Campaigning for Books Not Bars—#Roots2Liberation

This post is part of our #Roots2Liberation blog series highlighting our history and our vision for the future, leading up to our celebration of our 20th anniversary on Thursday, September 8th in downtown Oakland. 

LaNita Mitchell, one of the Ella Baker Center’s board members, was a core member of Families for Books Not Bars, California’s first advocacy network for families of incarcerated youth. Families for Books Not Bars supported the Ella Baker Center’s Books Not Bars campaign, the goal of which was to close California’s abusive youth prisons. The campaign ultimately closed 5 of the state’s 8 youth prisons.

Since her involvement in Books Not Bars, LaNita began Mothers of Many Sons (MOMS), a support group based in Paramount, California, which serves parents and young people as they go through the traumatic ordeal of arrest and incarceration, and helps them feel less alone in the process.

Read our interview with LaNita about her participation in Books Not Bars, and her longstanding support of the Ella Baker Center:

How did you get involved with the Ella Baker Center?

My son was arrested in 2000 and I was devastated. He was originally sentenced to 22 years in prison, but it was cut back to 17. I felt like I didn’t know anything and I was trying to find help. I was flipping through a magazine article and it mentioned the Ella Baker Center and Books Not Bars. I contacted you guys and found out that you were up in the Bay Area, but would be having a meeting in LA soon. I called my friend so that we could go to the meeting together because her son was in youth prison.  After attending one of the meetings, I just kept coming back because I was finally around people that understood me.

Can you explain more about what Families for Books Not Bars was?

It’s really just a meeting with families to gain a deeper insight on other families’ concerns. I learned so much about the criminal justice system, like the systematic long sentencing that they were giving to people.  I saw how they can switch up and fabricate everyday situations like gang involvement and using a twist on words to prosecute young people, and that made me want to fight harder. Families for Books Not Bars helped me to heal by getting involved and getting information.

What was a typical meeting like?

Sometimes we met in person, but there were many times that we had phone call meetings. We would talk on the phone and the person running the meeting would give an agenda, they’d tell us what they [Ella Baker Center] were working on, ask our opinions, and a list of things that we can help with. We learned about how to become an activist and how to approach other families like us.  It was always fun and educational. It was a place where we felt uplifted and a part of what was going on.

What drew you to the Ella Baker Center?

No matter who left or who came on board I never doubted their sincerity and dedication to helping families; every person I have met through the Ella Baker Center has been genuine. I cannot expressed how that made me feel. I felt like my son had been done wrong by the system so it felt good to be a part of something that was taking a stab at them. The most remarkable aspect was the fact that many of the people working for EBC did not have a direct relationship with the cause. They had no family members in prison, but they were all equally as passionate. To see them cry with us when we cried, that was remarkable. They were so sincere.

How has the Ella Baker Center supported you and other families?

They’ve always been a positive light for families, I’ve seen them work hard to help families, and they’ve helped me.   After only a few LA meetings, my friend suddenly passed away, leaving her son who was in youth prison.  I knew that she was the only person in his family that would go visit him. I wanted to start visiting him because when you’re in there you need someone to still be there for you.  Since I was not family, I was told that I could not go to visit him, but when I shared my problem with the Ella Baker Center they helped me out. Zach found a way to set up visiting for me to visit her son.  Later they moved him to another location and I was back at square one with no authority to visit him.  Jennifer helped me this time to continue my visiting with him.  They helped me tremendously with helping this kid and now he’s out and he is kind of like family.  I call him my godson. It’s just been a lot of years I can’t really say all that they have done.

Do you think you have been able to have an impact on other families?

Definitely because as I was growing and learning for myself over the years I was also included in so many events where I networked with people from all over. I would also go out in front of youth prisons with Jennifer to try to sign families up for Books Not Bars and they were always very receptive.

Help us celebrate our wins and look ahead to our liberated futures—buy your ticket for our anniversary event today!