District Attorney Kamala Harris raised concerns of the African American community when she spoke at Mills on Feb. 8 for Black History Month.
Harris, 42, was elected District Attorney of San Francisco in December 2003, and is the first African-American woman to serve as a District Attorney in California.
Her accomplishments include being recognized by California’s largest legal newspaper, The Daily Journal, as one of the top 100 lawyers in the state, being honored by the National Urban League as one of their “Women of Power,” and she was featured on Oprah as one of America’s most powerful women.
Julia Sudbury, professor of Ethnic Studies, helped organize the evening, and noted that Harris’ election is an important event in black history.
During Harris’ speech particular emphasis was placed on a greater understnding for the “kind of struggles that African-American and black people globally have been through.”
“Her position as District Attorney is really a legacy of the civil rights and the feminist movement,” said Sudbury. “Certainly, you can imagine 50 years ago we wouldn’t have been seeing an African American as District Attorney of San Francisco. “
Harris greeted her clapping audience with a smile and waited for silence. The audience’s eyes were glued to her.
Harris reflected on the struggles and successes of African-American civic rights leaders.
“We owe them an enormous debt of gratitude for the sacrifice and work that they did,” she said. “We must continually renew the struggle for freedom and justice.”
Harris spoke about reforming the criminal justice system in California. She noted that there are over two million people incarcerated in the State, of which, 40 percent are African American. Within three years of release, 70 percent of criminal offenders return to prison on additional charges.
“We face enormous challenges that deeply affect our civil rights and quality of life in our community when we look at the failure of the criminal justice system,” she said.
In 2004, Harris worked with a group of community organizers and launched a re-entry program for former offenders called “Back on Track” – the first of its kind. The Back on Track program improves community safety by reducing the number of people returning to jail. It also helps young offenders devlop job-building skills and re-enter society.
“We need to recognize that with equal resources, on an equal playing field, we are all capable,” Harris said.
Back on Track reduced re-arrest from 50 percent to under 10 percent. More than 70 percent of participants held jobs while completing their education. Currently, there are 100 participants in the program.
“It’s amazing to see a woman breaking down barriers and doing things for the community,” said BWC President Paige Gardner, 19.
Junior Kimberly Bess, 21, hopes to learn more about Harris since Bess is an African American and interested in a career in law. “Hopefully, I can make a difference the way that she has,” she said.
The event ended with advice: “Continue to do the work that 150 years of Mills history have taught, which is to continue with your activism, involvement and passion to be present every day.”