People were always trying to push me into doing some kind of charity work when I first started my career. They said, “Look, this is the formula: you get into this, you sponsor this, and then this happens.” But my evolution on this is probably some combination of growing up, getting married, having kids, and my life being so different than what it was when I was starting out. Now, I feel like I have a duty to myself and to my children more than to the public. I want to be a good role model for my kids.
I’m raising four black kids in this society and our system is so discriminatory against black and brown people of color. I want to do as much as I can to make their lives easier and better. It’s really just that simple. I never knew much about the system until I started to dig in, and once I learned and saw how many things were wrong, I really couldn’t stop. Meeting Alice Johnson changed my whole world. One day I was on Twitter, and I saw that someone had posted a video that Alice made. Hearing for the first time that a nonviolent offender —with a low-level offense—received the same sentence as Charles Manson did not compute to me. I actually could not fathom it. I retweeted it and then sent it to my attorneys because I didn’t understand. I thought, “Did she not have good enough attorneys? Did she not have the funds? What is [the issue] and how can I help?” As I researched, I realized there are so many more thousands of people in her situation.
After meeting with my attorneys about Alice, we got really into the case and we were able to help. Alice is a mother of five and has siblings—it’s a huge family. I thought maybe Ivanka Trump would understand. Through Ivanka and her husband, Jared, I was able to connect with the President. When I made the decision to go to the White House, I was told that it would ruin my career. But that thought never occurred to me–my reputation over someone’s life? People talk shit all day long; I felt confident that I could handle a news story that would cycle for a day or a week, tops. But the chance to change someone’s life? Backing out was not an option for me. Once we had Alice’s file together, I went to Washington DC and put it in front of the President.
Immediately after Alice’s release, all of these letters started pouring in, and I saw firsthand how many more Alices are out there. I visited a women’s prison for the first time. [Film producer and prison-reform advocate] Scott Budnick took me, and we sat down with about 20 women, all of whom shared their stories. People don’t realize how similar a situation they could find themselves in. If they only knew these women’s backstories…I started to go to men’s prisons, and the same thing happened. They all really opened up to me, and I listened and was very honest about my own journey. I don’t really have a connection to anyone who has been behind bars, but I know a lot of people who do. It seemed like everywhere I turned there was another hurdle, another obstacle that wasn’t fair and needed change: whether it’s bail reform—innocent people can stay in jail for years just because they can’t afford bail—or the stigma carried by those who are not innocent. I met so many people who were 14 or 15 when they committed a crime because they felt they had no other options, and now that they’re in their 40s, they are completely different. These stories are so important, and my hope is that people will take the time to pay attention with an open mind.
Meeting so many people and hearing so many stories of injustice is what lead me to start my journey into law school, it felt like I couldn’t stop, I couldn’t sit there and not help people get a second chance. I am completely consumed by it. It’s fascinating to learn so much about the law side of it, but it can also be so overwhelming and discouraging at times. I work with the initiative #cut50, whose goal is to cut down incarceration in this country by 50 percent, and who are sponsoring me to study [for the California bar]. One of the attorneys involved was just in Mississippi lobbying the Governor about the awful prison conditions there, where people are getting murdered and can’t even speak to their families. All night we are sending each other cases and texting about each of them because it’s hard to sleep thinking about everything going on.
My dad warned me about this. He knew I loved snooping around in all of his cases. I would go through his evidence books and crime scene photos. He told me: “I know you’re really into this—you keep asking me so many questions and you want to sit in on my meetings to listen about what I’m doing—but it’s stressful because you’ll never be able to turn it off. I know how much you care, so if you want to have a normal life I wouldn’t go into this field.” He supported me no matter what, but he wanted me to know it never stops.
Now I live about three totally different lives! At home, I’m a wife and mom. When my family sees me studying, they know that I’ve got to get my work done, and they’re all super supportive. But then I’m at photo shoots, running my businesses, interning at the #cut50 offices, and filming my show. It’s so many different things at once. I think that if you really stay focused you can do it all, and I don’t ever plan on slowing down. I don’t want to! I love running my businesses and doing everything I’m doing, but I love this the most.
PHOTOGRAPHERS MERT ALAS & MARCUS PIGGOTT
FASHION CARINE ROITFELD
HAIR SHAY ASHUAL
MAKEUP ROKAEL LIZAMA
HAIR FOR CHER SERENA RADAELLI AT CLOUTIER REMIX
MAKEUP FOR CHER FRANCESCA TOLOT AT CLOUTIER REMIX
MANICURIST DIEM TRUONG
ENTERTAINMENT BOOKING SHELBY BEAMON
LOCAL PRODUCTION GE PROJECTS
PRODUCTION PALM PRODUCTIONS
SPECIAL THANKS MARJAN MALAKPOUR AT THE ONLY AGENCY
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