By: Niki Shadrow Snyder
- NS: Tell us about yourself and what you do? NA: I am the CEO of Dream Corps. I lead a remarkable team that brings people together across racial, social, and partisan lines to create a future with freedom and dignity for all. Their mission is to close prison doors and open doors of opportunity, by advancing solutions that inspire action, servant leadership, and soul.
- NS: How did you personally move the needle in 2020? NA: In the wake of a pandemic and the George Floyd protests, Dream Corps quickly pivoted and swung into action — demanding justice, new legislation, new opportunity, and a country that is better than it was before. In 2020 we rallied behind vulnerable communities impacted by Covid-19. Our call to action was to implement safety protocols for individuals impacted by the spread of Covid behind bars, an equitable green economy to uplift those hit hardest by the pandemic into well-paying jobs in the future, and a tech sector committed to investing in the genius that already exists in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, by creating opportunities for these historically marginalized groups.
- NS: How did you deal with the stress in the world in 2020? NA: First, I am the proud mom of two teenagers who have been stuck at home since March. Helping them navigate their ever shifting world kept my own stress at bay. But I am also able to parent through these times because I believe in our Dream Corps team. Our team was built to both execute on plans and switch gears in order to do what the moment demands. We rely upon the leadership of impacted communities to guide us through the stress and challenges that come along with progress. Knowing that our dedication to equality and justice fuels our drive during uncertain times, means I don’t have to stress. We were built for this.
- NS: What advice to you have for your younger self? NA: The advice I’d tell my younger self is not to go it alone. For so long I thought that every problem I encountered was mine to solve. If only I was smarter, better, faster, I could fix it. What I was missing, and perhaps the lesson hardest for me to learn, is that nothing can be fixed without a deep understanding of the problem. Listening to and truly empathizing with other people opens up new possibilities and pathways to solutions that would not exist on my own. I failed many times before I learned to find the value in empathy and even daring to find common ground with people that have opposing views.
- NS: What did you do in 2020 that you’re the most passionate about? NA: Before the world turned upside down, I gave a talk entitled The Radical Act of Choosing Common Ground at TEDxBerkeley in February of 2020. I knew that, no matter the election outcome, our country would be even further divided. Although I could not predict the impending crisis, I knew my perspective on unity and community building with unlikely allies would be needed. TED chose to release and feature my TED Talk during election week and it could not have been more timely. My talk reveals the secret behind what we do at Dream Corps: large-scale change requires large-scale movements and when we come together, we can create massive change that both helps and heals at the same time. Now is the time to build a unified coalition that is big enough to take on the challenges we face. I know it is possible because we have done it before. On December 20, 2020 we celebrated the two year anniversary of the First Step Act — the bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation that has brought more than 14,000 people home from prison already.
- NS: What was the worst part of 2020 for you? NA: 2020 showed the world that we are a nation divided. We reckoned with the legacy of a society built on inequality and violence against black people and communities of color. We are now experiencing a double shock, first from the Covid-19 pandemic, and secondly from the tipping point murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others. Either we allow polarization to block progress on all the things we care about, or we dare to step out of our comfort zone. The election is over but there is still work to do. My great fear in this moment is that America could slowly slip more fully into the division and anger that has been bubbling up for the past decade. But I also have great hope. I believe we can walk through this darkness together, and emerge better than before.
- NS: What was the best part of 2020 for you? NA: If there’s one thing we’ve learned last year, it’s that none of us can predict the future. In a year where showing up for your country meant staying at home, it’s easy to lose sight of the hope found in the American dream. But the truth is, democracy has never been easy. It has always relied on We The People coming together across divides and differences, and fighting for a future better than before. Hope is very much still alive around us. It’s alive in the determination to press on by those who have lost loved ones to a deadly pandemic. To persevere past cancelled plans and postponed milestones. To wear a mask to protect a stranger, and drop off groceries for a neighbor in need. To stop worrying about the success of only our own kids, and start fighting for solutions for all kids. To open our doors to people escaping fiery terror and our hearts to families who have lost everything. To show up however we can—in the streets, around our dinner tables, and in conversations online—to address the failures of our past and resolve to move us closer to equity for all. This election was not the first nor the last step in our fight for a better future. There will be more protests, more petitions, more phone calls, and more policies to push for that bring us closer toward our common goals. But voting is the foundation for every other victory that we the people make possible. We know from generations who have been here before that with every step forward, there will be obstacles and challenges waiting along the path. But with every obstacle and every challenge comes the opportunity to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice, and shape a future with freedom and dignity for all.
- NS: What does success mean to you? NA: Success, for me, means Dream Corps will continue to be a soulful voice for solutions and work with unlikely allies. For 2021, it means building on the success of the First Step Act by doubling the size of our Empathy Network, which empowers people directly impacted by the broken criminal justice system and equips them to influence policymakers and promote restorative justice. Success this year equates to federal funding for weatherization and energy efficiency upgrades for 1 million low-income homes; securing a massive investment in low-carbon transportation for underserved communities; and making bipartisan connections for climate action that benefits low-income and communities of color. Success gets really tangible when we see 120 participants for our job training cohorts and when we launch our app in mid 2021 to connect BIPOC individuals in the tech industry; when Dream Corps offers more than 150 scholarships to new diverse faces seeking a tech sector education; and when we fight for universal broadband access.
- NS: What causes are important to you? NA: Twenty-two years ago I risked my life to fight for democracy abroad. I stopped taking democracy for granted the day I was imprisoned by a military dictatorship and sentenced to five years hard labor. That was in Rangoon, the largest city in Myanmar. Today I am a mother of two, run a nonprofit organization, Dream Corps, and live a comfortable life in the Bay Area. Yet as I look around at my own country today, I am transported back to Rangoon. The disinformation campaigns around election fraud belong in dictatorships, not democracies. Voter suppression is on the rise. Those in power regularly and routinely attack the free press and sought to politicize the Center for Disease Control in the midst of a pandemic. Citizens lob death threats at journalists and launch plans to kidnap, try, and execute a sitting U.S. governor. My fear for America flows not from partisan loyalties, but from my experience of a cold jail cell in Myanmar. The ugliness and terror of a pro-democracy movement being crushed is something I will never forget. Where once I could use my freedom — and America’s profession of faith in democracy — as a shield, today that shield is crumbling. I risked my life fighting for democracy abroad. I won’t let it die in my own home.
- NS: Do you think the world right now needs to be influenced by what they can get or what they can give in the middle of this pandemic? It is easy to imagine the chaos of 2020 continuing into next year. But, right now, we have the opportunity to decide the future and reimagine what type of world we wish to leave for the next generation. Instead of wildfires, imagine major investments that accelerate America’s transition to a more inclusive green economy. Instead of growing police violence, imagine building on the First Step Act and bringing more people home from behind bars. Instead of a school-to-prison pipeline, imagine a school-to-tech industry pipeline that changes the face of Fortune 500 companies. Instead of chaos in our streets, our communities, and at our dinner tables, imagine solutions that unite without leaving anyone behind — and finding common ground without sacrificing our values.The challenges of the last four years could be followed by four years of healing community. But only if we come together, recognize our common pain, and seek common purpose. We decide whether black and brown communities bear the brunt of our failed legacy of mass incarceration and climate inaction, or if those same communities lead the way to something better for all of us. We decide whether America lives up to its beautiful founding dream, or slides back to its ugly founding reality. We invite you to join our bipartisan approach to change as our country unifies behind leaders that are fighting for a future where opportunity exists for everyone at thedreamcorps.org.
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