Injustices in the criminal justice system disproportionately impact Black people — especially Black men — and Janelle Wood, a Phoenix-based minister, says her “calling” is to prompt real change in her community.
Wood, who founded Black Mothers Forum in the fall of 2016, says her group strives to dismantle systemic racism and ultimately create a safer, more inclusive environment for children and families. Candidly discussing race, social inequalities Black history and more, Wood gave Arizona PBS a no-nonsense perspective about what it means to be a Black American in society today and how her nonprofit is working towards eradicating racism.
AZPBS: What inspired you to start the Black Mothers Forum?
Janelle Wood: I believe I was led to this work, especially as I looked around and watched our Black sons being killed by the police; especially those unarmed. I am a mother of a Black son and I know that he may be large in size, but he’s not a threat. I was led to call Black mothers together to bring unity, to bring us together as one voice to speak on the issues that concern our children.
AZPBS: What is your group’s overall mission?
Wood: Our overall mission right now is to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. At an early age we have found that our young people have been targeted, bullied, harassed and intimidated — starting in preschool — by their teachers and administrators. What happens is the child starts to gravitate towards somebody who they feel will protect them, who might not be good for them, and get them in trouble. Now you’re labeled as a “bad kid,” you have a discipline record — but what’s that going to do? Push you out of school and push you towards the pipeline headed to prison.
AZPBS: In what ways does your group give back to the community?
Wood: We’ve worked with mothers who have lost their children to police brutality. We’ve been there to support them and to help them find resources. We have access to attorneys who will help these families, pretty much pro bono, because we’ve developed relationships with them. The other thing that we’ve been doing is dealing with parents whose children have been taken away from them by the system. Us showing up in court, just our presence, shifts the atmosphere because the judge is like “Who are all of these women sitting here?”
AZPBS: The last few years have really highlighted that police brutality is very real and there needs to be a public push to combat that. What does your group do in the community to raise awareness about this issue and prompt change?
Wood: I’ve talked to Governor Ducey on a few occasions where he has orchestrated meetings between me and the various police chiefs to talk about their policies and practices that have an adverse impact on our children. We have those community conversations with our youth to hear their experience with police and then have conversations with the police to hear their fear of our children. We say, “OK, now that we know why you all fear one another, let’s figure out what we need to do differently.”
AZPBS: What does Black History Month mean to you?
Wood: I am Black history. Being a Black mama is Black history. Every day that we push against the systemic barriers that are placed in front of us and we continue to live and be resourceful is a historical day. Every time that we breathe is a historical moment because there’s so much against us.
AZPBS: Do you have any resource recommendations on how people can stay educated about the problems POC face, particularly people whose eyes have been recently opened to injustices and want to be better allies for change?
Wood: Three books: “The Color of Law,” “How to be an Anti-Racist,” and “The New Jim Crow.”
Learn more about the goals of the Black Mothers Forum and sign a pledge to end racism on their website.
Hear more from local Black leaders in our Our Voices series.
*Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed.