Sisterhood is powerful - Women's Foundation California

Essie Justice Group

Sisterhood is powerful.

This was the major takeaway for retreat participants at the Essie Justice Group Big Vision Strategy summit in Ben Lomond, California, this past weekend. Women with incarcerated loved ones and allies from across the country met for the three day retreat to consider how to address the needs of this ever-growing constituency.

With over 2 million people incarcerated in the United States today—90 percent of them men—millions of women are being left behind in vulnerable communities. This past weekend women and allies met to grapple with the consequences of this trend, and to strategize solutions.

Also in attendance were criminal justice thought leaders and advocates. During a fireside chat, panel speakers, Robert Rooks (Organizing Director of Californians for Safety and Justice), Monica Larenas (Program Officer at the Fund for Nonviolence) and Anita Wills (ED of Mothers of Murdered Children), considered questions relating to the recent Prop. 47 victory in California. Along with Lenore Anderson, Rooks helped organize the successful Prop. 47 campaign, which has been praised for its effective engagement of new and non-traditional stakeholders, such as law enforcement, teachers, labor and victims/survivors.

Considering Essie Justice Group’s strategy to engage women with incarcerated loved ones, Rooks asked, “What happens to communities when you take large portions of the men out?”

Rooks insisted that the women left behind are an essential part of any strategy that seeks to improve outcomes for safety and communities hard hit by the criminal justice system.

“Women have, since the beginning, kept communities together. They have educated the children and have been there and provided support whether it was their sons, fathers, or partners who were inside,” said Rooks.

Gina Clayton, Founder of Essie Justice Group, believes that investing in women with incarcerated loved ones is simply common sense:

[quote_center]”When it comes to stabilizing families, focusing on women has proven successful time and time again—it has proven to alleviate poverty, improve outcomes for children, and, we believe, has the potential to reduce recidivism.”[/quote_center]

Clayton hopes to build on the successful pilot group for women she launched last year in the Bay Area and scale the program to test her theory: “Think about it, women are on the front lines when someone comes home from jail or prison. While probation, parole, and reentry case workers are working 9 to 5, women are working to keep their families out of trouble 24/7. Equipping women with tools, support and strategies to help them, cope and thrive is a no brainer.”

The retreat, though filled with workshops during the days, ended on a reflective note with women (and a few children) gathered around a campfire. Clayton, surrounded by women from the Essie program, read aloud from a poem the group created together.

“If we are successful in our vision to harness the collective power of women with incarcerated loved ones, it would look like sun shining in places that were dark, feel like the end of being alone.”

The Essie retreat was sponsored by Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. To learn more about Essie Justice Group, contact Gina Clayton or Essie Program Strategist Crystallee Crain. To nominate a woman to the program, visit

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