James Bell named a 2011 Change Maker by the San Francisco Chronicle
Founder and executive director of the W. Haywood Burns Institute, James Bell is dedicated to examining and addressing the ethnic disparity in institutions such as the juvenile justice system.
Bell was born in a segregated South Carolina hospital where black doctors weren't allowed to deliver babies. Growing up, Bell said he played a part in the civil rights movement, helping desegregate lunch counters and swimming pools around his community. He eventually moved to San Francisco to attend law school. "Being in San Francisco is essential because we are surrounded by a rich gumbo of organizers. It's a demographically diverse community," Bell said. "When you're surrounded by that atmosphere, we have universities here, people that are active and innovative. I think that's a great place to incubate ideas about social justice."
Bell worked for 23 years as an attorney representing youths in foster homes and institutions, which he says sparked his desire to investigate why young minorities tended to be a majority in juvenile corrections institutions. He founded the Burns Institute in 2001.
Vision: "The overarching vision is to force a dialogue about a justice system that is not irrational but actually is restorative, equitable and accountable ... (to get) good outcomes rather than put kids in a system that keeps them so far behind that they'll never catch up to their peers," Bell said. "So that this gap between the haves and the have-nots does not continue to extend because 'that's just the way it is.' "
Story: Issues like race, inequality, youth and crime can seem so daunting, Bell said, but his approach depends on a willingness to talk about the root cause of problems.
"When you're talking about race in America and justice and kids, that's a hell of an intersection. Crime, youth and race: Those are three things that will shut down conversations quickly," Bell said.
The institute was named for the late activist W. Haywood Burns, a friend and mentor to Bell, who credits Burns for both his activism and his ability to communicate and connect on a human level.
The Burns Institute tackles the numbers problems - such as the high number of black and Latino teenagers in juvenile hall - by facilitating conversations among communities, law enforcement, educators, families and the legal system.
"We have a strong notion of social justice, but we can also sit at the table and talk about it," Bell said. The institute consults with groups, services and communities that require institutional change and reform, especially if rules and policies clash with cultural needs. Bell said the institute also pushes for social services to be offered in neighborhoods that have specific needs. While the Burns Institute begins with numbers and statistics that indicate a problem, Bell says it seeks to "dig deeper" with one word: Why?
In one jurisdiction Bell worked with, black girls in group homes were showing disproportionately high records of assault. "Our presumption is that black girls aren't necessarily violent," Bell said, so the next question became: "Why are they fighting?"
The answer, it turned out, was all about hair. "The files showed that when you go to the group home, the rules of the house are you just shampoo your hair every day," Bell said. "Then the black chicks are like, 'No, we don't shampoo our hair every day.' " Arguments - and then assault - ensued, Bell said.
"It's all about bureaucratic intransigence," Bell added. "Now you have more charges, you're getting deeper into the system, over something that's really about hair. ... You're depriving someone of their liberty because the group home can't adjust to the cultural needs of these girls."
"That's how the justice system works without someone coming in and saying, 'Actually, that's stupid.' " That's where the Burns Institute steps in, Bell said.
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