Community members celebrate The Ella Baker Center’s 20th anniversary

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Van Jones was in tears. Two decades ago, he and Diana Frappier co-founded the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights (EBC) and last Thursday, he stood nearly speechless in front of over 400 people who came out to celebrate the center’s 20th anniversary.

“If you tell somebody your dream and they laugh at you and tell you all the ways it can’t happen, you can sometimes to put your dream away forever,” said Jones. “I was able to tell Diana my dream and she didn’t laugh.”

The Ella Baker Center is an Oakland-based non-profit that focuses on ending incarceration, criminalization and discrimination targeted at black and brown communities through local, statewide and national initiatives. It developed from Jones’ and Frappier’s Bay Area Police Watch, a hotline with a small team of volunteers and lawyers created in 1995 to serve victims of police brutality. The center’s first campaign fought to get a San Francisco police officer fired for killing Aaron Williams, an unarmed black man killed in 1995 and to dismantle San Fransisco’s police commission, which they considered corrupt.

Ella Baker was a civil rights activist and the highest-ranking woman in the NAACP during the 1940’s and 1950’s when she worked to recruit members, fundraise and strategically organize on a local level. Baker was a founding member of both the Southern Christian Leadership Committee (SCLC) in 1957 and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. Baker mobilized SNCC’s student core for voter registration and freedom rides in the deep South. She continued to fight against racism and inequality until her death in 1986.

Over the years, the center, named in her honor, has successfully campaigned to close five out of California’s eight youth prisons and created Families for Books Not Bars, the state’s first support and advocacy network for over 1,400 families of incarcerated youth. Volunteers and supporters have also rallied voters against propositions that staffers believe would have resulted in the targeting and criminalization of black and brown people.

Midway through the celebration, Jones and Frappier presented the center’s first Founders Award, which includes a $5,000 cash prize, to Fathers & Families of San Joaquin, a community organization known for its youth, elder and health justice programs, as well as ones that help former prisoners re-entering the workforce. Jones said the group’s work matches EBC “heart for heart, love for love.”

Founder and executive director Samuel Nuñez accepted the award on behalf of the organization.

“Who would’ve know we would’ve been handed an award and shutting down prisons at the same time? Sometimes we get so busy doing the work that oftentimes we don’t come up for air and acknowledge the victories that we’ve had,” said Nuñez. “This gave us an opportunity to take a pause and really reflect on all our accomplishments.”

Over a dozen Fathers & Families staff members attended the celebration, including Raymond Aguilar of the organization’s Boys & Men of Color initiative. Aguilar said that in 1991, at age 16, he was tried as an adult and given a life sentence for what he described as “taking the law into his own hands.” Just three months ago, he was released from prison and within a few weeks, given a full-time job at Fathers & Families.

“When I see my brother Sammy up there, I see somebody who grew up in the same neighborhood that I grew up in, been incarcerated like I’d been incarcerated, fulfilling his dreams, it was a very proud moment,” said Aguilar. “Not only was this a job for me, but this was a place for healing.”

Fathers & Families is one of eight organizations in California that offers therapy through their trauma recovery center. Though they haven’t decided exactly how the prize money will be used, Nuñez said that they plan to develop a “Day of Wellness” with traditional healers for staff members who have an “unwavering dedication to our community” but don’t always have an opportunity for self-care.

Currently, the two organizations, which have worked together for over a decade, are heavily focused on lobbying support for the California Parole for Non-Violent Criminals and Juvenile Court Trial Requirements Initiative, known as Proposition 57, which will be on the ballot this November. If passed, the measure will increase good behavior and parole opportunities for felons convicted of non-violent crime. It will also give judges, instead of prosecutors, the ability to decide whether or not a juvenile is sentenced as an adult, depending on the offense.

Proposition 57 is intended to counter Proposition 21, a California measure passed in 2000 that made teenagers 14 or older eligible to be charged as adults, made detention mandatory for over 30 different crimes classified as serious or violent, and increased prison terms for gang-related offenses. In 2013, The Sentencing Project, a non-profit that routinely publishes research, media campaigns and strategic advocacy addressing sentencing policies, unjust racial disparities and practices, and alternatives to incarceration, reported that there were 8,094 juveniles in custody in California. In 2014, they reported there were 293 juveniles in California prisons serving a life sentence without parole.

Ella Baker Center executive director Zachary Norris also gave a speech welcoming everyone and reflecting on Oakland’s and the country’s struggles with inequality. “Think about all the people who made it possible for you to be sitting here,” said Norris.

Norris, who started working at the center in 2013, said he is committed to making its latest project, Restore Oakland, come to life by 2017. The organization plans to open a center that will feature a restaurant ran by formerly incarcerated members of the community and their families, co-working spaces to gather and organize, and health, childcare, job training and restorative justice programs. Restorative justice focuses on rehabilitation and reconciliation through non-punitive measures.

Norris believes that the cycle of incarceration and poverty can come to an end thanks to a collaborative, concerted effort from people from all walks of life. He mentioned his own family members who are locked up and the time he spent in Santa Rita Jail after being arrested for protesting. “On both sides of the bars are folks that have caused harm and that have been harmed,” Norris said. “Whether you’re from East Oakland or West Baltimore, all of us are better than our worst mistakes.”

Ella Baker Center organizer Darris Young’s worst mistakes eventually led him to a job that he calls “divine destiny.” Young said he had spent exactly 17 years, two days, four hours and 20 minutes incarcerated within six different prisons throughout California. During his time, he wrote a letter to the center seeking resources that would help him to pay for college courses while he served his sentence. He remembers someone wrote back, providing a list. He was released in 2012, and the following year, he read something about Norris, the center’s then-new executive director, that caught his attention.

“I’ll never forget December 31st,” said Young. “He said his goal was to cut down on the incarceration rates of African-American and Latino youth.”

He reached out to Norris via email. After they met, Young started working part-time for the center. Today, Young, 54, is a full-time lead organizer.

“I wouldn’t have imagined it because the truth is, is that when I walked through those gates, there were many years, days and nights when I didn’t think that I would ever walk out,” said Young. “I was so focused on my everyday survival that I didn’t really have time to really think about what I would be doing when I got out or if I got out.”

Today, he has his hand in a little bit of everything. Some days you can catch him at Santa Rita or a courthouse, surveying family members who are visiting or supporting loved ones. On other days, you can find him recruiting and educating community members about the center’s Jobs for Freedom initiative. The campaign is a joint effort between the center and The Justice Reinvestment Coalition of Alameda County to lobby Alameda County to create 1,400 jobs, specifically for those who’ve been a part of the criminal justice system. According to Young, “Nothing stops a bullet better than a job.”

Young is currently working on a justice reinvestment initiative that he says focuses on moving state and county funds away from incarceration and policing to investing in underserved communities. Part of the project includes creating more resources for those dealing with mental issues both inside and outside of prison, by offering counseling and other forms of therapy and offering more housing, employment and life skill services for people re-entering their community after prison.

“Why not invest in the resources that will help give people dignity and pride? If you have a stake in your community, you’re less likely to be trying to tear down your community,” said Young.

Young, who grew up in Oakland, Berkeley and El Cerrito, says he sees more “pain, trauma and hopelessness” than when he was locked up in 1995.  “There weren’t whole families sleeping out on tents, on whole blocks. I see the hopelessness in a lot of the children’s eyes as I’m walking down the streets,” said Young. “It’s that hopelessness and despair that actually keeps me going and empowers me, and keeps me walking before public officials and anybody I can, demanding that they make it right.”

Last week’s 20th anniversary celebration also featured a panel hosted by comedian and commentator W. Kamau Bell, along with EBC ‘s director of special projects and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson, and Equal Justice Society founder Eva Patterson. As Bell took the stage, he joked that the audience should stay seated in honor of Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who, in August, began protesting by sitting and kneeling during the National Anthem. As the attendees ate dinner, the panelists discussed Kaepernick’s protest, presidential candidates and the differences between reparations and reinvestment.

Attendees left with a charge—to donate to keep the center and its initiatives funded—and with a sense of revitalization. “It makes me think that there can be a future for black and brown people where there’s economic justice, where there’s racial justice, where there’s social justice where we can live lives of worth and dignity.  That’s what being a part of the EBC means to me, “ said Rev. Jacqueline Duhart of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Oakland.

“Zachary has a dream that all of this vision and hope and love can be embodied and housed and made concrete,” said Jones, referring to the forthcoming Reinvest Oakland center. “We have monuments to hate and racism and despair called prisons all throughout the state. The Ella Baker Center wants to build a monument to hope and love and redemption.”

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