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UpStart with Gina Clayton

UpStart, Echoing Green’s morning talk series features short, inspiring presentations of our Fellows’ work and Q&A led by a guest from our community. April’s UpStart featured Gina Clayton ’14, founder of Essie Justice Group.

One in four. That’s how many women in the United States have a loved one who is incarcerated (for black women, that figure jumps to one in two). In spite of how common it is to interact with the criminal justice system in the U.S., the impact of having a loved one in prison is deeply personal. You may suddenly become the sole breadwinner of your household. Or perhaps you’re separated from your child. You likely face high financial costs to visit or call, and still owe legal expenses. This is all on top of the stigma and isolation that can come with being a woman with an incarcerated loved one – a group not enough included in our examination of mass incarceration and its impact. But Echoing Green Fellow Gina Clayton is committed to changing this.

In 2014, Gina launched Essie Justice Group to harness the power of women with incarcerated loved ones, countering the isolation and stigma they face to use sisterhood as a method to drive change. Inspired by personal experiences but also acknowledging the reality that her experiences were not unique, Gina knew Essie needed to provide an intimate solution to a systemic problem. 

Today, the United States ranks first in the world for incarceration of its citizens. Last year, The New York Times’ UpShot published a report on the 1.5 million missing black men in the United States. While many rightly work to investigate how to change this, Gina is flipping the script to ask “what is mass incarceration doing to women?”

The costs of incarceration extend to the experiences of loved ones left behind. These are women who are not only caring for loved ones outside and behind bars, but also fighting to change the systems that fail to support them. In response, Essie establishes sister circles, connected communities of women who are building on their leadership and healing together. Women with incarcerated loved ones are nominated to join – an act which also encourages a feeling of visibility, worth, and validation of the challenges these women face.

Essie Justice Group fighting mass incarceration
Gina Clayton ’14, founder of Essie Justice Group. Photo courtesy of Essie Justice Group.

Essie Justice Group’s healing-to-advocacy model gives affected women the platform to rebuild and support one another while harnessing their leadership to make changes in their communities.  So what’s next for Essie Sisters? Now that Essie has piloted the sister circle model three times in California, they’re working to decentralize it. The future of Essie is sister circles in communities across the nation working to break the patterns that mass incarceration helps to create. For Gina, she “hopes to see as many sister circles as AA meetings across the country,” providing support to counter the destruction of mass incarceration nationwide. 

At April’s UpStart Gina was joined in conversation by Chantá Parker, a public defender Criminal Defense Practice of the Legal Aid Society’s Brooklyn office and co-chair of Essie Justice Group’s Program. They explored what the impact of building a movement driven by women with incarcerated loved ones might mean. Explore these three takeaways from their conversation:

 Essie orients women toward the leadership that exists within them.

The women who come to Essie are already ready to lead. It’s the role of Essie to unlock their leadership by connecting them to each other and providing the platform and opportunities for their leadership to take shape.

 Dismantling patriarchy is core to dismantling mass incarceration in the United States.

Essie is challenging conversations about how to end mass incarceration by centering women with incarcerated loved ones as a critical part of developing solutions. It’s important to acknowledge that not only do these women exist but that they are using shared experience to do the work – and they’ve been doing the work. Often, it isn’t until after a tragedy has struck that we hear from women with incarcerated loved ones – mothers interviewed after losing a child, or sisters, cousins, and partners asked too late to talk about what happens behind bars. Essie works to create the room to elevate these voices to shape progress that takes into account a fuller scope of how mass incarceration and criminalization impacts individuals and families across the nation.

 Elevating women with incarcerated loved ones is critical to dismantling social isolation.

In some ways, becoming an Essie sister is as much about support as it is about visibility, branding, and claiming space. Their campaign, #StandWithHer, is designed to drive home the point that women are fighting mass incarceration every day, just by living their lives, but that it’s a journey they shouldn’t shoulder alone. By issuing a demand to #StandWithHer, Essie makes it clear that the challenges and isolation of mass incarceration are everyone’s problem.

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