"Abolition, Public Safety, and Who are the Experts? With Keli Young" Transcript

Season 1, Episode 17

Keli Young: You know, a lot of the times, we're operating from a place of lack and a place of struggle. And it's like, “Well, I have to make sure I'm good. I have to make sure my kids are good. I don't have time to think about what could be. Like that's never going to happen.” And I think talking about defunding the police and talking about abolition is radical just in the imagining of it.

[The song “Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in. Lyrics: “I need to know there is justice/That it will roll in abundance/ And that you’re building a city/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” The song fades out.]   

Jonathan Walton: Welcome to Shake the Dust, leaving colonized faith for the Kingdom of God, a podcast of KTF Press. My name is Jonathan Walton. I'm here with Sy Hoekstra and Suzie Lahoud.

Sy Hoekstra: Our guest this week is Keli Young. Keli is a Black Christian lawyer, community organizer, and Brooklyn native working toward Black liberation. After graduating from NYU Law, she worked in local and national criminal justice policy for five years, and she currently works as the Civil Rights Campaign Coordinator at Voices of Community Activists & Leaders, New York or VOCAL- NY.

Keli is committed to living out her faith and advocating for justice. We talked to her about what it looks like for those most effected by oppressive systems to lead movements for change, what it actually means to defund or abolish the police, redefining the idea of public safety, how our language can dehumanize people, what keeps Keli going in her difficult work, and a whole lot more

Suzie, wasn't able to make this one, but Jonathan and I talked to Keli on a dark and stormy night in New York. You're going to hear a little bit of thunder and rain. It's a really great conversation and I think you're all going to love it.

Suzie Lahoud: As a reminder, if you like this show, the best way you can support us is by going to KTFPress.com and subscribing. That gets you our weekly newsletter- curating resources to help you in discipleship and political education as you seek to leave colonized faith for the Kingdom of God, bonus episodes of this show, and writing from the three of us. It also supports this show and other projects we're working on, like future books. And, you can now get a free month of that subscription by going to KTFPress.com/freemonth. Again, that's KTFPress.com/freemonth. Also, remember to hit the subscribe or follow button on your podcast player; follow us @KTFPress on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter; and tell your friends about us.

Jonathan Walton: Now that that's out of the way, let's get to it.

[“Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in briefly, then fades out.] 

Sy Hoekstra: Keli Young, thank you so much for joining us on Shake the Dust today. We're really happy to have you here.

Keli Young: Thank you for having me.

Sy Hoekstra: So first of all, can you just explain what exactly it is that VOCAL does, and what your role is there?

Keli Young: Yeah. So VOCAL- NY began over 20 years ago as the New York AIDS Housing Network, and really doing advocacy around access to medication for people with HIV, and making sure that they had access to housing and the resources that they needed in order to effectively take these drugs and survive. Then we grew up out of that to bring in a lot of the other intersecting issues that face who was mostly directly impacted by HIV/AIDS, which were Black and brown low-income people. So that included the war on drugs, homelessness, and the mass incarceration crisis.

So we grew from New York City to include chapters in Albany and Westchester and Rochester and Syracuse and Buffalo. So all throughout the state of New York. And we're really grounded in the principles of traditional community-based organizing and Black-led social movements for racial justice. And the central premise where I work, is that the people who are directly impacted by these issues are the ones who should be leading the fight. My role at VOCAL, I am the civil rights campaign coordinator. So my job is really taking cues from our members and our leaders who are directly impacted by mass incarceration. So that could mean that they themselves have gone to jail or prison, that they have loved ones who have been in jail or prison, or who have been brutalized by the police, or have just had contact with our carceral system. So that can look a lot of different ways.

And all of the work is aimed towards ending mass incarceration. So that happens in a lot of different ways and on a lot of different levels of government. So it could be at the city level, working with city council members around our budget. We’re trying to defund the police and other carceral institutions. That could be on the state level, working towards parole justice for people who have been in prison for decades, or people who have aged out of crime, and just making sure that there are avenues for people actually to be released from prison.

Sy Hoekstra: Can I ask just for clarification, I think I know what you mean by this, but when you say, “aged out of crime” what do you mean by that?

Keli Young: Yeah, so there’s a ton of research to show that the older we get, the less likely we are to engage in criminalized behavior. So one of the bills that we are pushing is the Elder Parole bill, and that's on the state level, and it's just creating meaningful opportunities for release for people who have been in prison. I don't want to get the numbers wrong, but just for a number of years, and folks, and they would have been over 55 at this point now.

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah. That makes sense.

Jonathan Walton: So thank you again for being with us Keli, and for breaking all of that down. What is the importance to you of being part of a movement that's led directly by people affected by the systems you're trying to change? That was something I noticed that was special about VOCAL. Could you talk about that?

Keli Young: Yeah, and I agree that it is special. So I'll kind of start from the beginning, I guess. So I've always wanted to be a lawyer. I've always wanted to advocate on behalf of people who are silenced by systems. Then I think very quickly out of law school, I heard about the term “movement lawyering.” And I'm certain it existed before, and it's just something that I'd heard about. Law for Black Lives defines it as taking direction from directly impacted communities and from organizers, as opposed to imposing our leadership or expertise as legal advocates. And I think the first time I heard that, it really resonated with me and spoke to the tension that I was feeling in the work that I was doing before I came to VOCAL.

Which was policy work around criminal justice reform, but it wasn't… we didn't take our cues from people who were directly impacted. So it was hard for me to kind of grapple with who are we actually helping if we're not talking to the people who've lived this out. If we're not taking our cues from the people who are experts on how the system fails. And I think VOCAL is very intentional about making sure that our leaders are central and at the forefront of all of the decisions that we make. So for me on a day to day, that's… one of our leaders reached out and said, we're having a vigil and parole justice rally, can we bring people out? And my answer is yes, because I take the cues from my leaders. They tell me what they think is important. They tell me where they want us to show up and I coordinate that. But really, I'm taking the cues from them when they say, “We really want to work around qualified immunity, because our loved ones are being brutalized in jails and prisons.” Then that's what we do.

Then also it's, just for practical reasons, people who have used drugs are going to be the experts on how to prevent overdose. People who have been in jails and prisons are going to be the experts on how to make those systems more humane or abolish them altogether. People who have been homeless are going to be the best housing advocates. It just, we rely heavily on the expertise that our members have because of what their lived experiences are.

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah. It seems like such a simple idea, but it is something that is really not intuitive within the policy world.

Jonathan Walton: Right. Not intuitive and actively resisted.

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah.

Keli Young: No, it's true. I mean, there's a lot of ego among attorneys. And even the way I thought about the kind of lawyer I wanted to be was one where I'm front and center. I'm making the arguments. I’m telling my client what the best strategy is and things like that, just because that's how you, that’s what you're taught a lawyer is. And a lot of times that kind of lawyering is harmful for individuals and for communities, because it's not centered on what the client actually needs all the time or what is, what communities need all the time.

Sy Hoekstra: Okay, so you mentioned movement lawyering. And when I was in law school, I learned about this as well. It sounded intuitive, it made sense to me in terms of like the idea is, you take your cues from the people, like you said, who are affected by the systems, and people even go so far as to advocate like you should live among those people. You should do your best to try and experience the world the way that they experience it. You should try and have the same challenges, to a certain degree, or at least live where people are, and.. And in like a practical way, it made a lot of sense.

It was kind of like, yeah, the lawyers who serve people who are being oppressed by oppressive systems, should basically have the same relationship to those people that the rich lawyers who are serving rich people have, right? Like they're living the same lives, they're experiencing the same things. They have the cultural understanding of their clients, they’re et cetera, et cetera.

Keli Young: Yeah, I definitely agree with being, and I'm going to quote Bryan Stevenson, who I love…

Sy Hoekstra: Proximate.

Keli Young: Exactly. With being proximate. I do not, though, believe in manufacturing struggle.

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah.

Jonathan Walton: Yes, that’s a fair distinction.

Keli Young: I don't think that you need to be like, “I'm going to live on the streets to see what homelessness is like.” I would not advocate for that at all. Because then I kind of think what also happens is like, so you're not listening to people who are homeless tell you what it's like to be homeless. And even in doing that, there's still privilege in being able to say like, “I'm going to try out this thing and see how it is so that I can advocate better for the people who don't have a choice but to live this way.” Yeah. So I would not do it that way.

Yeah, and I don't know what the answer is to that. I do think that there is a level where people do need to give up privileges. I don't… I just think it lacks sincerity if it's like I'm only doing this to see how the most directly impacted among us is.

Sy Hoekstra: Or so I can be a leader who's done my progressive due diligence, and now I can like, I don't have to have as much guilt about the fact that I’m still acting from a place of incredible privilege.

Keli Young: Yeah, I think in that regard, it's like you don't belong in the forefront. Just move. Let the person who has experienced those things be in front. And you can be a resource, you can use your privilege to give people platforms, but you don't, you already have acknowledged that that's not the space you should be occupying, because it's not your lived experience.

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah, I think that’s a good point of integrity and is definitely like a tension that you just can't escape when you're in an elite institution like a law school, where so many of the people who are trying to serve just don't come from the populations that they're serving. A lot of them don't anyways. So part of it then is really just like the difficulty for a lot of lawyers who come from, I think like wealthier backgrounds or whatever, for white lawyers, to just accept, you need to really, really be in the background on this, and like a lawyer who comes from the same population as you're trying to serve is actually going to be doing a better job for real reasons.

Not for whatever you think it is. Not for like affirmative action reasons or diversity reasons or whatever, but there are real expertise that you don't have. I think that was just something that I, I don't know, I ran into a lot in law school that was kind of hard for people to swallow.

Keli Young: Yeah, definitely. And I think even just in being a lawyer, there's some times where it's like we don’t… Like lawyers are not always necessary, and I think coming to terms with that is important.

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah. Litigation isn’t always the answer.

Keli Young: Yeah. And it's like even for me, yes, I was born and raised in an overly policed community. So I have a lot of the same experiences as a lot of the people I work with in some regards. We can both say we come from the same community, we have a lot of shared cultural understandings. But I don't know what it is to be in prison. I don't know what it is to be homeless. There's still, even as a Black woman from a low-income community that was overly policed, there are times where I still need to be in the background. There's a lot of times when I need to be in the background. And I'm always blown away by our members and our leaders, because of, yes, they have the experience of being brutalized by these carceral systems, but there's also a power in being able to speak up out of that experience.

And then just like, just a brilliance and a knowledge about the system and how it works having been inside of it, and seeing those injustices. I think they can speak to the corruption and injustice and violations in a way that I never could. Like I'll never be able to do it the same way. And it's not like, “Oh, I need to go to prison to see what it's like.” It's like, “No, I need to sit down and let them talk.” Yeah, and so I think, I do think there's a level of humility that is required to actually effectuate the change that we want to see.

Jonathan Walton: So it sounds like what you were saying was that people need to own their identity, own their experiences, and own their privilege and not consume other people's experiences to create a new thing for them, right, for themselves? And I'm wondering, how does that look on a day-to-day basis, like when you're experiencing issues? If you're doing a case around mass incarceration or you're advocating for something around homelessness, how do you try to embody that in your everyday?

Keli Young: Yeah, that's a good question. So right now we are having meetings with the democratic nominees with city council, because they’re the people we're going to have to lean on when we want the police defunded. So we want to start early with building relationships and just seeing where we're aligned. So my role, or rather my fellow’s role, who has been amazing, and I'm sad she's going to leave for the summer, has been scheduling those calls, and my role is making the agenda. But then my leaders are the ones who are naming what the crises are. They're talking about what the problem is with homelessness. They're talking about what the problem is with mass incarceration and drug use, and just access to resources and the injustices that they're seeing in their communities and how their families are, or even themselves have being brutalized by the system. And what changes that they want to make, and what questions they have for these electives. And I think the way on a day-to-day basis I do the work, is I create the space, but the leaders and the members of VOCAL are the ones who occupy it. Who speak up out of their experiences.

And then even, like a lot of times with press, we'll be at events or we'll get requests. And it's hard and it's something that I'm still trying to get better at. Because sometimes it's easier to just say, “Okay, I'm going to answer the question for the journalist and move on, and check that off.” But those are opportunities for me to then lean on my leaders and say, “Hey, we got this request. Do you want to talk to this journalist? Do you want to be interviewed for this story?” And it takes more work, because then it's like, okay, we got to talk, we got to prep. We got to do these things, I have to make sure that they feel comfortable. But I think that that's the role. Where it's like, I could just be the person who always talks to the press. I could do that, but I wouldn't be doing my job. Because my job is about developing the political power of people who are most directly impacted. And doing that is handing off media requests and press requests to the leaders and letting them be the ones who are quoted in those stories and letting them be the ones who are really the experts in the field, because they are.

Jonathan Walton: Yeah, that honestly sounds like the proper application of their voice, where it's like, quote, unquote “be a voice for the voiceless.” You just like hand the mic to the people that nobody will listen to.

Keli Young: Yeah, no, exactly.

Jonathan Walton: Yeah, that’s great.

Keli Young: It's happened where it's like, I was… we had a protest commemorating the one year since George Floyd was murdered by police. And there was a ton of reporters there and they were like, “Can we talk to you?” And then it's literally me turning around, looking for one of my leaders and be like, “Talk to this person.” And that's it.

Jonathan Walton: That's awesome.

Sy Hoekstra: Okay. So a couple of times now, switching gears a little bit, you've mentioned abolition, you've mentioned defunding. Can we just define these terms for people? Because there is so much misinformation out there.

Jonathan Walton: Yes.

Sy Hoekstra:  And I… we talked briefly before we did the episode on foster care a few weeks ago, and I brought up abolition a little bit and just telling the very basic fact that it's not about literally just getting rid of any sort of system for, in that case, child safety or child protection, but it's about radically transforming and rebuilding more life-affirming systems. But how do you define it? How do you think about it, or how does VOCAL New York think about it?

Keli Young: Yeah. So, well, one, I will say I don’t know if VOCAL New York would say that it's like an abolitionist organization. So I’ll just say that. But I do think that it's important and it's even important for a lot of our members and our leaders to make the distinction between knowing what we mean when we say defund, and then what abolition is. So the call to defund the police, which it is like a catchphrase. It's a hashtag and it requires a lot of unpacking. But really, it is a call to divest from harmful institutions. So that can be the police, that can be the district attorney. That can be Department of Corrections. And then always within the call for defunding, and a lot of times in conversation a narrative is lost, is the reinvestment in communities of the resources that they need.

That's housing, that's access to health and mental health resources. That’s access to jobs. That's access to clean spaces. It’s access, it’s space to grow and thrive. So I think that's what we mean when we say defund. It is not about the removal of these institutions overnight. But for VOCAL though, it is calling for the immediate removal of police from homelessness, substance use, and behavioral mental health responses. We just believe, and I think the data bears this out, that our city's response to… and that's police response, that's court response, that's corrections response to homelessness, substance use, and behavioral mental health crises is just ineffective to say the least. And then at times it's deadly. It’s just, it's deadly and there's no, it's not a space that these actors should be occupying and it's not a long-term solution. It's not like, “Oh yeah, we want to dismantle policing and it's going to take years.” Yes. But the removal of them from these instances needs to happen immediately.

So like, I think defund is, it's not the same as abolition, but it is on the track to abolition. So by removing police from these spaces where they are ineffective or harmful, and by investing in communities, I think it will show over time that these systems are not necessary. These systems are not effective, these systems do not make us safe. And it makes the argument for abolition, which is the complete removal of policing as we know it. Of corrections as we know it. So I think defund is a necessary first step on the way to complete abolition of these carceral systems that are rooted in white supremacy and capitalism. Oh, I will also say, I think people panic when we talk about abolition and it's like, “Well, what are we going to have? What's going to keep us safe? What happens when this bad thing happens?” Where like people are like, “Well, what if I get shot?” It's like, you're going to need a doctor. You're going to get health care. You're going to need sick leave. You're going to need infrastructure in place to make sure you can heal. The harm has already been done. Police are not going to help you in this situation.

So I think, and yeah, I think there's, and I think you said this before, Sy: there's a thinking around abolition that we're talking about taking things away and like, we're not going to have anything. But I think on the contrary, abolition is about having everything. It's about, it's like an invitation to imagine how our communities could be without these oppressive systems. Like what does it look like to have everything we need? What does it look like for everyone in our community to be housed, to have access to resources? And that's not, I don't think that's something that we've ever seen. And a lot of the times we're operating from a place of lack and a place of struggle.

And it's like, well, I have to make sure I'm good. I have to make sure my kids are good. I don't have time to think about what could be. That's never going to happen. And I think talking about defunding the police and talking about abolition is radical just in the imagining of it. And it's hard. And I will name that it is difficult just because we've been trained to think of safety in the same breath that we think of policing, and kind of like divorcing that is a lot of the work that I'm doing.

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah. Something that a lot of abolitionists point out rather frequently, is that the vast majority of crimes that are reported to the police have already happened, and the vast majority of those crimes do not get solved. Most of the time, what you're doing when you're calling 911, is putting the fact that something happened to you like in a filing cabinet somewhere in a police station, that is like the sum total of what's happening. So yeah, there's just so much room to re-imagine, even just from that one fact. And I'm not… Obviously, there are things that happen that police do in some ways solve, and people are asking you to reimagine. You the listener, to reimagine, I don't know how, like the ways that we go about solving those things and the collateral consequences of the ways that we do it now, and how those things can change, and, I just very much appreciate you laying that out for us.

Keli Young: Definitely. And I do think though that, I think on the far, far left where it's, “Just get rid of the police altogether and it’s fine.” I think there is a need to grapple with the fact that there is harm. And even when we defund the police and get rid of harmful systems altogether, there's still going to be harm. Like we are people, we hurt each other, that’s what we do. And so I think there's a need, even in conversations about defunding the police and abolition, to name that, you know, there's harm, but we want to address it in a way that does not cause more harm. And think through ways to do that.

What do we do when we don't have the option of throwing someone away? What do we do when we have to keep someone in community? How do we handle that? And I definitely, I’m not trying to say that I have all the answers to that, but I do think that is something… and it's going to look different in different communities, but I will say it's something that, at least in a lot of low-income, Black and brown communities, that happens. And it just happens organically when you build community with people. Like growing up in Brownsville, you had people who routinely had mental health crises, and you knew who those people were and you knew like, okay, they're having a moment. I'm going to call this person because I know that that person can handle it, and we're just going to leave them.

You just, you know how people need to be cared for because they're your community members. You know that if there’s, something bad happened, you know who the person is to call. You know, whether or not that's the guy at the bodega who you know is going to call your grandmother, and your grandmother is going to come like there… We have been keeping ourselves safe for a very long time, and I don't think we've been naming that as public safety. You know, I would go to school, I would have to take the train and it's like, people would report to my mom when they saw me get on the train and when they saw me go in the building. And it’s like that is public safety and that’s something that we've been doing, and we know instinctively how to keep ourselves safe. So I think a lot of it is unlearning this idea that we need to be policed by people outside of ourselves, who are outside of our communities. [Jonathan sighs deeply. Keli laughs].

Jonathan Walton: Yeah. Something that, as you’re talking, that stands out to me is this: I think the statistic is that only 21 percent of Americans actually interact with the police every year, okay? So when you're talking about public safety, we're talking about a population of people that wants to be safe from other people. That’s what it seems like to me. So I know that's a, it sounds to me like a broad assumption, but if 80 percent of the population does not interact with the police on a regular basis annually, and that could be years of not  interacting with the police, then there's a perception of safety. And then like safety from what? Right.

So I'm wondering, particularly as Eric Adams is a presumptive nominee for mayor. I'm so sorry. I feel like I just threw water on here. As public safety becomes something that is more prominent and talked about, in the real, imagined, or felt crisis of violence in the United States, what is VOCAL’s response? How do you respond to someone that says, “I'm afraid of X, and I think the police are going to help me?”

Keli Young: Yeah, that's a big question.

Jonathan Walton: I’ve been sitting here quiet for a while trying to formulate it. But anyway…

[laughter]

Keli Young: So a lot of answers. One, one of the things that we noticed in our most recent budget fight trying to defund the police, is that there is an overwhelming lack of community buy-in and alignment around what we mean when we say defund the police and invest in communities. So a lot of the work that we're doing now, is around having those conversations with people and getting to the root of like what do you mean when you say public safety? What actually makes you feel safe? And then, and recognizing… because I think what needs to happen, there needs to be a level of trust where the 80 percent of people who don't interact with the police, trust the 20 percent of people who do. And who are saying, “Yeah, no, they don't keep us safe.” If anything, they cause us harm. And I think… because there's a real disconnect and it will only require trust, and I think it goes back to what we were saying, where it's like, this is not your lived experience. It will never be your lived experience. So the only option you have if you're actually trying to achieve a greater end, is to trust the people who are directly impacted when they say, “Police don't keep us safe, and these are the things that we need to keep us safe.”

One of the ways we're trying to do that, is like with deep canvassing and it's something that we're hoping to roll out in the fall, where we have those conversations. Where it’s like, what has your interactions with police officers been? Because for a lot of people, even within the 20 percent of people who do interact with the police, a lot of, there's a lot of times where those interactions are requested. Like people are calling for the police. They're like, “This thing happened and I need you to come.” Whereas like in communities where I grew up, they were an occupying force. Nobody called for them. They were just there all the time. Even I'm in Crown Heights now, and I'll walk in the park and they're literally in their vans in the park, like just driving around the park. And it's like, no one is asking for you to be there. You're not here because I asked you to. You're not here to be in community with me to make me feel safe. Or at least that is not how I'm perceiving it.

So I think what's needed is conversations around what actually makes us feel safe. Because even in Brownfield there are… and I think a lot of it is generational, because even talking to my parents sometimes, there are huge disconnects. Where it’s like, “You don't mean like ‘abolish the police.’ Like cuz we still need the police.” Which is baffling to me sometimes. But policing looked different when my parents were growing up. There was community policing, and you knew who the officers were and they lived in the community. And so it was a sense of, and in that way it created a sense of safety.

But I think creating a space where people can speak up out of what their experiences have been with police. Because sometimes they’re going to be like, “Oh yeah, the police officer came because I was locked out and they helped me." And then you can be like, “Well, did that person need to have a gun?” Or you can be like, “Oh yeah, this person was experiencing a crisis, and the cop came and talked to them and helped them.” And it's like, “Okay, well, did that person need to have a gun?” Because, at the bottom line, we're not saying that things won't happen, but does the person who responds to it need to respond with violence?

Sy Hoekstra: And a license to kill people who make them feel nervous.

Keli Young: Yeah. And I think just having the conversation. And that's hard because there's a lot of things where people get upset, people shut down and it's like, “I don't want to defund. I don't want to talk about it.” Or on the flip side, like from my perspective, I could get frustrated with somebody and be like, “You just don't get it, I'm not going to listen to you. You don't understand.” But I think there needs to be a willingness on all the sides to just listen. And then, I don’t know, in a very real way, we're operating against like evil forces that want there to be people who are policed. So I think that's like the top layer over all the work that I'm doing is like, yes, we can agitate communities into action and to fighting against this, but there are still people in positions of power who benefit from the status quo. And so grappling with that is its own… I don't know what word to use, but yeah.

[laughter]

Sy Hoekstra: Do you not know what word to use because we told you you can't swear on the podcast?

Keli Young: [laughs]

Jonathan Walton: Basically. So you’ve share a lot of heavy things with us, that you deal with every day. From growing up where you grew up, to actively working against systems and structures that occupied your neighborhood. What's your motivation for doing this kind of work, and how do you maintain the energy and the hope to do it?

Keli Young: Yeah. I mean, the energy, I don't always maintain that [laughs]. But I think the motivation, really is like I want to be free. I want to be able to just be, and I can't, because there are systems in place that is just dead set on the control and devastation of people who look like me. So a lot of it is selfish. It's like, I want everyone to be free so that I can be free. And I think that that should be everyone’s reason for doing justice work, really. Because you see that like all of our liberation is just tied up in each other. I want to be able to get to the other side of imagining a world where we all have the resources that we need to thrive.

I grew up… I don't, yeah, I don't have another answer. I don't know what other work I would be doing [laughs]. I'm trying to think. I'm like, if I wasn't doing this kind of work, like there was no other lawyer I wanted to be.

Sy Hoekstra: That's, I can attest to that. That was the last bullet with Keli. There was literally nothing else she wanted to do.

[laughter]

Jonathan Walton: That's all right.

Keli Young: And I think a lot of it is like being raised where I was raised. And I will say, Brownsville is a beautiful place. I think people are like, “Ooh, you was raised in this neighborhood and it was terrible.” And it's like Brownsville is great, the people who live there are great. If government structures invested in Brownsville the way they invest in other communities, it would be even greater. And so I think being raised there and being raised in a Black church where faith and activism went hand in hand, kind of just developed my worldview really. And my understanding of my faith and who Jesus was. Jesus is an abolitionist, guys.

Jonathan Walton: Amen. Absolutely.

Sy Hoekstra: Please elaborate.

Keli Young: Like he came to dismantle institutions of oppression. That was his whole jam. He was fighting for freedom. He was like, “These are the people I'm aligned with.” And those people were homeless people. Jesus was homeless. He was a refugee. He was a criminal. Like that's his identity and that's the identity of people he brought alongside him. So I think a huge part of faith is advocacy. So I think, and growing up for me, it was regular to just see elected officials and candidates come into the church and talk about how they were going to fight for communities, and then we would be loud if they weren't. If they didn't like hold true to those promises.

So I think, yeah, my faith and my advocacy have always been intertwined in a way where I think I'm grateful for the space I'm in now, because I think there're just more opportunities for me to kind of talk about them both at the same time, which is cool and wasn't happening before. So I'm always excited, like Sy, even when you asked me to do this I'm like, “Yes, I want to talk about justice because I think that's all that Jesus was talking about.” And he was murdered for it. And I think that that is what happens all the time in this country, and in all countries where people are fighting for people. So I think, and I think that was on purpose.

I think Jesus could have been born into any family. He could have built an actual church and a place and had a house and just was like, “People come to me,” kind of thing. And that's not what he was. He was born into poverty. He was a refugee. He was homeless, he was wrongfully convicted, he was executed. And that's not, none of it is glamorous, none of it is cute. He came for a certain kind of people, to say, “I want you to be whole.” I think my orientation of justice is about making people whole. I think that's what defunding the police is about. It’s like, take away these things that devastate communities and make them whole. That's what motivates me.

And I think if, I don't think if like God and the Christ that I'm following, I don't think if that wasn't my foundation, that I would be able to just like dive head first into this work the way that I do, because it is terrible, and it is traumatizing. Even to hear… there's like the things that I experienced growing up in the spaces that I did, but listening to the experiences of VOCAL members and VOCAL leaders day in and day out. Like it'll just be a casual conversation, and they're talking about how their loved one is brutalized again in prison. And it is devastating, and I think victory is promised. So I think that is what keeps me going. We have to win. There is no other option.

Jonathan Walton: Amen.

Sy Hoekstra: I realized I was nodding a lot while you were saying all those things.

Keli Young: Oh, good. Good. I can't see you. I'm like, “Are they listening?”

Sy Hoekstra: Well, not only can you not see me, but the listeners also. Like that is just utterly pointless to be sitting here nodding.

[laughter]

Jonathan Walton: Yeah. Verbalize your nodding.

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah, for real. Start saying the word “nod” as I do it.

Keli, I'm so happy you were here. This is great. This is exactly what I knew it would be.

Keli Young: Yay!

Sy Hoekstra: I knew you would be fantastic and passionate and a delight to talk to. Where can people follow you and is there anything that you would like to plug?

Keli Young: Yeah. One of the things I want to encourage people to do is, literally to watch their mouths. Language is life, and it informs how we view ourselves and how we view others. And one of the things that we are very adamant about at VOCAL is always using people-centered language across all of the issues. And it's something where it does require a lot of grace because we're not always going to get it right. But I think if you approach it with a level of intention, it has the power to really transform the world. Like calling people who are incarcerated, people who are incarcerated instead of prisoners or inmates, has the effect of one, making you remember that they are human, and then letting them know that you also think that they're human. Calling people who use drugs, people who use drugs instead of addicts, reminds you that they are people first. And even when we're talking about public safety, there… de Blasio was constantly talking about wanting to clean up the streets so that tourists will want to come back.

Sy Hoekstra: Because the people who are there are dirt.

Keli Young: Exactly. It’s like, so, what?! Yeah, and I think it requires a level of consciousness and a critical mind to hear what is being said when people talk about cleaning up the streets. Or even like for people who use drugs, where it’s like, oh, like talking about dirty needles. Or saying, “Oh, this person is clean because they're not using drugs,” suggests that people who do use drugs are not clean. Or like having someone's blood on a needle makes it dirty. It's like, it's a used syringe and this person is using drugs. The connotations that our language has, I think perpetuates a lot of the stigma and allows for a lot of the harmful policies to continue.

Because it's a lot harder to legislate for harmful policies when you are using people first language. Where you have to actually reckon with the humanity of the people who will be impacted by these policies. And I think it starts, it can start at home, just making sure what you're saying is in full recognition of the humanity of the people you're talking about.

Jonathan Walton: Amen.

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah. That’s a very good practical step. I appreciate that very much for the listeners. Is there anything from VOCAL- NY or anywhere else that you want people to check out?

Keli Young: If folks are interested in learning more or actually being boots on the ground with us, you can follow VOCAL-NY @VOCALNewYork on Twitter.

Sy Hoekstra: So they'll actually, you can actually get like volunteer opportunities and stuff from that?

Keli Young: Yeah. And if you're interested in organizing opportunities with VOCAL New York, you can visit us at Vocal-ny.org, and click Contact Us.

Sy Hoekstra: Awesome, Keli Young, thank you so much for being here. We were so happy to have you.

Keli Young: This was amazing, thank you for having me.

Jonathan Walton: Thank you.

[“Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in briefly, then fades out.] 

Jonathan Walton: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Shake the Dust. Please make sure to subscribe to our blog at KTFPress.com, and don't forget, you get a free month of that subscription by going to KTFPress.com/freemonth. That's KTFPress.com/freemonth. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @KTFPress, subscribe to or follow this podcast in your favorite podcast player, and write in to us at shakethedust@KTFPress.com with any questions you may have about anything that you've heard.

Our theme song is “Citizens” by Jon Guerra. Our podcast art is by Jacqueline Tam. And we will see you next week!

[“Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades back in. Lyrics: “Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” Song fades out.]  

Keli Young: Ooh, sorry that was lightening [loud rumbling noise]. Whoa, that’s not lightening. It sounds like there’s thunder coming… Sorry!

Sy Hoekstra: That was so loud!

Keli Young: I saw the lightening flash and I was like, “Oh, okay…”

Jonathan Walton: Could make our podcast sound epic.

Keli Young: Right?

Jonathan Walton: You don’t have to cut it out. Just try putting thunder in there.

Keli Young: God is cosigning. That’s what that is. Absolutely.

Jonathan Walton: Criminalized behavior. [Jonathan makes crashing noise. Keli laughs]. Amazing.