By Bill Mefford
Way back in 2011 when I worked for the United Methodist Church, an incredible colleague I worked with, Laura Markle Downton, discovered that the UMC held large investments in private prison corporations, including the GEO Group. Both of us were outraged to find this out and we knew that the many, many United Methodists throughout the United States with whom we worked closely and who were either themselves directly impacted by mass incarceration or who were incarnated among people directly impacted by mass incarceration were going to be outraged as well.
But we also knew that we worked for a massive institution that was more comfortable earning money through fast growing stock investments than in redemptively utilizing their resources for the benefit of those whose access to resources is restricted or denied. Yeah, it would be an understatement to say that neither of us were thinking that the UMC was going to divest without a fight. But we knew we had to give the owners of the institution - agency heads and bishops - time to “talk amongst themselves” about the best course. Our job initially was simply to shine light.
True to form, the agency heads and bishops were content to talk amongst themselves about what should be done and after a few months of this utter nonsense Laura and I sent out one email and made a few calls and that is when the change happened. Our message was simple. We told United Methodists that the church owned a considerable amount of stock in private prison companies like GEO Group and we asked them if they approved of collectively organizing and advocating for an end to mass incarceration while the church made money off of incarcerating mostly people of color.
Their answer - which was a most unsurprising “NO!” - was powerful and transformative. They signed a petition we put up and shared it with others, but most of those who signed also called their pastors and bishops and agency heads and demanded that we divest immediately. After one email and a few phone calls, in just a few months, the UMC divested all money from any corporation that earns 10% or more of their money from incarcerating people. It truly was remarkable.
I share this story because it always feels pretty damn good to see real change happen against great odds. But I also share it because I learned a little more good news this week regarding private prison. Forbes is reporting that “all of the existing banking partners to private prison leader GEO Group have now officially committed to ending ties with the private prison and immigrant detention industry. These banks are JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, SunTrust, BNP Paribas, Fifth Third Bancorp, Barclays, and PNC.”
Geo Group has literally run out of banks to put their evil profits! Obviously, this will greatly inhibit the growth of their work and it rightly marginalizes them as a business that engages in profiting from a racist criminal justice system. This does not mean that private prisons are done for, but limiting their access to banks will make it harder for them to operate and that is only good news.
The coalition that won this incredible battle is the Families Belong Together Coalition, which unites over 250 organizations dedicated to promoting the dignity, unity, and compassion for all immigrant children and families. This is what real power can accomplish. The 250 organizations which make up this powerful coalition are each made up of mostly volunteers (some staff) who are passionate about defending immigrants against the evil policies of this inhumane administration.
And we need to remember that this did not take place over night. This took years in the making. Most campaigns work this way because real economic, political, social, and cultural change takes time. Further, Families Belong Together are also focused on other fights against this administration regarding their abuses of immigrants and their families at the same time. We often have to walk and chew gum at the same time when we are working to make change happen.
But I believe they will win those other fights eventually as well because justice is on our side. As Rev. Dr. King reminds us, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." We know that small groups of people with shared passion working towards the same goal can truly change the world. This is evidence of that truth. The question we need to constantly ask ourselves and others is simple: what are we passionate about? What is the thing - or things - that keep us up at night? And who else can we ask to join us so that we can begin to build movements that achieve real and lasting concrete change? This is how it is done and there is such enormous joy in coming alongside others who share our passion to create needed change. The icing on the cake is getting to see things like banks turn away in droves from private prison corporations, or an entire denomination refusing to profit from the mass incarceration of people of color. This is when we know that organizing for change works.
I hope this makes you smile some. God knows we need it and I am hoping we will have lots more to smile about in the coming weeks, months, and years. Let’s keep sharing our passions with one another.