Roxbury’s Andrea James Wins Coveted Soros Justice Fellowship

The Executive Director of Families for Justice As Healing is one of 15 honored nationwide in 2015.

Andrea James

On June 17, the Open Society Foundations announced that it will fund Boston native Andrea James to create a national network of formerly incarcerated women. James, one of only 15 to be so honored by the foundation this year, aims to expand awareness of how prison and jail impact women, their children, and their communities.

James, also a formerly incarcerated woman and a former attorney, is the founder and Executive Director of Families for Justice As Healing, which aims to create alternatives to incarceration. Born into what she calls a family of “educator-activists,” James put her grant goals this way in an interview: “My purpose is to connect those I have met throughout the country who are doing work to restructure the criminal justice system, and to bring on board other formerly incarcerated women—with the goal of giving everybody a bird’s eye view of what’s going on.”

The Soros Justice Fellowships fund is a branch of the Open Society Foundation, founded by philanthropist George Soros, which according to its website, supports “outstanding individuals to undertake projects that advance reform, spur debate, and catalyze change” in the U.S. criminal justice system. It awards between $58,700 and $110,250 for full-time projects lasting between 12 and 18 months. James and the other 14 fellows will join the more than 350 who have received Soros grants since 1997. James said the recipients continue on after their project year to connect with each other, forming an expanding community for change.

When asked why she applied for this fellowship, one of the few in the nation which funds grassroots justice work, James said, “Without the voices of formerly incarcerated women, we’re not creating the best policies and practices to help women heal and develop their lives outside of prison.” While teachers, legislators, and heads of organizations may be women with a great deal of experience, James said, “There are criminal justice professionals, and then, there are the experts.”

James’s fellowship project will kick off this summer with FREE HER, a Justice Advocacy Conference, organized by James, Families for Justice As Healing, and the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard University. James said the conference is open to the public and will raise awareness about the real face of women who live behind bars. So far, there are 35 engaged women panelists, including keynote Vivian Nixon, cofounder and Executive Director of the College and Community Fellowship,  who has done groundbreaking work in New York with her “organization committed to removing individual and structural barriers to higher education for women with criminal record histories and their families.”

James said she will reach out to many of the women participating in terms of her Soros fellowship since it will include formerly incarcerated women as well as those who are allies.

Boston magazine wrote about James when her book, Upper Bunkies Unite: And Other Thoughts on the Politics of Mass Incarceration was published in 2013, detailing her 24 months at Danbury Federal Prison Camp for women, the same place where Piper Kerman of Orange Is the New Black was housed. Currently, James also serves as a member of the Massachusetts Pretrial Working Group, a statewide coalition working on pretrial alternatives to incarceration.

Her Soros fellowship will be “an incredible opportunity,” she said. James now becomes one of Open Society’s core change-makers: “challenging the overreliance on incarceration and extreme punishment, and ensuring a fair and accountable system of justice.”