Change L.A. Honoree Ben Lear In His Own Words: Juvenile Incarceration, School-To-Prison-Pipeline and Philanthropy

by Crystal Shaw on August 16, 2016

By Crystal Shaw-King

Liberty Hill Foundation’s Change L.A. networking event is quickly approaching. What are you doing the first weekend after Labor Day? Join us at L.A.’s hottest party with a purpose – and be primed to honor a purposefully driven young filmmaker and philanthropist, Ben Lear, who receives our Sarah Pillsbury NextGen Award on Saturday, September 10.

Lear’s directorial debut, “They Call Us Monsters,” centers on three teenagers who were tried as adults and face long or life sentences for violent crimes. And yet, they are still kids, with a greater capacity to change and one day return to society. What is our responsibility to these kids? And to their victims? Do they deserve a second chance? Behind the walls of the prison, three violent juvenile offenders are writing a movie as they await their trials. It’s the story of their childhoods with the ending rewritten. As a result of shooting this film, Ben sits on the advisory board of InsideOUT Writers and is an ally member within the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, teaching a weekly writing class within the Compound and mentoring former juvenile offenders upon reentry.

Liberty Hill spoke to Ben about the film, philanthropy, his thoughts on the prison industrial complex and the scope of racial justice in America today. You’ll find his answers candid, thought provoking and with razor sharp focus about the work he’s continuing to do to effect change in L.A.


Liberty Hill: You are the perfect fit for the NextGen Award because one of our campaigns is the Brothers, Sons, Selves  coalition, which focuses a lot on the school to prison pipeline. What’s your knowledge of the school to prison pipeline and how it fits into “They Call Us Monsters”?

Ben: Doing my work, obviously I’ve learned about it. The documentary features a system that could be considered a pipeline. Right? So you visualize a pipeline. You could take the documentary and place it along that line. 

I would say it’s on the far end. This is a hard film because it deals with juveniles who are tried as adults. These are kids that have been accused of very, very serious crimes and in many cases are convicted of a really, really serious crime and put away in prison, in a lot of cases, for the rest of their lives. So that’s the extreme worst outcome for a youth growing up in the United States.

That is after every other system has failed them. What I got to look at was the incarceration system, and the adult criminal justice system. And what happens when you throw in a minor whose brain is very obviously not fully developed and is not totally capable of understanding its circumstances, and especially understanding the gravity of his or her crime.

It looks like throwing somebody into hurricane waters and watching them try to swim. It doesn’t seem very fair, the way that it’s set up. What I think is so interesting about the school to prison pipeline is that it looks at many systems starting from the family, the community, and early school education, after schooling programs, mentorship opportunities, all of these things that are, in most cases, very severely lacking. And if they are there, not ultimately effective. And specifically with the kids that I work with, it’s never one factor. It’s always a number of different things. 


Liberty Hill: How did you get involved with this documentary?

Ben: Scott Budnick was my entryway into that whole world. As a young filmmaker, I had an idea that I wanted to do something that related to prison. Not necessarily a documentary, but I was really interested in that subject matter just creatively. And I met Scott. I was actually working with a friend of mine and, and a fellow producer, Gabe Cowan. And we both met Scott and Scott brought us into some juvenile halls.

He just opened the doors immediately. I sat in on a writing class, an InsideOut Writers writing class. That’s when I met the exact kids that ended up being in the documentary. 

It was over the course of these meetings that I very quickly got to understand that they’re so different from the way our society casts them. They are so obviously kids.  And yet they’ve done these horrible things. And that contrast, or that juxtaposition, which is seemingly irreconcilable just really captivated me as a filmmaker. And obviously as a human being as well, who is looking for mirrors to his own self worth.   

And the struggle and the process that these kids are going through is really compelling.


Liberty Hill: Therewas one scene that you spoke about in the documentary where the boys were swimming in a pool. What you said that really captured a feeling that they were able to display an innocence that they never really had.  I think that’s what society doesn’t allow. That plays into the school to prison pipeline in that, children, innocent children in a setting where they’re supposed to be allowed to be innocent, are not given what they need but instead are pushed in a different direction.  That’s kind of where you play in, in your documentary. I don’t imagine these young men had someone who told them, “You could actually be a writer.” Or, “You could write a film.”


Ben: No. Absolutely not.


Liberty Hill:  What kind of a breakthrough did you have with them?

Ben: The breakthrough was that we were challenging them. Actually, they were challenging themselves to write something authentic. They wanted to be honest. That was their choice. And they wanted emotional honesty and realism. The thing that I don’t think they were aware of on the surface was, in order to capture that, it requires vulnerability. And openness.

So accessing their own emotional vulnerability through the guise of writing something bad-ass and authentic as a challenge was a really powerful discovery.  And it also aided me in my own teaching now, where I’m not looking necessarily for tears, I’m not looking for these guys to write about their trauma directly, I’m looking for them to write something that they’re proud of.

And discovering, even if it’s—  honestly, even it’s about gang banging— if they write a good piece that they feel like has some artistic and emotional weight to it, it’s going to give them a sense of pride and a sense of accomplishment.  And then a confidence that they could do this more.  And then that leads to them opening up. 


Liberty Hill:   Right now the country is going through a lot. There’s a concern from our supporters about how their dollars can benefit racial justice as it stands in the country today and, specifically here in L.A. What are your thoughts on funding and philanthropy?

Ben: I have two thoughts on that.  The first one would be those closest to the problem are closest to the solution.  So I would always look for organizations that are run by people very close to the issue they’re dealing with.  If we’re talking about criminal justice and mass incarceration, an organization that’s run by a former lifer in prison who is trying to get all of his lifer buddies out of prison and end whatever the issue is.  That’s the guy that’s not going to quit.

That’s the guy who’s going to fight the hardest and the longest to get it done.  So I always feel like finding organizations that are really close emotionally to the issue.  They have the most sustainability and the most fire behind them. 

Once you find that organization, as a funder you may have your priorities, right?  You may look at an organization either they’re doing this or that.  You say, “Hi.  Here’s X-amount of dollars, but I’d really like you to allocate it toward this.”  And I would be wary of that because maybe they really need that money for another thing.  Once you find an organization that you trust, and that is doing generally the work that you want to be done, maybe you just allow them general operating funds.  Let them do what they need to do with their money, and maybe don’t be too pressured about it.


Liberty Hill:  You’ve grown up in an affluent lifestyle but certainly have been able to be conscious of social justice issues.     

Ben:   When you grow up in such a privileged affluent life, I think you run the risk of losing touch with cause and effect.  And the way things truly operate.  When you’re in a world where people can just buy what they want and live the lives that they want to have, you can drift— you can get untethered from reality, the things that really matter.

And I think I’ve had an instinct always to try my hardest to be as close to what feels authentic and real as I possibly can.  And just be a part of that.  And I think that I found it in this issue because every single one of these kids that I met, that couldn’t come from a more different background than me, are more authentic.  And even if they’re disguising themselves and masking themselves, are more emotionally honest than most people that I know.

And are better judges of character.  And have better barometers for bullshit than anybody else.  So I feel like personally and selfishly, if I can stay as close as possible, they’re going to just keep me in check. 


Liberty Hill:  Since you’ve now worked within the criminal justice system did you come away with a stronger knowledge about the prison industrial complex?  Or that surprised you?  And are you dedicated to working within it, working to change it?

Ben:  My main takeaway is just advocating for feeling and for the opportunity for people to earn second chances.  And advocating for victim and offender reconciliation, and trauma therapy.  And just approaching this with our hearts on our sleeves a little bit more. Recognizing that that’s also the key to public safety.  When you pass a bill that gives thousands of prisoners an opportunity for a second chance that they never would have had otherwise, that changes the environment of a prison yard.  And when people start getting out, it changes the environment of these broken communities.   

By keeping people in prison, by sending some of these people to prison and keeping them in prison, we are disrupting families, we are disrupting communities, and we are just perpetuating the cycle.  It doesn’t surprise me when, if you talk to some of these kids that have been through the sausage machine of our criminal justice system and all of our other failed attempts, they will say, that the government and police are deliberately trying to destroy their communities, because they have no other way of looking at it, from their perspective.  It’s just nothing else could possibly make sense.  How could all of this add up to the effect that it’s had on us and our communities if it wasn’t like a deliberate attempt to sabotage us?  And I think we have to do a lot of work to change that perception.  Before we can all work together.   

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