We can get rid of the more than 40,000 legal restrictions that follow people with a past conviction for life. Long after people have served their time, they continue to face barriers to job opportunities, housing, education, adopting or fostering a child (even their own family member), volunteering at their child’s school or joining its PTA, accessing victims’ services and much more. This negatively impacts 70 million Americans, and disproportionately impacts people of color, people living in urban areas, people without a college degree, and people who are low income. By denying people the opportunity to earn an honest living, support their children’s development, and contribute to society, we undermine the health and safety of communities.
I had the pleasure to interview Carmen Perez. Carmen is the President & CEO of The Gathering for Justice, co-founder of Justice League NYC and a board member of Women’s March. She has dedicated her 20 year career to advocating for many of today’s important civil rights issues, including mass incarceration, gender equity, violence prevention, racial healing and community policing. At The Gathering for Justice, a nonprofit founded by legendary artist and activist Harry Belafonte, Carmen has crossed the globe promoting peace through civil and human rights, building alternatives to incarceration and violence, and providing commentary and guidance for state and federal policy creation. Carmen is the co-founder of Justice League NYC and founder of Justice League CA, two state-based task forces for advancing juvenile and criminal justice reform agenda. She was one of the National Co-Chairs of the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, which drew over 5 million people across the globe who marched in resistance of hatred and bigotry, affirming women of all identities’ rights as human beings, and she continues to serve on the board of the Women’s March organization. In 2017, Carmen was named one of Fortune’s Top 50 World Leaders and one of TIME’s most influential people, and in 2016 she received the Justice, Peace, and Freedom Award at the AFL-CIO Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Civil and Human Rights Awards. Carmen has been a featured speaker at Harvard University, Columbia University, and the University of California — Santa Cruz and she has appeared in media publications including the New York Times, Forbes, TIME, Newsweek, Washington Post, Glamour, Elle, NPR and more.
Thank you so much for joining us Carmen. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to start on your career path?
As a child, I always knew I wanted to help people and make a difference in my community. I really didn’t know what that meant or looked like until my sister was killed when I was a teenager. She was buried on my 17th birthday and I was devastated. Her death became the catalyst for me wanting to go out and change the world.
Soon after her death, I went away to college and began working with youth that were impacted by incarceration and the juvenile justice system. Although she and I had never been incarcerated, we had our fair exposure to police contact. Working with youth impacted by incarceration reminded me of my sister and our relationship. She and I were very close, growing up almost like twins even though we were two years and one day apart.
I learned about true compassion from my father, who refused to press charges against the person responsible for her death. He said he wouldn’t take another mother’s child away.
That was my first true exposure to restorative justice, because he understood that repairing the harm was not going to be achieved through any courtroom. That motivated me to dedicate my life to being a better person, like my father, and gave me a sense of purpose and direction at a time in my life when I was struggling with loss and grief.
Did you set out to start a movement? If so, what was your vision? If not, what did you imagine would be the impact of your work?
Yes, my intention has been to start a movement that is a continuation of our elders’ and builds with the current movements that exist for causes like racial justice, immigrant rights, LGBTQIA+ rights and women’s rights, by bringing different groups of people together under an intersectional platform. I felt that my role in the Women’s March was to actualize that vision which Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw articulated, of recognizing women’s multiple intersecting identities, which is an extension of black feminist thought from the 1940s, and Chicana feminism of the 70s, 80s and 90s that was introduced to me while in college.
I also wanted to connect the movement to the legacy of Dr. King which has been bestowed upon me thanks to the work of my mentor, Harry Belafonte. I knew it was important for people to see themselves reflected on the stage, not just people like me, not just Latinas, and not just cisgendered people and able-bodied people.
The Women’s March needed to be for all people who wanted to make a difference and cultivate leadership, because there is an entry point for everyone to get involved. I think in doing so we created a blueprint, off of which women and girls can and have been building.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
My life’s work is criminal justice reform and the stakes of what I do are very high because people can be affected by discriminatory policing and sentencing for their entire lives. As a leader in this movement, I have to view missteps through the lens of how our work affects the lives of so many people.
I’ve certainly made mistakes, although when the work I do affects people’s lives in this profoundly serious way, it’s difficult to describe a mistake as funny.
Even in times when I might have wished I could laugh, I’ve had to recognize that people are being impacted in some way. Still, I think it’s important not to take mistakes too hard because we all make them. Being able to forgive yourself is the best way to learn from it.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
I am the President and CEO of The Gathering for Justice, an organization that is dedicated to building a movement to end child incarceration, using art and culture while staying grounded in the ideology of Dr. King. My organization has championed some of the most visible movements for progressive change in this country, including housing the 2017 Women’s March, providing support and resources to Colin Kaepernick, working with a team to free Meek Mill, and achieving legislative victories like Raise the Age, which ended the practice of automatically charging 16 and 17 year olds as adults in New York State. We build movements that are intergenerational — following the wisdom of our elders and harnessing the energy of our youth — and intersectional, building bridges between communities that sometimes work in isolation.
Wow! Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by this cause?
In 2017, the criminal justice task force that I founded, Justice League NYC, was involved in a concerted effort to free a Bronx teenager, Pedro Hernandez, from Rikers Island. Pedro was accused of a crime without evidence and spent a year behind bars without ever seeing a courtroom. He had been accepted into college and was dangerously close to losing his opportunity to receive an education due to his prolonged incarceration.
Thanks to significant public pressure, the Bronx District Attorney’s office was forced to admit there was no case against Pedro and he was released. His younger brother, Luis, was inspired by the campaign and is now a member of Justice League NYC and an accomplished young activist in the anti-gun violence space.
Although we achieved justice for Pedro, there are too many young people like him. At The Gathering for Justice, we define ending child incarceration as a moral imperative.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you to address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
#1: We can commit to funding alternatives to incarceration. Right now, our state and local budgets prioritize incarceration, which means that the places where successful programs are reducing incarceration ultimately lose funding. Meanwhile, the failed institutions that are overcrowded, unstable and have high rates of recidivism receive more and more funding. Just imagine the impact if our society committed to funding new approaches to both juvenile and adult justice.
#2: We can get rid of the more than 40,000 legal restrictions that follow people with a past conviction for life. Long after people have served their time, they continue to face barriers to job opportunities, housing, education, adopting or fostering a child (even their own family member), volunteering at their child’s school or joining its PTA, accessing victims’ services and much more. This negatively impacts 70 million Americans, and disproportionately impacts people of color, people living in urban areas, people without a college degree, and people who are low income. By denying people the opportunity to earn an honest living, support their children’s development, and contribute to society, we undermine the health and safety of communities.
#3: We can support a culture change for those working inside the system. As a former probation officer, I know that even the people who intend to make a positive impact end up stuck with an overwhelming number of cases and far too few resources with which to help the people who make up their caseload. While running support programming for people who are incarcerated, I’ve also spoken with corrections officers who’ve described how the lack of concern for the trauma that they face on the job creates a mindset which negatively impacts the way officers interact with the people under their care. I think in order to move towards alternatives to incarceration, we need to establish a federal mandate to provide training and accountability systems that support a culture change on the state and county level.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
To me, true leadership means being of service and making space for those with less power to be seen and heard. As I gain access to decision-making tables and spheres of influence, I have a responsibility to use my power to bring others into the room with me who are being left out of the conversation. I believe that the people who are directly impacted by a problem need to be involved in the conversation about solutions. I also feel a strong responsibility to our young people, as I was once a youth organizer. I believe in providing pathways, cultivating them and serving as a bridge between them and our elders.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- I wish someone had told me it was okay to change my major in college. I chose to study Psychology at UC Santa Cruz because I felt like that was the career that was going to help provide stability for me and my family. During college I grew more interested in political economics and community studies, but the pressure I felt to finish my major delayed me from reaching my final goal.
- That it’s okay to ask for help. Growing up as a Latina, I learned that asking for help is a sign of weakness and it was hard for me for a long time. There were times when I had shouldered so much responsibility and I felt overwhelmed and resentful, and that affected my communication and relationships.
- I wish I had developed a clearer sense of boundaries in relationships as a young person. I am a caring person, and when I meet people I trust them wholeheartedly and give a lot. At times, people have harmed me and taken advantage of the organizations I’ve built. I wish I had known to look out for certain behavior characteristics, as well. It’s important that women and girls recognize the signs of a relationship that is becoming abusive.
- I wish someone could have given me the blueprint for becoming the head of an organization, which is my current function as the President and CEO of The Gathering for Justice. I came into this role by being an expert in the work of criminal justice reform and organizing itself, but running a national organization meant learning new skills and ways of thinking when I started in 2010. I feel like if I had seen more Latinas in this kind of role at a younger age, I would have been reading and preparing for it years before it happened. When the Women’s March brought visibility to my role as a movement leader, my organization was simultaneously struggling to get the resources needed just to survive. I also felt like I struggled on a personal level with not having the resources I needed to navigate the challenges that the increased visibility brought, especially being subjected to death threats and violence in public.
- That I don’t have to be perfect. I started in my field at 17 years old with a job at the welfare department in Ventura County, California, where I was the only teenager. I felt like I had to act older to be taken seriously. When I went away to college, I felt like I couldn’t make any mistakes or I’d mess up this opportunity to get me and my family ahead. When I began working, I was often the youngest or the only woman in my workplace, and it seemed there was always someone saying that I didn’t belong where I was. I felt like I had to speak articulately and take on a more masculine expression in order to be taken seriously and respected. There were moments when my mistakes made me feel really bad about myself, because I was operating under this constant pressure to overachieve and be exceptional.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.”
That comes from Marianne Williamson’s book Return to Love, and I share it with everyone who I love and care about because I want to remind people of their greatness. It also reminds me not to dim my light just so others can feel more comfortable.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow me on Twitter and Instagram at @msladyjustice1 and you can stay connected to my organization, The Gathering for Justice, and our task force Justice League NYC, on Twitter and Instagram at the handle @nyjusticeleague.