Defund Fear: How Can We Make Each Other Safer?

 book titled "Defund Fear" by Zach Norris is held in the hands of someone whose hands are light brown; only their torso is showing.

Zach Norris, the author of this year's UU common read, challenges our notions of safety, promoting a culture of care.

Susan Lawrence
Image: from Zach Norris's website

Our justice and incarceration systems are supposed to make us safe. But, do they help all of us be safe? Defund Fear: Safety Without Policing, Prisons, and Punishment (Beacon, 2021), by Zach Norris, is this year's UU Common Read and describes how it doesn't.


Watch the Common Read landing page as the UUA continues to roll out resources for engaging with Defund Fear.

Zach Norris suggests a new approach that challenges our notions of safety. We have been manipulated to fear crime and criminals as the most pressing threats. But, for many, unsafety comes from food insecurity, preventable environmental harms, and the public safety system itself.

Norris documents the rippling effects of harm that our public safety system creates, supports, and feeds on. For example, prison separates someone from their family and community. With connections severed, there's no chance for accountability or reconciliation.

The rupture that led to someone's incarceration leads to further disconnection, leaving individuals diminished and communities fractured and unstable.

What would our world look like? How safe might we all be if we heeded a call to love instead of fear? While Norris explores this question from a secular point of view, it resonates with the theologies of many Unitarian Universalists.

Defund Fear invites UUs—many of whom already work for prison abolition, restorative justice, and other campaigns—to articulate our beliefs and let them guide us to lead the transformation from fear-based policies to communities of care that Defund Fear suggests.

Discussion guides coming in April 2022 will support gatherings including UU congregations and BIPOC-only groups to consider the book through a Unitarian Universalist faith lens.

Available now for individuals on the UU Common Read landing page is deep guidance for reading Defund Fear thoughtfully, with your own social location in mind.

Also available now is a 70-minute recorded conversation (Vimeo) between the book's author and a panel of UU religious professionals.

During the recorded conversation, Norris explains how, in 2014, he began the writing that became Defund Fear.


As part of the Common Read, four UU religious professionals talk with Zach Norris about why the call to achieve community safety and security for everyone matters to people of faith in our Unitarian Universalist movement. Join Norris and Rev. Ranway Hammamy, Rev. Jason Lydon, Rayla Mattson, and Carey McDonald for a one-hour-and-ten-minute conversation moderated by UU World executive editor Roger Santodomingo.

At that time, he worked as an advocate for incarcerated people and their families. "There was a lot of interest in bipartisan criminal justice reform, but there wasn't a lot of direction in terms of what would replace the system of mass incarceration," he says.

Wondering what a replacement system could be, he discovered a tension within himself between "advocate Zach" and "dad Zach." A light-skinned, Harvard-educated Black man, Norris had witnessed while growing up in minority-white Oakland, CA a public safety system causing harm, enacting oppression on the people who held the least privileges and needed the most support.

Then, in college, he observed white classmates accustomed to being embraced as "more than their worst mistake," which, Norris concluded, is a privilege that everyone deserves.

Then, back in Oakland and a new parent, "dad Zach" experienced a break-in at his home that brought danger perilously close to his two small daughters, making safety from crime a palpable concern.

Norris recalls, "I was grappling with reconciling the parts of me, Dad Zach and Advocate Zach. How do we get to safety? How do we get safety and fairness in our justice system?"

In the book, Norris calls on us as families, neighborhoods, and a nation to replace our fear-based public safety systems with communities of care. He urges a social covenant that honors everyone's needs for safety and, when harm is done, closes the circle with accountability and repair.

This makes sense in Unitarian Universalism: The first and seventh "anchor" Principles affirm that everyone matters and we are all interconnected. Unitarian Universalism finds the divine in our accountable relationships.

Defund Fear invites each of us in our families, communities, and nation to insist on honoring our relationships, whatever it takes, and work to end policing, punishment, and prisons that prevent us from rising together.