In July, five OSI-Baltimore Community Fellows joined Open Society Foundations’ Soros Justice Fellows in Atlanta to share knowledge and develop connections. But before the Soros Justice Fellowships Conference got underway, this impressive group of 200 advocates from around the country boarded buses for a two-hour ride to the Equal Justice Institute’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice and National Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama.
Coupling the conference with a trip to EJI’s museum and memorial was a wonderful way to ground us and begin the conference.
The sites, both of which opened last year thanks to the relentless efforts of author and civil rights activist Bryan Stevenson, a former member of Open Society-US’s Advisory Board, document the United States’ history of lynching and racial terror.
“Coupling the conference with a trip to EJI’s museum and memorial was a wonderful way to ground us and begin the conference,” says Aarti Sidhu, a 2018 OSI Community Fellow and founder of Represent Youth: Baltimore School Justice Initiative. Sidhu works out of the Clinical Law Program at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, directly representing students facing exclusionary school discipline—suspensions or expulsions.
Grounded by the emotional experience of the trip to Montgomery, Fellows from around the country spent the rest of the conference talking about their work, making connections, and hearing from powerful speakers, including Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, and criminal justice reform advocate Yusef Salaam, a member of the Central Park Five.
While OSI Community Fellows work on a wide range of projects serving underserved communities in Baltimore, the Soros Justice Fellows—there were 16 new ones this year—are specifically focused on “projects that advance reform, spur debate, and catalyze change on a range of issues facing the U.S. criminal justice system.” Past Soros Justice Fellows have included author Michelle Alexander (“The New Jim Crow”), filmmaker Eugene Jarecki (“The Trials of Henry Kissinger,” “Why I Fight”), and Vanita Gupta, former head of the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division in the Obama Administration.
“What excites me about being at the Soros Justice Conference is seeing Baltimore in the national context,” says Jacqueline Robarge, a 2002 OSI Community Fellow and Founder of Power Inside, a holistic harm reduction program for women in Baltimore. “Stepping back from the day-to-day and local policy work, I can re-calibrate to the larger justice movements that intersect at the conference. I left with new strategies and solidarity from other Fellows that will benefit our police accountability, human rights, and decriminalization work.”
Two of the OSI Fellows joining the conference led sessions. Munib Lohrasbi, a 2017 OSI Fellow who works with Disability Rights Maryland to improve conditions for people with disabilities in prison around the state, led a session on “Combating Solitary Confinement and Restrictive Housing.” Jennay Ghowrwal, a 2018 OSI Fellow working to improve the experiences of indigent criminal defendants facing mental health challenges by training defense attorneys, led a session on “The Criminal Justice System as a Public Health Threat.”
“The programming at the Soros Justice Conference was outstanding,” says Lohrasbi. “But the open and creative atmosphere throughout the weekend is what made it such a special experience. I enjoyed the opportunity to learn from advocates who are so passionate about creating a more just society. I left the conference feeling inspired and motivated to address the systemic issues impacting our community here in Baltimore.”