Noran Sanford

Ashoka Fellow
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United States
Fellow Since 2016
This description of Noran Sanford's work was prepared when Noran Sanford was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2016 .

Introduction

Noran believes that the major failing of our juvenile justice system is its inability to provide young people real opportunities to practice being different in their communities. Through GrowingChange and its “Flip the Prison” initiative, he is setting the standards for re-using shuttered state-owned prisons and giving local leaders, educators, legislators, law enforcement agencies, and young people themselves the opportunity and the tools to change their communities’ power structures and their lives.

The New Idea

After years as a social worker and counselor pushing young people to see themselves differently, practice greater self-efficacy, and expect ‘behavior change’ to ripple out from the artificial and aloof context of a counselor-client session, Noran realized that the key to realizing lasting mindset and behavior change was to provide the most-at-risk young people opportunities to actually practice being different in the community. The same holds true for legislators, educators, and leaders in the justice system; the lack of opportunities to do and think differently – both with and about “troubled youth” - and the narrow and largely negative context in which these leaders interact with “at risk” youth results in a limited range of extremely harsh punishments.

Noran’s solution is to link disempowerment or “troubled” young people to the disenfranchisement of the communities they come from, and in evoking the sense of shared struggle, rally paroled youth and community members around new opportunities.

Noran has created a model centered around “Reclamation Teams” led by young people on probation and charged with helping “flip” a local symbol of our broken justice system like, as is the case in his rural North Carolina, a decommissioned ‘work farm’ prison. The “flip” becomes a hub of civic activity, and an opportunity for young people and community groups to work side-by-side, immediately changing the context within which they are interacting and – over time – tackling the barriers young people and the disenfranchised communities that they come from are facing every day. By working shoulder to shoulder, church leaders and the young people kicked out for their adherent behavior, universities professors and high school dropouts, and legislators from the capitol and their rural constituents are directly addressing their own biases, changing their behaviors, and developing a deeper sense of civic imagination and societal efficacy.
Building on national momentum to “end the era of mass incarceration” and to ensure that his model is widely adopted, Noran is working with state agencies to create the step-by-step regulatory process and set of standards for productively repurposing a growing class of assets: decommissioned rural prisons. University researchers are running clinical trials on the effectiveness of the ‘group therapy’ that happens across reclamation teams so as to improve the “youth at risk” therapy field. Rural leaders across the region are buying into the collaborative model as a vehicle for bridging their own isolation and tackling local systems of oppression. And juvenile justice advocates around the world are reaching out to learn more about the key principles of putting young people in charge, rallying various stakeholders together, and “flipping our prisons” so that the local context can change and young people stand a chance of returning to their community in an empowered way.

The Problem

Across the country, our juvenile justice system is responsible for punishing young people for bad behavior and then helping them re-join society. Detention, mandatory community service, probation, and cognitive behavioral therapy are some of the most common tools deployed, with the latter holding the most promise of fulfilling the promise of helping young people change their ways. But individual therapists working in isolation to empower young people to transform their lives and give back to the community is a practical but incomplete solution. A young person is expected to completely transform his whole life, but today’s therapeutic interventions typically ignore the wider context, community, and contributing factors around him. Until communities are ready to welcome young people back – and the factors contributing to young people’s poor choices are addressed – the likely outcomes for challenged regions and the young people living there remain grim.

One of the most challenged regions in the US – by almost any measure – is rural North Carolina, where Noran Sanford was born and raised. Up until 30 years ago, North Carolina had the highest incarceration rate in the U.S. (the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world), in large part because in the 1920s, impoverished rural areas with cheap, swampy land were encouraged to invest in rural prisons where the “free labor” was then used extensively to build and maintain rural infrastructure. It was only in the 1980s when the federal government protested the use of prison labor that the economic incentive disappeared and scores of rural prisons – some 53 around the state – were abandoned. Today the two least healthy counties in North Carolina, according to the Robert Wood Johnson County Health Assessments, are Scotland and Robeson and each hosts a decommissioned, derelict rural prison that stands as a reminder of past injustices. Scotland County has the state’s highest unemployment rate (according to NCDOC) and the city of Lumberton in Robeson County is per capita the poorest city in the nation (WTVD). Gangs are prominent throughout the region but The Laurinburg Exchange ranks these two counties as top for violent crime in North Carolina, and recently published research out of Harvard University ranked the state as dead last in ability to rise in socioeconomic status.

Yet despite this painful and recent history of state-sponsored bonded labor, young people on probation that have an obligation to do community service in North Carolina (and beyond) are most likely to end up clocking hours cleaning ditches in jumpsuits. The stigma attached to these young people and the signals we as a society are sending them are painfully obvious. Less obvious is the abuse and neglect they experience inside today’s juvenile justice system. It’s no wonder, then, that the greatest predictor of adult criminality in the U.S. is exposure to our juvenile justice system.

Noran insists that we need to radically re-think the experience of young people in this system. Approaches like Eckerd Wilderness Camps use outdoor trips to rehabilitate troubled youth employing a group approach. But they don’t put young people in charge, and young people are removed from their community, unable to engage with the power structure or develop their vocational and educational skills. Models like Youth Build keep “at risk” young people in the community and do have an emphasis on skill-building, but they don’t engage adjudicated youth, truly put young people in charge, or tackle the power structure. Most organizations in this space are ‘mono-culture’ groups with narrow approaches and, for the most part, the people designing and maintaining these systems have extremely limited experiences interacting positively with the youth in their care, thus stunting their civic imagination and sense of other possibilities. After over 15 years working in this space, Noran knew something needed to change, drastically.

The Strategy

Noran has long believed that we need to help young people see themselves differently so that they can do differently. Counseling, for many years, was Noran’s attempt to help young people caught up in our juvenile justice system do just that. But his efforts to help transform kids one-by-one were falling flat as soon as the young people in the rural area he lived in returned home. The idea that they could get out of trouble alone seemed misplaced, given the fact that peer pressure and family problems drove many young people to make their bad decisions in the first place. Though the juvenile justice system says publicly that their goal is, as Noran puts it, “to help young people re-join the village, re-join their tribe,” little is ever done to help or prepare “the village” to also see and do differently.

As advocates and politicians alike call for “the end of the era of mass incarceration” and the halving of the U.S. prison population, the demand for new programmatic approaches for engaging young people outside of lock-up is growing dramatically. So is the number of rural, outdated, and economically-unviable prisons around the country that are being shuttered. States and municipalities are eager to find a way to repurpose or offload their decommissioned prisons, but have few options. Most are suspicious of the interest among private prison companies that propose turning the old prisons into immigrant detention centers, a viable but unsavory option since these facilities are not subject to the same housing, building, or human rights standards. (State planners taking the longer view are also leery of selling to private interests; while there are few economically viable uses today, the potential for growth in legal marijuana cultivation makes these massive sites and their 15’ razor wire perimeters possible nodes in a growth industry most municipalities would rather not so directly enable.)

In the combination of these long-standing challenges and the changing landscape, Noran saw the opportunity to create a radically new context in which young people and their community can interact in new, positive ways that change their perceptions of each other and write new narratives of possibility and power for young people and disenfranchised communities alike.

Noran is proving that we can “flip our prisons” and build a viable model for decarceration by rallying young people on probation or parole and community members and civic leaders together onto “reclamation teams” that take on massive physical transformation projects. The first Reclamation Team launched by GrowingChange is converting a closed 67-acre “work farm” prison compound in Wagram, NC. Radically reimaging and reinventing abandoned prisons helps instill hope, rallies unlikely allies together, and serves as a powerful metaphor for flipping our own metaphorical prisons and a tangible hub for collective action. The youngest members of the team have the greatest say in developing the master plan. (They named the organization and sit on its board, too, and have led every important presentation, including the pitch to the Department of Public Safety in 2013 that resulted in the granting of access to the prison facility in the first place.) Farming operations are already underway with input from local universities and the USDA. A capital campaign launching in January 2017 coincides with the signing of a long-term lease and will transform the former warden’s house into staff quarters and office space. The jail cells will become aquaponic tanks. The galley will be converted into a certified community kitchen and the old ‘hot box’ into a recording studio. A local committee is working on plans for a history museum to address the “Field Camp Era.” And someday, looming over this vibrant community center, will be a climbing wall on the former guard towers.

While artists’ renditions of the master plan are available at partners’ offices around town, the goal is never really to completely finish the “flip.” Not just because the work of reclaiming some of the most thorny, difficult spaces in the rural South will take time, but because, according to Noran, “these are the sites for the soul work.” It’s about the journey, and not the destination. “When leaders work shoulder to shoulder with our youth leaders, this itself helps drive our clinical success. Our youth are embraced for their expertise as they engage in the mission of ‘Flipping the Prison.’” Already, St. Andrews Presbyterian University has developed a radical pedagogy where young people on the reclamation team participate as co-instructors (gaining course credits of their own through the local community college). And the young men on the Reclamation Team, seeing that the brochures and reading materials available in the administrative waiting rooms that the spend many hours in were stale and always written by adults, are developing a free comic book series that tells their own story of flipping their prison and turning their lives around. To date, GrowingChange has been 92% successful in preventing entry into adult lockup for the young people they work with.

Noran and several university partners are carefully documenting the process of transferring sites’ ownership and creating the statewide best “use case” scenario for decommissioned prisons in the robust “Prison Flip Toolkit”. North Carolina State and NC A&T State University, the leading historically black college in agriculture, are investing in the team’s agriculture program and UNC-Pembroke, the oldest Native American university in the country, is helping on the marketing and messaging program. All told, seven universities, four North Carolina departments of state, national foundations, federal agencies, faith leaders, the veteran community, local and state leaders, and young people on probation are working across ‘party lines,’ bringing their ideas and their energy together in a process that, according to Noran, “breaches the walls of structural racism, systemic bias and isolation that lay siege to rural areas of generational poverty.”
Looking to the future, Noran doesn’t want to be the “Johnny Appleseed of flipped prisons.” Rather, he is working to ensure that many others will be able to use his model to shift the power structures around young people by specifically reforming the roles for therapists, community leaders, and the wider set of juvenile justice stakeholders.

When it comes to therapists, Noran and several university partners have been running a multi-year clinical trial to highlight the overall effectiveness of the hands-on, multi-stakeholder “group therapy” work. And beyond the specific how-tos his team has developed, he hopes that greater attention is paid to the need for individual transformation to be supported by wider changes in the community. Rather than mandatory community service (carried out while wearing prison-issued jumpsuits), child health advocates and therapists should push for options to carry out service requirements in groups, on community farms, or on future Reclamation Teams.

As more Reclamation Teams and Prison Flips get underway around the country, Noran will convene a national federation and working group of flipped prisons. The Wagram team is already preparing to be paired with counterparts in earlier-stage “flips” in adjacent counties and across the country – a sheriff sharing what he learned with the neighboring sheriff, the pastor with the priest, the young people comparing plans. In just a fifty-mile radius from their current base in Scotland County, there are six closed state prisons, each one a relic of the forced prison labor used to build NC roads until the early 1980s. And there’s already interest (from the USDA, state agencies, and local groups) in Illinois, Michigan, and Texas where prisons are rapidly closing. Interest in their model is growing quickly with regular national media coverage and a forthcoming documentary film. And the number of possible sites is growing, too, as statewide agencies (in NC and elsewhere) pick up the Prison Flip Toolkit and endorse this best-case-scenario.

Finally, Noran understands that the juvenile justice system is in dire need of practical, replicable decarceration solutions. As they build out their network, the federation will test, share, and amplify what works. Rather than engage in protests - which put the young, often-undocumented kids on heavy probation in direct conflict with authority - Noran positions the young people leading this initiative as solutions-oriented experts. “This ‘Prison Flip Coalition’ launches pragmatic decarceration efforts at the grassroots level which in turn magnifies the message at the state and even national level.” In North Carolina’s heated debate about ending adult sentencing for 16-year-olds, members of the current reclamation team – young and old – walk through lines of protesters in Raleigh to the 14th floor of Archdale Building to meet legislators and talk about solutions. According to Noran, “if you want to see change, you need a swift team of changemakers to be able to give the system the solutions the system is willing to take, and then push in the direction we want to push.” Indeed, against great odds, it seems rural reclamation teams and flipped prisons are a ‘solution the system is willing to take.’

The Person

Noran grew up in an abusive, working-class Scot-Irish family in rural North Carolina. Ever since a young age he had a strong sense of justice, and took a stand against racism in his home even though it meant getting knocked down.

Scholarships for community involvement in high school helped Noran attend university at UNC-Chapel Hill. There he co-founded one of the few college Habitat for Humanity chapters in the country and, when then-President Reagan’s policies resulted in large populations of people shifting from mental health institutions to homeless shelters, he rallied UNC’s athletes to volunteer in shelters, helping deescalate violent situations and prevent police intervention. As a young professional, himself diagnosed with PTSD, he won awards his work in the passage of mental health parity laws in Virginia and for his work advocating for students with disabilities.

In 2000, Noran got married and moved back to Laurinburg to provide home care for his mother who was an Alzheimer’s victim. He “was stunned to find that our challenged area had grown more difficult.” Noran had been heavily involved in community work but, after 20 years “in the trenches”, he became disillusioned with the impact he was having as a counselor. Then, five years ago, at the funeral for “another young man who was lost to gang violence” he made the commitment to “never stand at another graveside for a young person I worked with asking myself if I could have done ‘more.’ This is the 'more.'”