Note: This article also features author Gail Noble, a De-Bug, ACJP Organizer deeply involved with the Community Law Office's FACE program. 

FACE Overview by Joi Forney, LGSW, Community Law Office

Families Advocating Choices and Empowerment (FACE) is Birmingham's organized defense to bring about long-term change on micro, mezzo, and macro levels. In any organized effort, successes and challenges are a part of the process. The idea of participatory defense and its power is new to the communities that are primarily affected by the legal system. For many community members who have found themselves apart of a system where judgment, condemnation, and punishment come easily. Although, these men and women affected may have loved ones who are valued supports, the system and its history leads them to believe that their voices are powerless and their relationships and roles are only valued from a distance. These believed thoughts and feelings have seemingly proved to be valid during the process of developing FACE. 

Initially, as a group, we faced the unfortunate realities of the lack of trust that exists among individuals, families, and communities as it relates to anything involving criminal court, particularly, when it resonates personally. Very early in the development stage, it became clear that in order to meet the needs of those affected, we had to first work to adjust the mentalities of those involved and impacted. During initial meetings, we lacked numbers and those present were uninterested in divulging information of any sort. Presently, we function daily, in a society that is deemed selfish. We made the decision and conscious effort to meet people where they were by offering potential members the opportunity to realistically visualize the possibilities of transformation as a result of curiosity, willingness, commitment, and faith, through time, consideration, and communication for the individual and his or her needs solely and eventually, others like them. This was accomplished through face-to-face encounters during visitation hours at the Jefferson County Jail. Outreach was also conducted within communities such as in local barbershops, hair salons, nail salons, and community centers.

When FACE was established, the meeting place was at our Community Law Office. Over the next couple of weeks, we began contemplating the appropriateness of our office and what possible barriers might potential members encounter.  After assessing logistics from a client’s perspective, we addressed parking barriers. Our office is centrally located near the Sheraton Hotel and the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Center which offers regular entertainment, resulting in high volumes of people. On any given day, parking is difficult to secure. One month after its creation, it was decided upon that FACE will relocate to Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. This decision offered great change due to convenience, comfort, and rich history. Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was the first black church in Birmingham and the church became known around the world when a bomb exploded, killing four young girls attending Sunday School and injuring more than 20 other members of the congregation.

To date, FACE has grown to serve and collaborate with a number members of the community to demand justice in the lives of those who are unable to effectively advocate for themselves. We are now in a place of consistency and investment; in the beginning, members were reluctant to speak about their concerns and legal status and now are actively involved and outspoken concerning the injustices in modern day society. These amazing community members turned leaders are stakeholders, serving as advocates and community organizers working to facilitate change, one case at a time.

Supporting FACE by Gail Noble, De-Bug/ ACJP organizer

We had the great opportunity of being invited to the Public Defenders Office in Birmingham Alabama to give a training about participatory defense in Feburary. I spoke to their office, as well as community partners, about ways to build collaborations between defender offices and the communities of their clients. I shared the story of how I worked with my son’s case and became an organizer for other families after that through our weekly participatory defense meeting structure we started.

The Birmingham public defender’s office was so ready to go, they set the date for their first participatory defense meeting then and there! We were overjoyed to hear the great news! They called the group FACE and hold meetings at a church.

Now we do weekly Skype calls with them to help them get off the ground, trouble shoot, and give technical assistance on how to do the meetings. We do the same for other sites we trained like in Montgomery County, Penn., and are starting calls with the organizers in Lexington, Kentucky.

We talk through the nuts and bolts of how to conduct a meeting based on our experience and they bring up specific issues that may come up as they navigate through this exciting work. We respond by sharing how we dealt with those issues. We talk through how to get people to the meetings, what work can be done in between weekly meetings, and take through strategic ideas for families’ situations.

The only difference  between these Skype meetings and ones we do at De-Bug is there is a screen and thousands of miles between us. Other than that, it feels like any participatory defense check in meeting we do here in San Jose!