Anchoring Reform in Community Partnership

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MILPA's Executive Director, Juan Gomez, leading a closing circle with Restoring Promise staff, German corrections professionals and incarcerated people while on a global learning exchange with German prisons. Photo credit: Andre Andreev / Dresscode NY
We’re intentionally centering a different kind of partnership that reflects our commitment and accountability to communities.

MILPA’s work has contributed to an 89 percent drop in homicides in Salinas, California, where the organization is based. Their staff brings talent and skills, honed over decades, to connect with people who are incarcerated and with corrections agencies, guiding a healing process that allows prison culture to change more quickly in Restoring Promise sites than through traditional technical assistance. Our movement is stronger because of the work of organizations like MILPA. Yet at the local level, MILPA staff work in neighborhoods alongside other people of color who are marginalized, criminalized, and branded “gangsters.” MILPA members purposely include people formerly involved in gangs on their staff because they’re well positioned to organize in their community. Our partnership reminds us daily of what nonprofits risk—intentionally or unintentionally—when our efforts aren’t driven by the communities it is our mission to center.

MILPA is our partner in every sense of the word. We share funding streams and make all decisions about our research and other work in prisons together. We recruit and train staff as part of our four-person leadership structure: two leaders from MILPA and two from Vera. Cultivating our relationship took over a year’s worth of time, sensitivity, discussion, intentionality, and cultural humility. We’re learning to build across lines of race, class, gender, geography, white supremacy culture, and lived experience. Vera’s partnership with MILPA requires us to look inward: Are we really ready and able to share power? White supremacy culture trains us to fear—not listen to, trust, or follow the leadership of impacted people. But this movement is not possible without their leadership: they are experts.

Our partnership with MILPA necessitates that we face these questions head-on. This means sitting in healing and discussion circles with each other for courageous conversations, developing rapport, cultivating trust, and building solidarity. It’s in this circle process that we’ve adopted shared decision-making processes and distributive leadership practices, and it’s where we continue to address whiteness and foster healing. We don’t have all the answers. We’re imperfect—seeking, learning, and growing every day together.