More than 150 young people gathered at Georgetown Cinemas on Jan. 24, but they were not lining up to see the latest Marvel flick. Derris “Dee” Ross, the founder of the Ross Foundation, rented the theater for a screening and discussion of “Just Mercy.” The award-winning film tells the heartbreaking true story of an inmate wrongfully convicted of murder.
Ross used the film to spark conversation about systematic inequality, trauma, and social justice between youth and community leaders. These are topics he’s dealt with first hand. Ross was five years old when he witnessed a murder in broad daylight, and many of the students he works with personally know someone who has been killed.
We met with Ross to learn more about the importance of teaching Indy’s youth about justice.
Indy K12: Can you introduce yourself to readers who may not be familiar with the work that you do in the community? More specifically, can you talk about your work with the city’s youth?
My name is Derris Ross; I go by Dee Ross. I am the founder and CEO of the Ross Foundation, a grassroots nonprofit organization that was established in 2014. Our mission is to create more effective youth activities, repair our communities, and develop healthy leaders. Our vision is to bridge the gap between providing resources and services and going out into communities. We work with the youth who usually don’t have a mentor, who don’t have a place to go after school, or who don’t have the same opportunities as youth in other communities.
Indy K12: What inspired you to host the screening for “Just Mercy” and what response did you get from the youth after the event?
When I saw “Just Mercy” I was so touched and inspired. I thought, “Man, this is a must-see! Why is no one talking about this movie?” I wanted to create a safe space for our youth to be able to view this movie, and an opportunity to have a dialogue with stakeholders who are in charge of decisions in our state.
I wanted to create a space for our youth who may not have the funding to go see such a movie. We decided to rent out the entire theater to bless all the youth, and we had over 150 youth in attendance. We had beautiful dialogue from the Marion County prosecutor, state representatives, state senators, and people who work in reentry. A social worker discussed mental health and trauma.
“Just Mercy” is about a man who was wrongfully convicted of a crime he never committed. Even after providing evidence he was sentenced the death penalty. It shows the systems we are up against that are in place to prevent us from being successful no matter how good we are. You can get a four-year degree and still run into this system, this white supremacy system. I want to bring this to the forefront so our youth can be educated on the things they may be up against.
Change starts with the youth. If the youth say “hey, we are against this system and we stand for justice and righteousness” at an early age, maybe our society will see improvements by the time they are in their twenties and thirties. We want to inspire young people to be aware of social justice issues. The young people were inspired, but they were also so angry and fed up with what happens to us. They want to go out here and make a difference in society.
Indy K12: In your personal life, how did criminal justice issues impact you when you were a child or teen? Did adults help you navigate those topics?
When I was a kid I never had this opportunity. I wish I had those types of discussions, those uncomfortable conversations about criminal justice. It may have altered some of the decisions I made growing up in a poverty community plagued with violence and drugs. Maybe I would have made better decisions about the activities I participated in if I was aware of such things. When you are educated on what’s before you, how you got here, and the systems we are up against it helps define your identity and culture. If I would have known this at 10 or 12 years of age, I would have been able to go down better paths. I am blessed and grateful I was able to bring it around before it’s too late
Indy K12: What stood out to me the most was that all of the young people (featured on the news) personally knew someone who had been shot or killed. That’s got to be extremely traumatic for a child. What advice do you have for educators who are trying to help young people navigate these realities?
It’s important that they are intentional about building relationships. Are they trying to understand the environment they are serving and the socioeconomic barriers and challenges the students face? We have to also acknowledge barriers in the community that’s causing some of these students to come in tardy, sleepy, angry, or hungry. Some of these kids don’t have an easy home to go home to, don’t have parents in the household, didn’t have dinner the night before. Some are raising their little siblings. You never know what is happening before they even get to school. When I was five years of age, I saw someone killed in broad daylight. I never knew I suffered from environmental stress until I turned 25. You have to take these factors into place when we talk about serving our community, serving our children, and trying to understand them.
If an educator can’t relate to that pain, bring in a community liaison to help connect the dots and be that bridge. I am a community liaison for some schools on the east side. I train the teachers on how to engage with students on conflict resolution, mental health, and trauma so they can understand the children they are serving. We don’t have a library in our community, so some of these kids don’t have opportunities or have access to books or tutoring. The reading comprehension may not be on the level it needs to be. We need to be willing to work with the children, but also to become a revolving parent for these children. Doesn’t mean they don’t have their parents, but it takes a village to raise a child. The neighbors, the teachers, the doctors; we all have a role to play.
To learn more visit therossfoundationcommunity.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.