I have worked for many years in the field of social work–I hold both a Master’s Degree and a Doctorate in Social Work—and have always been involved with my community in a supportive role. When I went to prison and started to hear other women’s stories I realized something had to change. I realized this wasn’t just me. When I came out of prison two years ago, I told myself, “I need to develop a program.” For the past few years, I have served as Executive Director for Lincoln Heights Outreach, Inc. in Lincoln Heights, a historic African American village outside of Cincinnati, assisting families by guiding them towards self-sufficiency through educational programming. I have also served with a pre-incarceration orientation and readiness program, and I’m on the threshold of founding a not-for-profit organization, Filling the Gap, that will address the gaps in services for formerly incarcerated women in my community. This work has been very rewarding, but I have also developed a passion for policy advocacy. When I came home my mindset was one thing, but now I understand so much more about intersecting systems of oppression. I know my voice needs to be heard and that I can bring my lived experience to the policy reform table. In March of this year, I assumed a new role as Policy Specialist with Operation Restoration.
Operation Restoration (OR) supports women and girls impacted by incarceration to recognize their full potential, restore their lives, and discover new possibilities. In my new position, I will be leading the organization’s Unlock Higher Ed Campaign focusing on policy efforts in the Midwest and at the federal level. Unlock Higher Ed is an effort to open higher education to people with criminal records by restoring Pell Grants in prison, banning the box on college applications, and removing question 23 from the federal student aid application (FAFSA) which asks about prior drug convictions—a remnant of the failed war on drugs. I know many people who have been denied admission to college because of their background or who have had to go through multiple layers of appeals to get accepted into a degree program. This kind of rank discrimination, which disproportionately impacts people of color, not only harms individuals but robs the community and society at large of their skills and talents.
I discovered my passion for policy advocacy when I worked with Ohio Organizing Collaborative for the passage of Issue 1 in Ohio, the Drug and Criminal Justice Policies Initiative, which was on the ballot in 2018. It would have reduced all drug possession and use charges to misdemeanors, reduced sentences for those who participate in rehabilitation, work or educational programs, and directed funds saved by a reduced incarcerated population towards drug treatment programs. Issue 1 didn’t pass, but it got the eyes and ears of the public and now we are working with sympathetic legislators to craft a bill that will achieve our goals. I serve on the Criminal Justice Reform Team and co-lead the Bail Reform Team. On March 5th, I mobilize individuals to participate in Day of Empathy. We met with state senators and their aides to lobby for criminal justice reform. Just having that experience, I understood the impact our voices can have and how necessary policy change is for our programs to be successful.
Leading with Conviction is awesome. There is so much content and useful information for me as a leader that I can take back to the people I’m engaging with. I’ve learned a lot about myself, my leadership style and how I engage with my employees and board. As I move into more community organizing, I know I will get the support I need from JLUSA and its amazing network of leaders.
Dr. Zaria Davis holds a Doctor of Social Work Degree from Capella University, a Masters in Social Work from University of Cincinnati, and BA in Sociology from Wilberforce University.
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