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These Modern-Day Harriet Tubmans Are Leading People to Freedom

Crystal D. Crawford

"Oh, freedom, Oh, freedom,
Oh, freedom over me,
And before I'll be a slave,
I'll be buried in my grave,
And go home to my Lord and be free."

"Oh, Freedom" is a post-Civil War African-American freedom song associated with the Civil Rights Movement. I learned this song as a first grader at P.S. 200 in Harlem in the early 1970s, and it has become an important part of my life soundtrack (along with many other freedom songs I learned as a child). These songs often run through my mind and encourage me as I think about our past and ongoing struggles for liberation. As I sat in the theater watching the riveting and inspiring film "Harriet," the song "Oh Freedom" was continually replaying in my soul and spirit.

The long journey that resulted in the film "Harriet" finally arriving on the big screen is a racial and gender equity victory. It reflects the ongoing shift in the movie business toward people of color and women-led content and diversity behind and in front of the camera.

Harriet Tubman was an essential figure in the abolition of slavery in the United States. She was influential in the rescue of hundreds of people from slavery, guiding them through the Underground Railroad (a network of safe houses and advocates). During approximately 19 trips to the south, Tubman rescued more than 300 enslaved African-Americans. She also served in the Army as a cook, nurse, scout, and spy during the American Civil War. Later in her life, Tubman was a woman's suffrage activist.

Cal Wellness' Women's Initiatives are supporting the work of organizations—modern-day Harriet Tubmans—that have committed their lives to the fight for justice and freedom. And we believe strongly that access to health care is a human rights issue and everyone should enjoy health and wellness. We know that health and wealth are inextricably intertwined. Our Re-entry and Employment Initiative is focused on helping formerly incarcerated women of color, especially Black and Latinx women, achieve health through financial well-being. This means funding organizations working on addressing gender inequity as well as three demonstration projects focused on helping women of color develop job skills, find work, sustain careers and build financial assets.

Susan Burton believes that real change can happen only through a powerful grassroots community organizing effort, one that could amass enough political power to bring an end to discriminatory practices, and shift public attitudes in a way that would break the cycle of mass incarceration.

As one example of those carrying on Harriet’s legacy, our grantee Susan Burton, a formerly incarcerated woman and founder of A New Way of Life Reentry Project, is a nationally recognized leader who began in the 1990s helping other women leaving prison by providing them with shelter and helping them turn their lives around and find jobs. In her foreword to Susan's memoir, "Becoming Ms. Burton," acclaimed author and legal scholar Michelle Alexander describes a courageous woman with deep brown skin who "freed people from bondage and ushered them to safety," changing their lives "forever by her heroism." "Some people know this woman by the name Harriet Tubman," Alexander writes, "I know her as Susan." Cal Wellness has partnered with A New Way of Life on employment and asset-building work. In addition, the organization has begun a national movement called SAFE Housing Network, where women are provided with safe homes to live in after incarceration. With this work providing safe spaces to so many women of color, the parallel to the Underground Railroad is palpable.

Kim Carter and her nonprofit, the Time for Change Foundation, help homeless women reclaim their lives. The group provides housing, counseling and job training, as well as services to help women reunite with their children.

There are other freedom fighters who carry on the legacy of Harriet Tubman as well. The Time for Change Foundation, led by Kim Carter, expanded its nationally-recognized work in the Inland Empire to the Bay Area in 2019. The organization focuses on giving formerly incarcerated women and their children safe housing and helping them establish self-sufficiency. Kim said they began to hear from residents in their Southern California program that “our sisters in the Bay Area needed our help,” and she began to work to establish a presence up north as well. Seeing organizations like this provide this help—and hope—through their programs has made me realize how many true “modern-day Harriets” we have in our midst.

Root and Rebound is another example of an organization carrying on the spirit and legacy of Harriet Tubman. Founded by a visionary young lawyer Katherine Katcher, the organization focuses on re-entry advocacy and equips formerly incarcerated individuals with tools connecting them with employment, housing, education, and more. Recently, they built upon the model they implemented in California and in other parts of the country by expanding their work to South Carolina. To learn directly about how formerly incarcerated people have been positively affected by Root and Rebound’s work, watch this powerful video.

Cal Wellness' Women's Initiatives continue to give voice to women of color. We must continue to work collectively with our grantees and allies across California and the nation to effectively move forward the social justice work to which we are committed. In these challenging times, we must gain inspiration and strength for our own journey by reflecting on the journey and struggles of our "great cloud of witnesses"—the ancestors who are counting on us to run our leg of the race in the civil rights and social justice movement.

Crystal Crawford image
Executive Director, Western Center on Law and Poverty Crystal D. Crawford

Crystal D. Crawford previously managed Cal Wellness grantmaking related to diversity in the health professions; women of color at risk for, or living with, HIV, AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections; and employment for women who have been incarcerated. She is now executive director of Western Center on Law and Poverty.

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