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The First Step

Lance Kramer is the producer of The First Step, a new documentary film about criminal justice reform and cross-party coalition building in action.

THE FIRST STEP is a new film that follows a bipartisan coalition who fought for unity on criminal justice reform and decriminalizing addiction amidst unprecedented partisan divides.

In making the film, we set out to document a rare story about cross-party coalition building in action, in which a unique alliance of progressive advocates from South Los Angeles, conservative advocates from West Virginia, justice-impacted community leaders, influencers, and elected officials from both parties came together to pass the First Step Act of 2018.

The journey to pass the bill — which has since brought more than 20,000 people home from federal prison early — also encountered significant challenges both within the reform movement and across party lines.

We sought to make a complex policy fight relatable through the personal stories of front-line advocates, and place viewers at the center of challenging conversations where people disagree directly and breakthroughs occur in real time.

After premiering the film at the Tribeca Film Festival and touring with the film to more than 40 regional film festivals across 30+ states over the past year, we are now on the cusp of releasing the film theatrically this month in more than 25 cities. The film will be shown in movie theaters across the country in partnership with dozens of national and local organizations dedicated to bipartisan criminal justice reform and bridge-building, including, REFORM Alliance, and members of the Listen First Coalition.

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Our hope is that by engaging politically, culturally, and geographically diverse communities in these screenings and facilitated conversations, the film can spur progress on additional criminal justice reform and provide a kind of roadmap for expanding bipartisan coalitions to address complex issues facing our country.

In this piece three members of the Listen First Coalition — Convergence Center for Policy Resolution, YOUnify and the Facing Project — share reflections on the film and what it means to the stakeholders they serve.

As an organization that has been bringing people of wildly divergent views together for more than a decade to facilitate breakthroughs on seemingly intractable issues, we welcome The First Step film’s contribution to these tough conversations. In our experience, when people come together to listen and learn from one another across their divisions, extraordinary things can happen -- from meaningful policy change to the lasting de-escalation of toxic polarization and a healthier democracy.

We’ve seen it happen on countless contentious issues: when we work together to understand each other’s core needs and recognize our shared humanity, we can find common ground and chart a path forward. It’s an approach that demands humility, deep listening, and a willingness to defy the toxic politics that so often pit us against one another.

Our work intersected with criminal justice issues on the recent Convergence Reentry Ready program, which convened people of opposing viewpoints to identify strategies for coordinating the corrections system, social supports, and economic systems to improve reentry success for incarcerated people. That collaborative dialogue took place over many months, resulting in a set of actionable recommendations that the group presented to lawmakers and leaders. We recognize the immense challenge that the filmmakers were up against – and the opportunities for breakthrough among unlikely allies.

With The First Step, America has an opportunity to see bridgebuilding in action, and the potential that it holds.

- David Eisner, president, Convergence Center for Policy Resolution

At YOUnify, where I serve as Director of Engagement, our reason for being is to help individuals and communities of every kind, build relational atmospheres conducive to solving the key challenges of our times. This is facilitated in many ways, but all with the aim of minimizing affective polarization and other factors that prevent us from activating the solutions to what are often very solvable problems. I cultivated my passion for this work throughout my career across multiple sectors–from the military to ministry–which brought me into intimate contact with people who on the surface are worlds apart. But, when engaged emerge as people with many shared values although they may pursue them differently. Chief among those values is the desire to experience a sense of freedom, a path to self-determination, and an opportunity to contribute positively to their families and community.

What I witnessed in this film was these desires juxtaposed with the idea that there are many prison systems in our nation. And not all of them have bars. There is the prison of addiction, the prison of marginalization, and there is the prison of hyper-partisan politics. However, acknowledging these different prisons does not in any way put these states of confinement on equal footing. And yet, it does demonstrate that the cherished freedoms that Americans profess to value are–to quote Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., ”caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” In other words, our freedoms are bound to one another. What this film captured in its essence is the untapped potential of the American citizenry when we look at a problem that affects the many and commit to creating a solution as One.

What we also see played out is what it takes to circumnavigate the trap of, as the French proverb expresses it, allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good. Much of the resistance to the act was because many people saw it as an imperfect policy with imperfect partners. However, the American vision is not to create perfect policies crafted by perfect people. But rather from imperfect people with imperfect perspectives work together to create a more perfect Union. I think it is important for people to watch this film as if we are looking over the shoulders of all those featured and get curious about what it took for them to work together to create a pathway for thousands to return home. And then ask ourselves, how do we do better? Because it is a long journey to Justice. And, as the title suggests, the passing of this act is just the first step.

- Pedro Silva, Director of Engagement, YOUnify

The First Step film confirmed what I and others in the bridge-building movement know to be true: real, substantive change doesn’t happen until unlikely allies sit across from one another at the table of life, practice deep listening and radical empathy, and act together knowing that the first steps of any journey may be bumpy but worth it.

While the film is centered on the work of #Cut50 and its high-profile founders, it’s anchored by the personal narratives of community leaders in South Los Angeles and West Virginia who, despite their differences, share the tragedy of addiction and incarceration between urban and rural America, and an unwavering commitment to bring home their loved ones. As the film unfolds, I was incredibly moved by their reluctance yet acceptance that transformation transpires outside of comfort zones, and the collective vulnerability when they crossed cultural and political lines to make it happen.

The work of The Facing Project encourages communities to create a more understanding and empathetic world through stories that inspire action, and we believe that stories are the most powerful tool for change. The First Step film shows the human condition in action and that stories not only bring us together but can provide freedom to thousands of people.

- J.R. Jamison, co-founder and president, The Facing Project

The First Step opened in select theaters nationwide on February 17. To find out more, visit:

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