About 2,100 people turned out Monday night for a diverse interfaith event at St. Matthew Baptist Church that marks a turning point in the nascent Charleston Area Justice Ministry.
It was called the Nehemiah Action Assembly, named for the biblical cup-bearer to the Persian king who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem despite intense opposition and helped restore the city’s Israelite community.
The local Justice Ministry, which has adopted the methodology of a Miami-based group called the Direct Action and Research Training Center, has chosen to focus on two main (and interconnected) social ills: inadequate early education and juvenile detention.
The Justice Ministry, which at its core is an alliance of about 20 congregations, seeks to influence public policy. Participants want to convince public school officials to make pre-K programs available to all 4-year-olds and to institute juvenile justice reforms so young, nonviolent offenders have a better chance of bucking the statistics.
At a preliminary rally, about 600 people learned about the issues and promised to “step up by showing up and bring three” to Monday night’s action. To judge by the full sanctuary, they succeeded.
In attendance were Mayors Joe Riley and Billy Swails, Police Chiefs Greg Mullen and Eddie Driggers and Carl Ritchie, Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon, Solicitor Scarlett Wilson and Charleston County School District Superintendent Nancy McGinley, among other public figures. North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey sent his chief of staff.
The Rev. Daniel Massie of First (Scots) Presbyterian Church explained the vision of the group — “We are good at talking about justice but we need to do justice” — and announced that organizers hope to double participation next year.
Education Committee member Shantell Scott of Morris Brown AME Church stated the problem: “Thousands of children are reading below grade level,” she said. “Many children are behind even before they begin school.”
Rabbi Stephanie Alexander of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim explained that proven solutions exist, citing examples, and Angel Oak Elementary School teacher Kent Riddle described his successful early education efforts, soliciting applause.
The Rev. Charles Heyward of St. James Presbyterian Church then asked McGinley if she would implement a research-based literacy curriculum for all child development classes beginning fall 2013. She said she shares the goal but achieving it depends on funding.
“It’s absolutely a matter of resources, not resolve,” she said.
Will she monitor progress of all students beginning in pre-K through third grade? This is already done, she said, but starting in kindergarten.
Will she share information with the Justice Ministry? Yes. Will she propose to the school board to expand child development programming by 225 students by the start of the next school year and increase capacity to serve all Title I schools by the following year? She hedged, explaining that there was a $10 million funding gap, and that the current 5-year plan would introduce 100 new seats each year. The citizen group would not relent. McGinley said there are only three ways to fund such programs: raise taxes, get more state funding or cut other programs. She said other issues come into play, like overcrowding. Eventually, she agreed to set the proposal before the board.
Then it was law enforcement’s turn.
Maxine Frasier Riley of Morris Brown AME Church offered some sobering statistics: 66 percent of those jailed will not graduate high school. In the U.S., $10,500 is spent per child each year on education; $88,000 is spent every year on each child incarcerated.
The Rev. Nelson Rivers III of Charity Missionary Baptist Church asked three questions of Ritchie, Mullen, Driggers, Cannon and Wilson.
Will you serve on a task force to develop a plan to reduce juvenile detention in Charleston County 65 percent by the end of 2014? Ritchie, Driggers and Cannon said yes, though Cannon said communities should commit to getting 65 percent of their children to church, too. Mullen and Wilson agreed but would not commit to a number, calling it arbitrary.
If nonviolent offenders were not detained, that alone would reduce rates by 80 percent, Rivers pointed out.
Then he asked if they would agree as task force members to have a report prepared in time for the Community Problems Assembly in October. All but Mullen, who would not make promises without knowing everything involved, said yes. Finally, Rivers asked them to attend the first task force meeting within 30 days, and all said yes.
Rivers then announced that Department of Juvenile Justice officials also had committed to serving on the task force. Then he turned to the law enforcement officials and, on behalf of the Justice Ministry, pledged cooperation.
“The evidence of our support is before you, 2,000 strong,” he said, provoking more applause.
Riley called the event amazing. “I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said, adding that early education was the key, that it also helped solve the problem of juvenile detention.
“If out of this we can get strong community support for early childhood education, this will have been the best meeting ever.”