"When we started," Lea said, "there were people who were very clear with me about all the reasons this couldn't work. I was told many times that you can't run an organization on 100% volunteers. But, yes you can!" Kathya, sitting across the cafe style glass table, laughs and repeats the phrase from the Obama campaign: "Yes we can!" And the two women laugh together.
Justice Works! defies conventional wisdom in other ways. Grants provided much of the organization's funding in earlier years, but in recent years, no grants have been sought. Funding comes from sales at the Gift and Thrift shop and the many small donations that Justice Works! receives from its base of supporters.
The shop, a program of JW! Business Sendoff Project (BSP), was set up in collaboration with a previously incarcerated person, providing her the opportunity to learn the steps needed to establish and run a business. It now provides - in addition to funding for the organization - a hub for JW! organizing work and a resource center for the community. A barbershop now in the early planning stages will provide income for the previously incarcerated person who is participating as JW! BSP student - while also providing additional donations to support the work of the organization.
Kathya takes the helm of an organization that now is rooted more firmly in community, thanks in part to her work on the first JW! board. Outside-In, a monthly newsletter that was started in 2004, now goes to approximately 700 people incarcerated in all of Washington's prisons. A letters to the editor campaign headed by Shirley White, the mother of a 3-Striker, has resulted in nearly 600 letters published in newspapers throughout Washington State since late 2004. Observers working through JW! Court Watch program have been present at dozens of court proceedings of defendants who requested their presence. Over 400 incarcerated people have worked with outside partners to complete ROOTS correspondence courses in subjects ranging from African American literature to balancing a checkbook and other life skills needed for successful transitioning from prison to the community. (About a third of the ROOTS classes were created by incarcerated people). Organizing work through events, doorbelling, phone calls, and email has resulted in thousands of contacts made to legislators and other public officials. With others, JW! organizers worked to support legislation that successfully restored voting rights to thousands of previously incarcerated people in Washington. Since passage of that law, JW! organizers have done outreach resulting in approximately 1,000 newly eligible people registering to vote. Nearly 2,000 individuals, from every legislative district in the state, have joined the organization's 3-Strikes Rapid Response system - which mobilizes during the session to support reform legislation.
Noemie Maxwell (NM)
If there were one message you would want to convey to readers, what would it be?
Lea Zengae (LZ)
That, with Kathya on board, I am very excited and confident in our ability to accomplish our work. I am proud of what has been accomplished over the years with JW! And now it's time to take it to the next level.
Kathya, how did you and Lea first meet?
Kathya Alexander (KA)
That was back in 2001. I worked as the Employment Director of the Seattle Urban League. The organization was still Justice Passage at the time. Lea came in looking for jobs for people coming out of prison. The next thing I remember is that we were talking about what the organization was up to. They needed space to do a Welcome Back Party. (these are parties given for people just coming out of prison) The Urban League had a conference room downstairs and so that's where the party was held. The next memory I had was when Justice Passage was renamed to Justice Works!
It was another transition time for the organization. The original mission and vision of the organization had never been written down. We got together to put it down in writing to protect it. I remember standing in front of a blackboard, writing it down.
I came into the community with a set of goals that I got from The Black Prisoner's Caucus - but because there wasn't a written record, some members of the board took it in a different direction according to their understanding of what the organization should do. That's when Justice Passage needed to be shut down and JW! started with everything more clearly defined.
I became a member of the board about that time. Then in 2006 I had a really serious illness and dropped out. I've stayed in touch ever since through email. Working for this organization is something I have done and would continue to do for free. Getting paid just makes it possible to put in more time. What I'm trying to say is that this work is my passion and that feels wonderful to be involved in something I'm so passionate about.
When we first started the organization, we thought we could do everything. We took on the role of a service organization in some ways in addition to the primary role of grassroots organizing. We've learned that we can't be a service organization. But we can support people who are part of the JW! community and who support furthering the mission of the organization. In the long run, our success depends upon the success of the people coming out of prison, and so it is essential to provide ways to support their transitioning efforts.
So this is supporting individuals as part of the work for political empowerment?
What JW! had done already with political organizing is a working - and workable model. What's also really unique about JW! is that we are not getting funding to support that organizing work from the systems that have disempowered people - but we are getting it from work and enterprises that empower them. We are growing in a way that doesn't require the organization to have an over-seer.
And the funding methods tie into and directly support the work that we do.
Kathya, are you the kind of person... well, that other people just naturally tend to want to do the things that you ask them to do?
(laughs) I always say that my greatest strength is that I can get people to do things for free. Since I've been in Seattle, I've met so many people who can do so many things. I'm very good at seeing what people excel at and inspiring them to use that strength . . . for something I need! (big laugh).
So these are things you need -- but really what's happening is that you're seeing talent in the community that can meet needs in the community and you're helping those get matched up and put to work. What are some of the things you are thinking of that are needed now - things that you see talent out there to fulfill?
I don't want to jump ahead of the work that I'm going to be doing step by step as I make this transition. But I can say that one of the first things I see is the need for more fundraising - creative ways to have "the people" bring monery into the organization in ways that serve the work.
I am so excited and so thrilled to be part of this oganization.
Lea, what are some of the ways you envision being part of JW! on an ongoing basis after the transition has been completed?
My first priority is to support Kathya. For one thing, I'll be calling people to ask them to consider giving more time to the organization to support what she's doing. There are also pieces of the ongoing work of the organization that I can "own". I can probably continue to publish Outside-In. I can continue to work on the ROOTS program. I'll be working on organizing to support 3-Strikes reform.
I also plan to do a lot of writing. I have a unique set of experiences as a woman born into one part of the culture - and then, through JW!, being honored to be taught about other life experiences. I think this enables me to be a bridge in the way that I understand certain issues and problems. There are not many people fortunate enough to know both of these worlds so intimately.
She's going to be a best-selling author and use a large portion of the proceeds to fund this organization!
Really, Lea should take a well-needed rest. But I'm glad that she's not going to. I don't know if I would have taken the job if she were not going to be actively engaged in the transition. I know that I need her. At the same time, I know how hard and dogged and dedicated she has been in this work. I'm looking forward to helping her take a break when the time comes.