Obama continues his unprecedented pardons and focus on criminal justice reform with a pardon for Chelsea Manning

President Obama continues his streak of pardons and commutations with a pardon for Chelsea Manning, freeing her in five months rather than 2045. Manning is the army intelligence analyst who made Wikileaks popular.  Pres. Obama could have also just saved her life given she had twice attempted suicide and faced what the Times calls “an uncertain future as a transgender woman incarcerated at a male military prison.”

obama-commutations1The President and his DOJ staff have been on a roll. On Dec 19, he pardoned 78 people and granted another 153 commutations — the most acts of clemency granted by a US president in a single day. SO far, the President has pardoned and lessened the sentences of more people than the previous 12 presidents prior to him combined.

This fast and furious wave of pardons is warranted given fears that President-elect Donald Trump and his administration will dismantle Obama’s clemency initiative, which has resulted in the early release of 1,176 drug offenders. In addition to his ban on solitary confinement for juveniles, his directive to not renew contracts for private prisons, and his recently published Harvard Law Review 56-page article on criminal justice reform, it seems as if the President’s post-presidential professional life may be revealing its focus: our broken criminal justice system.

Given that the US has the largest number of prisoners in the world despite holding just 5% of the world’s population, Pres Obama would be a welcome and powerful ally in the fight for criminal justice reform. Nearly 1 in 4 adults in this country are imprisoned. The mass incarceration system is driven by racism, favors the wealthy, and is nothing but a swinging door that fosters a life behind bars. The criminal justice system is steeped in history of racism, is driven by profit, and criminalizes poverty and drug addiction continuing such inhumane treatment as solitary confinement. The time for reform has long past and legislators may finally pay attention if a political force like President Obama champions the cause.

Meanwhile, California continues its quest to reduce prison populations. California’s prisoner reductions came from a court order to cut prison populations after a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling found that conditions inside the state’s prisons — which were 200 percent over capacity — violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The state has passed some initiatives, such as Prop 47 in 2014, which released about 4,500 in its aftermath by reducing some felonies, like drug crimes and nonviolent property theft, to misdemeanors.

But that did nothing except shift the problem from state to local jails. The underlying roots of this issue (and see “13” by Ava DuVernay on Netflix for an in-depth look) such as racism, LGBT bias (like how transgenders such as Manning are viewed, convicted and treated), drug rehabilitation programs, mental health facilities, and focusing on reform over retribution for nonviolent crimes and youth have not been seriously addressed by legislation. With civilian Obama and the tide shifting to a greater focus on mass incarceration, the tides may be shifting. If not, we must make them shift.

On MLK Day, let your remembrance be in action

On Martin Luther King’s Day we might make the mistake that today is a day where we simply remember a courageous hero of humanity but if anything, this is a day where we must reflect and act. Dr King was, as he himself said, on the shoulders of hundreds of years of resistance and thousands of people who made sacrifices, who did small acts daily — or even once in their lifetime — that resulted in a societal shift. People who had families, who were sole income providers, who didn’t have the mental or emotional or economic reality or sometimes, even the interest, to be a part of the Civil Rights Movement yet still did so by merely living their life with inclusion and justice. Justice isn’t simply in a court, it is how you act towards your fellow human beings daily.

I just saw “Hidden Figures” with my daughter and learned three things. One, those women were heroes as much as anyone but so were their parents and spouses and bosses who chose not to live as society demanded, either as part of patriarchy (at that time when women weren’t working much) or as part of the white male class. True, they didn’t have the same repercussions for going against the grain but without them — the boss, the judge, the husband, the boyfriend, the parents — there would have been no forward movement.
 
Two, there is a long way to go. I live in the Bay Area and my spouse works in the heart of Silicon Valley. I still rarely see African Americans. If STEM is to work, we have to start in the area where I focus: early childhood. If children don’t have access to the education and school books and resources, they cannot hope to compete in high school or for college to become scientists or engineers. We can’t just have programs that start at the intern level. It’s too late by that time.
 
MLK Poor Peoples Campaign Poster 1968
Three, in order for the above to happen, we must focus on economic progress. Anyone who lives in a city and takes its public transportation as I did for 20+ years knows which stops has which demographics sadly, and it is almost always along economic lines as much as ethnicity lines. We have a long way to go. Dr King’s last campaign was the Poor People’s Campaign. He knew even before the term was coined about intersectionality. You cannot have racial or gender justice without economic justice, and the two must be advanced simultaneously.
Without economic stability and opportunity, there was little hope for African Americans to advance, indeed for anyone whether they be black, undocumented immigrants, or women. The degree of advancement an individual can achieve of course has to do with systemic bias as much as anything. After all, if the legal system and law enforcement are against you at every step, there is little hope for recourse. In “Hidden Figures,” had the judge not granted Mary Jackson the right to attend an all-white school — granted, it was only at night — but if he had not allowed that, no amount of courage on her part as an individual would have sufficed.
Together with eradicating systemic obstacles, in order for change to come to areas like Silicon Valley, there must be more resources devoted to education, job training, child care (so parents can get to the schools and jobs they need to advance), and economic initiatives. It must all happen together as we work on all fronts, and on the fronts where we can — promote whom we can, give where we can, lend a fellow parental hand where we can. 
 
As neighbors, co-workers, supervisors, friends, acquaintances, we can all do our part. A movement is not just a protest or march. It is the thousands of daily acts that reinforce the changes we seek towards greater societal equality.
 
Although just this year I began formally working in policy and legislation, I’ve worked in social justice my entire adult life. I keep Dr. King’s quote in my home and on my Facebook profile page as a reminder in my work in public policy as well as in my life that it doesn’t take much but it does take participation. Listen and engage. How will you engage?

Why I’m running for District 22 as a delegate

Many people are joining the political process on all levels because of this past election. I have been involved for over a decade. Now that I work in policy and work for the people of California day in and day out, I wanted to use that voice towards legislation and the party platform in a more direct way.

I have been a registered Democrat since I could first vote at 18 and eagerly cast my ballot. I chose to be a Democrat because the Democratic party and its candidates best reflect the ideals I believe we should be working towards as a society. They have been and continue to be in alignment with my core values.  What are some of these values?

Since high school, I have volunteered or worked for decreasing education inequity, increasing healthcare access to all, reproductive rights and sexual health education, and increasing child protection. I reported on social injustices when I was a journalist. I gave voice for these rights as a producer and screenwriter. And I actively work for them now as I work at the intersection of media and public policy.

Between career and family, I never had the opportunity or frankly, the desire to speak on behalf of all my fellow Democrats — until this year. I view this year’s election results not as a loss but a call to action. And I am acting.  My party has not let me down. We “went high” and have kept it high and civil and inclusive even during the toughest of times. I have never been prouder to be a Democrat. I have never been prouder to be a California Democrat which is leading the way for our party. So the best I knew  to be an active participant and ensure the ideals we hold dear continue to be impactful — and win more elections in the future — was to run as a delegate.

For a delegate, the primary responsibility is interaction with the district. They need to be kept informed of what is happening to their party, in terms of policies and candidates, so the system can be as fair and transparent as possible. Already, I have several initiatives to ensure that I do this.

One way to keep my community engaged is media. As a former content director and journalist, I know the importance of trusted social media and information, and nothing is more trusted than direct sources. I will be having podcasts with everyone from supervisors to senators to community leaders and activists: what are the challenges and how are they being faced and, if relevant, what is the story behind the story?

Another way to engage the community is directly. On January 23rd, I am organizing a town forum through the newly-formed Still We Rise, a nonprofit that promotes community dialogue on issues about intersectional gender equality in politics and policy.

Please join me in both those initiatives. Make your voice heard. And VOTE.