“It is important for us not to be operating in silos as communities of Color, but rather we must work together because our collective advocacy gets things done”
-Andrea McChristian, Law & Policy Director, NJISJ
Andrea tells us who she is, what she does and why…
I am the Law and Policy Director at the NJ Institute for Social Justice (NJISJ). NJISJ, based in Newark, New Jersey, uses cutting-edge racial and social justice advocacy to empower people of color by building reparative systems that create wealth, transform justice, and harness democratic power – from the ground up – in New Jersey.
I do this work for my ancestors who lost so much for me to be able to be here today. I do it for my current community because as a lawyer, I feel it incumbent upon me to use my expertise to support communities of Color. I do this work for my parents. They invested so much in order for me to have what I have.
Andrea on the importance of achieving policies that are rooted in racial and social justice…
As the most recent Census data shows, people of Color are 48% of New Jersey’s population (and probably more!). Our state cannot prioritize racial and social justice without recognizing we are home to some of the worst racial disparities in the country, such as mass incarceration, education, health outcomes, the racial wealth gap and more. Being that our population is so large, our voices must be heard. We are excited to work with NJAIJ on a number of issues, from redistricting to ending mass incarceration. It is important for us not to be operating in silos as communities of Color, but rather we must work together because our collective advocacy gets things done.
Andrea on what some of the Institute’s campaigns and recent successes are…
The Institute’s work focuses on three interconnected pillars: economic justice, democracy and justice, and criminal justice reform. Our aim is to topple the walls of structural inequity in New Jersey, specifically for communities of Color. Within our economic justice pillar, we recently were able to get a student loans data collection bill passed. The new law will allow for greater transparency in New Jersey to understand how much debt graduating students are accruing by race, ethnicity, gender, and first generation status. This is critical to our work to ensure debt-free college. We were also successful in introducing the first in the nation statewide Reparations Task Force bill, and continue to fervently advocate for this legislation as part of our #SaytheWordReparations campaign. The Institute is also about to release a racial wealth gap report, which will target the various factors that have led to New Jersey having one of the highest racial wealth gaps in the nation.
Within our criminal justice pillar, we have a major campaign called #150YearsisEnough, aimed at closing New Jersey’s three youth prisons. Through this campaign, we were able to get the closure announcement of two of New Jersey’s youth prisons, as well as ensuring that New Jersey became the first state in the nation to test all of its incarcerated youth for COVID-19. This secured the release of over 100 young people from state youth facilities. Most recently, the Institute also won the appropriation of $8.4M for the development of restorative justice hubs in four cities that are disproportionately impacted by youth incarceration. Our campaign is now hyper-focused on closing our state’s failing youth prisons once and for all.
With our Democracy and Justice pillar, our #1844NoMore campaign restored the right to vote to 83,000 New Jerseyans on probation or parole. Our advocacy also led to online voter registration, automatic voter registration, early voting in New Jersey, and limiting police presence at polling locations. We are currently involved in the redistricting process, as part of our #FairDistrictsNJ project, to ensure that racial equity is at the heart of the redistricting process. And we are working diligently with partners to ensure that same-day voter registration is passed into law this year.
We have a very busy body of work, and we are very excited to keep expanding it.
Andrea on what Black History Month means to her…
When I was in college, acting was my primary extracurricular activity. A number of racist incidents occurred on campus, and I felt that my specific grievances as a Black woman weren’t being addressed. In response, my friends and I decided to reactivate Yale’s NAACP, which had been dormant for about a decade. One of our first activities was centered around Black History Month, where we put facts all over campus about historical Black figures. For me, Black History Month is personal because it represents a shift in my life towards doing racial and social justice work.
Black History Month also provides an interesting moment after the racial reckoning of 2020. It was then that many people (for the first time) understood the depth of structural inequity. We may now see legislators using hashtags and talking about racial equity, but, at the same time, we see that they are not willing to invest in Black and Brown communities. So I reflect on Black History Month for personal reasons, but also see it as a rallying cry to address the persisting injustice that communities of Color face. We must expose that New Jersey has some of the worst racial disparities in the nation. We must expose that there is a lack of investment in communities of Color. We must expose that there is a long and horrific history that has led to the inequities we see today. That is what it truly means to honor Black history.
Andrea gives a piece of advice to people of Color interested in policy advocacy…
It frustrates me to enter a space and see nothing but white faces speaking about racial justice. It is critical to have allies, but the experts who are most needed in this work, and who have solutions grounded in lived experience, are people of Color. Sometimes people of Color may opt out of these spaces because they believe they don’t have the fancy degrees or sufficient system-knowledge to be present. But, people of Color are experts in their experience. It has nothing to do with a fancy degree or title, and everything to do with your expertise as an impacted person. I encourage community members to get involved. Know that you are the expert and have the power to get the work done. You don’t want people outside of your community telling you what you and your people need. You know what you and your people need.
Andrea shares what she is passionate about outside of work…
A lot of what I am passionate about is connected to my work. I am passionate about being a Black woman. I am passionate about social and racial justice. But outside of work, another passion I’ve recently rediscovered is acting. Right now, I am part of a community play. It is really exciting to have an outlet. As part of self care, it is important to make time for hobbies. There was a time when I questioned myself what my hobbies were, because work is such a large part of my life. But, as I continue to do this work, I am passionate about making sure I am a full person. The work of social change is not 9-5. It consumes a person, and it’s easy to burnout. You have to make sure you are taking care of yourself first to be the best steward of this work.
Visit NJISJ’s Action Center: Take Action (njisj.org)
Call on NJ to create a statewide reparations taskforce at 400yearsnj.org
Endorse Fair District NJ’s Unity Map sign-on letter to ensure racial equity is central to the legislative redistricting process
Urge President Biden to award Fred D. Gray, a lawyer of the Civil Rights Movement, with the Presidential Medal of Freedom: Petition · Give Mr. Fred D. Gray the Presidential Medal of Freedom! · Change.org
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