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For Zach Norris, a focus on fostering a community of care

David Wilson for the Boston Globe

Zach Norris grew up in the shadow of mass incarceration. In his home state of California alone, he said, “between 1980 and 2000, we built some 20 new prisons and just one new university.” Youth prisons skyrocketed. But this prison building boom didn’t lead to anyone being or feeling safer.

Norris, who attended Harvard as an undergraduate and then NYU Law School, returned to the Bay Area, where since 2013 he’s served as executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights; he’s also co-founder of Restore Oakland and Justice for Families, organizations devoted to transforming both economic and justice systems to benefit local communities. In that work, Norris said, “we always talked about books not bars, jobs not jails, healthcare not handcuffs.”


But the moment that sparked his new book, “We Keep Us Safe,” came when his own house was broken into. “Holding these giant shards of glass in my hand, right on top of my daughter’s bed, having to explain to them in a way that didn’t demonize whoever did this, but was respectful of the trauma that they faced, and the fear that they faced,” he said, “there were different strands coming together for me around what does safety actually look like.”

In “We Keep Us Safe,” Norris argues that we must shift from a mindset of fearing others to a vision of what community safety actually is. “To me it’s about folks coming together in their neighborhoods to think about how we do see each other, rather than how do we watch each other,” he said. “Too often our stance has been, keep your eyes and ears open, rather than keep your heart open, keep your mind open, keep your hands open.”

The research backs it up, he added. “When we invest in community supports, it really results in greater safety. If people look at the issue of safety from the more holistic approach, folks will see it’s very much worth it to adopt a culture of care rather than continuing to scapegoat individuals and communities.”


Zach Norris will read at Brookline Booksmith on Wednesday at 7 p.m.

Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.