Partnering with the Ella Baker Center
By Micki Luckey
Showing Up for Racial Justice partners with BIPOC-led organizations, supporting their efforts and following their lead. What do our partners do and how do we show up for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color? How does accountability manifest in these relationships? This article is part of a series exploring these questions in depth for the fifteen community partners of Bay Area SURJ.
Three months ago Adamu Chan walked out of San Quentin State Prison to freedom after using the Ella Baker Center’s Back to Court Resentencing Guide. This toolkit helps incarcerated individuals apply for resentencing based on the Fair and Just Sentencing and Reform Act (SB 1393, passed in 2018). Before his release, Adamu collaborated in the production of the toolkit and also produced a video for the Ella Baker Center (EBC). He continues his advocacy for the #StopSanQuentinOutbreak Coalition through film-making and writing and appreciates the relationship he has with the Center.
The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights organizes with Black, brown, and low-income people to shift resources away from prisons and punishment and towards opportunities that make our communities safe, healthy, and strong. Founded in 1996, the Center was named for the civil rights activist and organizer who has been called the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement. This organization works to limit the size and scope of the prison industrial complex, to stop the outbreak of COVID-19 in prisons and address the mental health needs, to advocate for housing as a human right, and to decarcerate Alameda County.
EBC recently moved to Restore Oakland, a community advocacy and training center that the organization played a central role in developing. Its care-based approach to public safety is laid out in the book We Keep Us Safe, written by the director of the Center, Zach Norris (2020, Beacon Press, republished in 2021 as Defund Fear: Safety Without Policing, Prisons and Punishment).
EBC Accomplishments and Programs
Two big wins for the Ella Baker Center in 2020 were the passage of the Racial Justice Act, AB 2542, which prohibits discrimination in the courtroom, and Proposition 17, which restored voting rights for persons on parole. Other ongoing campaigns include the following:
- Books not Bars has established a network of families of incarcerated youth that fought to close the Division of Juvenile Justice and successfully enacted reforms in sentencing. This state-wide network for support and advocacy has reached over 1400 families. The EBC has worked with other groups to close five of the eight California Youth Prisons, reducing the youth prison population by 85%.
- Heal not Harm aims to address the COVID-19 crisis in prisons, seeking to release incarcerated individuals with health risks and to address their mental health and housing needs.
- Heal the Streets has trained Oakland youth to become community leaders and Soul of the City has worked to develop leadership, community service and mobilize voters.
- Night Out for Safety and Liberation is an alternative to the police-friendly Neighbors Night Out that aims to redefine and re-imagine what public safety means with investment in the community. It has now spread to over 25 cities across the country.
EBC works in coalitions on local issues, such as Decarcerate Alameda County (formerly Audit Ahern), as well as broader issues such as the state-wide campaigns for the Racial Justice Act and the RISE Acts to reduce racial disparities in sentencing. They are also working with the new Office of Youth and Community Restoration, which was created last year to make sure counties implement custody-based care and supervision of youths/juvenile offenders, and pressuring the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to abide by the recommended reduction of inhabitants to 50% of prison capacity.
Connecting policy and community
In an interview, Derick Morgan, an EBC Policy Associate, described his role in stopping the so-called “porch piracy” bill that would have created a zone around residences that was illegal for strangers to enter. He said it would have “essentially criminalized the sidewalks: entering any space between a home and a mailbox could have resulted in a jail sentence.” Derick explained it would have been a new way to profile people, especially essential workers who have to go into neighborhoods for grocery delivery or home health care. He said it was the first time he had testified to a committee, recounting, “it brought me joy that we were able to stop that bill in committee.”
Derick is equally committed to working with the community, in particular “Black and Brown communities that are targeted by the criminal justice system.” He said one function of EBC is to lift up individuals in the community, “sharing the light … making it less scary for others to join.” He also said there is much to learn by “looking out for someone who doesn’t look like you” so all are welcome to join the fight.
Click here to volunteer for EBC
EBC’s Interaction with SURJ
Derick appreciates partnering with SURJ Bay Area because it is “a group that’s white-identified and intentional about wanting to be an ally…wanting to listen and learn from Black and Brown folks [with] awareness to step back when necessary.” He gave a shout out to the SURJ Policy Committee and Liz Atkins-Pattenson, the liaison who works closely with the Center. Selected for this position by a formal vote of the committee, Liz said they love the work of EBC and are truly inspired by how EBC models the world they want to create.
Liz volunteers for EBC’s biweekly mailing nights, sending letters, cards and other resources to EBC’s inside members. They are most excited to send out EBC’s Resentencing Toolkit, to help reduce the sentences of incarcerated individuals like Adamu. Because the information gets shared within the prison, it goes far, Liz says. “It is so great to see when our community members inside can come home” after using the toolkit. Liz is also responsible for informing the SURJ Bay Area community about the work of the center and helps to organize various forms of support in solidarity with the organization, ranging from SURJ members sending emails and making calls for campaigns to showing up for hearings and participating in EBC-led events.
The lasting impact of Ella Baker can be seen in the way this organization and many others are guided by her grassroots approach to organizing and her emphasis on shared leadership. Her words spoken at a rally in Mississippi in 1964 and made into a song for Sweet Honey in the Rock still resonate: “Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons, is as important as the killing of White men, White mothers’ sons… We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.” (Ella’s Song by Bernice Johnson Reagon)