Every movement for justice and freedom has within it skillful organizers who, while often behind the scenes, are instrumental to movement-building. For instance, so much defining work of the Civil Rights Movement can be traced to organizers like Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin. This week, we recognize two organizers who, for nearly 20 years, have provided key strategic guidance and leadership in the movement for drug policy reform.
A Chicago transplant, Lorenzo was kicked out of JobCorps and experienced homelessness before developing an infamous reputation as a drug dealer. When the transactional relationships to the streets became less rewarding than the transformational relationships with people in the community, he changed course, becoming a highly trained Alinsky-style community organizer working to building people power in poor communities.
Robert was born, raised, and football-trained in Texas, and moved to Hartford to attend the University of Connecticut. When his student organizing work led him to conclude that the war on drugs had been at the root of many of his experiences with loss and pain, he committed his life to fighting for justice. He pursued both organizing work in the community and a graduate degree in social work.
The two met in 1997 and, linked by their shared experience as outsiders and their mutual commitment to ending the war on drugs, they set about to transform Connecticut.
Together they built and led human rights organizations and coalitions, including A Better Way Foundation (ABWF), Create Change, the Brothers’ Group and the Connecticut Alliance. They brought together residents from urban, suburban and rural communities, forming multiracial, cross-class, multi-gendered alliances to work together for change, including passing legislation to prevent overdose deaths, reduce prison overcrowding and, in 2005, end racially biased disparities in penalties for possession of crack and powder cocaine while securing millions for cocaine-related treatment – making Connecticut the first state to enact such reforms.
Lorenzo and Robert’s work– not just their victories, but the question of how they organized such vibrant campaigns -- soon garnered national interest.
In a shift to the national stage, Robert left Connecticut in 2005 to build reform campaigns at leading civil and human rights organizations. At the ACLU, his work included passing sentencing reform in Mississippi and stopping the selective drug law enforcement of immigrant store owners in Georgia. As the founding Criminal Justice Director of the NAACP, he guided the development of the organization’s campaign to end the drug war and mass incarceration. As organizing director for Californians for Safety and Justice, Robert led the organizing efforts in last year’s successful campaign to pass Proposition 47, building a remarkable multi-sector coalition led by victims of crime. By reducing low-level drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, Prop 47 has already decarcerated thousands and will dramatically reduce California’s prison population by tens of thousands more, making it among the biggest sentencing reform measures in U.S. history.
In Connecticut, Lorenzo led the growth and expansion of ABWF and the founding of its lobbying arm, Civic Trust Lobbying, racking up an impressive list of major legislative victories, including racial and ethnic impact statements, pardons and parole reform, medical marijuana, marijuana decriminalization, ban the box, and more. Earlier this month, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy publicly adopted the drug policy platform of ABWF, introducing a comprehensive sentencing reform package to eliminate mandatory sentencing for drug-related offenses and provide employment for people returning from prison. Lorenzo also stepped into national and international work, mentoring new leaders in every region of the country, providing strategic consulting services and advising a variety of stakeholders around the world – from community advocates and government officials in Europe and Latin America to governors, community block club leaders and organizers around the U.S., including this author and others at DPA.
In the years since Lorenzo and Robert teamed up, they’ve won major reforms, developed new leaders, and helped build a foundation that has led to explosive growth of the movement in the last ten years. Their work has transformed – and saved – lives.
This Black History Month, we recognize Lorenzo and Robert, and thank them for their vision and leadership which continues to undergird this movement for justice and human rights.
gabriel sayegh is managing director of policy and campaigns and directs the New York state office of the Drug Policy Alliance.
*Editor’s note: This post is a part of the Black History Month series from the Drug Policy Alliance. Learn about the theme and other honorees for 2015. See posts from the whole series, including past years, here.