In her role, Emily oversees state and local campaigns, develops membership structures, and builds and coordinates relationships with other state organizations, community leaders, allies and key local and state officials.
Q: How long have you been with the Ella Baker Center (EBC)
A: Five and a half years.
Q: What has your work looked like over the past few months during the pandemic?
A: The Center has been part of an effort with organizations across the state trying to respond to COVID. The only thing that is safe to do is to reduce the population in prison. EBC has been working on commutations. We’ve been continuing to push for additional commutations. And working to push for the releases of people who are medically vulnerable or elderly. The administration said that they were planning to release folks, but ultimately, that process has resulted in very few releases, which we’re really frustrated about. Ella Baker Center has a legislative platform. We were able to help get elder parole expanded so that people who are 50 and have served 20 years are eligible now for an elder parole hearing. And so that also feels kind of in response to COVID.
We’ve been trying to do a lot of work within the Stop San Quentin Outbreak Coalition to support people in reentry, trying to raise money for reentry organizations, trying to really make sure that our folks are coming home and have what they need, and help the governor, the administration, our legislators and the community understand that people love people in prison and are ready to support their integration back into the community. I think there’s always that fear of release. You know, there’s like the fear-mongering has made it so that people get really worried about releasing people, and we want to push back on that narrative.
Q: You mentioned your involvement with the Stop San Quentin Outbreak Coalition, and I was curious if you could talk a little bit more about what that looks like on your end.
A: We as an organization have had a lot of relationships with people who’ve done time in San Quentin. We also have a lot of relationships with families who have loved ones in San Quentin. We knew if COVID got into the prisons, it was going to be a nightmare. And we knew that, if it got into San Quentin, shit would hit the fan—knowing that place and how small the cells are, and how bad the ventilation is. People love being there because of the programming, not because the living conditions are subpar. So we had a town hall meeting. We had some organizing meetings, and then it became this broad coalition of groups. We’ve been meeting weekly ever since, trying to be as responsive as we can to the various strategies that could make it possible to reduce the prison population.
We’ve been trying to help people understand how they can become part of the class action suit. And how to navigate the court, and what’s happening in the hearing. And we’ve been trying to do a communication strategy to be responsive to the media when they have questions about what’s happening. And making sure that legislators are informed. Also trying to make sure that people inside’s feedback and needs and demands are being integrated.
We had a group of people who have loved ones on death row. Those are folks that are very unlikely to have something like a mass release effort impact their loved ones, but those people on death row are the ones that are dying the fastest. And so we want to make sure that any reduction in the prison population would also result in a change of the conditions that those folks are living in. So, you know, just trying to be thoughtful in those ways.
Q: What’s your vision for the Ella Baker Center?
A: We need to be investing in what we know works— that is not cops and prisons. My department is the policy department. A viable solution for harm in our world—is for people to meet folks who are in prison. To meet the people I know, the people that I love, that I care about, that I organize with. It’s about getting those people free, so they can speak for themselves and be out here in the world. Because I think when a legislator meets James King, so much more becomes possible, than if they meet me in terms of what they believe is possible about people who are inside and why we need to change what we’re doing. That’s one. Two, I want to use and leverage my power as a person who has a lot of educational privilege, has a lot of access, and navigate the system.
I don’t think we can fix prisons, I do think we can temporarily do some things that are going to help keep people alive until we get them out. Whether that’s like preventing more people from going in. We need health care, housing, schools— all of those have suffered because our investment has been in militarized policing, surveillance, imprisonment. All of the money that we spent is ridiculous during COVID. We didn’t have enough PPE for doctors. And yet we have plenty of money for like, the zillions of armed cops in the street to respond to the protests of the cops killing people. That cost money. That’s money we chose to spend there and not on our people, and not to take care of them not to give health care. As we reduce the number of people who are locked up, we move those resources. We snatch our people back and we snatch our money back.
Q: How can people inside support what you’re doing at the Ella Baker Center?
A: This amazing thing happened. We got a $500 check from Norco, which was from food sales. And I cried. I know how much work went in that from people inside to financially support our work. That is a big deal. That’s like a million-dollar grant from a foundation to me. I wouldn’t say that fundraising from the inside is the most important. But I just want to acknowledge that those things are incredible.
We get so much mail— people can write to us. But actually, what I need people
We get so much mail— people can write to us. But actually, what I need people inside to do is if we send them something useful, share it. Share it with the person in their cell, share it with the people in their dorm or on their tier. I think our approach is about wanting to get people the information that they need to be able to organize for themselves because we can’t do it for everybody. And so part of it is wanting to build a culture in prisons, where people are supporting each other. So when we work on making up handbooks or things that help people navigate the system, and people take that and then they’re like, ‘I wrote petitions for, you know, 50 other guys,’ —do that! Support each other, help each other get free. The more people we get free, the more people we can get free. Sometimes there’s like a scarcity thing. Like, if he gets out, I won’t get out. And that’s actually not true. If he gets out, you’re more likely to get out. And so I think that’s part of it, not letting the prison culture of scarcity get in our way of supporting each other’s freedom and having the information that we need to get free.
We want everyone to know what’s going on, what bills we’re working on. It’s really helpful if people inside are like, hey, they’re still charging us copays, or, oh, that went into effect, here’s what we’re seeing. The realities, there’s one conversation happening in Sacramento, and then there’s another conversation happening in every prison. And so I want to know what those are so that I can have concrete examples, I can use those to push the agenda forward.
Ella Baker’s Legacy and Honors • In 1984, Baker received a Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women. • Her papers are held by the New York Public Library. • In 1994, Baker was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. • In 1996, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a non-profit strategy and action center based in Oakland, California, was founded and named for her. • The Ella Baker School in the Julia Richman Education Complex in New York City (founded 1996) • In 2003, The Ella Jo Baker Intentional Community Cooperative, a 15-unit cohousing community, began living together in a renovated house in Washington, DC. • Ella J. Baker House, a community center which supports at-risk youth in Dorchester, Boston, was created at some point before 2005. • In 2009, Baker was honored on a U.S. postage stamp. • In 2014, the University of California at Santa Barbara established a visiting professorship to honor Baker.