FFJ Advisor Discussion Series: Zachary Norris

April 2019

Zachary Norris, FFJ Field Advisor and Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, tells us about his vision for change and the need to invest in building the foundation for marginalized communities to thrive.

What’s happening for Ella Baker Center in this moment?

It’s a very exciting time for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights as we move to a new, permanent home in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood: a community advocacy and training center called Restore Oakland.

At Restore Oakland, community members will have access to a wide range of resources – training to get good jobs in the restaurant industry, conflict resolution through restorative justice approaches, housing and tenant rights advocacy, and a hub to organize around criminal justice reform and other issues impacting the community. Plus, Restore Oakland will house a vibrant restaurant serving delicious, healthy, affordable food.

At the same time, the Ella Baker Center continues to move programs focused on shifting resources away from prisons and punishment and toward investment in opportunities that make our communities safe, healthy, and strong. We are currently organizing with Oakland community members to call for accountability and transparency of the Alameda County Sheriff, standing up to win change and community-led solutions for unsheltered Oaklanders who are being displaced and criminalized, and supporting legislation that takes important steps toward criminal justice reform in California.

How does your work connect to a vision for change in the communities that you work in?

Through our longstanding community organizing efforts, we have heard from residents that there is a need for a space where community members can come together to build their power and transform Oakland.

Coming together to organize and transform our communities is crucial when so many Oakland residents have been shut out of job and economic opportunities due to prior involvement with the criminal justice system, and decades of unjust economic and criminal justice policies. Our vision is rooted in restorative economics—the idea that all Oakland residents, including people who have been incarcerated, working people, immigrants and people of color, must shape and benefit from economic development in order for our communities to truly prosper.

At Restore Oakland, residents will build community and economic power, while restoring healing, opportunity, and justice. Our model is unique is because we lead with organizing and advocacy to build self-determination for our communities while also providing hands-on job training, business incubation, restorative justice mediation, and housing rights services — all in one space.

How do you understand the political moment that we’re in? What do you think we need to do differently right now?

The country feels more divided than it has ever been.  One thing that has been under-examined in terms of how we got here is the criminal court system. The criminal court system is all about two sides. A two-sided court and prison system magnifies divides between rich and poor, between people of color and white folks. Authoritarians take the “Us vs. Them” mentality of the justice system and turn it into national policy.  We need an entirely new vision of community safety not based on two sides or us vs. them, but based on one whole.

Restorative Justice embodies this approach and is the process through which people are held accountable and yet still held in community. This approach isn’t possible in every case but this should be our go-to response, and incarceration should be the last resort.

It’s a win-win-win. That’s three wins: 1) people who have caused harm are much less likely to get in trouble again when they go through restorative justice; 2) an overwhelming majority of victims report being satisfied with it – that’s because people can see and benefit from the accountability that has happened; 3) restorative justice is about one circle involving lots of people in the question of how we get to safety.

People coming together is necessary if we are to be able to hold large institutions and powerful individuals accountable.  This is the democracy we need: a democracy where no one is immune from accountability and we are all within the circle of human family. By transforming our justice system we might just rescue our democracy.

What should funders be doing in this moment to support social movements and lasting change?  

As rent and housing segregation continues to rise in the Bay Area and cities across the country, both community members and the organizations that serve them are being priced out and displaced. In this moment it’s crucial to invest in forward-thinking, long-lasting change that will build the foundations that allow low-income and marginalized communities to thrive. Through Restore Oakland and together with the community, we are creating a better model for transformation and self-determination that can be replicated in other cities and communities.