Families visit Change.org to Support Clemency
Last week, Change.org hosted a discussion in our Washington D.C. office about clemency for nonviolent drug offenders and how hundreds of families are using our platform to tell their stories. It was an inspiring talk that included clemency recipients Sharanda Jones, Jason Hernandez, and Amy Povah, as well as Ebony Underwood, a Change.org petition starter whose father has been incarcerated for nearly 30 years. I moderated the discussion along with Brittany Byrd, an attorney and the director of #cut50’s #ClemencyNOW campaign.
It was really a privilege for me to be part of this event. I joined Change.org five years ago to help make criminal justice reform a popular issue on the platform and I’m proud to say that today over 17 million people in the U.S. have signed criminal justice reform petitions and over 3 million of them have signed clemency petitions, making it one of the most popular issues on our platform.
Having an incarcerated family member carries a stigma that for decades has prevented children and parents from telling their stories and finding support. And while that stigma still exists, public opinion has shifted and social media platforms like Change.org, Instagram, and Facebook have allowed families to share their stories and connect with millions of people. It was wonderful to have these voices in our office discussing how our platform is allowing families to build support and use petitions to show how mandatory minimum sentences have impacted them.
Ebony Underwood knows what it’s like to grow up with a parent who is incarcerated. Her father William has been in prison for nearly 30 years of a life sentence and two years ago she launched a petition to ask President Obama to grant him clemency. Over 70,000 people have signed it. Ebony told her story and afterward spoke with and comforted audience members who have also grown up with a parent behind bars, like Lavithia Howard who was inspired to start her own petition for her mother.
Jason Hernandez brought a powerful perspective to the discussion. In 2013 he was the first Latino to be granted clemency by President Obama. Jason served 17 years for a first time nonviolent drug offense and even brought with him a printout of the signatures from the petition his brother started for him five years ago. Jason said something so powerful about his petition that I needed to share it:
“When you’re in prison so long, you start to believe what you hear from the guards and society, that your life is not worthy and that you don’t deserve a second chance. Change.org was one of the things that catalyzed me to believe that I do deserve a second chance, and don’t deserve to die in prison. People started signing the petition my brother started for me and even though it wasn’t a lot of signatures, to see former teachers and people from my community saying that they wanted me back made me feel human again. Even when I read those comments now I get teary eyed. It means so much to me.”
The discussion at Change.org was part of a two day advocacy push organized by #cut50 and CAN-DO Foundation. Before heading to our office, families and advocates went to the Department of Justice to deliver more than 2 million clemency signatures. And many families received travel assistance from the $10,000 that Change.org users crowdfunded to help them with the costs of traveling to Washington, D.C.
President Obama calls America a “Nation of Second Chances” and has now used the unique power provided to the president to grant more commutations than the last eleven presidents combined. But time is running out and families are worried that a Trump Administration will not continue this important work. That’s why the CAN-DO Foundation has launched a new petition encouraging President Obama to go bold on clemency before leaving office. You can sign their petition here.