Every social movement needs an Esther, the Jewish queen who risked her life to save her people from persecution. Dr. Iva Carruthers, general secretary of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, is an Esther for our time. She has refused to remain silent and is working to end the war on drugs by helping the Black church envision drug policies grounded in science, compassion and human rights.
Her work is to highlight that those who are oppressed, criminalized and marginalized among us are worthy of our service, our compassion and our care. So, fittingly she is the woman charged with keeping ablaze the flame of an organization with a vision that is ripe for our time. Proctor Conference’s vision is to strengthen churches, empower leaders and transform communities with vision, by faith and through action. The woman entrusted to nurture this vision is in her own way walking by faith and leading by her actions.
Because of her leadership, members of the Proctor Conference are beginning to rethink the role of the Black church in ending America’s 40 year drug war. With only five percent of the world’s population, America locks up 25 percent of the world’s population. Many of those in prison are there for nonviolent drug offenses and are parents of minor children.
She is clear in her analysis of the problem of mass criminalization and notes that if this issue is not taken seriously by the church, then it is flirting dangerously with the annihilation of a people that the church was called to serve and administer to.
She lovingly encourages church leaders to answer the question, “Who do you serve?” She is guided by the words of Jesus to administer to the needs of the “least of these among us.”
Guided by her passion for justice and Black liberation theology, she skillfully weaves the strands of her vision, her faith and her compassion, to mobilize Black leaders of faith to take up the cause of ministering to those languishing in prisons and jails, re-humanizing friends and neighbors permanently stigmatized with the mark of Cain, which in today’s time is akin to being labeled a criminal and specifically a felon or drug user.
Leading by action, she is shepherding a campaign to highlight the injustices inflicted on those labeled criminal. Under her leadership, the Proctor Conference recently documented the experiences and hopes of individuals caught in the criminal justice system, by holding Justice Commission hearings in cities across America.
Her goal is to name and humanize those who comprise the aggregate that we now refer to as “mass” incarceration and to arm the Black church with the tools and testimonies it needs to fight the injustices of our time, including the failed war on drugs.
I compare Dr. Carruthers to Esther because she is a woman committed to liberating her people from the triple threat of criminalization, racial subjugation and socio-economic marginalization. Because of the work by Dr. Carruthers, the Black church is better positioned to spiritually and morally push back against these systems of oppression.
Yolande Cadore is the director of strategic partnerships at the Drug Policy Alliance.
*Editor’s note: This post is a part of the Black History Month series from the Drug Policy Alliance, New York Policy Office.