It was the day after Mother’s Day, 2010 and Deborah Drysdale, member of the Foundation’s Race, Gender and Human Rights (RGHR) giving circle, was traveling to the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, California—the largest women’s prison in the world.
Deborah was on the bus with her fellow RGHR members and children whose mothers were in prison. The children had been on this bus before. It was Deborah’s first time. Get On The Bus, a nonprofit organization that gives children (and their caregivers) a free opportunity to visit their parents in prison invited RGHR and the Women’s Donor Network members to join them on the bus and meet the women inside the prison.
“Before the visit, the moms had written a letter to their children. Get On The Bus collected those letters and gave them to the kids once they were back on the bus, homeward bound. It was painful to see the children gripping their mothers’ letters and a teddy bear they were given. The letters read something like, “We are your moms and we love you. We are separated but you can take this home today to remember us by.”
This visit was important to Deborah, who has been very active in her community since the 1960’s as an anti-war, civil rights and women’s rights activist. It was important because she saw firsthand the devastating effects the criminal justice system has on women, children, families and communities of color.
[quote_center]“I saw poverty, I saw racism, and I didn’t like it. I knew my life would be about trying to change things.” [/quote_center]
RGHR’s mission is to promote human rights and racial and gender justice by challenging the criminal justice system and its use of mass incarceration in California. To that end, RGHR supports organizations and coalitions working strategically at the intersections of race, gender and human rights to advance critical reforms in the criminal justice system in our state.
California continues to spend billions of dollars on incarcerating more people than any state in the nation. People of color remain disproportionally affected by our prison system, comprising 73 percent of the state’s overall prison population. Women and girls are specifically affected by the criminal justice system in ways that are often overlooked. Of the thousands of women incarcerated in California, two-thirds are imprisoned for nonviolent, economic or drug-related offenses. Because 80 percent of women imprisoned are the sole caretakers of their children, women’s imprisonment is especially detrimental to children and families.
“The mass incarceration of people of color is a follow up to slavery and the Jim Crow era. Just like we needed the abolition and the civil rights movements to combat slavery and Jim Crow, we now need a movement to combat the mass incarceration of people of color,” said Deborah quoting author Michelle Alexander and her tremendous book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
To date, the RGHR giving circle has given almost $4 million in grants to organizations that are, for example, working to reduce prison populations in California or helping formerly incarcerated women find employment and rebuild their lives.
“There are so many worthy organizations doing fabulous work. They work together to change policy and legislation. They elevate the leadership of formerly incarcerated people. And they’re making a real difference. Take Proposition 47. Two of our grant partners helped make that important proposition become a reality.”
One of the organizations RGHR supports is A New Way of Life Reentry Project. They provide housing and support services to formerly incarcerated women in South Central Los Angeles. They also facilitate women’s transition back to community life.
Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) is another grant partner of RGHR’s. Their mission is to curb prison spending by reducing the number of people in prison and the number of prisons in the state.
And we can’t forget that RGHR is a proud supporter of the Foundation’s Women’s Policy Institute (WPI) and in particular the Criminal Justice WPI team. They’ve been funding teams of five women advocates for eight years now and have invested more than $300,000 in this groundbreaking program. WPI amplifies the voices of women who are leading grassroots social justice work, training them on how legislation is made and connecting them to those in power. Over the years, WPI fellows have helped pass 23 bills into law.
When it comes to their work with grassroots criminal justice organizations and the Women’s Policy Institute fellows, Deborah is emphatic on this one point:
[quote_center]“We are not the leaders. They are the leaders and they are leading with such hard work, strategic thinking and dedication.”[/quote_center]
Deborah has a lot of respect for her RGHR friends and colleagues.
“I really like the people. It feels so much more rewarding to do this collaboratively than doing it on my own. Sometimes it’s not easy, but it can be progressive and rewarding. We have a lot of respect for each other and our combined donation makes a much larger impact than our individual donations could.”
The RGHR giving circle is looking for opportunities to connect with like-minded women and men. “We would love to have new members!” says Deborah. If you’re interested in joining RGHR, please reach out to Anuja Mendiratta, inspiring philanthropic leader and strategist who supports RGHR, at RGHR_Fund@yahoo.com.