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54 Strong: The Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama

Jason Gilmore

When we think of the women of the Civil Rights Movement one powerful woman comes to mind. Rosa Parks. And rightfully so. Her iconic image, sitting alone on a bus, refusing to give up her seat to a white man, inspired a movement. But there are so many other women who have dedicated themselves to the causes of civil rights, not only in the 1950s and 60s, but still today.

In fact, just two blocks down the street from where Rosa Parks caught her bus on that famed day in downtown Montgomery, Alabama our 54 strong group visited the Equal Justice Initiative. The initiative, otherwise known as EJI, is the brain child of the widely acclaimed public interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson. It is a private, nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to impoverished defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system. Stevenson, along with his large and diverse staff, have dedicate their professional lives to fighting poverty and challenging racial discrimination in the criminal justice system.

At EJI we met with NiaHolston, a Justice Fellow who joined the Initiative after her work on voter rights at the Bronx Defenders in New York. Holsten is dedicated to social justice and epitomizes the powerful contributions that women have always brought to the fight for civil rights in America.

Credit Jason Gilmore

Utah State University student Lauren Mata, along with Cloe Copoloff of Bellevue College and Devon White of the University of Washington, caught up with Holsten to get her take on the ongoing struggle for civil rights.

Do you mind telling us what drew you to the initiative group?

“I was very interested in working with criminal justice reform and working directly with people. I feel very strongly that if you want to change policies, you have to know what the issues are and you have to know why they are occurring and the only way to do that is to talk with people that have been most impacted by them. I was very glad to work directly with people at EJI. I think the other thing is I wanted to connect what I was seeing within the criminal justice system to these larger issues of racial justice and racial injustice. I think that was a lot of what appealed to me about EJI and drew me here.”

How has working with the EJI affected you personally?

“I think, before coming here, I considered myself a person who was aware of these issues, who was passionate about them and who wanted to change the system. I think meeting people … [and] meeting our clients and seeing firsthand the devastation that this system as wrought on so many people, how their voices are almost effectively silenced by this system, has impacted me in more ways than I can even sum up. It’s been such a challenging experience but has been one of the joys of my life that I could be here and work directly with people.”

Jason Gilmore, Lauren Mata, Chloe Copoloff and Devon White are reporting from Montgomery, Alabama for Utah Public Radio.

54 Strong on UPR is made possible by the USU Access and Diversity Center, the Diversity Council and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. More information of 54 Strong can be found here.