Essie Justice Group founder Gina Clayton talks about her life’s work: help women with loved ones behind bars escape stigma, shame and self-inflicted isolation and eventually become advocates for change.

From Mourning to Morning, It’s All About the ‘Sisters’

Gina Clayton walks among shadows.

Her life is inextricably intertwined with the lives of women trapped by the emotional and societal labyrinth of mass incarceration. These women are left behind to shoulder the burden of loved ones, partners and even children in prison. Their lives, all but invisible, sit at the intersection of the criminal justice system and social inaction. They suffer with shame, stigma and self-inflicted isolation.

Clayton, 33, founded the Essie Justice Group, an Oakland, California-based nonprofit, in May 2014 to help women affected by incarceration by “tapping into their collective power in a communal space that encourages self-awareness and advocacy.” Through its intensive nine-week program, Essie seeks to “reweave the fabric of our mothering by filling the empty spaces whenever we can,” Clayton said. “We can’t possibly fill spaces completely, but we can create ways in which communities come together and hold each other in nontraditional ways that look like love and support … that look like family.”

Clayton traces the beginning of the Essie Justice Group to Essie Bailey, her great grandmother and the organization’s namesake. Essie grew up in the Deep South as the daughter of a Louisiana sharecropper. She moved west during the first Great Migration with young children in tow, in search of opportunity as well as freedom from racism and poverty. Landing in southern California, Essie worked three jobs, raised three kids and “built a foundation on which I and so many of my other family members stand on today,” Clayton said. All of that was possible, Clayton noted, because Essie developed a tightly woven network of “sisters” that came to the aid of one another, at any time, for anything.

Essie Bailey (far left), namesake of the Essie Justice Group

For Clayton, the work is personal. During her first year at Harvard Law School, she got a call that a loved one was facing a long jail sentence. Studying criminal law during the day and spending her nights writing to a sentencing judge in California to plead for leniency, she felt wholly inadequate. It was a “horrible irony,” she said, being in law school for the express purpose of helping her community navigate the justice system and not yet able to fully deliver on that dream. “I felt like I could do nothing and it was this experience that really set me on a path of wanting to learn and wanting to understand what mass incarceration was doing to communities of color that I care about,” she said.

Clayton grew up in a biracial home, born in Holland (she speaks Dutch and Spanish) to a white Dutch mother and a black American jazz musician father from Venice Beach, California. “My entire life has been lived at the intersections of race, culture, language difference and I’ve seen the way in which people can come together despite their differences,” she said.

As a result of mass incarceration, one in four women have a family member in prison — and that’s not counting boyfriends, girlfriends, unmarried partners or those in jail.

The passion and rhythm of Clayton’s speech sounds like free-form jazz, syncopated by anecdotal success stories, which always returns to a constant theme: the need for a social justice solution to mass incarceration.

Women trapped in the aftermath of a loved one’s incarceration become isolated and tend to opt out of the very social support systems they need most, Clayton said. “This [isolation] creates devastating ripple effects throughout the individual’s life and their family’s life,” she said.

“To bring [women] back together and bring them into sisterhood is what we do,” Clayton said. “So we’re building a social justice sisterhood,” that rebuilds lives and creates advocates to help fuel a movement aimed at ending mass incarceration in the U.S., Clayton said. “It’s all because of Essie. Sisterhood is powerful.”

In large part, much of Clayton’s work has been “rebranding and dispelling the myths” that surround women with incarcerated loved ones.

These women aren’t all on the public dole and aren’t sitting idly around waiting for a loved one in prison, but those are the stereotypes. Many hold two or three jobs and their lives are dotted along the entire socioeconomic spectrum.

“Essie women, many of them, have degrees and are in school or are working multiple jobs or one great job or raising kids,” Clayton said. “And knowing that one-in-four statistic should tell you, too, that your bank teller is a woman with an incarcerated loved one. So is your accountant, your professor or your landlady. We’re everywhere.”

The lack of awareness is mind-numbing to Clayton. It’s even been an issue when trying to get funding, she said. Women with incarcerated loved ones aren’t seen as being directly impacted. “If you haven’t actually spent time behind bars, then you somehow are not directly impacted by mass incarceration, or so the thinking goes,” she said. “Well, that’s just not true. Dispelling that belief, as well, has been critical to our work, but it’s been an uphill climb.”

Essie Looks to Spread ‘Sisterhood’ Nationwide

Clayton said she sees Essie taking the same path as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, “gathering voices of women who have lost and who have said, ‘Enough is enough.’” As a result, through storytelling, MADD changed the way society thinks about the issue of drunk driving and has put some 2,500 laws on the books across the country. “I see the same trajectory for Essie,” she said.

The other model is Alcoholics Anonymous, which she wants to emulate in terms of scope. “AA is everywhere you go,” Clayton said, “and it’s so accessible to the community.” Essie has women across the country in New York, Massachusetts, Florida and Texas. “Purposely, we’ve been really national from the beginning because we wanted to make sure that we’re thinking about this in ways that can be flexible to meet national and local concerns. Our aim is to build a national organization that can push in a unified direction.”

And while such determination takes a deep, ingrained passion, it also takes patience.

“I feel a real urgency around these issues that sometimes gets in my way,” she said however, she makes sure to surround herself with people who remind her to pace herself and that what she’s doing now is laying a large foundation in order to build more sustainably.

Clayton said she went into this pursuit with eyes wide open, thanks to some insightfully blunt words from her father, who told her that if she was going to follow her passion, it would be incredibly hard work. “If you don’t follow your passions, if you take the safer route, you don’t necessarily have to lean in quite as hard, quite as deeply,” she recalled her father saying. “If you follow your passion, that’s a luxury, but in exchange you have to work yourself to the bone.”

As a result, she has a regimen to take care of herself: Simple routine things she does every day, “because they’re grounding and I wasn’t always that way.” She takes vitamins, makes her bed every day “without fail” and every week, she buys herself flowers. It all flows back to Essie and is crucial to its culture. “Healing to advocacy means starting with yourself,” she said.

Ten years from now, she’ll still be at the helm of Essie, “as long as Essie needs me,” Clayton said. “I believe that if we organize, if we move together and fight for that small ‘d’ democracy, that democratic path forward, we can build a future that we all want to see,” she said. “One that is equal, one that is just and one where everyone can partner.”

An abbreviated version of this piece first appeared on The Renewal Project.