In this episode of Reckoning, Kathryn Kosmides speaks with Ron LeGrand about intervening in young people’s lives to prevent destructive behavior in the future, men and gender based violence, how he addressed his own past troublesome behavior, and restorative justice for survivors and offenders. Ron is a Policy Director at National Criminal Justice Association and the President and CEO at The LeGrand Group Consulting, LLC which provides legal and business consulting services including, but not limited to public Policy/government relations with an emphasis on criminal justice reform, sentencing reform and gender-based violence.
In this episode, Ron discusses:
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Ron LeGrand is a consultant and an attorney, licensed to practice law in Pennsylvania and the district of Columbia. Service and the commitment to making a positive difference in the lives of others has been the consistent theme underlying Ron's career. Currently the CEO of the LeGrand Group, an organization with a focus on prevention of gender-based violence, criminal justice reform, healthcare and legislation affairs. Ron also serves as the policy director for the national criminal justice association and as policy consultant for Fair and Just Prosecution and anticipates working with the Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence on the coalition's Engaging Men and Boys Project. Ron's previous clients have included Ujima, The National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black community, the state Domestic Violence Coalitions in the district of Columbia and Alabama, and Americans for Prosperity. Prior to launching his consulting firm, Ron served as vice president for public policy with The National Network to End Domestic Violence, where he led the organization's national policy agenda. In collaboration with other organizations, he successfully advocated for the passage of the Justice for All Reauthorization Act of 2016, as well as for legislation in which annual appropriations were either maintained the current levels or modestly increased in efforts to enhance safety and economic empowerment for victims and survivors of domestic violence. He is a former federal narcotics prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice, Criminal Division, Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Section, where he received a special achievement award following a assignment in Bogata, Columbia. Ron also is an avid member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and the A Hundred Black Men of America, and holds a B.A. and J.D. degree from Boston College. Ron has also held positions in other major nonprofit and corporate sectors as chief diversity officer with ARP and director of minority affairs and business development for Nabisco Foods. During a career, which Ron describes as "truly blessed", Ron has had many titles, but the ones he cherishes most are son, dad, and husband. I feel so honored to have this conversation with Ron today. We discuss how Ron equips young men and boys with the right tools and education to prevent or heal from harm in their communities, the hopes and realities of restorative justice, and how to balance survivor rights and criminal justice reform.
KATHRYN: Your background is so rich in many varied experiences. You state that, in the bio you sent me, "Service and a commitment to making a positive difference in the lives of others is at the core of everything you do.", is that the thread through all of the various roles you've held over your life, or how did you get started and how did you end up where you are today?
RON: It is a thread and I have to start out by saying that, I take no credit for the amazing and blessed career that I've had and still have. I started out as someone who wanted to work with young people. Even before college, in high school, I was a mentor and I went to a private boys’ high school in Jersey City. At the time I was the only black male in my freshmen class of over 300 boys. That just immediately struck me as, "No, we gotta do better than this." The funny thing is that the school was located in a community that was very rich in Black and Hispanic [communities] and [in] a very diverse neighborhood, but the student body of the school didn't reflect that diversity. And yes, it was a Catholic boys’ high school with very competitive entrance requirements, but we can do better. We do better by working with the boys at an earlier age and preparing them, to take this kind of admissions test and to take it successfully. And so, that's what I was doing then and [that] sort of led me to want to become a teacher, but a teacher who was really committed to seeing kids learn, to seeing kids get the education that they needed, as opposed to the kind of conveyor belt system that we have where you just pass kids just to keep moving them along, not because they've accomplished what it was that they needed to accomplish academically. So it started there and I majored in education, secondary education, and English literature. I did my first student teaching in Dorchester, Massachusetts in a high school that was predominantly black, probably 95% black. As an English literature [teacher], I've got Shakespeare, and Don, and Charleston, and in the 11th and 12th grade, these kids were maybe reading at a fourth and fifth-grade level. So it's like Shakespeare, Charleston, and Don are not going to do it for them. I had to develop a curriculum and from that, really sort of hold their feet to the fire. You really have to do the work in order to move on. I ran an educational program for juvenile offenders in Boston. My kids, boys, and girls, all black, about a hundred of them, were great with me and my staff, but their juvenile RAP sheets said a whole different story. While they were good with us during the school day, in the evenings they reverted back to what had gotten them in trouble under the supervision of the court system. So recognizing my limitations, that's when I went into the Drug Enforcement Administration to deal with the drug issue. It's been that continuous thread to just deal with the drug issue and the way that we were dealing with it then is, unfortunately, pretty much the same way that we deal with it now as a criminal issue, as opposed to a public health issue. We've lost a lot of time and incarcerated too many people who really needed treatment more than staying in incarceration. For me, it's been a learning experience. It's been a process of evolution to learn, to look at what we were doing back then, and if it's not working, then you got to tweak it. You got to do something differently. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome. Well, we weren't getting that. I love people. I especially love kids. I want to see every young person really have a decent chance in life. I've been doing this work so long that we've seen times where kids growing up in certain neighborhoods really did not expect to live to become adults. For a child to think like that is disturbing. I wanted to change that thinking, I want it to say, "Yeah, you will make it. You will survive and we're going to help you. I'm going to help you do it and show you the way." because for the mother that I am still blessed to have at 98 years of age, I could have been one of those kids and I recognize that and I carry that with me every day. But it's also beyond kids. It's the adults in their lives. It's the adults in the community. It's their parents. It's needing adults to take ownership of the development and the future of the young people in our community. I had a situation some years ago where, some of the kids in the neighborhood did some things- let me call it that mischief- nothing criminal, but, I convened the meeting of parents in the neighborhood. And we went back to that agreement that dates back to the villages where, you see a child doing something that they shouldn't be doing, you call that child out. Okay. You don't have to lay hands on them, but you let them know that you see them, that what they're doing is inappropriate. The response that I've gotten from kids, it's always been very positive. Now, maybe it's my deep voice. Maybe it's my scowl of it. I will tell you that I had a reputation among my son's friends like, "Oh no, Mr. LeGrand is in town." but there were times when I would see one of my son's friends somewhere he wasn't supposed to be, (he was supposed to be in school) and I pulled over and it's like, "Okay, get in. I'm taking you to the school", I take him to school, walk him in and say, "He just took a wrong turn somewhere, got lost, but he's here now." We do a lot of talking now about crime and criminal justice and the uptick in violence over the last couple of years. I think that somewhere along the way, we've lost touch with our kids. I've lived with this statistic that says one out of every three black males between the ages of 16 and 38, will at some point during that period become a ward of the criminal justice system. Katherine and I have six sons. That means that two of the six would fall into that category. No way, not happening. So it went from them to their male cousins and it's like, 'No, Uncle Ron is not going to have this.' At that age, they thought that I was being mean, unnecessarily harsh, but now I'm talking to guys in their thirties and forties who've got a deeper voice than I have, and [they say] 'Thanks, Uncle Ron. We didn't understand back then, but we got it now and we're doing the same thing with our kids.' That's what we have to do. We just have to really not be shy about talking to any young person and talking to them in a way that's not threatening, but that conveys, by the tone of our voice, that we care. And so, they'd go to where someone does care and maybe it's that game, where there's the acceptance and the caring. I've always believed that there are times when you're in competition, as a parent, with your children's peers and people you don't know. You've got to take control in a very positive way and maybe bring those peers in which I did.
KATHRYN: And you continue to do, I think that is the threat of your work, is that passion. In essence, not wanting people to become another number, whether that's a failed student, whether that's someone being incarcerated. We have all these statistics around us and do you want someone to just become another number? You take it to the fullest extent of anything that you can personally do to impact someone and make sure they don't just become another number. That they have that sense of belonging, that sense of community. I think that's what it is, is like the way in which we handle mischief, or young people acting out for whatever reasons they're acting out in whatever way in which they're acting out is very much in a penal system where it's like, I'm going to slap your hands or put your nose in the corner or do all of these things to punish you. And it's that mind shift that you mentioned of, you just think about it, think about why are you doing this? And that's it. This is a really different way in which to approach young people. I think in general.
RON: It is. It really is. Even as a parent, I've evolved. The concept of discipline, has changed and you hear it all the time that children don't come with, owner's manuals or how-to books, but I think many of us as parents, we parent the way that we were parented. And in the black community very often, discipline meant corporal punishment. Spankings, whippings, beatings, whatever you want to call them. I started out that way and then I evolved because I looked at my sons and I said, 'They're my sons. They have intelligence. There's the ability to talk to them.' and so I would sit them down to say, 'okay, so what made you think that was a good idea? And if you were in that situation again, would you do the same thing? What would you do differently?', and have a conversation. I think that that's something that is very often lacking; the conversation, the listening to what's in the minds of our young people. I don't think that they're being heard.
KATHRYN: And you touched on it there, of this generational trauma and the fact that we know that- I'm a big believer in, hurt people, hurt people. We have to step up in our own lives and say, 'I'm not going to perpetuate the patterns that I saw growing up or was raised around, etc.', but in life, there's a lot of learning and in life, there's a lot of unlearning of different things.
RON: It's both. The unlearning is definitely key. You gotta just take that stuff and just get rid of it and make room, make way for the new stuff that you're learning and for the evolving. Five of my six sons have parents now, and I have conversations with them about the children and my grandchildren. Some of them were on that early part of me parenting and getting the spankings. I've gone so far to even apologize to them for that and to say that, 'That's how I was raised, but it doesn't make it right.' So we're going to affect this generational change with you. We started it here with me with some of you, with the younger ones, but now all of us are going to do different. We're going to do better. They've embraced that and they see that it works.
KATHRYN: That's amazing. It's like one person can create that ripple effect in their community and you've been that one person, especially for young men, especially for black young men who are disproportionately impacted by the various problems seen in the education system, in the media, all of these different things. You can start the narrative, shift mindset, etc. and it might not be comfortable in the moment. Confronting a child behaving badly or whatever it is, but they ultimately reflect on it and they say, "Thank you, Ron, for having those conversations with me, etc." I'm a big believer in this idea that you can listen and learn and talk through things. And so, when you're talking to young men, how do you- you mentioned the drug conversations and wanting to solve that and a lot of your work is also in the world of gender-based violence and prevention of that, and talking to young men about that. How do you approach those conversations? Is it a reactive conversation when you've seen something or are you trying to be proactive and reaching out to them and educating them about these topics?
RON: It can be both depending on the circumstances. I've done a fair amount of public speaking on this issue. At the outset, I tell my audience, I think coming out of the womb, talking like this. We all have our journey. I've had mine as a boy, as a teenager, as a young man in his early twenties. You get these messages. I remember as a freshman at Boston College, we're in the dorm, usually on the weekend, we're talking with the guys and sort of going around the circle talking about their exploits, the girls or young ladies they've had. And they get to me and I'm still a virgin. He looked at me like I came out of the museum or something. But in that context I was made to feel like there was something wrong with me, that I was the odd ball in this whole circle of young men who were talking. And I gotta be honest with you. I don't know all of the folks who were in that circle and were telling those tales were telling the truth. I was, I did. When I came away from that feeling strange, feeling like the odd ball, feeling like I had to catch up, and that's what I proceeded to do. It was that peer pressure to be one of them. To be part of the "us". So you start there and you're not trying to hurt anybody. You just wanna do what you hear the other guys do. And so, I want people to know that yeah, I've had my journey, I'm learning, I'm still learning. But I can share the lessons that I've learned with you and I think because I come out like that, it's not a "holier than thou" sort of approach. It's a been where you are and let me tell you that there's a better way. And that's how I get into that. There's a better way. How do you want to be perceived? You want to be perceived this as one of those guys who just uses people or do you want to be perceived in a more positive way as a caring, compassionate, human being, who I can promise you that later on will attract more ladies. If that's what you want than being the other way where people tend to shy away from you, be distrustful of you, be suspicious of you. I've had good feedback from those conversations and some of that feedback has been: you're talking to the larger group and I always give them my contact information. I get contacted by folks who have been in the audience and I've got to tell you also that while many of the events that I'm speaking at are styled as "men's conferences", it hardly ever fails that there are as many women in the audience as there are men. I applaud that at one point I was seeing it so consistently that I stopped in my presentation and just asked for a show of hands of those women who were mothers of sons, because my presentation was about young men and every woman in the room stood up. And then I asked how many are single mothers raising sons, and every woman in the room stayed up. So I said "Thank you. Thank you for being here, because I need you to take this conversation that we're having back to your sons. I'm praying that you're going to be the one to give them the information that you get here and that it comes to them ideally before a lot of the garbage that they get out in the street." And even if it doesn't before that, at least it's something that counters most likely what they're going to get. Even as I'm saying that, I'm saying that if you have daughters, it's also important for your daughters to hear this. So they know what's acceptable behavior from a guy. Hitting you doesn't mean that he loves you. Controlling you doesn't mean that he loves you. It's funny because I had, maybe a couple of days or a week prior to that, been in one of those presentations and made one of those presentations. I had one thought that came to me as I was leaving that presentation was, it was all well and good that I do this with my audiences, but I need to double back and have it with my sons also. And then I was going into a supermarket and a young woman came out and as she was leaving she said, "Are you on the brand?" And I said, "Yes." She looked familiar, but I couldn't quite place it. She introduced herself and, of course I immediately knew it because we had dated back when I was in law school. We spent some minutes, outside the store just talking and catching up. I was talking about the work that I do on domestic violence. She reacted in very positive way and toward the end of the conversation, she says, "Do you remember throwing coffee at me?" And I didn't think that I had heard her correctly. So I asked her to repeat herself and she said the same thing. And I said, "No.", I had absolutely no recollection of doing like that. And she said, "Yeah, we had got into an argument and you threw coffee in my face." I didn't question her. I didn't say "It's a lie. I don't believe you.", I mean, after the conversation that we'd been having, there was no reason for me to question her credibility. But I was absolutely shocked that I had behaved in such a manner. I couldn't picture that person. And I apologized. I apologized. Which is the other thing that we say to guys- unless you have real reason to believe that this is a lie, accept it as the truth, unless you have real reason to doubt the question. I apologized and I asked for her forgiveness and she forgave me. It shook me for the rest of the day. If I was walking on air because I was feeling that I had made this great presentation, I was back down to earth. I back down to earth. It was like that humble pie that you every now and then got to get just keep you grounded. I still can't picture [it]. And Kathryn, I've got to tell you that that happened 35, 40 years prior to the conversation that she and I were having. So she's held on to that for that long.
KATHRYN: When someone is on a path, that's not a good path, they are causing harm in their community. How do you help them get on a different path themselves? And then how do you help them heal the person that they've caused harm to. Some people might view that as restorative justice and things like that, how do you view helping people change outside of this carceral penal system?
RON: If they caused the harm, then sometimes a lot can depend on the jurisdiction that you're in. Not every jurisdiction has embraced restorative justice. I wish more would make it an option. In that, I wish that there was also something that police departments were willing to utilize under certain circumstances and perhaps utilize that prior to charging the individual, or even at the charging batch prior to getting the judiciary involved. So much of it depends on the offender. There's no question that harm has been caused to an individual, to a community, very often to both. But in order for it to work, the person who caused the harm has to be willing to be accountable, willing to acknowledge, and willing to do better, to make amends, to restore. That's key to the restorative justice process that you start out with the person or persons who were injured and the person who committed the injury. Both have to be willing to sit down and have this healing conversation. But it goes beyond that. You've got the person who's been injured, if it's an individual, and then there's that individual's family, and that individual's neighborhood or community. There may be a need and often there is a need to have a number of affected parties at the table with the offender and each person has an opportunity to tell the offender how his conduct or her conduct impacted him, her, the community, the system. Very often people don't think offenders don't think they're in that sort of "me and now" without considering what happens down the road. Ideally, it is a conversation where there's emotion, there's accusation, but the party who committed the offense has to be willing to sit through that as part of accountability and understanding how your actions impacted all of these people. And then the offender has an opportunity to speak, make his apology or her apology. Maybe tell why this action was done and then propose, offer a proposal on how to impair the hall. That's the next phase of the conversation. And then again, everyone around the table talks about what it takes to make me feel whole again, and make this community feel whole again, to eliminate the threats that this community feels as a result of your conduct. And there's an agreement that is reached, a written agreement. An agreement that the offender is going to be held to, but it's also a way for the offender to find his or her way back into the community. This is not new. This is a conduct or practice that's been utilized in civilizations going back in Africa, the Native Alaskan community, and the Native American community, before we had the justice system or what we call the justice system, we were practicing some form of restorative justice. I made a presentation a couple of years ago on restorative justice. I was going through some of my PowerPoints in preparation for our conversation. A couple of slides really came out. You think of it this way: Our current criminal justice system asked these questions, what law was broken, who broke it, what punishment is given? Restorative justice asked a different set of questions who was harmed, what are the needs of all affected, who's obligation is it to meet those needs? Very different, very different. Restorative justice offers a path for the offender to come back into the community as an accepted member of the community. The criminal justice system that we have makes it so difficult. Where's the restoration? I used to ask a friend of mine who ran a correction system. What are we correcting? This is more punishment than correcting. The punishment continues after they're released because they've got all of these obstacles that prevent a really successful re-entry. Obstacles of where they can live, the kind of work they can do here, how they're going to support themselves. We need to do better. Our efforts on criminal justice reform are very slowly creeping, perhaps in the right direction. Again, I'm a former special agent with the drug enforcement administration, almost a special narcotics prosecutor. My attitude towards drugs, drug abuse, is a chain. I'm on the board of the addiction policy forum, where we seek to inform and educate the community, the public about drugs. We highlight the issue of substance abuse as a health issue, as a public health issue, not as a criminal law issue. We've been doing this other thing for 5, 6, 7 decades. Lock them up, throw away the key, and then we release them. Too often, they're no better off than when they went in. We can do better. We can do that. We have to make it less of a political issue. We have to take the soft on crime accusations out of the conversation and how do we heal this individual and the community that they harmed?
KATHRYN: That reframing of those questions that you started with it - even like in my own experience, going through the traditional justice system as a survivor, the justice system never really asked me what I wanted. How would this heal me? I think that it's what law was broken and who's going to be punished for it and it is not like what does the survivor want? What does the person, the community that was harmed want? I think that both parties coming to the table, the person who was harmed and the person who caused harm, I deeply believe in the idea of everything that you're saying. I do think that that's the way in which you truly heal a community in the world, etc., but it starts with the word accountability. In today's kind of cancel culture world, no one wants to takes accountability for their bad actions, bad behavior because they view that if I do, I'll be canceled, I will be not included in the community, not welcomed back into the community, etc. So we don't see people coming to the table of restorative reform. From what I've seen [it's] great in theory, not so great in practice because of that, not wanting to take accountability for the harm that they've caused, but also the harm that's happened to them. Again, hurt people hurt people going back to that, so I think getting at that root of why is this person causing harm in the community? And understanding that it's just as important as 'Okay, how do we help heal them? Heal the community, heal the person that comes harm?' You can't know if- it's just the drug thing. I'm like, 'Oh, they're doing drugs off them up there. Put them in jail.', not understanding why are they doing drugs, etc. How do we shift this narrative around accountability, around how we can come together as a community to bring restorative justice back to reality and something that we really can focus on and shift, in the way in which we handle the reporting of harm.
RON: In the money bail system, we know that literally thousands of people are in jail or prison without having been convicted. They're in because they don't have the money to the close bail. Then if they do get out, there are those who say the system is flawed. The system is flawed, the system is soft, the system is weak, and that these people should not be out. So I don't know. I think that one of the things that we lack is compassion, mercy, the will to forgive, to understand. Some years ago the Justice Department, created a program called the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. Part of it was to begin to ask questions that were never asked. Why did this person do what they did? What was the motivation? Let's try and understand that behavior, the root causes of that behavior. By understanding that we can potentially not only help this individual, but help others because his situation, more likely than not, is not unique. I'm also happy to see that I live beginning to have more open conversations about mental illness. That was taboo. That was taboo and still is unfortunately in many communities and many cultures, but I'm really happy to see that we're having that conversation. Now, I've got to talk to men and especially black men about the importance of addressing the issue of mental illness and seeking help even without mental illness, just seeking help to deal with the stress and the pressures of everyday life. To understand that there's no shame in wanting help, needing help. There's no shame.
We hope you enjoyed this conversation. If you're interested in learning more about the topics discussed in this episode or about our guests, visit our website at https://www.garbo.io Now available: Garbo's new kind of online background check makes it easy to see if someone in your life has a history of causing harm, while balancing privacy and protection in the digital age. This episode was produced by Imani Nichols, with whisper and mutter. I'm Kathryn Kosmides and I look forward to having you join us for the next episode of Reckoning.