Zach Norris

Human Rights Activist | Community Organizer | Author

Zach Norris is an Open Society Foundations Equality Fellow, Former Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and author of Defund Fear: Safety without Policing, Prisons and Punishment. Zach led a $22 million capital campaign to launch a new initiative called “Restore Oakland,” a 18,000-square-foot building that offers a new vision of community safety. Restore Oakland is a community advocacy and training center that empowers Bay Area community members to transform local economic and justice systems and make a safe and secure future possible for themselves and for their families. Zach is also a co-founder of Justice for Families, a national alliance of family-driven organizations working to end our nation’s youth incarceration epidemic.

Zach helped build California’s first statewide network for families of incarcerated youth which led the effort to close five youth prisons in the state, passed legislation to enable families to stay in contact with their loved ones, and defeated Prop 6—a destructive and ineffective criminal justice ballot measure. Defund Fear, released in 2020, has been praised by Forbes, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe, and Kirkus Reviews.

In addition to being a Harvard graduate and NYU-educated attorney, Zach is also a graduate of the Labor Community Strategy Center’s National School for Strategic Organizing in Los Angeles, California and was a 2011 Soros Justice Fellow. He is a former board member at Witness for Peace, Just Cause Oakland and Justice for Families. Zach was a recipient of the American Constitution Society’s David Carliner Public Interest Award in 2015, and a member of the 2016 class of the Levi Strauss Foundation’s Pioneers of Justice.

Zach is a loving husband and dedicated father of two bright daughters, whom he is raising in his hometown of Oakland, California.

Speech topics

Defund Fear: Safety Without Policing, Prisons, and Punishment

Zach is a longtime organizer, social entrepreneur, and preeminent advocate on issues of public safety, racial justice, civil and human rights. Zach grounds audiences in an understanding of the historical context that shapes our current world while connecting to bring messages of hope, healing, and the power of transformative change.

We Keep Us Safe: How We Build Secure, Just, and Inclusive Communities

Based on his book Defund Fear, Zach Norris shares his over twenty years of experience building safer communities via strengthening community bonds and decreasing the number of youth and adults in prisons. Norris shares stories of redemption and his experience that we can’t hold someone accountable for their wrongdoing if we aren’t also holding them in community.

From Harming Families to Healing Them

Keeping a person connected to their family not only helps to protect their rights; it makes it harder for others to ignore their inherent worth. Norris describes his work At the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, where helped lead a campaign that reversed decades of misinformation and demonization of youth and families of color who were derided as the “welfare queens” and “youth super-predators.” When they began the campaign to close youth prisons across the state, no one thought it could be done. But by organizing children and their families, they made policymakers understand the valiant efforts of families to simply stay connected. Legislators came to see that it was not youth who should be discarded but rather the youth prisons that confined them. The Governor of California recently signed legislation to close the last three of eight state-run youth prisons and youth crime rates dropped significantly. A win for human rights was also a win for public safety.

The sea change we are seeing in attitudes toward youth incarceration in California are possible in a variety of other contexts that are governed by family separation. Zach Norris describes: a) the United States practice of not recognizing and separating families of all races; b) the resilience of families despite this history and ongoing reality; and c) government policies that would repair past harms while also preparing families for the future.


Defund Fear: Safety Without Policing, Prisons, and Punishment

A groundbreaking new vision for public safety that overturns more than 200 years of fear-based discrimination, othering, and punishment

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