About US: Welcome to South Fulton, where women run the show

Candid conversations about identity in 21st-century America
The Washington Post

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Candid conversations about identity in 21st-century America
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A judge who sentences her defendants to vote

Power or beauty? What society values most depends on gender

Loosening the chastity belt on queer intimacy

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An innovative approach to criminal justice reform: Put black women in charge

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Timothy Pratt
contributing writer

SOUTH FULTON, Ga. — In this new Atlanta suburb, the sentence for shoplifting may include attending city council meetings instead of serving jail time. Residents found guilty of driving without a license may be required to register to vote in exchange for a reduced fine — in addition to obtaining a driver’s license.

Just over a year old, South Fulton has been receiving accolades from around the country for its unique criminal justice system. But the attention has been less about the punishments that the system hands down than about the people who lead it.

That’s because South Fulton has done something that no other U.S. city with a population of 100,000 or more has done: put African American women in control of its criminal justice system.

There’s Solicitor LaDawn Blackett Jones, who serves as the city’s prosecutor. And there’s Chief Judge Tiffany Carter Sellers and Public Defender Viveca R. Famber Powell. The court administrator and clerks are also black women.

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The women who lead and operate the law enforcement and criminal justice systems in South Fulton, Ga. (photo by Reginald Duncan)

While insisting on upholding the law, the women say they also hope their approaches to criminal justice exhibit “empathy” and “nurturing,” as well as respect for the city’s residents.

These notions are “starkly different than the history of Southern criminal justice 50 years ago,” said historian Kevin Kruse, author of “White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism.” At that time, Kruse said, “it would’ve been … all white men,” and those men wouldn’t have approached black citizens in the same way.

Historians at Harvard University and elsewhere said they are not aware of any other city of 100,000 or more with a criminal justice system led entirely by black women. The result: a focus on community policing, pretrial diversion programs, and assigning public defenders to all cases — a policy that levels the playing field in the municipal court. Pretrial diversion programs give certain defendants the opportunity to accept community service work or mandatory involvement in civic life, such as attending city council meetings, instead of jail time or hefty fines.

There’s also the “green team,” an option for certain offenders who can’t afford fines. Instead, they’re required to work with the city’s parks and recreation department for $15 an hour.

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South Fulton Chief Judge Tiffany Carter Sellers (photo by Reginald Duncan)

This isn’t about being soft on crime, said Blackett Jones, who was charged with creating the pretrial diversion program.

“Let’s be clear,” she said. “I’m a prosecutor. I do not mind sending people to jail.”

But at the same time, she hopes her city is creating “a framework for community-oriented courts that could be an example for the world.”

Another feature of the system comes from Carter Sellers, the chief judge, who is intent on educating defendants in her courtroom about their rights and the judicial process — even if it means taking longer to finish the day’s schedule.

“In my community, there’s a stigma that the system will railroad them,” Carter Sellers said.

“For many people, it’s their first interaction with the justice system,” she added. “It’s important to slow down — even if five minutes.”

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South Fulton Solicitor LaDawn Blackett Jones (photo by Reginald Duncan)

After a recent day’s last case, when a woman and three children who arrived with a young man accused of shoplifting stood to leave, a young black girl shouted out, “Bye, bye now!”

Carter Sellers answered pleasantly, “Bye!”

“That young girl reminded me of my daughter,” she said afterward.

“It’s important for judges to strike a balance between a sense of decorum and understanding, compassion and empathy with the people they live with,” she added.

Carter Sellers and the two other women insist that their roles at the top of South Fulton’s legal system happened organically: The mayor, working with a panel of Superior Court judges, appointed the chief judge, while the city council and interim city attorney chose the solicitor and public defender.

At the same time, reaching this landmark is not completely out of place. South Fulton is the “blackest city in America,” said city councilman khalid kamau [sic], who also is a founding member of the Atlanta chapter of Black Lives Matter. South Fulton’s population is 89 percent African American. The city’s mayor, Bill Edwards, is black, as well as all seven city council members. Five of them are also women.

Keep reading this story

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A survey from the Pew Research Center found that Americans think society values different characteristics for women and men, indicating that we believe gender stereotypes still hold strong.

When asked which qualities society values in each gender, 67 percent of respondents who mentioned the word “powerful” said society saw it as a positive quality for men, while 8 percent said society valued that trait in women.

“Societal expectations are still very different for men and women,” said Juliana Horowitz, associate director for social trends research at Pew. “Men are still associated with financial and career success. Women are associated with caregiving and being beautiful.”

The words “protective” and “emotional” were mentioned almost exclusively as a way society defines men, but respondents said “protective” was viewed in a positive way and “emotional” in a negative way.

Certain words, such as “beautiful,” were almost always mentioned as a way society describes women. The word “provider” was exclusively used for men. It’s worth noting that the survey measured what Americans think society values in men and women, rather than what people personally think should be valued.

The survey was conducted in the summer of 2017, before the wave of #MeToo. Would people answer these questions differently if they were posed now?

“It’s hard to know,” Horowitz said. “It would be interesting to see… but I wouldn’t want to speculate.”

— Rachel Hatzipanagos

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‘I Can’t Date Jesus’: Michael Arceneaux’s memoir loosens the chastity belt on queer intimacy

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Nia Decaille
social media producer

Michael Arceneaux’s collection of essays entitled “I Can’t Date Jesus” has generated quite the buzz at a time when there have been more first-person essays written by people of color. But it also comes at a time when few of those stories are being told by queer people.

Even if you haven’t grabbed a copy of “I Can’t Date Jesus,” following Arceneaux — or @youngsinick — on Twitter is a good indicator of what awaits. From addressing the controversy around R. Kelly to issuing a takedown of the Trump-Putin gay jokes, Arceneaux uses the kind of humor that’s routine in spaces like black Twitter.

The tone in his recently published personal essays spares readers the flowery language, instead serving up raw memories that transport them into tense phone calls about student loan debt and an awkward visit to a black church in Harlem.

“I Can’t Date Jesus” gets personal about being queer, black, and Southern during a slow cultural shift in black churches. Black people still attend religious services at higher rates than other races. But like Michael Arceneaux, some are looking for answers outside church pews, even though they’re certain about their belief in God. And the refreshing part? Arceneaux’s unapologetic humor doesn’t mince words on his experiences or backtrack on his unwavering faith in Beyoncé.

I caught up with the Houston native to talk about his new book and his personal touch on identity prose. This transcript has been edited for length.

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How do you think that black youth are challenging Christian religions?

I think millennials, in general, are probably breaking away for some of the same reasons I have. I just think that typically it’s a very patriarchal, conservative, not completely inclusive setting in many churches — but not necessarily all of them, to be fair. But if you are black in this country, it comes with its own unique set of problems, and while black churches have their issues, I would still say they’re safe spaces. That’s still where a lot of political activism happens. It’s still where a lot of people make connections. It’s still an integral part of the community.

I read that you describe yourself as a “recovering Catholic.” Why is that?

To be blunt, there were many things about religion that just didn’t make sense. I think ultimately knowing that I like boys way more than girls, knowing that those feelings were innate and being told you’re immediately going to hell. And on the other hand, you’re told God doesn’t make mistakes, God created everything. So, it just didn’t make sense.

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Is that where the title of your book “I Can’t Date Jesus” came from?

The title “I Can’t Date Jesus” relates to a conversation I had with my mom. I think — and I say this respectfully — religion can take brilliant people and suspend their better senses because faith is so important to them. They don’t want to question anything too much because it could shake everything. But this idea that I’m not supposed to— you know I’m born gay — but I shouldn’t act on it because it’s some perceived affront to God. So, essentially, I shouldn’t lead a whole life based on the idea that if I die I might get to go to heaven. So, some people, they wait to die to live. I’m not that person. I don’t think God made any mistakes.

So why “I can’t date Jesus” over any other thing you have heard growing up?

I can’t think of anything else that better articulates my overall feeling and the spirit of the book and this idea that, again, I shouldn’t act on my natural urges because I might go to hell. So, Jesus is wonderful. Jesus can be very helpful to people. Totally get it. Jesus seems like a great dude; However, we are all human beings. We all have urges.

I also really liked your conversation with Melissa Harris Perry and you just being very clear about not wanting to be the ‘sad gay.’ Can you talk a little bit more about that?

It’s hard to be black, it’s hard to be queer and very difficult to be “other,” particularly in this country. I think these stories are necessary. I never meant it in a disparaging way to any other person, but I think in terms of otherness and how we consume it in terms of mass media, often, it is solely through the lens of pathology. As in this idea of, “’it’s so awful to be you.” It’s pathology porn. It triggers white guilt.

Keep reading this Q&A

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