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Language plays an essential role in shaping how we perceive others, so advocates for people impacted by mass incarceration have pressed for changes in how the media and the general public refer to those involved in the criminal legal system. This year, The Marshall Project launched The Language Project, a series that walks readers through the organization’s style guide, explaining how and why they shifted to using “person-first” language. The series also features essays by those who have been impacted by the system about the importance of the words we use. 

The Marshall Project’s move is part of a growing shift toward using “person-first” language when referring to incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people. Just this month, LAist released their style guide to help readers understand why they have begun to employ “person-first” language and other considerations made in their coverage of the criminal legal system. And in 2016, Just Leadership USA and other advocates pushed the Obama administration to use more humanizing language in official memos, such as using “incarcerated people” instead of “inmates.” 

Groups like the Center for NuLeadership on Human Justice and Healing (CNHJH) have spent years working toward a shift in how we discuss those caught in the criminal legal system. Founded in the early 2000s by Eddie Ellis, a formerly incarcerated writer and activist, the research and advocacy think tank develops policies and programs that aim to build community well-being and safety using “’human’—not ‘criminal’—as a starting point to elevate the full humanity and potential of all people.” In 2001, CNHJH released their Language Letter urging policy makers, media professionals, and allies in the general public to stop using terms like inmate, convict, and felon, as they are “all terms devoid of humanness which identify us as ‘things’ rather than as people.” 

Prism sat down with Kyung-Ji Kate Rhee, co-director of CNHJH, to discuss the organization’s philosophy and mission, the origins of the Language Letter campaign, and how efforts to create “human justice” must go deeper than just using the most politically correct terminology. 

This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Tamar Davis: How did the Center for NuLeadership on Human Justice and Healing come to be? What does it mean to shift away from “criminal justice” to “human justice”?

Kyung-Ji Kate Rhee: In 2000, [founder] Eddie Ellis was sitting around a lot of policy tables. He was a consultant for Vera Institute [and] Open Society Foundations, and as he sat around these tables, he realized that the biggest policy decisions around criminal justice were being made by people who are farthest removed from the realities of mass incarceration. So that’s when he proposed the idea of The Center for NuLeadership, an organization that’s developed, designed, and staffed by formerly incarcerated leaders, academics, scholars, and organizers, or those who have family members who have been incarcerated. The idea was that we need to enter the policy realm, but we need a space, infrastructure, stamina, and discipline for us to enter into the policy world—both in terms of not just [learning] the skills and tools that we need, but also to fight the stigmatism and the denigration which an organization of formerly incarcerated scholars and leaders [will face].

One of the first teachings he gave us is that you cannot work on criminal justice or prison reform without foundationally looking at, examining, and really working on community conditions and the community development and investment blueprint. Now 20 years later, all the system work we do, all programs and all the organizing [is measured by] the rubric of “What is the Community Investment Blueprint?” The kind of investment that we’re getting in neighborhoods that are targeted by the carceral state are literally programs that emerge out of the criminal justice system, [such as] more police, or social services that basically manage poverty. So for us, organizing means changing the relations of power, [and that means] you’re getting into policy, advocacy, research, interpersonal relationships, history—the condition that we see exists because of everything intersecting. That’s why the way we do our work is different. We don’t live our lives in the educational room, and then the housing room, and then the jobs room—that’s just not how it works. Most importantly, what oppression does is that it truncates and short circuits our humanity, our ability to be our fuller selves, and all the ways that we can actually blossom. 

Davis: What is the overall purpose and aim of the Language Letter campaign? 

Rhee: Our CSI methodological framework is that whatever we do, whether it’s a program or campaign, it has to result in transformation on three levels: C stands for community and culture, S stands for system, and I stands for individual. 

How Eddie really got that strategy was from the LGBTQ movement, and he always paid homage to that movement. The Language Letter campaign really was gleaned from how the LGBTQ movement was able to reclaim language and how that really influenced public opinion and then public policy. It really captures the ideology and spirit of everything that I’ve laid out in terms of human justice. The Language Letter is not just about changing the language—because people can say all the right things but live their life completely differently, [such as] all the illustrious language on the website on the DOJ website under the Obama administration. Language is important, but I believe that it is actually a portal for our imagination, our lived reality right now, and our everyday interpersonal communication. What are you conjuring up in your mind? Because that informs your opinion, and public opinion absolutely influences public policy. 

The Language Letter is an invitation for us to have a public opinion that influences public policy, and that public opinion part cannot be just one-dimensional. You can’t just say, “Everyone, let’s now say ‘incarcerated people,’” or “Everyone, let’s say ‘people in prison, people on probation,’ etc.” In order for us to have a public opinion that influences public policy, we need to have this Language Letter be a portal to a deeper discussion and an invitation to relate to yourself and each other differently. In light of so-called “criminality,” what [does] it mean to have harmed [someone] and to be harmed? How do we relate to one another in light of that reality? That’s a different paradigm of justice and accountability. That’s human justice. 

It also invites people into a conversation that goes deeper into the “why?” What’s the purpose of changing language and how do we go beyond the performative act of changing the language right now? What are some action steps that result from using more human language that will really evolve humanity? It’s inviting the media to ask a different set of questions when covering these issues, rather than covering it the same old way.

Davis: How did recipients of the letter, particularly those in the media, initially respond to the campaign?

Rhee: One of the most prominent institutions that first changed the language was the New York Public Library. Every year they publish this resource guide with really good intentions, with reentry services for people coming home, and they called it a “resource guide for ex offenders” or “ex inmates.” Edie and Divine had this board meeting with the person who was in charge of that initiative and then after the meeting, they started saying “resource guide for formerly incarcerated people.” I think if you have to count institutions—public institutions that are recognizable—that was one that kind of moved the needle. 

But in the beginning, the media was dismissive for the most part. The first reaction we got from media professionals was “Oh my God, but media is all about soundbites and brevity, and headlines.” So they were saying that this [ask] was cumbersome. And it wasn’t just the media, it was also academia. If there’s anything to be done by media professionals, it’s actually tackling the question of the language and [making] space for deeper reflection. The challenge to media professionals should be to figure out how [person-first language] can be integrated into the so-called “soundbite.” If you want to talk about playing on words and stuff like that, it could absolutely be done. It’s just about willpower. I think behind that dismissive attitude is something lurking much deeper in terms of [thinking that] this doesn’t deserve our time or attention. 

There were also reporters who we’ve talked to for a long time who would get overruled by their editor. I think when we think about media strategy, it can’t just be done through articles. I think that’s one layer, but media professionals need to do some organizing [and conduct] a landscape analysis of media. I think the different levels of decision makers and actors and where media professionals gather is a space that needs to be infiltrated and educated. 

Davis: If the campaign’s aim is to be a deeper invitation, how can media professionals take that invitation and more meaningfully change their work beyond just using certain terms versus others?

Rhee: A kind of a tactical thing would be if media professionals could interview other media professionals, in-depth, one-on-one, about these kinds of topics around language, because language is huge and in media it cannot be understated. Media professionals who are on board organizing other media professionals and really kind of diving into that would make more waves than just churning out articles.

I think it comes down to investing in people. It depends on [who] the ambassador and the messenger [are and] who’s really chairing it and pushing the envelope. That whole DOJ announcement didn’t happen by fluke—the different actors involved went through their own transformation and there was a larger social and political environment challenging the same old status quo and changing this language system. It was the combination of advocacy that has been in play since the ‘70s that was built upon decade by decade, that got more and more visibility. These were people who were exposed to different kinds of spaces and got mentored and transformed. 

Tamar Sarai Davis

Tamar Sarai Davis is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.