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The Real Foundation of Safety? Economic and Community Power


What would it take to truly make your community safer?

“The popular perception is that punishment and prisons make us safer,” says Zachary Norris, the executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, an organization that works locally, statewide, and nationally to end mass incarceration and criminalization.   

But he urges you to think long and hard about a different answer. “The real foundation of safety is about investing in job creation, resources and approaches that achieve true community safety.”

Jon Rapping, founder of Gideon’s Promise, an organization that seeks to transform the criminal justice system by building a movement of public defenders who provide equal justice for marginalized communities, believes the challenge we should all put to ourselves is how we can totally transform the way we as a society think about justice.

“Mass incarceration is the next stage in a series of systems all designed to oppress poor people,” Jon says. “When you understand that, then you understand that it’s not good enough to try to tweak the structure. The only way to break this cycle is to really change the values that drive us.”

Jon and Zachary will each bring their expertise on this subject to the stage next week at the Uncharted conference in Berkeley, a two-day “festival of ideas” founded in 2013 around the belief that “the most intriguing ideas — and solutions to today’s big challenges — emerge from the collision of different visions and perspectives.” The conference features unscripted discussions that run the gamut from de-radicalizing Nazis to the early history of Silicon Valley.

The Levi Strauss Foundation, a proud proponent of a robust exchange of ideas, is supporting the conference, and is also thrilled to see Zachary Norris in the spotlight. Zachary is a member of the foundation’s new class of Pioneers in Justice – Pioneers 2020 –  an initiative that supports the next generation of Bay Area social justice leaders who take risks, reach beyond their bubbles, experiment and model new approaches to advance social change.

Zach emphasizes that the topic of criminal justice reform is particularly relevant right now in light of the current national conversation around racial justice and law enforcement. He believes that as a society, we need to examine the reasons and repercussions behind the fact that the criminal justice system has a disproportionate negative impact on poor people and people of color.

“This really is this generation’s civil rights struggle,” Jon agrees. As a law professor, he often encounters students who are conditioned to think that the highest calling they can achieve is a partner in a law firm – while in reality, that title should go to public defenders. “We ought to look at people doing work in this space as civil rights and human rights heroes.”

The organization he founded, Gideon’s Promise, seeks to groom the next generation of public defenders “to rise up and fight against the injustice within our justice system.”

To see Zach and Jon live onstage discussing this important topic and to purchase tickets for Uncharted, which takes place on Oct. 27 and 28, visit the website.