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Interview with John Bonifaz, Expert on Democracy and Voting Rights

John Bonifaz is a lawyer who uses his knowledge of the US Constitution to make sure people can vote and that their vote counts. He has co-founded two organizations: Free Speech for People, where he serves as president, and the National Voting Rights Institute. He believes it hurts our democracy to have wealthy individuals and corporations influencing and distorting elections. In 1999, he received a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a “genius” grant, for his work on voting rights. (That’s the same award Lin Manuel Miranda received in 2015!)
You’ve founded two organizations focused on laws that relate to voting, the National Voting Rights Institute and Free Speech for People. Can you compare their areas of focus and approach?
I founded the National Voting Rights Institute in 1994 with the primary initial focus on challenging our nation’s campaign finance system as the newest barrier to our right to vote. Former Constitutional Law Professor Jamie Raskin – now Congressman Jamie Raskin of…
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Interview with Rinku Sen, Writer and Activist

Rinku Sen is a writer and activist best known for her work with racial justice organization Race Forward and its award-winning news site Colorlines. Under Sen’s leadership, Race Forward had many successes, including a campaign to get media outlets to “Drop the I-Word” and stop referring to immigrants as “illegal.” (The Associated Press, USA Today, and the LA Times all changed their practice.)  I interviewed Rinku to better understand her particular career path.
What were you like as a teen? Did you know you would grow up to be a community organizer, writer, and activist?
When I was in my early teens I had no politics, so I definitely didn’t think I’d grow up to be an organizer. That is, politics didn’t interest me much, although history did.
I loved books. I started keeping a journal on loose-leaf 3-ring paper when I was 13, and I did want to be a writer. I read fast so I must have taken in thousands of romances and mysteries before I went to college. Some time during high school, one o…

Modern-Day Slavery

Last fall I attended a conference organized by the San Francisco Collaborative Against Human Trafficking (SFCAHT). Human trafficking, often described as modern-day slavery, is a crime in which people are forced to do work or prostitute themselves for the benefit of the person who is victimizing them. Sometimes victims are manipulated and controlled through fear of violence, or, if they are immigrants, fear of deportation. Sometimes they are victimized because they owe a lot of money.

There were many wonderful speakers and panelists at the conference, including Nancy O’Malley, District Attorney for Alameda County; San Francisco City Supervisor Katy Tang; Ryan Spradlin, Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent in Charge; William Scott, San Francisco Police Chief, and many more. But the most moving presentation of all was from a former victim of trafficking and now advocate: Harold D’Souza.

Harold D’Souza and his family moved to the United States after obtaining what they thought…

SF City Supervisor Katy Tang on her Youth Council

San Francisco City Supervisor Katy Tang recently invited me to be a part of her Youth Council, so I asked if I might interview her for my blog. Ms. Tang represents District 4 and was gracious to answer my questions.

What inspired you to create the Youth Council? What do you hope it will achieve?

I was inspired to create the Youth Council because I met so many students who wanted to get involved in our community.  Through participation on the Youth Council, I hope that students will learn more about how the city operates and how city government works to address issues, such as housing, homelessness, public safety, and beyond. I hope that each participant will make new friends, continue to serve as a leader in our community, and inspire others to become active and engaged residents.

What kinds of projects or policies have SF youth spearheaded in the past?

Youth in San Francisco have worked on amazing initiatives in the past. Whether I have agreed with the policies or not, I have loved seein…

Honoring Journalists who Sacrificed their Lives

Every year, the third graders in my old elementary school perform in a Day of the Dead assembly that pays tribute to someone who has died in the past year. This year, they honored the many journalists who have been killed for daring to investigate facts others would prefer to hide. This year's theme was especially meaningful to my family since my grandmother was a Mexican journalist who spoke out against censorship. (Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries for journalists.)

I didn't get to attend today's performance, but here are some photos taken by my parents. (My younger brother got to perform this year.) The third grade Spanish-immersion teacher, Mr. Sierra, has been organizing these performances, which include dance, poetry, and music, for more than two decades! I’m glad he is teaching the children both about an honored tradition like Day of the Dead and the importance of a free (and protected) press. (A few years ago the performance honored the 43 students who …

Interview with Yukari Iwatani Kane: Volunteering at San Quentin

I recently wrote about criminal justice reform and James Forman Jr.’s book, Locking up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. When I attended his talk at a local bookstore, he shared some of the ways in which we could all support the cause. One of the examples he mentioned was volunteering to teach in a prison setting. Forman himself taught a class in a Connecticut prison and found it very rewarding.
Yukari Iwatani Kane is a book author and journalist who teaches writing and journalism at San Quentin. (She is the author of Haunted Empire: Apple After Steve Jobs and previously worked as a journalist at the Wall Street Journal and Reuters.)  Here’s what she has to say about her own experience teaching journalism and writing to inmates.
Are you interested in issues of criminal justice reform?
I really wasn't before. I read about them of course, but it was something that affected a part of society that I had no connection to. Now, I'm absolutely interested. When I hear of …

Criminal Justice Reform - "Locking Up Our Own"

When I came home from my arts-focused sleep away camp, I noticed a book on my mother's desk, "Locking Up Our Own" by James Forman Jr. My Dad saw me pick it up and told me the author would be speaking at a San Francisco bookshop the following week. I had read the book "Monster" by Walter Dean Myers in English class and visited the San Francisco Public Defenders office with the Youth Policy Camp, so I decided to go.

The last time I attended a bookstore for an author event was to see a picture book writer read to children. This was much different.

Forman, a well-respected Yale Law professor and former public defender, discussed policies from the '70s and '80s that were aimed at addressing rising crime rates, but resulted in the mass incarceration of blacks. Forman explained that many of the African-American officials taking office after the Civil Rights movement were the ones who lobbied for measures against drug-dealing and gun violence at the request of …