As a 19-year-old black man trafficking marijuana, Adam Foss easily could have landed in jail with little hope for a decent education or job.
But growing up adopted by white parents, he enjoyed support and privilege. He went to law school, worked as a prosecutor and founded Prosecutor Impact, a nonprofit organization that develops training for prosecutors to reframe their role in the criminal justice system.
“The fact I get to be here, doing this … and the tens of thousands of people I leave behind in jails and prisons and impoverished neighborhoods all the time don’t get to because of the luck of a draw drives me crazy,” Foss said during his keynote Saturday. “It is the most fundamentally unfair thing about our society, and I ask all of you to do something about it because we are depriving ourselves of an amazing pipeline of talent.”
One in three black men born today will spend time incarcerated, he said. Schools remain segregated, black men are dying of gun violence and black women are dying in childbirth.
“This is the greatest human and civil rights crisis of our time,” he said. “It’s happening in our country. And as such, we need a new civil rights movement.”
For many who are incarcerated, their problems began in early childhood. They start school behind, get frustrated and act out, and look for acceptance in gangs.
“All they’re hearing is you’re a bad kid … and they’re going to a school that doesn’t treat them well and frankly they’ve been unsafe going to school every single day,” Foss said. “In their communities, mass shootings are durational, and nobody shows up with a hashtag or a march.”
When his father, a police officer, caught him with marijuana and continued to love and support Foss, he was handing him a sword and shield to protect himself and others.
Foss wielded his sword and shield for Stanley, a teen he met while working as a prosecutor. As Stanley graduated from stealing cellphones to armed robbery, Foss listened to his story of growing up in the Boston projects. He held him accountable for his actions but supported him. The young man went on to college, played baseball and made the dean’s list. Now, he is trying out for Major League teams and working with Foss to help teens like him.
Foss urged pediatricians to take a stand for these children, too.
“Each one of you has the opportunity every single day to stick your arm in that pipeline and pull out one kid,” Foss said. “Exercise your sword and your shield. Do something different at work. When you do, amazing things happen.”