Valerie Jarrett has kept pretty busy since leaving the White House. The one-time senior advisor and right-hand to former President Barack Obama recently published her memoir, Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward, which became a New York Times bestseller.
As senior advisor, she helped to spearhead efforts behind the Obama Foundation and joined the boards of several influential companies including Lyft and the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. Then there was that nasty, but all-too revealing episode with Roseanne Barr last summer.
What people may not know is that Jarrett, an attorney by trade, has been a champion of civil rights and justice for most of her life and is now taking that advocacy to a new level.
In an announcement made exclusively to theGrio today, Jarrett, a Senior Distinguished Fellow at the University of Chicago Law School, joins the Board of Directors of the Innocence Project.
The organization has helped to exonerate hundreds of wrongly convicted people over the past 27 years. The work involves presenting DNA tests and other forms of evidence as well as instituting policy reforms to the criminal justice system. Jarrett will lend her voice and expertise to continue to pursue efforts that will help innocent imprisoned people today and prevent unjust imprisonment in the future.
“One of my responsibilities within the Obama administration was to oversee our criminal justice reform efforts and ensuring that the system works fairly for everybody,” said Jarrett in an exclusive interview with theGrio.
“It’s one of my passions, and this organization has been a long-time fighter for justice inherent in our system. I think it was the time I’ve spent with the exonerees and realized the impact that this organization has had on their lives. It just made me want to do whatever I could to help support their efforts.”
Here is where the Innocence Project comes in, particularly in helping those who have fallen victim to racial bias in the criminal justice system. We know racism perpetuates itself in just about every stage of the process from law enforcement to sentencing. Oftentimes these are poor people of color who didn’t receive adequate legal representation.
Jarrett believes the Innocence Project is here to right those wrongs.
“One of the exonerees I met had been incarcerated for 30 years. He had such a joyful spirit. And I said to him, ‘how did you endure 30 years when you knew that you were innocent?’ And he said that his mother came to see him every single week and she believed in him and that that lifeline is all that he needed. It said so much to me about the resilience of the human spirit and love,” said Jarrett.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations (NER), Black people are about five times more likely to go to prison for drug possession than white people and Blacks are also 12 times more likely to be wrongly convicted of drug crimes. Jarrett is taking on this position to not only change the lives of those who have been wrongfully convicted, but to ensure that federal and state policy changes are made to have a lasting impact.
“As we continue to address the systemic issues within the criminal justice system that lead to wrongful convictions, we will need to rely on the diversity of experience and leadership of our Board,” said Maddy deLone, the executive director of the Innocence Project in a statement.
“Valerie brings a wealth of broad leadership experience, innovative thinking and a deep commitment to reforming the criminal justice system. We are honored to have her as part of our Board and look forward to benefiting from all that she will bring to the Innocence Project.”
While at the White House, Jarrett skillfully used her position as a trusted advisor to President Obama to oversee the Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs and the White House Council on Women and Girls. She was instrumental in implementing workplace policies that empower working families, including equal pay, raising the minimum wage, paid leave, paid sick days, workplace flexibility and affordable childcare.
Jarrett was also very highly involved in addressing inequality within the criminal justice system counseling the President to commute a record number of sentences for those who were unfairly incarcerated under harsh and outdated sentencing laws. Now, she continues the good fight in the next phase of her career.
“I’ve always been an advocate for civil rights, ever since I worked in local government for Harold Washington in Chicago, a mayor who was committed to making our city fair. This allows me to continue to do the work I feel passionately about and ensure that I am staying true to my core values,” said Jarrett.
“I want to encourage the kind of reforms that will make the system fair on the front end so that we don’t have to do so much work on the back end.”
Wendy L. Wilson is the managing editor at theGrio.com. You can follow her rants, raves and reviews on Twitter @WendyLWilson_