Sanchez becomes organization’s first woman of color executive director

January 31, 2022

Press Contacts:

Ashley Chambers, Ella Baker Center,

Bilen Mesfin Packwood, Change Consulting,

(Oakland, CA)–The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights is proud to announce today that current deputy director and long-time movement leader Marlene Sanchez will become the organization’s new executive director. Sanchez is the Ella Baker Center’s first woman of color executive director.

“We are proud to elevate Marlene as the new executive director of the Ella Baker Center,” said Phillip Sanders, board chair for the organization. “Marlene exemplifies the values and qualities we need in our next leader: A visionary who inspires. An unwavering advocate for racial and economic justice. And an authentic steward for the people we fight for every day. We are certain she will guide us into a new era where many more of our incarcerated and formerly incarcerated loved ones will be welcomed and successful in their reentry journey, and where the systems of mass incarceration can be dismantled.”

In addition to her lived experience as a formerly incarcerated person, Sanchez brings more than 20 years of professional experience organizing people inside and outside throughout California and across the country. She previously served in leadership and executive leadership positions at the Young Women’s Freedom Center, Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, and Alliance for Girls, an organization she co-founded. Sanchez takes the helm from Zach Norris, who ends a 20-year tenure with the organization.

“I am honored to follow in Zach’s footsteps and create new pathways to lead the Ella Baker Center as a woman of color,” said Sanchez. “I’ve spent the entirety of my life organizing young people and building power with formerly incarcerated leaders to dismantle systems of oppression. In this new role, I am committed to continue nurturing a radical vision for political, economic, racial and restorative justice, centering the leadership of the most impacted and organizing local communities to realize that vision.”

Throughout its 25-year history, the Ella Baker Center has led the truth and reinvestment movement, which organizes communities to shift large public investments from systems that have historically harmed Black, Brown, and people with low incomes to resources that help them thrive. Its wins include the Books Not Bars campaign, which closed five of California’s eight youth prisons in the early 2000s; the “Jobs Not Jails” campaign, which secured millions of dollars for reentry programs and services in Alameda County in 2015; and Restore Oakland, a first-of-its-kind community advocacy and training center that opened its doors in 2019 as dedicated space for restorative and economic justice programs.

“I am excited to welcome and congratulate Marlene to lead the Ella Baker Center as Executive Director in this moment of radical social change,” said Zach Norris, who has served as the organization’s Executive Director for the past eight years. “Her experience as an organizer and her intentional leadership is invaluable to this work. As Ella herself believed, we must build leaders and give space to uplift those most impacted. I am confident that Marlene will continue to cultivate the leadership of this team and carry the legacy of Ella Baker forward.”

Sanchez joined the Ella Baker Center as deputy director in 2020. She will assume the executive director role on Feb. 18, 2022. Norris will transition out of his current role one week thereafter.

“I can’t think of a better person than Marlene Sanchez to now carry on the legacy of Ella Baker,” said Lateefah Simon, President of Akonadi Foundation. “Marlene is a grounded, visionary and pioneering leader who intimately understands the local and state organizing and policy landscape. Our communities and the whole state will benefit from her leadership. I can’t wait to continue working alongside her in this new role.”