intervention and support," or PBIS. The ministry's report said PBIS calls for fewer discipline referrals for more minor incidents, among other goals.
They also asked that the school district choose five schools for a pilot use of "Restorative Justice practices," which the report said focuses on such things as allowing victims to speak about their experiences and on offenders understanding the harm the have caused.
Charleston County School Superintendent Nancy McGinley pledged to require enhanced reporting of all disciplinary practices and meet quarterly with ministry members as she did last year.
However, she declined to pick five schools to begin a pilot for Restorative Justice as ministry members wanted.
"I am not selecting five schools and going to mandate that," McGinley said. "However, we will work toward the strong implementation of PBIS and the adoption of Restorative Justice practices."
Rabbi Stephanie Alexander of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim promised ministry members will help officials achieve the solutions.
"Where injustice impacts our community we are in fact far from powerless to bring about change. Our power lies here in this room, among all of us gathered here," Alexander said.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.
Pastor Nancy Faden of Solid Rock Christian Church does a roll call of participating congregations at the Charleston Area Justice Ministry’s Nehemiah Action Assembly at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center on Tuesday night.×
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