By Rebecca Gale
Growing up in Midland, Texas, a town with only a small handful of black families, Amber Goodwin’s parents taught their daughters to think like activists. After working for Gabby Giffords’s gun violence prevention organization, Goodwin realized the gun violence prevention movement didn’t have a single person of color in leadership. She started her own organization to change that. Now, the Community Justice Reform Coalition is launching its first-ever speaker training series and a 50-state response team. Goodwin shares how she went from an unpaid Capitol Hill intern to running her own nonprofit.
I moved to D.C. in 2002. I’d been waitlisted at American University for law school and my sister was at medical school at Howard. I thought that Capitol Hill was the closest to being a lawyer that I could get. I remember walking into the Senate and thinking, Oh my gosh, this place is so cool. I still feel the exact same way when I walk into the Senate now, or the Capitol, or any state capitol.
Each day, I’d go to different offices [on Capitol Hill] and drop off my résumé. I walked into [Rep.] Donald Payne’s office (D-N.J.), and they were like, "We need an unpaid intern." [But Payne’s office] treated me like a staffer. They would take me to meetings I wanted to go to, introduce me to people. I ended up getting my first full-time paid job [as] a staff assistant through that office with [Rep.] Bob Menendez, [chairman of the] Democratic Caucus. We started a bunch of task forces and it was my job to find rank-and-file members of Congress to speak at these meetings.
Through other staffers on Capitol Hill, I found out about a campaign training camp in Dallas, put on by the Texas Democratic Party and Grassroots Solutions, a progressive campaign training company. You could learn to be a campaign manager, citizen activist, or candidate. I thought I wanted to run for office.
or 2 1/2 days, we learned how to do stump speeches, mock press conferences, stuff like that. It was so thrilling. I saw this totally different aspect of public service. [At the end, the trainers] rate you from a 1 to 5 of your skill set; I got a 5. Two weeks later, Grassroots Solutions called me and offered me a job. I took it and left Capitol Hill to lead campaign trainings across the country.
[In 2004,] I worked in Missouri for Kerry-Edwards with the Grassroots Solutions team and lived in an extended-stay hotel in St. Louis. I was like, Man, this city is segregated; all the white people with all the wealth live over here, and all the black people live over here, and it’s over-policed. I started to see that the progressive movement didn’t have a lot of people who looked like me in the leadership. I thought, Huh, everyone is a white man who is leading the issue-based campaigns that are going to influence the people that look like me.
I went to Camp Wellstone, a two-day intensive training for people in the progressive movement, and met Andy McDonald, one of the trainers. Janitors in Houston wanted to form a union, and organizers from Chicago and D.C. were trying to figure out if they had the political will to do the work. He said, “We need an organizer on the ground in Houston [for Justice for Janitors], would you be interested?”
What the janitors were asking for seemed pretty basic: minimum wage, health insurance, and the ability to have full-time work. They voted to go out and strike. Some of them had two to three jobs, they had kids, they put it all on the line. [Congressman and civil rights leader] John Lewis, [Congressman] Al Green, Annise Parker, the former mayor, all walked the picket line with us. Can you imagine, I am 25 years old and walking the picket line with John Lewis? I am in tears the whole time.
We watched the video of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech to the sanitation workers [on strike] when he was in Memphis, the night before he was assassinated. For me, there was a direct parallel between what Martin Luther King had been fighting for, specifically in Memphis, and what we were still fighting for decades later in Houston.
I got the campaign bug again when I saw Barack Obama speak and knew I had to work for [his 2008 campaign]. I became a field organizer in Houston and coordinated a lot of volunteer management, sending extra volunteers out of state to competitive places like Florida and Ohio. After the Obama campaign, I worked for a state senator in Texas as part of the Texas Legislative Internship Program (TLIP), handling state representative Paula Pierson’s work for the Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence. This is when I met State Sen. Wendy Davis.
When Wendy decided to run for governor, she asked me to be on her team. I still have the voicemail. I was her state political director, with a team of a dozen staffers across the state. I also managed the celebrities who came in town to support Wendy, like Emmitt Smith, Connie Britton, Kerry Washington, and Willie Nelson.
But after Wendy’s [failed] campaign, I was done. I got a one-way rental car with my dog and best friend, and went to Florida to be with my parents for four months. I ate, watched Bravo and ION TV, went to the beach, and cried in my room a lot. My parents were so supportive; they always have been. We text and talk on the phone almost daily and take family vacations frequently with my sisters, which includes wearing matching outfits.
Around that time, my friend Cietta Kiandoli met Gabby Giffords’s executive director [of Americans for Responsible Solutions], who said there was a new role working on state-level policy. I said, “Guns are not my issue.” Then she told me who it was for, and I was like, Well, I love Gabby and I’ve heard such good things about Mark [Kelly], and I went to talk to them. Gabby is a gun owner, white woman, former member of Congress from the Southwest, and she has an incredible effect on survivors of gun violence. I’ve never met anyone that has more empathy for others than Gabby Giffords.
I helped launch the Women’s Coalition for Common Sense in 2015 with Barbara Parker, the mother of Alison Parker, who was killed on live TV, and Jennifer Pinckney, the widow of the state senator killed in Charleston, who was at the church with her daughter when her husband was killed. The Charleston shooting was my aha moment. I was personally and professionally thrown into this, talking to survivors and family members. I thought of all the intersections of what happened when this person walked into a church and decided to shoot and kill nine black people. I have family in South Carolina; it could have been my family members.
I started thinking how could gun violence prevention be a more equitable and inclusive movement. Since [James] Brady was shot [in 1981], the movement has been focused on one piece of legislation: the Brady background check bill, and not how to fix the day-to-day problem of gun violence. If you look at people disproportionately affected by gun violence, it’s black people. I felt I needed to do this, even though I didn’t know what “this” was, but I knew it was something.
I did a survey of national gun violence prevention organizations, asking if they had a person of color in leadership [and questions like:] Do you have a pipeline for getting people of color or people directly impacted by gun violence to be a part of this program? Do you directly utilize any of your funding to support people of color?
The organizations said they lacked the funds to do more work on this area even though they knew it was important. I wasn't surprised; these gaps in organizing and centering of communities of color in this debate has existed for so long. It was way past time for our movement to have an organization that was led by people of color, utilized target solutions to reduce violence, and gave a multi-pronged approach to engaging stakeholders. My dad always tells my sisters and I that if we are going to do something, just make it happen. They raised us to be resilient. As black women growing up in the South, it is an attribute that will be in my DNA always.
I remember listening to Beyoncé’s Lemonade. She is this pop icon who made an album centered on women of color, but she did it in a way that white people could buy her albums. I am centering every day on people marginalized by gun violence. How do the policies in D.C. affect [him or] her?
I started Community Justice Reform Coalition and treated it as a startup, officially launching in November 2016. I had an advisory board but other than that, I worked alone. I received some seed funding from individuals and foundations, including other gun violence prevention organizations that were supportive of my work and people who said they believed in what I was doing. I had enough to cover my bills, but barely.
CJRC is an advocacy organization, at the nexus of gun violence prevention and mass incarceration. We’re focusing on proactive policies that can help end gun violence in communities of color. In 2012 alone, almost 6,000 black men were murdered with guns. We have data, research, and real-life people who have solutions that have gone unheard by stakeholders because they are people of color. We want to uplift their strategies.
We’re working in cities across the country to help support targeted interventions like Operation Ceasefire programs to reduce gun violence. We started doing trainings and events with both national and local partners to support on-the-ground organizing and public education led by people of color to advocate and amplify gun violence prevention in urban areas.
Going from working for Gabby to working alone made me initially feel anxious and a bit in over my head. I had never started an organization and was asking people to not only believe in my ideas, but in me as a leader. I take the opportunity to speak wherever I can. If anyone asks, I will go. As of January, I’m finally receiving a salary, and as of June 1, I’ve hired people to work for CJRC. All the people I will be working with are close to the pain of gun violence and bring that to their work.
This summer, we are launching an intergenerational speakers bureau. Twenty people: half are Millennials, half over the age of 40. Half are formerly incarcerated. For the next 18 months, they will be part of a class, meet together, and work on communication and organizational strategies. These are the people who CNN, MSNBC, and FOX can call when they need a leader for the gun violence prevention movement.
Funding for this program, as part of the Peacemaker Partnership through the PICO Live Free Campaign, comes from a generous $2 million grant from Google. We — the PICO Live Free team and organizers, awardees, partners, CJRC team — stood together at an event in Los Angeles this June, and it was unbelievable to see who was leading the conversation: In the room of over 100 people, most were survivors of gun violence or directly impacted by the criminal justice system, almost half were formerly incarcerated, and they were the ones leading the discussion on strategies and implementation.
For far too long, it’s just been about [situations like] Chicago or Sandy Hook, and not everything in between, which is crippling communities of color, black communities in particular: everyday gun violence. You don’t have to live in the South Side of Chicago to care about communities of color. I want to change the conversation around gun violence in this country and I feel like we’re finally starting to do that.