Defund Fear

November 6, 2020

Where We Go From Here

Zach Norris, Executive Director, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights

Police and prisons don’t make us feel safe, argues Zach Norris, Executive Director, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Rather, what matters are relationships and community. Norris believes in the power of communities to fight the forces of patriarchy and racism that are driving us apart so we can begin to heal. The people closest to the challenges are those best suited to solve them, and we should listen to what they have to say, Norris says. To learn more, check out his book, Defund Fear.

Since recording this interview, Norris has left Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. He is currently working on a book via a Soros Equality Fellowship.

(Editor's note: This interview was originally titled "We Keep Us Safe," which was the title of the first printing of Norris' book, Defund Fear.)

In this video:

  • How the last 25 years of activism has prepared the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights for this moment. (0:19)
  • What the Ella Baker Center is doing to support its staff through the stresses of the coronavirus, police brutality, and political strife (1:20)
  • How the pandemic is bringing to the surface the endemic forces in our society like patriarchy and racism in ways that create new opportunities for change (2:32)
  • What Norris learned about listening to communities – especially around youth justice and incarceration – in his early days as a community organizer (4:08)
  • How the people closest to the problems are the best suited to solve them: “I think that it is those who are closest to the pain that are closest to the solution and understanding what needs to happen.” (5:57)
  • Why we need to pay attention to community-centered nonprofits when redirecting resources from police departments (7:28)
  • How Norris keeps his outrage in optimism in balance: holding grace for himself, getting outside, making his kids laugh, and being inspired by his colleagues at the Ella Baker Center (9:45)
  • Why being in relationship is so important for feeling safe, and how COVID-19 is forcing us to realize our connections with one another (11:49)


ANTONY: I'm tearing up, which my team will tell you is, like, a really low bar but –

ZACH: Right on. I'm right there with you!


ANTONY: How is the mood on your team? And how are you guys navigating both this incredible renewed interest in what you've been saying for years, along with the reality that you have a crisis like everyone else to deal with in the family and in the community?

ZACH: It's interesting because I feel like we've spent 25 years, in some ways, preparing for this moment – as an organization who has, since our inception, really, has pushed for books not bars, jobs not jails, healthcare and housing, not handcuffs. We have always been about, divest/invest, and really trying to push for public health approaches to public health issues. And thankfully, not just externally, but internally, we've been doing the work to prepare for this moment. So, internally we have been flirting with different wellness apps and starting to do yoga and starting to do some different things to just take care of ourselves. We worked actually with the Nonprofit Finance Fund to look ahead in terms of our finances. We have this new center called Restore Oakland which is really our attempt to put forward a vision of community safety that's actually grounded in communities. It’s grounded in restorative justice and economic opportunity. So, we have the physical infrastructure, but also we've been developing the kind of team-building infrastructure that has prepared us to be able to pivot and to be able to provide support to our staff members. We're sending home care packages to folks. We're doing some things that I'm really proud of as an organization that has really been kind of activist oriented and, you know, Ella Baker has a saying like, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest,” right? And we believe that, but we also want to like add a little addendum like, but you know, there’s still – we still need to balance work with rest and understand that rest is part of what enables us to do the work. And so, in that way, I feel like we're absolutely following in her vision and also really working to take care of the team.

ANTONY: I mean a lot of people have experienced the last few months this crisis, especially for non-profit leaders there was the COVID crisis. What's going to happen to my revenues? How am I going to keep my people safe? How am I going to shift the way I serve my mission? And then there was – there have been the uprisings. What do you now believe is possible for both the Ella Baker Center, for Restore Oakland, and for the work itself that maybe you didn't think was possible on March 1st this year?

ZACH: Yeah, I mean I think I'm hearing the words of Lili Farhang, who's with Human Impact Partners, who describes the difference between a pandemic and things that are endemic, right? So, global pandemic, coronavirus, is novel, right? It's the first time we've seen it. It's new. But things that are endemic to our society – patriarchy, racism – have been there since the beginning. And I think what we're seeing is the level of crises on a number of different fronts, from inequality to climate change, are kind of bringing to the surface some of these endemic problems – COVID-19 – in ways that create new opportunities. And as Naomi Klein says, when it's all on the floor, it's also all on the table. Right? Like everything's falling off the table and we're looking around, and what ideas are we picking up and trying to put on the table and move forward? And obviously there's still a power dynamic within that scramble, but I think, in some ways, it levels the playing field.

ANTONY: You know, when I read in your book about your work, the community organizing impetus that led to the successful campaign of Books Not Bars, it sounded like a real linchpin of that effort was your ability to mobilize people who not only had lived expertise of the particular issue of youth incarceration, but in many cases had a huge stake in the outcome. Their kids were incarcerated. They had recently returned from incarceration. When we look at the way we see social sector funding work, it's very rare that – whether it's government money or private philanthropy – money gets into the hands of those or of people with that kind of expertise. It's always – it's almost always intermediated by people who are more absorbable by the system in its risk aversion and its own structural biases. I guess, is a part of the vision for this – the we keep us safe world – that those guys have the resources, not just the money but the control of that money, to be able to do the incredibly effective work that they did in the case where you were helping organize them that I imagine could be happening many other places as well.

ZACH: Yeah, no, great question. I started at the Ella Baker Center as an organizer working with families of incarcerated youth. And I didn't know what I was doing. I had just got out of law school. Like, the one good thing that I did was just listen, right? I listened to mothers, and grandmothers, formerly incarcerated young people, talk about, “Hey, we actually want to close these youth prisons down.” And I was like, “Whoa, what are you talking about?” But when I heard the stories and understood the lengths to which families were traveling, understood that three out of four young people were being rearrested within one year of their release, that we were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, per young person, it started to make more sense to me and to everyone. And, you know, it was – it is only people who are directly impacted that can challenge those stereotypes, those tropes, the “welfare queen” and the other disastrous tropes that have hurt Black and brown communities. It is only those who are directly impacted that can directly challenge that mythology. And that's what happened in the capitol in Sacramento. We went with our t-shirts. We went with our hearts. We got a lot of doors slammed in our faces, originally and initially, but over time those same legislators started to see the lengths to which families were going to visit their kids, the struggles that formerly incarcerated young people were facing when they were coming home. And as they saw that they said, yes, we can actually do something different with these resources. We helped close five of eight youth prisons across the state of California. Now the governor wants to close the remaining three youth prisons and guess what? Youth crime continued to decline during that same period, so this was not just a win for public safety; it was a win for human rights at the same time. And I think that it is those who are closest to the pain that are closest to the solution and understanding what needs to happen. And that's the part around building democracy that I think we're starting to see is folks who are directly impacted really having say-so in terms of how resources are redirected.

ANTONY: Do you have any experience of supporting those kinds of groups and people to get the resources they need? Because it does seem that again even when you shift money from divest/invest – you divest from police, you get into social service budgets – it's still not flowing to those community centered groups and if it does flow it's flowing with a lot of restrictions so those groups don't have the ability to take advantage of their proximity of knowing what the aspirations of the communities are. Do you see breakthroughs happening? Or even now or in the future?

ZACH: I see some breakthroughs. Some breakthroughs that we have like pushed the door through ourselves and knocked the door over ourselves. Restore Oakland is one example of that, where we had just won this successful campaign called Jobs Not Jails, we moved resources away from the sheriff and probation department towards community-based re-entry supports, right? But what we found was when those dollars were doled out and the RFPs were going out, a lot of the same long-in-the-tooth non-profit service providers were getting those contracts because they have particular relationships – and not with the community, right? And so, we decided we wanted to build out this vision of what community safety looks like and engage some of the folks who have more direct connection with communities. And that has been, I think, instrumental in helping to shift the narrative and show what's possible. Because just like in the energy economy, people needed to see solar panels and wind turbines and see some of the alternatives, I think similarly if we're going to build out new safety infrastructure, people need to see what that looks like and then the dollars will start to flow. I am seeing, you know, folks like the AmeriCorps programs starting to kind of question some of their practices and saying, hey, how do we remake our RFPs so that we're engaging with folks on the ground and providing more direct resources to smaller non-profits that have a different connection with the community to avoid some of this dynamic that we've seen in the past? And so, if that's happening, if cities like Minneapolis are seriously reconsidering their entire notions of safety, I do think that there's possibility in this moment.

ANTONY: You know, you've described so many things that would lead any morally awake person to be outraged, and yet, to be an effective leader, you have to maintain an optimism that these things can change and you have to lead others to see that. What do you do to keep your outrage and optimism in balance, these days especially?

ZACH: I think one of the main things is just finding grace for myself in that I won't always get it right and my outrage may be sometimes misdirected or come out in the wrong ways. And my optimism may lag when as a leader I actually need to be more out front. And that's actually normal and human. But, on my good days, when I am finding more of that balance it’s because – in the context of COVID – it's been getting outside to my backyard, being appreciative of having a backyard, and being able to just like dig in the dirt, use a shovel, do all of that stuff. It's been like having dance parties with my kids and just like laughing, you know, and just finding that they are kind of finally starting to get my humor. I'm like, what's taking y'all so long? I can bring the funniness! So they're eight and ten and there's probably like a two year window in which they'll find me funny, so I'm trying to like milk it for everything it's worth, right? And you know, that kind of keeps me balanced, but also just being inspired by the incredible leadership at the Ella Baker Center: James King and Marlene Sanchez and Jose, and so many – Emily – so many amazing leaders who are doing kick butt work. Who are out in front of San Quentin. Who are out in front of Santa Rita jail. Who are in the capital in Sacramento. Who are getting people home. Who are connecting with folks on the inside. Who are changing people's perception of how we get to safety. Right? Because when I held my daughter in my arms, like there's this tremendous fear. Like I want to keep this little child safe. That's my role, that's my responsibility. And so much of safety is actually about relationship. It's actually about: the moments when we feel safe are the moments when we feel held, when we feel like somebody has our back, right? And even in some ways, like my grandmother would hold me accountable. It wasn't easy holding me; it was holding me accountable as well. And we have this 40-year mass incarceration trend which has severed ties, has severed relationships, and has made us less safe as a result. So I'm hopeful that as we're kind of coming into these spaces, we will be more appreciative of each other, of being in relationship, being in space with one another, and I'm seeing that happening. I'm seeing COVID really force this conversation around interdependence and our shared safety in ways that give me hope.

Watch more episodes of Where We Go From Here.