Burning Down the House at Book Club

Posted by Jamie Bunch-Sanfilippo

Sep 15, 2016 1:00:00 PM

Not your typical summer read

When it was my month to select the book for the book club I attend, I knew immediately the one I wanted to choose. It was a summer month, however, when families schedule beach vacations, schools are out, and parents are using their saved time off from work to sit poolside, enjoy summer night cocktails, to frequent local fairs...and I pick a book about juvenile incarceration in America. 


The book was Burning Down the House by Nell Bernstein. After seeing Bernstein speak at the Blueprints Conference in April 2016, I knew this was the book I was going to bring back to my community. This was the book that I wanted more and more people to be aware of, to continue spreading the message that Bernstein clearly lays out. So yes, I was the one who was asking folks to put down their fun summer-beach reads and delve into the heavyweight topic of the mistreatment and misguided services of our youth in America. I truly appreciate this group as no one barked at the heavy topic or the length of book. People happily purchased and read. 

In full disclosure, I am a Multisystemic Therapy consultant. MST is a program that Bernstein speaks of favorably as an alternative to the current status quo. Having worked in cities across America and having seen firsthand the challenges of our current systems, this was a book that I hoped others would see as important to discuss. Having frontline experience working within large urban juvenile-detentions centers with exposure to the issues Bernstein discusses in her book and more than 15 years as a clinician in community-based therapeutic services for youth and their families, I was not sure how this topic would translate to book-club folks. Would these people from all walks of life find this topic such an urgent call to action as I? Would this topic engage the group further to talk about the issues affecting our community, our city and our country? 

Burning Down the House cites staggering statistics of recidivism, astronomical cost of juvenile-justice detention and the longstanding change in the concepts behind juvenile justice. Bernstein explores the inherent racism built into the system, the ongoing disproportionate children of color being forced into our system and the rise of the "super-predator" terminology in the late 1980s and 1990s that has proven to be myth and sadly altered our juvenile legal system in such a staggering way that the current laws still reflect this outdated way of thinking about crime, child-development and rehabilitation versus punishment.

What’s right for your children should be right for all children

And at its core, Burning Down the House leaves a reader with a simple question and a simple test, the "my child" test. Bernstein presents this question among the devastating statistics, horrifying traumas and long-term impacts that the current juvenile justice system has on our youth. It really is a simple question: if this is not good enough for your child, why would we expect any less for any other child in our country? Not one of the parents in this book group felt the current status would benefit their children.

So, the next question is, what can we do about it? The discussion vacillated between large systemic thoughts—how to overhaul the system and what needs to be done—to ground-level steps of people discussing the value of joining mentoring programs, supporting further pro-social opportunities in the community, more involvement in racial-inclusion groups, volunteering at places like CASA.

As the book-club evening came to a close, the group felt that Burning Down the House brought important information to the table, that it was a great reminder of the continued social injustice being done to our neighbors, families and children. And if one person follows through on becoming more involved in the ideas floating around the living room that night, I would say that this achieved a small step to right wrongs that Nell Bernstein brings to light.

To learn how MST is helping to reduce racial inequities in the juvenile justice system, download this white paper.

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Topics: Juvenile Justice Reform