2019-2021 Fellows

Meet the 2019 Leading Edge Fellows.

Gina Clayton-Johnson

Executive Director

Organization: Essie Justice Group

Location: Oakland, CA

Website: http://essiejusticegroup.org

Leading Edge idea: To help end mass incarceration by breaking the social and political isolation of women with incarcerated loved ones, mobilizing them as a powerful base that can lead and win decarceration campaigns.

What is your vision for your community? For California?

My vision is to build a loving, powerful community of women with incarcerated loved ones to take on some of the most seemingly intractable criminal justice challenges and policies in the state. My vision is about love and power. If we can reach a large number of women to join a community of support and advocacy that is in pursuit of systemic change, we can build power in communities that are most impacted. Ultimately, we want to create communities of leaders in which women, gender non-conforming individuals, and trans women who have incarcerated loved ones can collectively pursue an end to incarceration.

I am an abolitionist. I believe that, if people have what they need in terms of resources, community support, access, voice, and the removal of stigma and shame, they are the best people positioned to advocate for what their communities need. If we put the right people in the driver’s seat, Black and Brown women, gender non-conforming people and trans women who are impacted by the criminal justice system and have been marginalized and oppressed, they will drive us into a liberated and healthier future and reality, one that is free of the toxic culture of patriarchy and racism.

How were you inspired to get involved in this work? What motivated you?

I am originally from Los Angeles and have been motivated around issues of inequality both personally and professionally from a young age. In my first year of law school, someone I loved was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Despite the fact I went to law school to get the tools and resources needed to navigate the legal system, I felt that there were too few people I could talk to about this experience. I was the one in two Black women who have a loved one in prison, so the ugly truth is that it is happening to all of us. Once I graduated I joined a public defense office in Harlem and began representing women—mothers and grandmothers and heads of households—whose loved ones were locked up and who were holding families and themselves together. I built a housing practice there and represented women like Sondria. Together, Sondria and I fought for her home for nearly a year as the city attempted to take her home away. Their reason? Her young grandson had provided her address to a police officer during his arrest. These consequences of criminal justice system contact often go unseen and hit women incredibly hard. While working in Harlem, I learned firsthand how emblematic her case is of so many women.

What progress, if any, have you seen thus far in your work?

In a short time, we have built a feminist force for change in the face of criminal justice oppression. We published a new theory called “political isolation” after gathering testimonies from over 2,000 women nationally. We bailed Black mothers out of jail before Mother’s Day. We used our stories and our leadership to bring about the largest corporate divestment from the bail industry in history. And we graduated our 17th cohort of women through our Healing to Advocacy program, doubling the size of our membership base. We’ve seen a lot in a short time, but at Essie, we very much feel like it is only the beginning.

How will the Leading Edge Fund fellowship help?

The fellowship is very exciting because it is connecting me to some of the most inspiring criminal justice advocates and leaders in California. This work does not happen in isolation. We need organizational and other advocate partners in close community. Leading Edge is helping to create that community. The resources from Leading Edge are also coming at a critical stage in Essie’s development. Leading Edge is letting me lift my hands out of some of the time consuming details so that I can focus on the work that needs to be done to get Essie to the next level.

What are your goals for your time as a Leading Edge Fund fellow?

Our ultimate goal is to get the Healing to Advocacy model to a place where we see 500 cohorts graduating in one year. We want to see women taking the model, getting trained and training others, and running the program themselves. The bigger dream is to break the cycle of isolation for the one in four women who have a loved one incarcerated. Last year, we graduated our 17th, which is great, but we are on a path to be no further away than 30 minutes from every woman with an incarcerated loved one in this country.  If we can get to a point where there are communities of support and leadership—where community and advocacy is more prevalent than isolation and despair—we will have people and policies that can end mass incarceration.

Who inspires you?

The name Essie Justice Group came from my great-grandmother, Essie Bailey. She grew up on a sharecropping farm in Louisiana. In 1938, she moved to California; fleeing racism, sexism, and poverty, she came west to create opportunities for herself and her family. Yet, when she came here, she still faced similar barriers. When I started Essie, I went back to visit with my grandmother to ask for her blessing to use her mother’s, my great-grandmother’s, name. I took it upon myself to ask a question I’d long been curious about my great grandmother’s story, and asked “how did she do it?” My grandmother’s reply was simple: “Baby, she had sisters.” At Essie, we believe the lessons and strategies of our ancestors are at our back to help us figure out how to build the more beautiful, caretaking, healthy and compassionate society we all want to live in. Women like my grandmother, mother, and great-grandmother are the people who inspire me to fight for race and gender justice.