By Brenda Jones . . .
What a GREAT conference we had this year! Thanks to the hard work and planning of our conference planning team and the many volunteers from Texas Voices, and the wonderful behind-the-scenes help provided by the staff at Skillman Church of Christ, everything ran very smoothly overall. I was able to meet and mingle with many of you and was able to sit in on most of the sessions. The ones I didn’t get to, I’ve heard about, so I’m able to write a good report this year.
We had more re-entry advocates in attendance this year, which was great to see and I hope the trend continues. Although RSOL itself is focused more broadly on the huge number of persons who have completed their sentences but continue to be punished by public registration, many states are adding lifetime or indeterminate sentencing to their laws for sex offenders. It is important for advocates to understand about the impact of these laws so that we can fight their introduction elsewhere and eventually seek their repeal or modification. Our re-entry allies are also a wonderful resource, as they have often been “in the biz” far longer and can offer or direct people to more services and support than we can as advocates.
What we are still NOT seeing as much of, is professionals from related fields. I would like to repeat the challenge we issued a couple of times during the conference, with a special twist. Our challenge to each attendee was “Each one, bring one.” We need to make more effort to get others to attend, in general, and get them fired up for change. What I would like to add is that we need in particular to reach out to mental health professionals, social workers, attorneys, even sympathetic law enforcement officers (yes, they are out there) and get THEM involved and encourage them to attend next year.
One theme that came out of the conference was about our stories… their importance, how to tell them, who to tell them to, and so on. Although we did not push for a lot of media attention this year, we had many opportunities to learn from experienced journalists, television and radio persons how to interact with media as well as simply connecting with with neighbors, community leaders, and lawmakers to start changing people’s perception of who is on the registry. With a change in that perception, we can hope to start changing people’s hearts, and changing laws.
The critical role of popular perception of former sexual offenders is another important point brought up by many speakers and presenters during our conference. For seasoned advocates, perhaps, it is a no-brainer… so much so that we forget how critical it is for our audience to understand. I would say that nearly ALL of us, no matter what our original background, got involved because we had a personal encounter that we knew was “just wrong.” In time, our eyes became opened to the incredibly broad sweep of the laws. People outside of our movement have not had that eye-opening. What kept coming out was the importance of hammering and repeating that easily 80-90% of former sexual offenders are NOT who everyone assumes they are. Once people have started doubting that stereotype, and instead recognize that those folks could easily be ME or MY loved one, the tide will start to turn.
Another theme that emerged was the importance of EVERY person getting involved. One way was through the storytelling, of course. But attendees also were encouraged to speak up, not just as advocates in our states, but by finding our voices within RSOL, and getting directly involved in its work. If you have a great idea and are trying to put wings on it, find some folks to get the job done, write up a proposal, and we will help you as long as it is within RSOL’s Vision, Mission and Goals. If you see an RSOL Goal that you really want to move forward more quickly and are willing to jump in and make that happen, step right up and let us know what you can do! We also have a number of urgent tasks from small to large that need doing, which range from writing, to website content building and research, to managing a wiki, that individuals can tackle as their abilities allow. RSOL is only as effective as YOU can make it.
To conclude, I think this year’s conference was the best yet. Stay tuned and check back to our conference site at rsolconference.org for videos of the speakers and presentations. Keep up the good work, and see you next year!