Skip to content

How We Get Unstuck: Reimagining the American Social Contract

Over three weeks of Square One roundtables, thought leaders discussed the U.S. criminal justice system, the challenges of social institutions, and imagining a different world.

Through a series of video conversations, Square One Roundtable participants discuss the social contract, community resilience, economic mobility, and the importance of political engagement. (Credit: Square One)

If you want to understand the United States, you first have to understand our prisons. Consider that as the takeaway message after four sessions of this year’s Square One Project Roundtable on the Future of Justice Policy, with the final live session to be held on Sept. 16.

“The carceral state is a central aspect of what the state is and does, a key feature defining American citizenship, a key way we come to know about government,” said Vesla Weaver, Bloomberg Distinguished Associate Professor of Political Science and Sociology at Johns Hopkins University, as the second roundtable session began. Weaver’s remarks punctuated a series of weekly video sessions that asked a diverse range of thinkers — academics, activists, attorneys, educators, nonprofit directors, health care workers, and others — to reimagine the social contract at a moment when justice is in crisis.

The social contract asks us as citizens to sacrifice some piece of personal freedom in exchange for the protection of the state. But as cities across America witness unprecedented protests in the streets over the failure of the state to protect — and the tendency of its guardians to abuse — Black, Brown, and indigenous people, the very foundation of that contract stands in doubt. With this urgent backdrop, participants discussed the history of American criminal justice, community membership, and social mobility.

At the heart of these weighty conversations stood a paradox, articulated by Danielle Allen, Director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. The justice system has become brittle and lacking in legitimacy, said Bruce Western, Co-Founder of the Square One Project and Bryce Professor of Sociology and Social Justice at Columbia University. Meanwhile, the roundtable conversation elevated the idea that education holds liberatory potential to transform society as we know it. So, as Allen asked, why do we still remain stuck?

Read Arnold Ventures’ writeup of Session One: Pessimism, Optimism, and Hope

Session Two: The History of Criminal Justice and Community Membership

Some answers to that question emerged from session two. Up for discussion were a pair of papers. Elizabeth Hinton, Associate Professor of History, African, and African American studies at Harvard University, presented on how direct funding for community-based organizations during the 1960s was replaced by carceral investments. “We can think about what the U.S. would look like if policymakers got behind the War on Poverty and this idea of empowering marginalized communities with the same length, and level of commitment and resources, that they dedicated to the War on Crime,” said Hinton.

David Garland, Arthur T. Vanderbilt Professor of Law at New York University, shared his findings that the social investments of Western Europe and other developed nations resulted in dramatically less damaging justice outcomes than in America. Broad social change can take generations, said Garland. Meanwhile, American city governments have become accustomed to responding with rapid crime-control efforts. “It is more complicated than either blame the victim by punishing, controlling, and policing or invest in economic justice and solve the problem,” said Garland.

We can think about what the U.S. would look like if policymakers got behind the War on Poverty and this idea of empowering marginalized communities with the same length, and level of commitment and resources, that they dedicated to the War on Crime.
Elizabeth Hinton Associate Professor of History, African, and African American studies at Harvard University

The conversation that followed elaborated on how to transfer power, given the nation’s long-term prioritization of punishment over local community investment — and its historical residue of injustice. The process would be more complicated than simply moving funds, the group agreed. Building community control of safety would mean building economic justice — including changes in the justice system and investment in equitable social policy. “When you look with a microscope at the dynamics that play out in communities, they are often based on scarcity, a lack of resources, and, frankly, a tremendous amount of trauma,” said Fatimah Loren Dreier, Executive Director of the Health Alliance for Violence Intervention.

At the end of session two, an unanswered question lingered, said Western: “How do we produce social processes that transfer power in a meaningful way?”

Session Three: Reimagining Social Inclusivity and Recognizing Community Resilience

To guide the discussion of those social processes, another pair of presentations opened session three. Ananya Roy, the Meyer and Renee Luskin Chair in Inequality and Democracy at UCLA, presented on the role of racialized policing in unhousing the poor through “nuisance abatement” policies that promote gentrification and displacement. “Racial banishment reminds us that gentrification and displacement are not just market-driven processes but rather enabled by state-organized violence that expels and even kills Black, Brown, and indigenous people,” said Roy.

From Hedy Lee, Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Equity at Washington University, participants heard a presentation on health care as a means to produce community resilience and wellbeing. “We cannot address health disparities until we address social-structural upstream factors like economics, criminal justice, housing, educational, and environmental policies that make us sick way before we even get to the doctor’s office or the emergency room,” said Lee.

Inequities in housing and health care represent ruptures in the social contract, and participants were quick to link them to the machinations of mass incarceration. Eddie Bocanegra, Senior Director of READI Chicago Heartland Alliance, explained how people who have been released from prison frequently face further justice involvement if they lack housing to return to. Aswad Thomas, Managing Director of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, spoke from personal experience about the health toll incarceration exacts from entire families: “We know that when someone is incarcerated, your family does the time with you.”

In discussing strategies for change, the group weighed incrementalism against transformational change, the stated aim of the Square One Project. True transformation must be holistic, including policy changes and cultural shifts, said Kimá Joy Taylor, Founder and Managing Principal of Anka Consulting. It also must appear in budgets, agencies, and institutions. But challenges arise where the values of the American population diverge. What happens, asked Aisha McWeay, Executive Director of Still She Rises Tulsa, when some don’t agree that housing and health care are human rights? “How do you get this country to see the dignity and humanity of everyone as a responsibility?”

How do you get this country to see the dignity and humanity of everyone as a responsibility?
Aisha McWeay Executive Director of Still She Rises Tulsa

Chas Moore, Founder and Executive Director of the Austin Justice Coalition, sought to reconcile the conflict between incrementalism and transformation. Yes, communities must demand more, he said. But incrementalism has long been a tactic in his and many other organizations’ slow struggle to demand the promises of the social contract for Black, Brown, and indigenous people. “Knowing change comes incrementally and fighting for incremental change are two different things,” he said.

Session Four: Increasing Social Mobility and Advancing Access to Education

Session four’s presenters introduced points of disruption, points of resilience, and offramps from the system. In Western’s paper, he shared findings on the impact of jails and prisons on socioeconomically disadvantaged people. “Nowhere is it recognized that these are poor people’s institutions that are designed for control and punishment of low-income communities,” said Western. From each case, however, he identified restorative community features: the power of women, philanthropy, movement-building, and human resilience to meet challenges.

Vivian Nixon, Executive Director of the College and Community Fellowship, tracked a history of suppressive policies — from slavery to mass incarceration to the modern social welfare state — that makes it profoundly difficult for Black Americans to access education. When people receive a certain level of education, Nixon argued, they gain the ability to resist power structures that harm their lives — and view themselves as part of a solution. “We have devoted billions of dollars to constructing institutions of higher learning that absolutely attach a brand to people,” said Nixon. Why do these remain unavailable to so many people in the margins?

Nowhere is it recognized that these are poor people’s institutions that are designed for control and punishment of low-income communities.
Bruce Western Co-Founder of the Square One Project and Bryce Professor of Sociology and Social Justice at Columbia University

Talking about resistance and education requires talking about power. Many participants agreed that the protections promised as a part of the social contract require equitable access to education. This includes reconsidering whose history is taught, Hinton said. It also includes considering who’s doing the teaching. Too often, American society overvalues credentials while denying the human experience of the oppressed, said Kristian Caballero, Community Outreach Coordinator at Texas Appleseed. Gabriel Salguero, Founder of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, elaborated on this, identifying a “pedagogy of the oppressed” — a concept first popularized by Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire — that brings people with traditional credentials to learn from survivors of crime, the formerly incarcerated, and others with lived experience of harm.

Much of this work — which is fundamentally the work of reimagining the American social contract — is happening daily across the country. Education may be an especially accessible point of access for disruption, more so than housing or the health care system. So what prevents this disruption? Why, as Allen asked, are we stuck? Allen suggested that those most committed to transformational change are exhausted. They have lost years to the massive tasks of daily survival.

But the situation is not fatal, the roundtable participants agreed. Despite the role of education, housing, health care, and the justice system in maintaining hierarchies, Jeremy Travis, Co-Founder of the Square One Project and Executive Vice President of Criminal Justice at Arnold Ventures, sounded a hopeful note of conclusion, citing the transformative potential of higher education. “Take the Ford Foundation notion of prisons as being college campuses, and the Black Panther notion of education being a way of empowering those to lead the resistance,” he said. “That’s a very optimistic note to end on.”

Grants

Arnold Ventures funds projects to understand problems and identify policy solutions.

Map of the U.S. made of Arnold Ventures icons