What is the role—and relevance — of the church in reducing the problem of mass incarceration in today’s society? Noted activist Gail Tyree will explore that in her keynote address at the upcoming Compassion Peace and Justice (CPJ) Training Day in Washington, D.C. on April 17th.

Tyree, a 2011 Soros Justice Fellow and activist against for-profit prisons, has more than three decades of experience with faith, labor, and community organizing. Despite her experience, it was a recent presentation from a local community group that prompted the inspiration for next month’s topic.

“I sit on the PC(USA)’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy’s Drug Policy Reform Study Group, a task force commissioned to discern how to advocate for effective drug policies,” says Tyree. “At a recent meeting in Berkeley, California, where community leaders were detailing their efforts, one presenter stated that ‘the church is irrelevant in this work.’ That statement gave me great pause, and made me really examine how we as individuals within the church can do a better job of reaching out to the community and proving our organizational value to them.”

Tyree’s presentation will focus on three key messages:

  • The important role of the church—most, if not all, social justice and civil rights movements begin in the church and then branch out to the community at large;
  • Being creative with the training that is used to teach congregations how to effectively do the work; and
  • Being inclusive.

“One of the biggest keys to success in this area is to be open to new ideas and be inclusive of the people we are trying to help,” urges Tyree. “We have to engage people in our congregations who have been incarcerated as well as the children and families of the people returning to our communities; all of these voices must be at the table.”

Tyree is currently Director of Community Partnerships with Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region. She has also been executive director of AFSCME Local 1733, international representative for the Workers United Labor Union, and campaign director for the Southern Faith Labor and Community Alliance. She’s a former AFL-CIO Teaching Fellow, graduate of the Southern Empowerment Project 2005 Advance Leadership Preparation Initiative, and a 2011 Soros Justice Fellow. During her SOROS fellowship, she worked to create a network of organizations and individuals in the southeast U.S. who can respond quickly and effectively to stop for-profit private prisons, jails, or detention centers from moving into communities. Tyree is a member of the Liberation Community Presbyterian Church in Memphis and currently serves on the boards of the Presbyterian Health, Education & Welfare Association (PHEWA) and Presbyterian Criminal Justice Network (PCJN).

Tyree will co-lead a workshop at CPJ Training Day titled Grassroots Responses to the Mass Incarceration Crisis, with Rev. Dr. Bob Brashear, longtime faith-based community organizer and leader of PHEWA’s Presbyterian Association for Community Transformation network. Workshop participants will learn the basics of community organizing and be introduced to existing successful initiatives against mass incarceration. Links between the “war on drugs” and mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the role of privatized prisons in the expansion of the prison-industrial complex will also be explored. Her keynote address is one of three at the conference; also presenting are Rev. Alonzo Johnson, a mission associate with the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program and Eric LeCompte, executive director of Jubilee USA Network, a coalition of 75 US member organizations, 400 faith communities, and 50 global partners that work on debt relief to benefit the world’s poorest people.

It’s not too late to register for the 5th annual CPJ Training Day, which precedes the start of Ecumenical Advocacy Days and runs April 17-20.