CeCe Jones-Davis: Realigning the Gears of the U.S. Justice System - Jen Hatmaker
cece-jones-davis

CeCe Jones-Davis: Realigning the Gears of the U.S. Justice System

Episode 02

As lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson puts it, slavery never actually ended—it just evolved, and today it looks like mass incarceration. In the past fifty years, we’ve seen the prison population skyrocket from 200,000 in 1970 to 2.2 million in 2020. In fact, America holds just 5% of the world’s population but more than 25% of the world’s prisoners, where Black people clock in five times the number of inmates as white people. It is imperative that our generation abolish the overcriminalization of Black women, children, and men. And today we’re learning a bit more from CeCe Jones-Davis on how to bring that world to fruition. She’s an activist, a worship leader, and a teacher of social gospel who’s made it her mission to expose the underbelly of the criminal justice system as she fights for the freedom of a man she believes has been wrongfully convicted: Julius Jones. CeCe also shares the influences and experiences in her life that broke her heart and gave her a passion to advocate for others, and she helps us wrap our minds around what it looks like for the justice system to represent not a hope that truth will prevail, but a fear that bias for the color of your skin and socioeconomic status will remove you from your life and your family, and won’t allow you to return. CeCe reminds us that realigning the gears of the justice system is too big a task for one person to bear alone—but if we each pick up our small piece, it’s a load we can carry together.

Episode Transcript

CeCe: We must remember and remind each other and the world at all times that everybody’s life matters. Everybody’s life matters. And we cannot just allow Goliaths to throw people away. 

Jen: Welcome to the For the Love Podcast with me, Jen Hatmaker. Today, we are talking about the criminal justice system with activist CeCe Jones-Davis

Hi, everybody. Jen Hatmaker is here. Welcome to the For the Love Podcast. Super happy to host you today. Right now we are in a really special, really important series called For the Love of Black Lives. This is really the only conversation I want to host right now. We are in a moment of cultural reckoning, honestly, and these are the conversations that we need to be listening to and learning from and ultimately implementing in our lives. 

And so today we are going to talk about something that very starkly divides our country into a couple of very different experiences, depending on the color of your skin and depending on how much money you have. 

When I say the words justice system, they land differently depending on who you are. If you’re white, possibly those words might make you feel safe. They might fill you with reassurance that good will win out and virtue is baked into the system. But if you’re Black, if you’re a person of color hearing the words justice system, it might at best make you roll your eyes or at worst fill you with terror because it’s anything but just. 

So according to the ACLU, while America claims only five percent of the world’s population, we have twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners, most of whom are incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses and disproportionately—and I mean wildly disproportionately—include women and men of color. 

In fact, the NAACP tells us that Black women and men make up fourteen percent of the U.S. population, but they make up forty percent, 4-0, of the incarcerated population. And every single reliable data point tells us that Black people do not commit crimes to any greater degree than white people. The committing of crimes is proportional from one community to the other. So it is not true that Black people are inherently more criminal—it’s that they are more criminalized.

So our justice system is a big conversation right now. What does it actually look like? How was it created to function? Where are its blind spots? How is it affecting real lives, whole communities, and ultimately generations? The state of the criminal justice system in the U.S. raises serious human rights concerns. 

So this is why we’re going to talk about this today. And we’re talking about it with someone who’s doing the hard work of pushing for criminal justice reform. And I am so glad you get to hear from her today. I think your experience is going to be like mine. During this whole conversation, I was just leaning forward in my chair, kind of riveted. Today, I just was absolutely locked into every single word I was hearing from my guest, and her name is CeCe Jones-Davis. So CeCe is, well, she’s a worship leader. She’s a speaker, she’s a writer, and she’s a social advocate. She’s a graduate of Howard, Yale Divinity School, and the Yale Institute of Sacred Music Worship and the Arts. She’s also a member of the inaugural class of Princeton’s Black Theology Leadership Institute. She’s got some serious credentials.

CeCe works at the intersection of faith, worship, and social justice, and she’s a passionate advocate for racial healing, for women’s and girl’s issues, and as I mentioned, criminal justice reform, which is what we’re talking about today. I’m really proud of her. This is a force to be reckoned with in our world right now. She currently also serves as the teaching pastor at The Table in Oklahoma City. This is a powerful conversation. It is packed full of emotion, and stories and data and best practices and action steps. So this is all in here. 

You may want to go over to jenhatmaker.com and take a gander at the transcript page, because there’s so much in it. We have it all written out for you over there. It’s underneath the podcast tab, which is also where we’ll have everything linked to CeCe, who she is, where she is, how you can follow her. Plus every single thing that she mentions—every resource, every person, every book, every story, every documentary—we’ll have it all linked over there. So that’ll be a one-stop shop for everything you hear over the course of the next hour. 

And I’m so glad that you are here. Get into a quiet place where you can just listen. I am delighted to introduce you to CeCe Jones-Davis. 

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Jen: CeCe, I am just absolutely delighted to be talking to you again, and welcome to the For the Love Podcast. So glad to have you.

CeCe: Thank you. It really is just an extraordinary honor to be on the For the Love Podcast. Like, this is the highlight of a really, really hard week for me. And so I can’t even tell you how much I appreciate you talking to me today. Thank you.

Jen: I just want to say something real quick that my listeners can listen into as well. I just told you this before we started recording, but I want to say it publicly again, that I deeply acknowledge in gratitude the amount of emotional labor that you’re offering us today by doing so much heavy lifting around racial justice and injustice, and what a burden that is to bear as a mentor, as a leader, as a woman of color. 

And so what I see you doing is offering this to our community as a gift and it is a service, and we deeply, deeply receive it with grateful hands. And so I honor you today. Thank you.

CeCe: Thank you, Jen. I would just want to say in response just that acknowledgement is a gift to me, because I don’t know that there’s a lot of people that understand the toll that social justice work takes on a human. And so, thank you for saying that, that means a lot.

Jen: You’re welcome. 

I wonder if we could just start here—would you mind—I have filled in my listeners with a lot of your background: your work, your credentials, your very impressive résumé. But would you mind taking us back a little further and tell us kind of high level who you are and where you grew up and kind of the bit of your origin story before you got to this place that you are now?

CeCe: Yes, I would love to. So I am from a little town in Virginia called Halifax County. It’s a couple of hours away from Jamestown, Virginia, where in 1619, the first enslaved Africans arrived in the United States—well, what would become the United States. My town was a plantation town for many years. The main crop was tobacco. 

And I grew up in a town, in a time that felt still very—the word that comes to mind is kind of slow. I don’t mean that in a negative way about where I’m from, because I love where I’m from, but growing up there in the eighties felt like the sixties. You know what I mean? There was still a lot of segregation. It was really clear to me and my twin sister that we couldn’t go to the country club pool to swim. There was a Black side of town, a white side of town, there were Black churches and white churches, and you were polite, but there was not a lot of integration. 

Jen: Yeah.

CeCe: And so I grew up with wonderful parents, modest folks. My mom was a school teacher. She was the first in her family to go to college. My father was a professional landscaper, and my grandparents played a tremendous role in my life. That kind of environment, that Southern farm town environment really is special, because we believe really deeply that it really does take a village to raise children. 

And so I had lots of good people in my life, and my parents were so generous in letting people nurture us and love us. And so we had grandparents. My maternal grandmother, her name is Leola Evesly Grace, had a really interesting story. I remember going with her to work and she was a maid. You remember seeing the movie The Help?

Jen: Sure.

CeCe: Okay. So, that was my grandmother. And so she worked for one of the wealthiest families in the state of Virginia in our town. And what was interesting was that this family, they were the descendants of the ancestors that owned my grandmother’s ancestors. 

Jen: Wow. Whoa.

CeCe: And so, she worked for this family, and I would go with her to work, and she worked for the matriarch of that family. Her name was Ms. Dolly. And she would scrub Ms. Dolly’s floors and cook Ms. Dolly’s food and do all these things. And we were related to the Edmonds family. We were related to this family because some of the males in the Edmonds family had taken advantage of their enslaved property—the women who were their property at that time. And so, our bloodlines were mixed. And so we had a really interesting dynamic, and we still do to this day. Very interesting. 

So my grandmother did that work [during] the day, but then she’d come home and sometimes we would come home and there would be people crying on her porch. And my grandmother—sometimes we knew these people and sometimes we didn’t—would invite them in. And they were there because someone in their family had died. My grandmother, as a ministry, wrote obituaries for much of the Black community for thirty years in my town.

And that was because so many people in her generation were still illiterate. And so, her way of serving and giving back was to write for them. And they would come in—and it makes me cry. They would come in and she would say, “Tell me about them.” And she would ask me or my sister to get her manila writing pad. And she would sit down and they would start telling about their loved ones.

Jen: That’s so dear.

CeCe: And she would write out these beautiful, beautiful words about people that she did not know. And I don’t care what the profession was. I don’t care who the person was. By the end, my grandmother had crafted a story that was so dignified and so beautiful. And you would have thought these people were kings and queens, and that was her contribution. And so everyone came to her to be their scribe and to be their voice. And growing up in that way was extremely importational for me. 

And so, when I left my town, I went to Howard University for undergrad. And I had really felt called to ministry as a kid, but I didn’t have examples of female preachers. So, that all seemed really scary to me. And I wanted to avoid that the best way that I could. 

But once I was in my last year at Howard, it was very clear that I could not keep running. I couldn’t run anymore. And so I applied to Yale Divinity School and I got in. And so I went to Yale for their Masters of Divinity program, with the part of the Institute of Sacred Music Worship in the Arts, because that’s what I’ve always loved. And that’s kind of what everything that I’ve ever done has kind of flowed out of. But my journey through Yale really helped to open my eyes to the fact that ministry is so diverse, and really gave me an opportunity to grow into my ministerial skin. And that’s where I understood probably consciously for the first time that the gospel is a social gospel. I don’t have just a responsibility to what I do in four walls of a structure in terms of how I worship God, but I have an immense responsibility in terms of my witness. What does my life say? What does my life say about what I believe? And so, that really has been my journey, the beginnings of my journey.

Jen: Yeah. Thank you for telling us the story of your grandmother. I am never going to forget that. I’ll never forget that, of her just saying, “Tell me about them.” I could just cry. 

I love hearing about your legacy and how it moved you through your young adult life. I really would like to hear you talk a little bit more about that growing understanding at Yale that the gospel is a social gospel, and the way we live our lives is the way we live the gospel. Can you talk about that a little bit more and how that ultimately moved you into social justice work, particularly around abolishing the death penalty?

CeCe: Yeah. Growing up in a Black church, the Black church has always been the hub for all things civil rights and social justice for the Black community. That’s been our go-to place. That’s been it for us. But I made a choice to come out of the Black church when I was a teenager because I wanted to do this new thing called multicultural worship. And so as a teenager, I came out of the Black church and I kind of dove into white evangelicalism. 

And in that world, my experience was that I did not find much to do, much talk about justice or social issues—you guys know what I’m talking about.

Jen: Yeah, of course I do.

CeCe: And so, I lost that, to tell you the truth. After I left the Black church, I lost it. And it was at Yale that I was reminded, Oh yeah. God does have something to say about the world, and it’s not just that everybody’s going to hell. God has something profound, not just to say, but a work that He’s not just suggesting, but requiring from us. What does God require but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly? And Yale reminded me of that. Yale reminded me that my faith can’t just be a personal thing, that I’ve got to do more. And [there’s more to] the world than to stop cussing and don’t drink and be in at a certain time and manage the number of boyfriends that I have, that God requires something more of me than those things.

And so, what I really was interested in and really kind of how I started my social justice ministry, I had a really strong passion for HIV/AIDS, which at the time was really rampant in the African-American community. I started volunteering at a hospice close to Yale, AIDS hospice. And that’s the experience that broke my heart for issues that impact people.

And ever since then, God has used issues to break my heart and to call me deeper into humanity. And those issues have been AIDS, it’s been criminal justice, it’s been the death penalty. It’s been the ways that women and girls suffer around the world just because they can’t afford tampons and pads, it’s just the most ridiculous thing and breaks my heart.

So He’s used these kinds of issues to remind me that I can’t live in my own bubble. And even though I’m fine and  cozy and all is well in my world, my neighbors are struggling, my neighbors are suffering, and I’m going to have to do something about that as best as I can.

Jen: That’s a good word. 

Okay. So CeCe, we’ll start with a big idea, and then we’ll kind of parse it out and break it out into some different pieces. So obviously the words justice system, as we’ve mentioned, [are] super loaded, super loaded. Because if you’re a Black woman or man in this country, you’ve spent your entire life thinking about the justice system in one way that your white counterparts would never. And the word justice ends up losing its integrity. If you’re a Black family or you have Black kids, you have to teach them a completely different set of guidelines for responding if they are stopped by the police. And we are watching these cycles of injustice play out in the lives of real human people right now. 

And so this is a really big question, and I don’t know how to do this one. But I wonder if you could just high level the state of the justice system today, and then maybe begin explaining why Black women and men make up a huge disproportionate part of its population in the prisons.

CeCe: Yeah. Jen, let me tell you first that I’m so not an expert in criminal justice reform. I’m just a woman who found something that needed some attention and said yes to it. But I have learned so, so much along the way. 

I mean, when we consider the problem of mass incarceration in the United States, Bryan Stevenson of EJI—Equal Justice Initiative—talks about how slavery didn’t end, it just evolved. And what slavery looks like today is mass incarceration. The United States has something like five percent of the world’s population, but almost twenty-five percent of the world’s incarcerated population. The first problem is that we incarcerate the most and we incarcerate way too often. Okay?

When we think about the fact that we spend billions and billions of dollars in jails and prisons, when we consider that in the seventies, there was something like 200,000 people incarcerated in the US, but today it’s 2.2 million. And on top of that, how our criminal justice system is impacting our most vulnerable, how they’re impacting minorities, including women. I think 1980 and 2017, the number of women in jails and prisons in the U.S. grew by 750%. And so this is a massive, massive problem, and I am so deeply grateful for the experts, for people like Bryan Stevenson and his work with Equal Justice Initiative. 

And that information that I just shared, those statistics can be found at eji.org. But I’m so grateful that people have been working at this for literally decades. Now we’re starting to pay attention. And I think it’s because we can’t ignore it anymore. We have stories that are emerging and catching our attention and breaking our hearts. And we can’t turn away from them anymore.

We’ve got Kalief Browder, the Central Park five guys out of New York who were wrongfully convicted. So the issues of the rates of wrongful convictions in this country, the rates of putting children in adult prison, the excessive punishments we give—and I know where I’m living right now, Oklahoma, is—was—between first and second for mass incarceration in the United States. 

Jen: Wow.

CeCe: That’s got a lot to do with how we think about punishing people, how excessive, how punitive our systems are. So if you write a bad check in Oklahoma, God help you. People just are sent away and put away and their lives are destroyed for these nonviolent infractions. And so, you have these excessive punishments. 

You have terrible prison conditions. People are in solitary confinement, and for me, that’s one of the worst things, solitary confinement. When we think about what it’s been like to be in our houses and confined during Coronavirus, And we think about how folks are confined to these little bitty cells…

Jen: Oh, so cruel.

CeCe: For not just days, not just months like us, like years, and years, and years. You have to wonder what we as a society believe is going to emerge from such an experience. Do we think that a human soul can survive and emerge well when they’ve been locked in the dark for twenty years? What do we think is coming out of that? So these are some of the things that really, really bothered me. And I know we’ll talk more about it: the death penalty.

But these are some of the problems that we know exist now with the United States criminal justice system. Because I think a lot of us have lived under the impression for a really long time that we’ve got it all together, that our system works all the time, that we’ve got the biggest and the brightest, and it’s part of the whole idea of American exceptionalism, I believe.

Jen: That’s right.

CeCe: And it’s a problem. The problem is rooted in how we think about ourselves as Americans, and so, therefore, how we build our systems out. We think we’re the best. We think we’re the brightest. Other countries are tearing down their prisons, because they don’t have [anyone] to put in them. So, we need to get honest and real, and we need to look outside of ourselves. We need to look outside of our country to models in other countries that are doing this better than us. 

Jen: Yes, they are. There are so many other countries who have such a completely different structure. They meet people in their need with care, with recovery, with mental health support, with community support. And these are tried and true measures for actual repair. And I really appreciate you saying that step one here is admission, that for so many people right now it feels like a reckoning, like a national reckoning in so many ways. 

And what I am seeing is, for a lot of Americans, almost a very early stage of having to confront our favorite idea, which is American virtue. We love that idea so much, and we were taught that ideal, and that was the version of history I know that I learned in my schools. And so having to confront that and admitting—maybe for the first time—we are not doing this well, and the data is clear, this is a broken system—is a really important first step.

Because then, there’s possibility on the other side of just truth telling, I think, and I feel those wins kind of rippling our culture right now. And I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful for what they might produce. 

Speaking of Oklahoma, we’re going to parse out some more on some of the incredible things you just said. But right now you’re working to commute the sentence of a man named Julius Jones. He’s on death row in Oklahoma. And of course, I have seen his case garner so much attention recently. Gosh, everyone from like Kim Kardashian to Blake Griffin and Russell Westbrook—a lot of people are talking about Julius. 

Can you discuss him a little bit? How did you hear about him? Why did you get involved in his case and what are you hoping to gain for him?

CeCe: Absolutely. Thank you for asking about Julius. 

So two years ago, I was watching TV, and I stumbled upon a docuseries called The Last Defense that was produced by Academy Award winner Viola Davis and her husband Julius Tennon. It highlighted the criminal justice system and issues in the criminal justice system. And that night, they were focused for three consecutive episodes, they focused on a man named Julius Jones who, in 1999, was a freshman on an academic scholarship at the University of Oklahoma. He had been a star basketball player in high school. His mama was a school teacher. His daddy was a cement mason and a football coach. 

And during that summer, after his freshman year, he was arrested for the murder of Mr. Paul Howell, who was a white and prominent businessman in one of the suburbs of Oklahoma City called Edmond. 

And the docuseries just really laid out some really hard things. And this, of course, would have been almost twenty years—this story was coming into light almost twenty years after the actual crime. So Julius had been on death row all that time. But Viola Davis had partnered up with The Innocence Project to identify the most troubling stories in the United States. And one of those was Julius Jones.

And the issues, there’s so many issues related to his case that people can watch the docuseries at justiceforjulius.com. But the issues included the fact that he did not have a proper representation. Julius had an attorney who passed away right before his trial was to take place. And so, he was given three public defenders who had never had death penalty experience, who didn’t seem very motivated. And when the prosecution rested, they literally stood up in court and said, “We rest.” They did not call anybody to the stand. They did not provide any information. They did not…

Jen: They didn’t defend him. 

CeCe: They didn’t defend him at all. And these folks were on the docuseries talking about the fact that, “Yeah, we did a terrible job.” I had never heard lawyers say that about themselves. “That was terrible.” I could say more about that, but moving on, a woman who had been a juror came forward some years later and said that this case had really bothered her and that another white juror referred to Julius as the N-word during the trial. And told them like, “They should just take the N-word and shoot him and take him and buried him in the back of the jail.” And that juror remained on the jury to convict him and sentenced him to death. 

Jen: Of course.

CeCe: And the truth of the matter is there’s a lot in question about whether Julius Jones even fit the description. The co-defendant definitely fit the description, and he was the one who testified against Julius and had been heard bragging in prison about pinning all of this on Julius. I mean, it’s just been a huge mess. 

So I watched that, and I couldn’t sleep. And so I Googled his attorney’s names, and I called them the next day. They were in Arizona, and I said, “Hey, my name is CeCe. I’m living in Oklahoma. I saw this, this is horrible. What can I do?” And they were like, “You’re such a nice lady, write a letter.” I’m like, “I wrote a letter last night. What can I do?”

And so long story short, I posted on Facebook and said, “Hey, did anybody else see The Last Defense?” We formed a community meeting to talk about it. And at that community meeting, his family showed up—his mother, his father, and his sister.

Jen: Wow.

CeCe: And his mother, when they walked in, I just had a really strange experience with them. When they walked in, I could just kind of feel and see the weight of the whole death penalty on these people’s shoulders. They presented like, they were kind of just bent over in posture, bent over in spirit. And they came in for the meeting. And I remember holding the mother’s hand throughout the meeting. And I can’t say why. I don’t know this lady, so I don’t know why I just held onto her hand, but I just held her hand for the entire meeting. And they said, “Thank you.” We left. 

And really quick story Jen, because I really think this is how God speaks to me. So we all leave this event and I go home, relieving my babysitter. My daughter, she’s eight. And she says, “Mom, let’s go get something to eat. Let’s go to Olive Garden.” I love Olive Garden. She’s never really been a big fan, but I said, “Okay, cool. Let’s go.” And it’s in a spot where you could go to any restaurant, because there’s restaurants all around.

We walked into the place, they sit us down, it is a completely empty place. And who sits across from us? It is the Jones family—the mother and the sister at the same time in the same building on the same side from each other when we could have been sitting anywhere. We speak, they leave. And my waitress comes to say, “They said, ‘Thank you so much.’ And they paid for your bill.”

Now, when I say that, I know that so many people hear me say that, and it’s like, “Well, that’s a nice thing.” But I’m going to tell you the way that that weighed on me, I knew in that moment God was saying, “Keep going. Keep going.” And I sat there like these people had written me a check for thousands of dollars or something. I just sat there and cried in my spaghetti. 

That was the beginning, because I realized that these people, they needed a voice, they needed support. They needed somebody that would be the scribe for them. They needed somebody that tells their story. They needed somebody that would lift them up and help to restore dignity and honor and grace back to the experience and back to their lives. They had been quiet and solid and not heard for all of these years.

And so that’s how it began. And it’s been the hardest thing I have ever done, trying to get somebody of death row. I can’t even describe, I can’t even describe.

Jen: I am hanging on every word you are saying right now. Can you tell us where you are? Where’s the case right now?

CeCe: Yeah. So in October of 2018, was it ’18, 2019, Julius filed a commutation application with the pardon and parole board. And so basically what he’s asking is for them to review his case, look at all of the information, even information that was not available at the time, have mercy on him, and grant him time served. We desperately believe that Julius Jones deserves that. 

And so, we are, me and all the celebrities that you named, and an organization called Represent Justice, Scott Budnick who’s the producer of the movie Just Mercy, we’re all fighting to try to get this man home to his family.

Jen: Oh my gosh. Is there anything that we can do, all of us who are listening to this right now?

CeCe: Yeah, for sure. First, I really would love for people to go hear his story for themselves. Again, it’s justiceforjulius.com. You go watch the docuseries that got me all fired up about it. You can sign the change.org petition that at this point, I think has almost six million signatures. You can send a letter to the governor and to the pardon and parole board asking for mercy for this man, and you can stay with us. We really need people to keep sharing on social media. So follow all of the Justice for Julius stuff on social media [Facebook, Instagram, Twitter]

And just what I tell people all the time is take a piece of this, take just a little piece of this as your personal responsibility. Because if we all do that, just take a little piece, then it doesn’t land on just a handful of people. And more people are aware, more people know about it, and we can get more done.

Jen: Do you feel like the wheels of justice are moving forward at all for him, specifically for Julius? Are you getting any traction?

CeCe: Yes. I think the fact that it’s come to light, it has built such a momentum. But there is definitely wickedness in high places. And when we talk about coming against an entire system, I am talking about coming against the good ol’ boy network. I am talking about coming against racism. I’m talking about the criminalization of Black men before they have stepped out of their houses. I am talking about people who are really, really powerful and who won’t gain anything for letting the truth out.

Jen: For mercy.

CeCe: And so it is a David and Goliath situation. I want to be very, very clear and not to get all churchy on you, Jen, but I have to tell you that one of the main components to this justice work for me is intercession. If I didn’t have people with me who I could drop to my knees with and ask God and God’s angels and whatever else to go before us, there’s no way in the world we would have gotten this far. And so I 100% identify with people who have struggled against systems for so long. It is gruesome.

Jen: I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about what racism looks like baked into our justice system. You mentioned, it’s not just the good ol’ boys club, which is an apt description. It is Goliath, and it is operating exactly how it was designed to operate. So it’s not a mistake that we have so much racism and injustice inside our justice system. That’s literally how it was created to function, and it’s right on time. 

And so this again is one of those things, to use your earlier bit of wisdom, is an admission. We start here with admission because I think there’s an idea of virtue and justice inside the system that we—especially white people—can count on, especially if they have money. If you’re a certain kind of person, you can count on the justice system favoring you and being on your side, something that you can believe in and count on. That is simply not the case. And so I realized this is a huge idea, but can you talk more about what racism looks like seeded inside the system from top to bottom?

CeCe: Here’s what I can say: that it’s not just about race. I want to acknowledge that it’s not just about race. It’s about poverty.

Jen: Poverty too. Right.

CeCe: Bryan Stevenson always talks about you’re better off if you are rich and guilty than poor innocent in this country. And that’s the truth. And I think that’s one of the factors that we did see play out in the poor defense of Julius Jones. 

When you think about our whole tough on crime policies that really were born out of the era where drugs were rampant in the United States, when we think about how crimes related to drug trafficking and drug use, the fact that today we look at the opioid crisis as a health matter when where in the eighties and the nineties we looked at the crack epidemic as a criminal matter. When you consider who those populations impact the most, that crack was a Black drug. Opioids [are] a white drug. We think about how differently we approach those populations. That speaks a whole lot to what goes on among the disparities in the criminal justice system. Think about back in the day, the sentencing, if you were caught with crack, as opposed to cocaine. It was a lot of Black folks with crack, a whole lot of white folks with cocaine. If you had cocaine, you got a lighter sentence, if a sentence at all. 

When you think about the fact that even a lot of states have abolished the death penalty, because they realized that historically it is a racist practice.

And so, there are so many things and I don’t even have time to tell it all, but in terms of sentencing, think about, Jen, marijuana. Think about how marijuana was a terrible crime and the worst thing somebody could do. And if you were caught with a little bit of marijuana, these Black men who were selling marijuana went to prison for decades, years, and years, and years, and years. And you think about how marijuana has become now an industry.

Jen: That’s right. 

CeCe: Who is benefiting from that industry the most?

Jen: That’s right, right. White folks.

CeCe: Right. It is not African-Americans. And so the industry is now trending when so many Black men have lost years and years of their lives because they had a bag of marijuana in their pocket. 

Jen: That’s right. 

CeCe: It’s outlandish, it’s outlandish. 

One of the worst stories—I’ll tell you quickly. One of the worst stories that I have ever heard, but one of the most beautiful and profound stories as well: Anthony Ray Hinton, an African-American man in Alabama, who spent something like twenty plus years on Alabama’s death row for a crime that a simple ballistics test could have proven he did not commit. But because his life didn’t have enough value, they let him rot. They let him sit there and rot. He wrote a book called, The Sun Does Shine. It was on Oprah’s Book Club and everything. And on days when I feel really disheartened dealing with racism and death penalty and criminal justice reform, I turn him on, and I listen to his book or listen to one of his speeches somewhere. And he energizes me. Because I remember that now, Okay, these are human beings whose lives have meaning and value. And if our governments don’t believe that, if our governments don’t lean into that, if our prosecutors and AGs and DAs, and our governors, et cetera, won’t lean into that, then God’s people must. We must remember and remind each other and the world at all times that everybody’s life matters. And we cannot just allow Goliaths to throw people away. We just cannot.

Jen: I met Anthony Ray Hinton at EJI in Montgomery. And he had been very recently released and walked into the room. And I’ll tell you that I’ll never forget it. And he spoke to us and told a story, and we just gathered around him and just put our hands on him and sobbed and prayed that God, in some miraculous way, would restore to him all those stolen years. I’m sorry. I could cry again. 

CeCe: I know. 

Jen: I saw it on him. I saw it on his body, on his face. And Bryan Stevenson is an absolute hero. I’m so happy that you keep mentioning him. Almost nobody has taught me more about the justice system, and he’s a tireless, tireless champion. 

This is real. This is important. I’m sure also one of my greatest resources to learn about this in the most just intricate way was Michelle Alexander‘s book, of course, The New Jim Crow, which is dense. It took me a month to get through it. But this is real and this is happening on our watch.

I wonder, I know there are people listening right now, talking about the justice system and inequity and inequality built into it, it flattens me in my chair. It is. It’s one of these things that,I’m like you, I’ll just cry myself to sleep. And it keeps me up at night.

For people listening who are disturbed as we should be, what would you just suggest, be it a resource, a place to learn, a place to volunteer, whatever you want to offer, whatever you want to suggest. If someone says, “I would like to either know more or do more in my own community, like where I live in my city, in my state.”

CeCe: I would suggest people see if they start with your county jail, some county jails allow folks to come in and do a tour. Get in there and look around at the conditions. Now some county jails are better than others around the country, but get in there and get a sense of what does it mean to be incarcerated at a basic level? That’s the easy one.

Another thing I would really encourage people to do is find your reentry programs in your cities or towns and volunteer. Because you will be working with, first of all, professionals who’ve been doing this criminal justice reform work a long time, probably. But you’ll also get acquainted and come into proximity—another thing that Bryan is always talking about—come into proximity with people who have been in the justice system. And so when you talk about Mr. Hinton and you being able to see that on him, to see the impact on his face and the impact on his body, when you come into and be able to meet eyes with people who have these kinds of experiences, it changes the way in which you think about how crime needs to be handled in this country.

When we start to humanize people who have been involved in the justice system in the United States, and you’re able to hear their stories and see their faces, and then maybe participate in helping them get back integrated into society, that is a really, really powerful thing, because then it really informs what you think about the whole process. It really for me reinforces what I said earlier, which is that people have value. People may have not always made the right decisions. And there are some people that have done some horrible things. And I’m not denying that in any way, shape, or form. But people’s lives still have value. 

Jen: Yes, they do.

CeCe: And what can we do to help restore folks? We need better restorative justice practices in the United States. 

And I would also just encourage people to read. Google “restorative justice models” and compare those to what you see us do in the United States. I think if we knew how to fix it in the United States, I think it’d already be fixed. I think it’s our pride. 

Jen: Attitude.

CeCe: Again, that American exceptionalism thing that keeps us from believing that somebody somewhere else has something to offer us. And we can get some good information from some other folks outside of the United States of America.

Jen: What do you know? What do you know? That is indeed possible. And I think those are fantastic first steps. And I’m so proud of you and grateful for your work. And I’m really moved by Julius and committed to using my space also to work toward justice for him. And one thing that we’re seeing right now in our culture is that when we raise our collective voices loud enough, we see change. 

And so it’s not small. I really appreciated what you said about, “Take one little piece of this. Just one.” That you’re not responsible for the whole thing. If we’ll all take one piece of it and make it known clearly, loudly, this matters, this creates change, it’s not small.

CeCe: No. That’s it. That’s it. We have to, because it’s too heavy a burden for any one person, but it’s doable if we all participate.

Jen: Yes. Amen. 

Okay. We’re going to wrap up here and I’m going to ask you CeCe a couple of questions that I’m asking everybody in the series. And you can just kind of go top of your head here. This first one, obviously, this could go on probably forever, so you’re just going to have to pick, but who have been some of your greatest role models?

CeCe: My mother, my grandmothers, the preacher women who have guided me and mentored me along the way and let me know that it’s okay to be myself and to be visible in ministry. It has been Oprah and Bryan Stevenson and Michelle Obama. It has been Joyce Meyer. It’s been so many people. That’s just a few.

Jen: I love that. It’s so dear that the women in your lives have been the anchor, just the absolute north star in every story.

Yes. Okay. Here, how about this? Who are some, again, we’ll have to just pick here, of your favorite artists or teachers or leaders or thinkers that you would like us to be listening to and learning from right now?

CeCe: Oh, that’s hard. Nelson Mandela. Richard Rohr.

Jen: Good ones.

CeCe: Oh, God. There’s so, so many. Those are the two that come to mind.

Jen: Okay. Last question. This is a question by Barbara Brown Taylor, another priest that—I also love, by the way, that you mentioned the lady preachers. They have meant so much to me, too. I also have some prophetic gifts like you and did not know that they had a home when I was younger. I didn’t have any women in my life with that spiritual authority. And so thank you for naming them because they too have meant so much to me as models, as role models. And Barbara Brown Taylor is one of them. That was a roundabout way to say that. 

Okay, this is one of her questions. And please feel free to answer this in any which way you want to, serious or not serious. The answers run the gamut. What is saving your life right now?

CeCe: You know what I’m loving right now?

Jen: Tell me.

CeCe: That’s I.V. vitamin therapy. Because my diet is not the greatest. And I know that I don’t get the minerals and the vitamins that I need, like I need to. And so to like, go get hooked up to a machine and get some vitamins pumped into my veins feels really good and a really big self-care move. And so every time I do it, I feel like I’ve done something so good for myself. And I might live an extra fifteen years. 

Jen: I did not know that was a thing. 

CeCe: Yes! Oh my God. Yes. It’s amazing. It’s amazing. So you can go get a bag of vitamin C or B complex vitamin mix. Just all kinds of things and that’s really good.

Jen: I’m going to Google that the very second we get off this phone. That’s an incredible way to take care of our poor little lives right now. Gosh. And you’re there with a toddler, for Pete’s sake. Ooh, my goodness. Come on, world. 

Okay. Right before we hop off, I want to just tell you one more time how grateful I am to you. First of all, for just being who you are in the world—what a light you are. And for your tenacity to do really hard things. Your David and Goliath metaphor is spot on and you have chosen to take it on. And it’s a weight and it’s a burden and it’s slow and it’s full of enemies and obstacles. And yet here you are staying the course. I commend you. Deep bow. 

CeCe: Thank you.

Jen: And so thank you for bringing your work to my community. And I’m telling you right now, there will be a ton of us who want to jump into this fray with you. And so thanks for giving us handles, suggestions, resources, places to help, ways to learn. You really, really resourced us today. 

And so, I also want to say just one other thing that you said earlier, when you called on the power of intercession that I just I’m telling you, you have my word that I will continue to pray for you in your work, in your state, in your calling, in your anointing. 

CeCe: Thank you. That’s what I need. 

Jen: You’re welcome. You’re welcome. And also I commit to learning more about Julius and his case, and also just using my influence too. We all have one little piece of it. And so, I’m going to use my piece.

CeCe: Thank you, Jen. Listen, on behalf of his family and Julius Jones, I appreciate whatever little piece that you and other people that are listening will take. This is about, for me, learning, practicing laying down our lives. And I’m hoping that good things will happen for him and that I’ll be able to go do happier things. But for now, it requires somebody to lay down their lives for the moment. And I appreciate all those who will take a piece of this and help me run with it.

Jen: Perfectly said. All right, until we finally get to be together once again in this weird world, I’ll look forward to wrapping my arms around you when I see you next time. In the meantime, thank you so much for being on today.

CeCe: Thanks, Jen. You’ve been the best. Thank you.

Jen: Okay. Powerful. That’s a powerful leader. As I mentioned at the top of the show, every single thing that CeCe mentioned—the documentaries, the people, the books, the resources, the leaders—we’ll have it linked all in one place. If you go to jenhatmaker.com underneath the Podcast tab, we have the entire transcript of this conversation written out for you, plus everything mentioned linked in one place. So that might be an incredible resource for you. 

Thank you for listening. Thank you for learning what you can learn about Julius and his story and his family. Thank you for taking your one piece, your one piece of injustice and saying, “I will be responsible for this one piece.” That matters so much. 

We have so many incredible leaders in this series who are bringing their considerable knowledge to bear on our community. And I’m so grateful. We are lucky. We are lucky to get to sit at the feet of these leaders of color. And so thank you for being good listeners. Thank you for being learners. I appreciate just the wisdom and the maturity and the passion that this community always brings to the table. I am so convinced that we can be a part of some of the most monumental change that our generation might ever see. So let’s do our part, let’s own our piece. 

Thank you guys for listening. If you haven’t already subscribed to the For the Love Podcast, go take care of that real quick. And on behalf of Laura and her team, and Amanda and I, we are thankful for you and oh-so grateful to bring you this show every single week. See you next time.

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