Episode #180: Zach Norris

Zach Norris is the Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, author of We Keep Us Safe: Building Secure, Just, and Inclusive Communities, and co-founder of Restore Oakland, a community advocacy and training center that will empower Bay Area community members to transform local economic and justice systems and make a safe and secure future possible for themselves and for their families.  Zach is also a co-founder of Justice for Families, a national alliance of family-driven organizations working to end our nation’s youth incarceration epidemic.

Zach helped build California’s first statewide network for families of incarcerated youth which led the effort to close five youth prisons in the state, passed legislation to enable families to stay in contact with their loved ones, and defeated Prop 6—a destructive and ineffective criminal justice ballot measure.

We Keep Us Safe, released in 2020, has been praised by Forbes, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe, and Kirkus Reviews.

In addition to being a Harvard graduate and NYU-educated attorney, Zach is also a graduate of the Labor Community Strategy Center’s National School for Strategic Organizing in Los Angeles, California and was a 2011 Soros Justice Fellow. He is a former board member at Witness for Peace, Just Cause Oakland and Justice for Families. Zach was a recipient of the American Constitution Society’s David Carliner Public Interest Award in 2015, and is a member of the 2016 class of the Levi Strauss Foundation’s Pioneers of Justice. Zach is a loving husband and dedicated father of two bright daughters, whom he is raising in his hometown of Oakland, California.” 

In this week’s episode of the podcast, Zach and I talk about his work in and around Oakland, what the term restorative justice means, and how data analysts can do a better job talking with people we study and write about.

Episode Notes

We Keep Us Safe: Building Secure, Just, and Inclusive Communities

Ella Baker Center

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families | Report from the Ella Baker Center

More books on race and equity

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Welcome back to the PolicyViz podcast. I’m your host Jon Schwabish. On this week’s episode of the show, we turn to thinking about community development, social justice and how we, as data analysts and people who visualize data, how we can talk to actual people to learn about their lived experiences. Now personally, as a quantitative economist, I’m familiar with asking a question, finding the relevant data, downloading it, analyzing it, and then writing about it. But I’m not as familiar with talking about the people I’m studying or the people I’m communicating with. So if I’m doing a research project on say child nutrition issues, I’m not as good at reaching out to school officials or families or students to better understand their experiences or their challenges or even what they think could be a policy solution. But Zach Norris, the guest on today’s show has extensive experience talking with people. Zach is the executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. He is the author of We Keep Us Safe: Building Secure, Just, and Inclusive Communities, and he’s also co-founder of Restore Oakland, a community advocacy and training center that empowers Bay Area community members to transform local economic and justice systems and make a safe and secure future possible for themselves and for their families. I first met Zach through a meeting at the Urban Institute and his book has helped me refine my thinking about how we as a society and we as communities can shift the conversation about public safety away from fear and punishment and toward growth and support systems for families and their communities. So I hope you’ll enjoy this week’s episode of the podcast. Instead of talking specifically about data visualization techniques and data analytic techniques, what here I’m focusing on and thinking about is how is we as data analysts and data visualizers can do a better job of reaching out to the people that we are studying and the people that we are communicating with. So here’s my discussion with Zach Norris.

Jon Schwabish: Hey Zach, how are you doing? Thanks so much for coming on the show.

Zach Norris: Of course jon, I really appreciate it, happy to be able to talk with you.

JS: It’s great. I’m really excited to talk about more of your work, we’ve been talking over the last few weeks, and I’m really excited to hear more about your work, the Ella Baker Center, and of course your book. I wanted to start by giving you just a chance to talk about your background, talk about the book maybe a little bit, and talk about the work that you’re doing now as the executive director at the Ella Barker Center.

ZN: It’s the Ella Baker Center.

JS: Baker? I see. I got Barker, I don’t know why, yeah, Ella Baker makes more sense, yeah.

ZN: No worries. I am happy always to talk about Ella Baker and Ella Baker Center. I was born here in the Bay Area in San Francisco. We moved to Oakland when I was a week old, I sometimes say it was a week too late just because I love Oakland that much [inaudible 00:03:08] to San Francisco. But growing up in Oakland, in East Oakland, I was sheltered from some of the things that were happening around me, namely, the kind of rise of the school to prison pipeline. I grew up in the 90s, went to high school from 1991 to 1995, and during that time youth crime was actually declining in California but the number of youth crime stories was going up by some 700%, as I understand it. So if you were seeing a crime occurring once per week, youth crime story once per week in ‘91, you’re seeing it more like once per day by ‘95. That was impacting policy across the country and here in the Bay Area, and luckily, I made it out of high school being a light skinned African American kid who went to Catholic school and had a set of privileges that many of my peers growing up in East Oakland didn’t. And so, by the time I got to Harvard as an undergrad, I started seeing young people doing things that young people do, from using and abusing drugs to getting into fights on a typical adolescent behavior, but at Harvard you got time off, you got counseling, you got resources and support, it was always clear that young people were more than their worst mistake, as Brian [inaudible 00:04:29] says. But in East Oakland, my family and friends were getting locked up for doing some of the same things and losing years out of their lives incarcerated effectively. And so, that kind of disparity is what led me to an interest in social justice, I found the Ella Baker Center as a law school student, and really was hooked from the start because we were working on issues challenging the school to prison pipeline and just this dynamic of young people being criminalized from such an early age and that really is what led me to work at the Ella Baker Center.

JS: Can you talk a little bit about the actual work at the Ella Baker Center and what you’re all doing – I know you do a lot of local work in Oakland and Alameda County and I’m curious both about the work sort of just generally and how important it is but also how you work at the local level to effect change.

ZN: Yeah, I mean, we start with principle and understanding that everybody is an agent of change. Right? That like Ella Baker believed in the power of ordinary people to make change and so do we, so we advanced what we call a books not bars, jobs not jails, healthcare and housing not handcuffs agenda. So we love alliteration and we also love fighting for public health solutions to what we identify as public health issues. And so when I started we were involved in a campaign to stop what would have been the largest per capita juvenile hall in the country from being built here in Alameda County, we called it a super jail for youth. And over a couple of year-long campaign we were successful in moving Alameda County to drastically decrease the size of the juvenile hall and to increase support for families and young people using some of the resources saved. And guess what, the juvenile hall is still way under capacity today, and we still have a lot of work to do to really ensure that young people, especially youth of color, get the kind of public health interventions and supports that they and their families need. But it has been campaigns like that to really call attention to the way in which local governments, state governments, national governments have been perfectly happy to throw money at what we believe are failed intervention – the number one predictor of adult incarceration is youth incarceration and youth justice system involvement. So why not try to do something different for young people? That is at the heart of our work but we also work with folks who are in the adult system as well, we use policy, advocacy, media. We’re in Sacramento talking to legislators. We work with folks inside of San Quentin prison to actually develop different policy ideas. We take those to Sacramento, we actually engage people in San Quentin and other prisons across the state to lobby legislators to send letters to be in communication with legislators. Once we pass those bills, we actually engage people in leveraging and using those bills to help them get out of prison, so it’s really from the start to the finish and engagement with the community folks both inside a prison and their family members and formerly incarcerated folks as well to really develop the solutions that we know work for everybody. So that’s what our work is about.

JS: So it’s interesting the way you frame a lot of your work is going into the prisons, talking in community groups and having these discussions, and one thing that I love about the book is you weave in those stories along with the data, so the way we started this conversation was this change in youth imprisonment in the early and mid-90s. And I guess, I have two lines of questions I want to ask, one I want to talk about is how you actually conduct these conversations, and I think for data analysts, that’s a tough thing to do. But the first one I want to talk about was when you were pulling together the book, you spent a lot of time especially right at the very beginning saying this book is going to be stories throughout, but it’s not just stories, you have a lot of data and facts behind it, and I’m curious how when you were writing the book and thinking about how you wanted to get your message across, you thought about combining and weaving these two pieces together sort of quantitative part and then the storytelling part.

ZN: Yeah, thanks for that question Jon. I mean, I believe that stories are what motivate us and move us and are the things that we remember. And what really makes it possible for people to take action is their understanding of a story and their understanding of their own story and that they can make a difference in their lives. And so, for me, it was kind of a no brainer that the book would really highlight the stories of folks that I’ve worked with, the book is called We Keep Us Safe: Building Secure, Just, and Inclusive Communities, and really is about how we move from a framework of fear to a culture of care. And rather than seeing people who have broken the law as being simply deserving of punishment really, understanding that all of us are more than our worst mistake, and that if we adopt approaches to public health issues, that will not only benefit the person who’s caused harm, it’ll benefit the person who’s been harmed, and it’ll benefit the community as a whole. And so, what I tried to do with the book is really weave in stories that I’ve come to know through working with formerly incarcerated folks, through working with their family members, but also through doing community driven research. We did a report called Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families in 2015, and it was a major project, it involved 20 community based organizations across the country, we worked with research action design collective that specializes in kind of community driven research and it was formerly incarcerated folks, their family members, currently incarcerated folks, survivors of crime who really developed the interview protocol, the focus group protocol who helped develop the survey protocol, and we took that out into multiple states across the country, multiple communities, and it was the folks who were impacted themselves who did that research. It caught a lot of attention, the Washington Post, New York Times, among many other outlets, picked up the Who Pays report. But surprise-surprise, the media focused more on the problem than the solutions that we were proposing, and so the idea behind the book was really to weave in the narratives around what are the problems but also to lift up the solutions, and the second half of the book basically almost does like a Choose Your Own Adventure kind of thing, if you remember those books when we were…

JS: Yeah.

ZN: [inaudible 00:11:53]. It says, here are three stories that unfortunately end in tragedy because we’ve adopted this framework of fear, what if we actually use public health approaches in these instances, how might these family stories be different. And I hope that it’s an engaging way to engage people in really thinking about their own story in addition to the stories that they’re reading because there are all kinds of choice points in our own lives where we make mistakes, and I think if we really are circumspect around our own race, class, gender and other kinds of privileges, we might find that, hey, someone was there for me when I made a mistake and shouldn’t that be available to all of us, yeah.

JS: Right. I mean, it’s very interesting because I love the Choose Your Own Adventure idea, but in those stories, towards the end of the book, you have these, you know, it’s the choice points of individuals, but it’s also the points within the criminal justice system and in the social support system that local and federal governments run that they all make decisions at certain points too and policies that encourage or discourage certain behaviors or certain punishments. So it’s interesting how these, they kind of branch out in all these different ways, into these different end points.

ZN: Yeah, I mean, if you look at the story of Alan Feaster and Darelle Feaster, Alan’s the dad, Darelle is the teenage son who’s messing up in school and skipping school. His dad is like, I went through the military, I’m struggling, I’m trying to provide the right direction, reaches out to the juvenile justice system. His kid gets involved and gets into a group home hours away, he and a friend steal a car trying to get back home just stocked in there literally I think like five or six hours from home, and then gets into a youth prison where he spends the greater part of 18 months on solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. And he and his cellmate, different kid, ended up committing suicide according to the report. His father still didn’t believe that that was the case, but – and whatever happened, it ended in tragedy [inaudible 00:14:16] talk about not only what happened to Darelle but also what happened to Alan as an African American male who didn’t get the kind of healthcare services and support that I believe he deserved, and he ended up dying years later. And I think that in each of their lives, there were opportunities to provide them support individually that would have had an impact for the whole family. And it’s because of structural racism and classism, and also just because we’ve really just grown so many resources behind policing and punishment that it’s really come to overshadow and crowd out the kind of basic common sense approaches that I think other countries really kind of take for granted.

JS: Yeah. So I want to make sure that people understand the highlight of that – or not the highlight of the story, but where that story starts is that the father reaches out to the local law enforcement criminal justice system for help. By doing that, the son gets involved in the criminal justice system as opposed to getting assistance, mental health counseling, financial planning counseling, you know, what other services they would need to get them both on this path, it sort of leads them down this terrible path towards the young man committing suicide, and I think it’s just important for people to know who haven’t read the book, and I really do recommend that everyone should read it that these decision points are not just our own as individuals but also what happens when we seek assistance from our governments and from our local authorities. And all these decision points, they all come into play and affect these paths that we end up going down.

ZN: Yeah, absolutely.

JS: You talk a lot in the book about this phrase, restorative justice, and you define restorative justice, and I want to make sure that you get a chance to talk a little bit about it, because I think – and we’ve talked about this in the past that maybe people have a particular view of what that means that’s not exactly true or doesn’t really embody the essence of what restorative justice means, and you spent a lot of time talking about it in the book. And so I was hoping you could talk a little bit about it for folks who may not be familiar with this particular phrase in this particular area of the criminal justice system.

ZN: Yeah, restorative justice is about holding people accountable while still holding them in community, and you almost have to take a step back before explaining restorative justice and just ask people to think about a time when they felt safe, and so I do that all the time because when I ask people what was the time when you felt safe, oftentimes people say, well, I was with my family or I was in my faith community, I was surrounded by these people, these are times when I felt safe. And so, there’s this connection between safety and relationship that safety is really intimately tied for human beings about being in right relationship. I think about how my grandmother held my hand, she held my hands with two hands, like one hand to hold my hand, the other hand would just kind of tap my little hand and remind me, hey, I got your back, but also I got your back if you make a mistake. She would hold me accountable but still hold me, and this is fundamentally divorced from the way we think about public safety which is really in this country tied to punishment in prisons. And so, when we remove someone from the community, we really sever ties and we make it much harder for people to be held accountable, because in order to be accountable to someone, you actually have to answer to them, but you can’t answer them if you’re not in dialogue with them and working to make them amends. So restorative justice is really about two people, and it’s kind of boiled down essence, it can be about two people, one who’s been harmed, other who’s caused harm, surrounded by the people that support them and a facilitator comes, facilitates a conversation on how is this person who’s caused harm going to make amends, how are they going to make it right. And accountability plan is developed which might involve them paying back the victim of the crime, it might involve them doing community service that is particularly geared towards supporting this victim. But what’s beautiful about it is that everyone in that circle who’s supporting those two individuals are also asking themselves what could I have done differently to prevent this harm from happening; and in that way is really building community accountability for people to think about, what’s going on in our neighborhood, what’s going on in our city, and how can we make that different. And that piece of it is really fundamental now because we see the way in which people in power also need to be held accountable, and so restorative justice can help build the muscle within our communities to actually hold more powerful people accountable. The circle isn’t going to look the same as a kind of individual harm circle, it might look different. But the beautiful thing about restorative justice is that it is applicable not just on the individual level but at the level of cities and even at the level of nations. Truth and Reconciliation processes in South Africa and other places have fundamentally been restorative justice processes.

JS: Yeah. You tell a couple of stories about this process. Can you talk a little bit, maybe about your experience, either I assume witnessing one of these conversations, and I mean, these are difficult conversations to have, and what does that look like, what does it feel like when you are experiencing these discussions?

ZN: Yeah, I mean, it is a powerful thing to witness because what typically happens in our criminal court system, as I mentioned, is people are kind of removed from the community, they don’t have the opportunity to hear. But what I’ve come to understand is that when a young person or any person is really forced to hear from the person they’ve harmed, to understand that, hey, I’ve been up at night, I can’t sleep, I still think about this incident when you came and snatched my laptop or pushed me down and then put my laptop away, like, those are things that still stick with me. And to have that understanding of the harm that has been caused but also to know that there are people who are there to support you in doing something different, because it’s one thing, for a young person or any person to have an aha moment where they’re like, yes, I understand the harm that I’ve caused, it’s another thing for them to be in a different economic situation where they don’t feel the need necessarily to take such drastic measures; and especially, right now, where there is such dire straits economically, I think it behooves us to really think about let’s get to the root of these problems, let’s really think about what makes it such that a 16-year-old, a 17-year-old or anyone is really put in a situation where they are forced to steal. My partner is working with restaurant workers, and when the pandemic hit she helped to raise millions of dollars to support restaurant workers who had recently lost their jobs. And the first wave of emails she got was thank you so much, and we really appreciate this, I don’t know what I would do. The second wave of emails started to come in and it’s like, well, I’m not sure how I’m going to continue to feed my kids, I’m trying to provide them with [inaudible 00:22:37] and bread from the food bank, it’s not enough, I’m worried that I may not even be able to continue to communicate with you because I’m going to lose my internet, I’m worried I may have to steal to try to support my family. And so people are in such dire straits and meanwhile the millionaires and billionaires are getting continued kickbacks from the government. And so what I tried to do in the book is not just talk about crime but really talk about harm in the broader sense in our society, in the ways in which we can be addressing these broader harms and in ways that will actually build greater safety for each and every one of us in this country.

JS: Right. The other thing I wanted to ask you about was your interactions and conversations with people. So you’ve spent almost your entire career actually going into communities and talking with people and having these hard conversations. I think for a lot of people who work with data, who analyze data, especially the quantitative people, talking to people is not something that we are accustomed to doing. There’s a lot of reasons why we should be talking to the people that we’re studying or the people that we’re communicating with and part of that can be just having a more diverse and racially equitable awareness of what we’re working on, but I was hoping you might be able to talk a little bit about, I mean, I’m not even sure what the question is really, but how should researchers or data analysts think about having these conversations or having conversations with the people they study and how they should go about doing it, and maybe some things that you keep in mind when you’re going out and working with focus groups or working with community groups and working with people in and out of prison, what are those conversations like and how do you approach it when you’re having those discussions?

ZN: Yeah, I mean, I think the first thing that I would say is that you don’t even know the right questions to ask if you’re not in conversation with people who are impacting.

JS: Yeah.

ZN: Because so often I think our own perceptions of how the criminal court system works are biased and we can do as much research as we want, but if we’re not in it real conversation with people who are directly impacted, you’re not getting the scoop so to speak, you’re not really getting the real, real. And I know that from standing outside of visiting lines waiting with the mothers and grandmothers of incarcerated young people and hearing from them about their experience what it’s like actually visiting children in youth prisons across the State of California. Look, I remember walking a mile from an abandoned kind of farm area to a youth prison as I’m talking with parents and grandparents, and I’m like why are you all walking, why are you parking a mile when there’s a parking lot at the youth prison. It’s like, well, they check our tags when we come in, and if we don’t have current registration, etc., then they not only won’t they let us visit, but they’ll also call the cops on us. So if you’re not really kind of walking with folks, you’re not understanding the right questions to ask. And that being said, like, there has to be some relationship, right? So you don’t just kind of show up, I think that there’s a need to really connect with community based organizations who have some trust within communities to say, hey, this is what I’m looking at studying, might you be able to help me establish an initial focus group, what are your recommendations in terms of really understanding these issues and really understand that there’s some level of power imbalance in a lot of these situations. And so, you’re doing that work as a researcher in a way that values people’s time, can actually help build the framework necessary for changing these systems over time. And that may not be every researcher’s goal, but from my perspective, the way we see things going today, it’s clear to me that we need a different approach to these issues or I would hope that that researchers would minimally really want to understand the issue well and potentially be a part of that changed process.

JS: Yeah, I think that’s great. Well, we have just a couple of minutes left and I wanted to imagine giving you unlimited resources and making you, I guess, attorney general. So you’re head of department of justice and I’m going to give you an unlimited budget. And so, what would your top one or two things, policy changes be, coming out of the work that you’ve been doing? What would those – unlimited budget, so we don’t have to worry about money, what would those one or two top things be to I think embrace some of the things that we’ve been talking about?

ZN: I would start by saying like I think the position to really address the crisis that we’re in is the position of governor, like, being able to move the budget as a whole is super important. So people talk about defunding the police, but really at the heart of it, it’s saying refund the community. For [inaudible 00:28:27] 50 years we’ve seen the two things that have been recession proof have been policing and prisons. And as the social safety net has been cut recession after recession, this kind of criminal punishment dragnet has continued to grow, and the power of the vested interest in those systems have also continued to grow. So if I were attorney general, to take their question on more directly, I would make sure that no district attorney, no judges, people couldn’t accept funding from police union because you can’t expect to fully prosecute folks if you’re receiving all kinds of funds from police unions. And so, a first step would be to begin to erode the power of some of these vested interest while expanding the social safety net. And so, right now, in California, there’s a bill called the Crisis Act which was establish a set of first responders to actually deal with different issues that currently police are being sent out to. People who are suicidal don’t need a group of men armed with guns to come to supposedly support them, that’s the opposite of what they need. So really with that power I would want to move resources towards public health approaches to public health issues. And then also find ways to undercut the way in which prison guard unions, police unions have leveraged their increasing budgetary power to shape political power in ways that make them fundamentally unaccountable. And I think that’s not going to be an easy thing, but I think that sort of one-two approach of undercutting the lack of accountability and supporting real public health approaches is the way that we can get out of the situation we’re in now.

JS: Right. Really interesting. Zach, thanks so much for coming on the show. I’ll put links to a lot of things we talked about and to the book and I appreciate you taking the time and chatting with me.

ZN: Right on, appreciate it, Jon, talk to you soon.

JS: Okay.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode of the show. And I hope the next time that you are working with your data or you are creating a graph or you are writing a report that you think about ways that maybe you can communicate with the people that you are studying or the communities that you are studying, and maybe you can reach out to the people that you’re hoping to communicate with and get their feedback and get their input into your work. So until next time, this has been the PolicyViz podcast, thanks so much for listening.

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Music by The NRIs

Audio editing by Ken Skaggs

Transcription by Jenny Transcription Services

PolicyViz.com is hosted by WPEngine and run on WordPress