When Marlene Sanchez was five years old, her father was swept up by the criminal justice system. Police raided her home and arrested him for drugs. He spent the next 25 years in prison. Sanchez also lost her mother to deportation. Soon, the young Sanchez took to the streets and was labeled as a gang member destined for a life of drugs and crime. But one day, while sitting on a crate on the streets of San Francisco’s Mission District, an 11-year-old Sanchez was approached by some outreach workers. They handed her a job application and she started working at the Young Women’s Freedom Center. Today, she is the first woman of color to become the Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.
Born and raised in San Francisco, Sanchez has been serving her community for over two decades. She co-founded and created the organization All of Us or None. She also created the Alliance for Girls and she is on the board of directors for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. Sanchez has worked for Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice. She also served as the director of the Young Women’s Freedom Movement. The mother, organizer, and formerly incarcerated leader is now determined to help build power and leadership among others who are directly impacted by the criminal justice system.
Sanchez has always been under surveillance by the system, whether through welfare, housing or the school-to-prison pipeline. When she was 11 years old she got into a fight in school and was arrested. She wasn’t tall enough to be fingerprinted and had to stand on a stool. Sitting in juvenile detention facilities, she saw nothing but young women of color. She was also shocked when she found out her father was only making 30 cents an hour in prison. She became politicized while watching pregnant women of color being forced to give birth while shackled and then having their babies stripped away from them. Sanchez and other women inside organized to get anti-shackling legislation passed. At 15 years old Sanchez got certified as a pre-exposed HIV counselor and harm reduction practitioner.
Her most memorable moment was when she was 16 years old and weighed no more than 80 pounds. Sanchez said that she got beaten up by three San Francisco police officers. She was so badly beaten that co-workers, friends and the entire community organized a protest at the police station to hold the officers accountable. Seeing her community spring to action around her, she knew that she would always aspire to serve that same community.
At 19, she spoke at the first Critical Resistance Conference at UC Berkeley. She helped facilitate truces in L.A. and Chicago and did truth and reconciliation work with people actively involved in gangs. She and other organizers came together to work with people doing peace work. That’s when she met Angela Davis and other political prisoners on the inside who called in to be part of the conference.
Sanchez believes that dismantling the prison industrial complex is one of the biggest issues of our time. What drives her is what’s possible when you build power. The number of incarcerated people of color helps keep her accountable to lead the young people in her community in a better direction. Sanchez wants to leave a better world for her children and grandchildren. She perceives the top priorities to be self-sufficiency, resources for families to thrive, and less spending on incarceration. She also cares about youth justice, early intervention; de-carceration, decriminalization and making sure people don’t get ridiculously long prison sentences.
Her goal as executive director of the Ella Baker Center is to continue to build power among currently and formerly incarcerated people. She wants to focus on building up their leadership and help them invest in their self-determination. She believes that real dollars and resources can be used for people to do social justice work. Sanchez is committed to healing communities and to creating leadership that is driven by people of color. Sanchez said that the process of building community has brought her healing and sisterhood. But, as an organizer, she also believes you must always look at who’s missing in the movement. She believes sharing stories and experiences can help create common ground and bring people together to bring about change.