Amber Evans: Activism through criminal justice reform

Erica Thompson

Before Black Lives Matter, there was Occupy Wall Street, another social media-driven protest movement that invigorated young people. During that time in 2011, Amber Evans was a journalism student at Ohio State.

"A lot of us were … just so inspired by the amount of community people coming together and the whole romanticized notion of 99 percent versus 1 percent," Evans said. "So we were trying to think of how to replicate that on OSU's campus around issues of higher education."

Evans organized around student tuition costs and student debt, but it was her involvement in a cause outside of higher education that had a profound effect on her approach to serving the community.

She worked on the No School Takeover campaign, which advocated against a proposed amendment to the state budget that would have allowed the mayor to appoint an "academic distress" commission to school districts meeting certain criteria.

"I think that was my first exposure to actually seeing truly affected people," Evans said. "Seeing … people who are advocating on why they believe that they should have a right to vote … [and] people who were coming from these at-risk Columbus city schools was a game-changer for me in terms of thinking that we're missing a big group of people when just focusing on the higher-education campus."

In fact, Evans saw herself in those people. The oldest of eight, she grew up in a low-income family on the North Side.

"I took a step back from organizing shortly after that and just tried to think about ways that I can be a part of reaching our at-risk communities," she said. "So I went to grad school for library sciences just in thinking about what my safe haven was growing up, which was the … Karl [Road] Library."

Today, Evans works directly with low-income communities and people of color through the Peoples Justice Project (PJP), which focuses on mass incarceration and criminal justice reform.

"A lot of what we're experiencing now in 2016 is the aftereffects of people coming home after being locked up for so long during the 'war on drugs' and the Reagan Administration … and what it means to come from being labeled as a 'super-predator' during the Clintonian era into now trying to be a productive … member of society," Evans said.

Founded just one year ago, the organization is currently engaged in outreach via "community conversation" events with the formerly incarcerated or those who have an incarcerated or formerly incarcerated family member.

As a youth organizer with PJP, Evans works primarily with young people from kindergarten up to age 24 who are either in the criminal justice system or at risk - including children who are suspended or expelled, who are in workforce development programs instead of school and/or who are receiving direct services from agencies. The goal is to "provide different paths to power and leadership," according to Evans. The PJP encourages youths to become self-advocates through an understanding of policy and legislation, while supporting them through grassroots organizing.

Evans encourages young people to ask for help while realizing that they can also be self-sufficient. "You, as a human being, are extremely intelligent, extremely capable. You've just had a history of unfortunate events that have happened to you," she said. "But that doesn't mean that you're weak. And that doesn't mean that you've lost the legs beneath you."