When They See Us – Honoring Ava DuVernay & The Exonerated Five

Honoring Black History Series: As a part of our commitment to honor black history, Access team members will be sharing about businesses, books, literature, stories, podcasts, films, songs, or pieces of art created by black authors, leaders, entrepreneurs, and artists that have impacted us.

Reflections by Alaina Dobkowski, Communications & Development Coordinator


This past summer I watched When They See Us a netflix mini-series created, co-written, and directed by Ava DuVernay. It tells the story of the five black teenagers in New York City who were falsely accused and convicted of the rape and assault of a white woman jogger in Central Park. For our Black History series, I honor Ava DuVernay and the five men (Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise) whose stories were told through this series; it was powerful, absolutely devastating, and I hope it leads towards change. 


As soon as When They See Us came out, my social media channels were talking about it. We also talked about it at Access, and a few of us watched it and shared reflections with one another. It’s a powerful series that shows how racist and unjust our criminal justice system is; and how systemic racism destroys lives. When you watch “When They See Us” you cannot watch it as one single story. The stories of the men now known as the Exonerated Five are part of a system wide problem that our nation has to address. It is a story about all of us. We are killing and incarcerating black and brown bodies, and merely walking by if we don’t begin to work towards change. 


This series was one of the hardest things I have made myself watch. The week after viewing the mini-series I was reading the story of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke. As I read it, I had this sick feeling in my stomach as I saw this story in a new way, from a systemic perspective. In this parable told by Jesus, a man is robbed and beaten, left to die while walking from Jerusalem to Jericho. A priest sees him, but crosses the street and walks on the other side. A Levite sees him and does the same thing. Then, a Samaritan man comes, binds up the man’s wounds and brings him to an inn. He makes sure he has the care he needs moving forward by leaving extra money. 


With the story of When This See Us on my mind, and news of children being kept in detention centers at the border, I saw this familiar story differently: The robbers who attacked the man and left him dying in the street were our systems. The criminal justice system. The border detention centers. Systems that are destroying black and brown bodies, robbing them of their lives. And what are we largely doing in our society? If we have the privilege to do so, we’re walking by. We’re keeping our distance, like the Priest and Levite who walks on the other side of the street. We don’t stop, address the need, and invest our time and our money to make changes. I know that I need to invest my time, energy, and money into understanding racism, and continuing to learn its very real impacts. As a white woman, I need to listen and believe the stories of people of color. I need to dismantle the ideology of white supremacy that is upheld all around me. I need to work alongside others and participate in changing the systems of which I am a part of, either explicitly or implicitly.


To learn more about systemic racism in our Criminal Justice System, I recommend watching Ava Duvernay’s documentary, 13th and reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. I also would follow the Equal Justice Initiative, they are working to end mass incarceration, excessive punishment, and racial inequality. You can also read their founder, Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy, or see the movie, now in theatres

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