Diversity Challenge Overview

Thank you to everyone who participated in Diversity Challenge 2017:  Race, Culture, and Criminal Justice throughout the Lifespan.  Watch this space for information on Diversity Challenge 2018: Making Race and Culture Work in the STEM Era: Bringing All People to the Forefront

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The Institute for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture at Boston College invites you to join us for the Institute's 17th annual national conference in the suburbs of Boston, a city known for its struggles and efforts to address issues of racial and ethnic cultural diversity in U.S. society. The Institute was founded in 2000 at Boston College, under the direction of Dr. Janet E. Helms, to promote the assets and address the societal conflicts associated with race and culture in theory and research, mental health practice, education, business, and society at large. The Institute solicits, designs, and distributes effective interventions with a proactive, practical focus. Each year the Institute addresses a racial or cultural issue that could benefit from a pragmatic, scholarly, or grassroots focus through its Diversity Challenge conference. 

This year's Diversity Challenge theme is Race, Culture, & Criminal Justice throughout the Lifespan.


Conference Focus - 2017

Race, Culture, and Criminal Justice throughout the Lifespan

How does it happen that the United States has more people in prison or the criminal justice system than anywhere else in the world, including China, which has an overall population approximately four times that of the US? Of the people in the criminal justice system, a disproportionate number are people of Color and/or hold immigrant status, and their captivity is consistently high across the lifespan. Society’s direct or indirect criminalizing practices and institutions guide people into the criminal justice system beginning early in life when, for example, preschool children of Color are disproportionately expelled for their behavior and learn that they are bad people.

Direct practices and institutions include zero tolerance policies by which suspensions and expulsions occur in response to minor student infractions. They also include incarceration sites, such as juvenile detention centers where children and adolescents are warehoused; immigrant detention centers where undocumented families and children are confined; over-populated state and federal prisons where prisoners receive lengthy sentences for crimes against themselves; and local jails where people serve time for their inability to pay unjust fines. Indirect practices include reliance on racial and cultural stereotypes to decide what constitutes crimes worthy of punishment as well as who deserves to be punished by whom and in what manner.

An overcriminalized society contributes to pathological systems as well as mental health issues for the victims, their families, and the perpetrators of injustice. Examples of systemic illness range from under-resourced schools to sanctioned police violence against people of Color in communities and inhumane conditions in correctional facilities. Additional examples include immigrant detention facilities, operating with little to no outside monitoring, which makes them ripe environments for inhumane and unhealthy conditions. Mental health and physical health issues for those who are incarcerated include disproportionate rates of undiagnosed mental illnesses, substance misuse, stress-related illnesses, and infectious diseases. While they were incarcerated, many former inmates experienced physical or emotional trauma and re-enter society with untreated trauma-related mental health difficulties.

Moreover, the mental health effects of criminalization of children and adolescents themselves are rarely examined, although it is reasonable to expect symptoms related to poor self-esteem, depression, and anxiety. When adults are imprisoned or detained, families are disrupted and, as a result, children often are placed in the child welfare system, many are stigmatized by peers and schools, and most lose parental/familial structure and stability. More information is needed about the mental health effects of imprisonment in detention centers on the detainees, including adults, children, and their families.

Social movements, such as “Black Lives Matter,” have arisen to increase awareness of society’s pathology. Trauma-informed schools address issues related to the effects of family stressors on students’ academic performance, but not necessarily the effects of being criminalized themselves. Academics, mental health professionals, and activists have vigorously worked to create and use interventions, services, and treatments that assist former prisoners with successful reintegration into communities post release and decrease the risk of recidivism. In addition, many academics and activists involved in political justice movements are working to create social, policy, and legal changes. At a micro level, researchers and activists have shown that intentional and unintentional perpetrators of injustices in correctional facilities and policy development often use racial/ethnic cultural stereotypes that contribute to biases in policing, sentencing, jury decision making, immigration policy, and teacher discipline, each of which further supports racial and ethnic cultural disparities in the criminal justice system. Consequently, there are obvious needs for mental health treatment, educational interventions, and related research and policy that focus explicitly on racial and/or ethnic cultural disparities in the criminal justice system, as broadly defined.

As a result of attending the conference, my thinking about the ways gender, race and ethnic identity develop among women and girls and its psychological outcomes has deepened in complexity and understanding.
Diversity Challenge participant