Meet our National Campaigner: Azadeh Zohrabi


2014 has already seen some strong transitions at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Orienting its work now entirely behind a mission to “end mass incarceration” is no small task, and EBC has brought on some powerful staff to move that work forward locally and nationally.

Azadeh Zohrabi is a long-time grassroots organizer and a legal worker (full disclosure: this author has organized with her around California prisoner hunger strikes). She is EBC’s new national campaigns director, and just as soon as she had a chance to get a handle on the breadth and depth of her new job, I challenged her to describe her new role in an interview for the Ella’s Voice Blog. Here’s what she had to say:

JS: What does it mean in 2014’s iteration of EBC to be the National Campaigns Director? What is, and what is going to be, your role?

AZ: I came on to work on a national-based community-driven research project, and when I came on most of the foundation for the project had already been laid. We had most of the organizations that had signed on to be partners already picked out. We had advisors already picked out. We had the national partners picked out. When I came in, I jumped into coordinating the project with the national partners, and then kind of just launching the project.

The project is aiming to find out the economic and financial impacts of incarceration on families and communities. We’re doing it through focus groups, through surveys with directly impacted people – either formerly incarcerated people or family members of formerly and currently incarcerated people, and we’re also doing interviews of employers to get a sense of what their attitudes are towards hiring formerly incarcerated people, and what incentives could be offered to them to make it more appealing to hire those groups of people.

There’s a broad range of different organizations we’re working with both geographically and in terms of the work that they do. So, about 20 or maybe 21 now, organizations across the country, and they do all kinds of different work. Some of them do economic justice work with workers and getting access to employment for formerly incarcerated people; some of them do gender justice work – working to keep families together; and some of them do criminal justice reform work or provide direct services to formerly incarcerated and currently incarcerated people, and what these organizations share is that, in their work they’re noticing that mass incarceration is having a huge impact on their membership bases and on the communities that they work with.

Ella Baker Center is a national partner and a local partner, so we’re doing all the same research that all the other organizations are doing, and right now we’re just getting into the research – doing the focus groups, preparing partners to do the focus groups next month and then launching into the surveys in the summer.

JS: You said that part of the purpose of the project is to have a stronger measurement of the effects imprisonment has on families or communities. Do you have ideas of what those effects are?

AZ: That’s what we’re trying to figure out in the surveys, so a lot of it is asking – in the surveys and the focus groups: How is the family impacted by court fees that had to be paid, or how was the cost of phone calls and visits prohibitive, and what kinds of decisions did the families have to make?

This report is building off of a report that was done by Justice for Families when Zach [Norris] was the director there. Out of that report they found data points like, one out of three families of youth who were involved in the criminal justice system had to make decisions between supporting their youth or paying for basic necessities, and one out of 5 families had to take out a loan to support their youth in the system. We’re hoping to get data like that – hard data – on how incarceration has impacted families, and also asking those same people, if we’re moving resources away from prisons and punishment-based systems, what do we need to invest in to help communities and families strive? So, both figuring out what the impact is and figuring out what solutions we can recommend that can move resources away from prisons and toward communities.

JS: Working in support of prisoners and community-oriented and community-driven ways is not new for you. Can you talk about some specific experiences but also how experiences for you in the past have led you into this work?

AZ: I became interested in doing this work because of my family’s experiences with incarceration and seeing how different family members being incarcerated had an impact on our whole family and our whole community. I was always really interested in what happens to people when they go to prison and then what happens to their families when that person is removed, and then the whole process of the person coming home and dealing with the effects of that and the healing that has to happen, so I really wanted to position myself to be able to work full time on helping families that are impacted by incarceration.

I did that the last couple years by supporting the prisoner-initiated Human Rights Movement in California that was aiming to end solitary confinement, and a lot of what we did with that was not only to support the people in solitary confinement but also to try to help support their families and support them in ways that increased their capacity to advocate on behalf of their loved ones and work together to create the changes that we wanted to see. I’m still continuing that work – more behind the scenes trying to do fundraising for California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement (CFASC) and staying involved in the legislative angle. But I’m really excited to be able to build on the experiences that I’ve had working with families in California, more to a nationwide project. 

Jesse Strauss is an organizer and musician. Born and raised in Oakland, he has studied global decolonization struggles, social and economic development in Latin America and reported for Al Jazeera in Qatar. Now back home, he makes music, fights the prison industrial complex as a member of Critical Resistance and nurses a coffee addiction and an incessant sweet tooth.