A Conversation with Zachary Norris

Talking racial and social equality with the executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights

Growing up in East Oakland, Zachary Norris says he was pretty sheltered. A light-skinned African-American who attended Catholic school, Norris didn’t really think about racial justice until he went to Harvard, where he witnessed classmates get away with the kind of misbehaviors that would have landed people from his Oakland neighborhood in prison.

His professional interest in prison reform truly took hold after he was arrested for civil disobedience in 2001 while protesting a Dublin “super jail” for youth. Now, Norris is using his law degree from NYU and desire to “be part of the solution” to fight for social change at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, an Oakland-based nonprofit.

What is the mission of the Ella Baker Center?

To reckon with the reality of racial injustice in our country and advance solutions that create opportunities for our communities. Our core focus is to end mass incarceration and criminalization and win reinvestment in black, brown, and low-income communities. 

What are some of your biggest successes?

We’ve had real successes in policy advocacy, civic engagement, the green jobs movement, and violence prevention. We’ve helped close five California youth prisons and usher in an 80 percent reduction in the number of people in the youth prison system without seeing an increase in youth crime. 

We’ve also pushed back on the false idea of the “youth superpredator” [a young repeat offender thought to be beyond rehabilitation] that really drove the youth prison population in the 1990s and 2000s. We helped challenge that idea by developing a statewide network of families of incarcerated youth; these mothers and grandmothers and fathers and uncles helped shift the California juvenile justice system away from youth prisons and toward community-based solutions. 

Do you see hope in the struggle for social justice?

Absolutely. We are heartened about the victory of the Jobs Not Jails campaign we led with local allies, which won $10 million of Alameda County funding for employment and educational opportunities for people coming out of the jail system. On a macro level, we’re pushing for policies that shift us away from how our country has profited from jails and move those resources to support things that actually make communities safer, such as healthcare, education, and job opportunities.

I am also excited about an initiative called Restore Oakland, which we are launching in partnership with Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. Restore Oakland will have a restaurant run by formerly incarcerated folks and others who’ve been locked out of opportunity. It will offer training programs and house restorative justice programs. It is going to be the embodiment of a new vision of community safety.

How can organizations like OMCA support your work?

Museums are particularly important because they are neutral spaces where people can come and engage in productive dialogue. When you are able to have that dialogue, you can see past some of the labels we attach to ourselves. 

What is your vision for the next ten years?

We all have to ask the question: Are we going to have a caring economy or a punishing economy? I am hopeful we’ll see a groundswell where people ask for institutional investments that right some of this country’s historical wrongs. That vision may seem far off, but things come in ebbs and flows. To paraphrase Dr. King, the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. I still see that happening.


Photography: Terry Lorant.

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