By Emily Cunningham

A Sisterhood for Social Justice: A Conversation with Gina Clayton of Essie Justice Group  

This #GivingTuesday, we're giving back to Essie Justice Group, an organization committed to ending mass incarceration by harnessing the collective power of women with incarcerated loved ones. Now through the end of December, use code ESSIE at checkout to receive free shipping and 10% off your purchase, and 25% of your total purchase will go directly to Essie's programs. We sat down with Essie's founder Gina to learn more about their work: 

Tell us about your background and why you do the work you do 

In my first year at law school, a loved one was sentenced to 20 years in prison. I began to turn all of my attention to what was happening in the US around the criminal justice system. Currently, there are 2.3 million people incarcerated in the US - a 500% increase in prison population over the past 40 years, not attributed to an increase in crime, but rather to political decisions that have made it easier to be sentenced to a jail cell than to receive treatment or support from doctors, teachers, and community. We have entered into a punitive, nonsensical system - an age of mass incarceration. Today, the US incarcerates more of its residents than any other country in the world. This system disproportionately affects women and people of color. One in two black women has a family member in prison, and one in four women has a family member in prison. These statistics should shock and trouble us. My work stems from my personal experience, an understanding of the greater context, and my time as a community organizer and attorney for low income women in Harlem. Through my work, I’ve seen not just a need in this population, but the incredible power that women have to disrupt and reform broken systems. 


Tell us about Essie - how is your model unique?  

Essie harnesses the collective power of women with incarcerated loved ones, building a loving and powerful community of women that have family members behind bars, and creating strong network - a sisterhood for social justice if you will, to end mass incarceration. We have developed a nine week healing-to-advocacy model, a program that focuses on three pillars: advocating for self, advocating for family, and advocating for community. We solve for isolation. Because of the stigma of having an incarcerated loved one, women are taking on the responsibilities of child care, the massive expenses of prison visits, phone calls, court fees, lawyer fees, and bail agent fees, not to mention the emotional and psychological trauma of stigma - the judgement and blame that society and community put on women in these populations. We break that isolation by creating sisterhood through our nine week process, deeply rooted in values of love, hope, belief and understanding. We’re now in our 5th cohort cycle. The graduates of our program go on to become change agents, running new groups to connect and empower Essie sisters, and leading the charge for local and national legislation to reform the criminal justice system. We’ll soon be launching a campaign to reform the predatory and destructive bail system. We are rooted in healing autonomy, self determination, and power for marginalized communities, particularly women.


Any funny stories to share from your early startup days? 

For as long as I can remember, I was going to be a teacher when i graduated college, and given that I was passionate about the inequality that I’d been seeing, I wanted to do civil rights education reform. I built a program to get middle school kids on a college track, but eventually shifted gears because…kids are hard! After spending so much time and energy building a program for kids, I thought, man…I’m going to do something for adults! Now, at Essie here I am, after feeling like I needed a break from the constant energy of children, around more kids than I ever thought possible! Each woman brings a couple of kids to every Essie meeting, and they are as amazing as they are energetic and loud! 

It’s funny, because as entrepreneur, you think you’re doing one thing but constantly find yourself in a place you didn't expect. While I never expected to have a program so reliant on having the capacity to hold impromptu birthday parties and have bubbles on hand…all these other things now in our budget, it’s a pretty incredible thing…funny, but also delightful! 


What are some concrete actions our readers can take to get involved with Essie and further your cause? 

1. Spread the word - Share one of our videos online with friends and family! We're on a mission to break isolation and invisibility, and since one in four women has incarcerated loved one, chances are you know quite a few! Share your support for this community and help us break the silence.

2. Donate - We're always looking for for support from donors. If you can, this Giving Tuesday, give just a little bit to an organization that will use every single penny to provide child care, transportation and meals, and sisterhood to women working multiple jobs, raising kids, and working to overcome the failed criminal justice system