VOL. 131 | NO. 71 | Friday, April 8, 2016
The Tipping Point
Daughter of Duality, Gibbs is Building a Better Justice System
JOHN KLYCE MINERVINI | Special to the Daily News
Say you stole a television worth $300. How long should you be punished? A year? Five years? Whatever you answered, it probably wasn’t “for the rest of your life.” But that’s how the U.S. legal system currently treats many people who have been convicted of felonies.
For the rest of their lives, they have limited or no access to voting rights, certain jobs, public assistance, financial aid for college, professional licenses or public housing.
When she talks about it, Allison Gibbs can’t help but get a little worked up.
“Are we defined by the worst thing we’ve ever done?” she wonders, eyes flashing. “Will I always be Allison Gibbs, the girl who forged a doctor’s note in 12th grade?”
Memphis stands at the threshold of incredible possibility. In this series, we introduce innovative Memphians who are driving our city forward and forging its future success.
Gibbs has come a long way since the doctor’s note. Today, she is director of programs and operations at Just City, a Memphis-based nonprofit that supports and advocates for Mid-Southerners who have been impacted by the criminal justice system.
The organization is just a year old, but already it’s made a big impact. Through the Clean Slate Fund, Just City’s team has guided 50 Memphians through the costly and complicated process of expungement: deleting years-old, nonviolent convictions from criminal records and allowing those involved to get on with their lives.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that there are more than 500 people on the waiting list.
“Too often, we begin by assuming that minorities and other marginalized communities are guilty,” Gibbs observes. “We lock them up and throw away the key.”
“It’s not working,” she continues. “At Just City, we’re trying to get criminal justice right.”
Gibbs got her first taste of inequality early on. Her mother’s family was solidly middle-class, while her father was a Jamaican immigrant who struggled to make ends meet. Growing up in Miami, she was sensitive to the split nature of her situation.
“On my mom’s side, we went to college and grad school,” Gibbs remembers. “We took vacations and had debutante balls. We were living the pseudo-Cosby dream. On the other side, my dad’s living in Section 8 housing, and he can’t read. I remember thinking, that’s kinda messed up.”
In her spare time, Gibbs would help her father apply for food stamps and Medicaid. In one way or another, she’s been working for marginalized communities ever since.
After graduating from the University of Florida, she joined Teach For America, a nonprofit that sends recent college grads to teach in under-resourced public schools around the country. Her assignment? Memphis, Tennessee.
“I was driving down the interstate, calling different apartments,” Gibbs recalls. “At that point, all I knew about Memphis was Elvis and the National Civil Rights Museum.”
It wasn’t an easy transition. Those first few months, Gibbs lived alone in an apartment near Wolfchase Galleria and worked 60-hour weeks, with nothing for furniture but an air mattress, a card table and two folding chairs. But little by little, Memphis began to grow on her.
“It’s is a great city to start your career in,” Gibbs reflects. “If I were still in Miami, I wouldn’t have had these kinds of opportunities.”
After serving out her contract with Teach for America, she went on to community engagement posts at Freedom Preparatory Academy and Stand for Children. Then a friend sent her the job listing at Just City. The nonprofit – launched out of the Shelby County Public Defender’s office – was brand new, and Gibbs ultimately became its first hire.
One thing is clear: Memphis needs this work. Although the U.S. has just 5 percent of the world’s population, it contains more than 25 percent of the world’s imprisoned population.
Here in Shelby County, where African-Americans are 53 percent of the general population, they comprise more than 80 percent of the population of the county jail at any given time. Those are the kinds of statistics that get Gibbs out of bed in the morning.
“The people we work with are vulnerable,” she observes. “They have been marginalized and deemed an underclass. The thing I keep asking myself is, who’s working for them? How can we ensure that we are doing unto the least of these the same things we would want done for ourselves?”
“Today it’s them,” Gibbs adds. “Tomorrow it could be you.”
Allison Gibbs is a graduate of Embark at New Memphis. Learn more at newmemphis.org.