Gina Clayton visits a class

2017: Gina L. Clayton

The winner of the 2017 Grinnell College Innovator for Social Justice Prize is Gina L. Clayton, an attorney, activist and advocate for women, who founded and serves as executive director of the Essie Justice Group.

Clayton grew up in Los Angeles and became a youth organizer for the NAACP while earning her bachelor's degree in American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. Under her leadership, the chapter grew into the largest in the  nine-state western region, and campaigned for better campus policing, increased voter registration and reforms in California sentencing laws. These successes led to her election to the NAACP National Board of Directors.

She went on to Harvard Law School, where she interned or studied under some of the nation's most respected criminal justice reform organizations and leaders. She also was editor-in-chief of the Harvard Civil Rights - Civil Liberties Law Review, social justice chair of the Harvard Black Law Students Association and a student attorney at the Harvard Criminal Justice Institute.

After graduating from Harvard Law School in 2010, she went to New York City and joined the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem as a housing attorney. She designed and implemented the Housing Defense Practice to represent women who were facing eviction as the result of a criminal matter.

This work inspired Clayton to further study and call attention to the harmful impact of mass incarceration on women with loved ones living behind bars. This is a major issue because one in four women and nearly one in two black women has a family member in prison.

In 2014 Clayton won a Soros Justice Fellowship, an Echoing Green Global Fellowship, and a Harvard Public Service Venture Fund Seed Grant, which she used to found and support the nonprofit Essie Justice Group (named after her great grandmother, Essie Baily).

The Essie Justice Group's mission is to support and mobilize women with incarcerated loved ones to fight for criminal-justice reform. The California-based organization developed a nine-week Healing to Advocacy program built on the belief that those directly impacted by oppressive systems are the most effective change agents.

So far, approximately 50 women with incarcerated loved ones have graduated and been invited into the "Essie sisterhood," which serves as the organization's mobilization base. This year, Essie is building a strong base of staff and organizational leaders into a statewide advocacy network dedicated to bringing about decriminalization, reduce incarceration and put an end to state-sponsored violence against women and communities of color.

"Solutions to mass incarceration have largely focused on men, and Gina was the first person to point out to us, and indeed to an entire criminal justice field the immense amount of need and potential that rested with the millions of women who have family members in prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers," wrote Cheryl L. Dorsey, president of Echoing Green, in a letter recommending Clayton for the Grinnell Prize.

"It was clear from the start," Dorsey added, "that not only was Gina visionary, she was an excellent strategist. Gina laid out an exciting and detailed plan to cut through the stigma that silenced these women, break isolation for them and their families, and engage them in anti-mass incarceration advocacy."

The Grinnell College Innovator for Social Justice Prize exemplifies the College’s mission and demonstrates our values and long-standing commitment to social responsibility and action, which dates back to the founding of the College by abolitionists. The College holds that knowledge is a good to be pursued both for its own sake and for the intellectual, moral, and physical well-being of individuals and of society at large. Grinnell graduates are, among other things, prepared in life and work to use their knowledge and their abilities to serve the common good.

The Grinnell Prize, which began in 2011 and awards prizes of $100,000 annually, is the largest award given by any U.S. college in recognition of social justice. Of each $100,000 prize given, $50,000 goes to the prizewinner, and the prizewinner's organization receives the other $50,000.

The public is invited to join the College community for the 2017 Grinnell Prize Award Ceremony at noon on Tuesday, Oct. 3, in room 101 of the Joe Rosenfield '25 Center.

For more information please contact Susan Sanning, director of service and social innovation.

Prize winner Gina Clayton on guest panel

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