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marking a transition: lorenzo jones works to build a national movement for health, equity, and justice

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“I am the sum of all my experiences.” – El Hajj Malilk El-Shabazz (Malcolm X)

Earlier this month, Lorenzo Jones announced his transition out of A Better Way Foundation (ABWF) — a Hartford-based criminal justice and drug policy reform organization. After a decade as executive director, he left ABWF to start a new organization focused on building the national movement for health, equity, and justice.

For those of us in the drug policy and criminal justice reform world, this is big news, because over the last 25 years, Lorenzo has played an important leadership role not only in transforming criminal justice policies and drug policies in Connecticut, but also in shaping the development of a national grassroots, bottom-up movement to end mass incarceration and the war on drugs.

Lorenzo began his organizing career in 1991 in Hartford, Connecticut as a community organizer with the Asylum Hill Organizing Project. In 1994, he joined United Connecticut Action for Neighborhoods (UCAN), where Alta Lash and Jack Mimnaugh mentored him for nearly 15 years. He learned the science and art of community organizing by building campaigns led by community residents fighting for police accountability and public safety, expanding alternative to incarceration programs, securing resources for community development, and more.

His last major project at UCAN was the organizing of Create Change, an action group led primarily by people of color and people directly impacted by the failed war on drugs. Create Change was founded with the mission of using community organizing to build leaders and transform policies in Connecticut. Create Change built and launched new groups, working with people that had been marginalized, criminalized, and locked out of the mainstream economy. They took on fights nobody else would take up, like the effort in 2005 to end Connecticut’s racially biased disparities in crack/powder cocaine penalties. They won that fight, and Connecticut became the first state in the country that reformed its crack/powder cocaine penalties. Funders and local and national organizations alike told Jones and his team they could never win; when they did win, the national reform community practically didn’t believe it.

Lorenzo joined ABWF as executive director shortly after the crack/powder cocaine reform victory. He was determined to take on even bigger fights, and committed to developing new models and methods to end the war on drugs and mass incarceration. During his tenure, ABWF built campaigns that ran the spectrum of criminal justice and drug policy reform objectives, racking up dozens of victories large and small. A small sampling of these victories include: reforming Connecticut’s cannabis laws – including decriminalization of marijuana and passing a medical marijuana bill; establishing racial and ethnic impact statements for criminal justice legislation (CT was the second state in the nation to pass such a law); passing harm reduction and overdose prevention laws, including expanding naloxone access and access to clean syringes; banning the box in CT (beating a governor’s veto); ending mandatory minimums; and more. In 2011, they built and launched multiple community groups in CT – including a lobbying firm. LaResse Harvey, left her role as ABWF’s policy director to direct the new firm, providing lobbying support to local groups that had no budget for lobbying services.

ABWF became a national leader in criminal justice and drug policy reform, with a sought after organizing and strategy consultancy practice. They provided strategic planning, campaign support, and training to national organizations, foundations, and government agencies large and small. They supported state based groups in other states, and were even recruited to give presentations and trainings to international groups like the Pompidou Group of the Council of Europe. And last year, in an effort to train a new generation of community organizers in Connecticut, ABWF partnered with the Perrin Family Foundation to build and launch the innovative BLOC program — Building Leadership and Organizing Capacity.

The impact of ABWF’s work is clear: today, Connecticut is on the cutting edge of drug policy and criminal justice reform efforts nationwide, and Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy is garnering national attention for his criminal justice and drug policy reform agenda, which has been dramatically shaped and guided by ABWF’s leadership.

Under Lorenzo’s leadership, one of the things that made ABWF stand out was how they made their community-oriented organizing practice a fundamental part of their policy reform strategy. ABWF wasn’t only advocating in the state capital to change laws: they were sponsoring midget football teams, fighting to save public libraries, organizing father-son fishing trips, and more. These activities stand as an example of ABWF’s theory of change in action. Their impressive track record stands as a testament to the success of their approach.

Lorenzo now brings his organizing philosophy and approach to building and launching his new venture: the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice. As co-founder and co-director of Katal, Lorenzo is building a team dedicated to dismantling mass incarceration, ending the war on drugs, strengthening organizing and movement infrastructure, and advancing health, equity, and justice. I’m proud to be one of the founding members of Katal team, where I join Lorenzo as co-director.

Over the last 25 years, Lorenzo has built organizations, led and won campaigns, trained thousands of people, and has provided counsel and guidance to a countless number of leaders in the criminal justice and drug policy reform movement – including me. Yet we almost never see his name in the press. His leadership style is reminiscent of the great civil rights organizer, Ella Baker, who once said:

“You didn’t see me on television, you didn’t see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders.”

Lorenzo is now moving to put pieces together at the national level, from which organization will come, and strong people will emerge. I, for one, am grateful for that.

This article first appeared in the NorthEnd Agent’s.

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