Vera seeks to dismantle and transform the legal systems that criminalize and harm Black communities and other communities of color, immigrants, and poor people. To advance this goal on a national scale, Vera launched Vera Action in early 2021 as an independent but closely aligned 501(c)(4) affiliate. Building on the efforts of Vera’s Advocacy and Partnerships department, Vera Action supports legislation, engages in lobbying, and seeks to influence key candidates and elected officials. Vera Action aims to influence legislators to prioritize racial justice, transform the criminal legal system, and deliver on a vision of a safer and more equitable country for all.

On the federal level, Vera Action and other national organizations called for the U.S. Treasury Department to expand its guidance on permissible uses of federal recovery funds so that they can be used for criminal justice and public safety investments. The Treasury Department did allow for these types of investments, which paves the way for us to work with local jurisdictions including Denver, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Portland, Maine, to invest American Rescue Plan Act funds in innovative public safety programs like mobile crisis response teams, community violence interruption, diversion, supportive housing, and pretrial services.

Vera Action works in 13 states that span a wide geography and political spectrum—California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New York, Tennessee, and Texas. In each state, Vera Action is developing a stable of go-to lobbyists who can be deployed to advance Vera’s initiatives and issues, establish a Vera presence and name recognition in statehouses, and build infrastructure to effectively launch and run future legislative campaigns.

Since its launch, Vera Action has led or supported campaigns on three core Vera initiatives: expansion of the right to counsel for people in immigration detention, bail reform, and ending the incarceration of girls and gender expansive youth.

  • Expanding the SAFE Initiative through legislative advocacy. In 2021, Vera Action worked in coalition with other partners to pass legislation that expands the right to counsel for detained immigrants who are facing deportation in Colorado, Illinois, and Nevada. In June 2021 in Colorado, for example, Governor Jared Polis signed into law a bill to create a statewide Immigration Legal Defense Fund to provide legal representation to detained immigrants who are subject to immigration proceedings but can’t afford a lawyer. For the 2021–2022 state fiscal year, this act appropriates $100,000. In March 2021, in Nevada, the state appropriated $500,000 to the Immigration Clinic at the William S. Boyd School of Law of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, for the purpose of providing pro bono legal services to immigrants facing deportation.

    These wins, along with the heightened awareness raised in states like Maryland, where immigrant rights legislation passed the legislature but was vetoed by the governor, all build toward Vera’s goal to create a national deportation defense program for all immigrants, regardless of their income, race, national origin, or history with the criminal legal system.

  • Bail reform and defense against bail backlash. The expertise Vera gained through its major role in the passage of bail reform in New York in 2020—our understanding of what constitutes good legislation and how to fight backlash—served us well in our bail work this legislative session in California, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, and Texas. In Michigan, Vera Action is working with legislative champions to lay groundwork for legislation that adheres to the four pillars of good bail reform: promoting public safety, reducing jail populations, eliminating racial disparities, and diminishing the use of money.
  • Ending girls’ incarceration. Vera worked closely with a coalition in Maine to win bipartisan support for a bill that would effectively eliminate the use of juvenile detention for youth by mandating closure of Maine’s one secured youth detention facility and replacing those beds with community-based placement options. The bill passed the Maine legislature but was vetoed by the governor. Vera Action continues to advocate with Governor Janet Mills to pass a modified version of the bill that will likely result in few to no girls incarcerated in the state.

What Do We Mean When We Say “Strategic Advocacy”? An Interview with Yolande Cadore

Yolande Cadore is Vera’s new director of movement strategy, connecting the organization’s internal advocacy strategy to broader movement goals to end criminalization and mass incarceration in the United States. In this role, she works to ensure that the goals of Vera’s advocacy campaigns align with the vision of the people and communities most impacted by criminal legal and immigration policies. Prior to joining Vera, Yolande served as the director of strategic partnerships at the Drug Policy Alliance, where she connected local drug policy reform partners to the alliance’s national and broader drug policy reform movement goals. In this Q and A, she discusses her new role at Vera and her vision for what makes an effective advocacy campaign.

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Photo by Jeanette Spicer.

As a longtime organizer and advocate, why the shift to Vera?

The decision to make Vera my professional home was an easy one for me. Vera is known nationally in the criminal legal and immigration justice field as a strong and effective defender of justice-involved people. I am also drawn by the organization’s compelling vision and mission, which I see as relevant and timely given the dire state of the criminal legal and immigration systems.

Also, Vera’s reputation for providing data and evidence needed to effect change in the criminal legal and immigration systems was another big draw for me. I believe Vera is strategically positioned to play an important role in the reform movement by collaborating with impacted individuals and communities to reframe the conversation on safety, fairness, and justice. Aligning its 60 years of government insights and learning with people power can drive much-needed change in the criminal legal and immigration systems.

This is a brand-new role in Vera's Advocacy and Partnerships department, a department that is also quite new. What's been the most exciting part of building out advocacy in this organization? And what has been most challenging?

What is most exciting about building out advocacy at Vera is the immense possibility and potential to energize and mobilize colleagues to become change agents. We have the opportunity to leverage their skills and expertise to dismantle the criminal legal and immigration systems and to reimagine and advocate for new approaches to addressing the issues of crime and immigration.

I am also excited about working with colleagues to think strategically about ways to leverage Vera’s power and access to powerful people to open doors that remain closed to poor and Black and brown people—people who have been shut out of places where decisions about their fate and futures as justice-involved people are made.

As for the challenge, this is a new role and a different approach to driving change for many Verans. I have learned from past experiences that becoming an effective advocate takes time. It is a process of unlearning what we once thought was true about social change processes and what it takes to change hearts and minds, and reeducating and re-grounding ourselves in a different set of beliefs about power, positionality, and what it means to collaborate and share power with people who are considered invisible and without voice by those in positions of political power.

In trying to address this challenge, I am aware that we are working to dismantle systems with deep roots and that we are fighting opponents of our vision who have a dogged commitment to maintaining the status quo—where poor and Black and brown people are systemically marginalized, deemed invisible, and without voice or vision. We are fighting opponents who see criminalization, detention, and incarceration as forms of racial and social control. To win, we must remain focused, be disciplined, and be committed to our vision, goals, and agenda for change. As Dr. Martin Luther King reminded us, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

What would you say are the most critical features of a well-run advocacy campaign?

In deciding on an advocacy campaign, the first question I ask is: is this issue winnable? The second question is: will it make a real, meaningful, and measurable difference in the lives of people that we are organizing or advocating with in communities? The third question is: will the power dynamic shift in that community?

I believe that the work of effective advocates is to alter power relationships between individuals with power and people with little or no power to decide, determine, and plan for themselves, their families, and communities their current lived realities and their futures. At the end of our advocacy campaigns, my hope is that our partners and allies in government will have a new way of relating to and engaging with individuals who are impacted by their laws and policies. I hope they see community leaders as partners and collaborators who have agency and can speak for themselves and decide for themselves their desired reality. I hope they understand that when we share power, everyone wins.

Other critical features of a well-run advocacy campaign are being clear about the problem you are trying to solve (conducting a thorough problem analysis); having a clear understanding of the social, economic, and political factors shaping the landscape in which the problem exists; and understanding why reshaping the landscape—reallocating resources, organizing unorganized people and allied organizations and aligning key and influential stakeholders as advocates—will lead to desired outcomes that transform individuals and communities. Also, at the end, evaluate the campaign. Take any lessons learned and use those lessons to develop more robust and effective campaigns in the future.

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Photo by Jeanette Spicer.
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Photo by Jeanette Spicer.

One of your responsibilities is to help build the skills that Vera staff need to engage in effective advocacy, whether that's working on a campaign, passing legislation, partnering with movement allies, etc. How do you translate your experience as a doer—someone who has developed, led, and won campaigns—to the role of teacher?

The translation is less from doer to teacher and more from doer to coach and collaborator. Coaching Verans on this new journey is an opportunity for me, as well as my colleagues, to “make this road by walking.” That means acquiring the skills needed to drive change, strategically and effectively, while centering the experiences and stories of those with the most to gain when we win!

I look forward to making “good trouble” with an amazing group of colleagues who share a commitment to dismantling the criminal legal and immigration systems and to collectively advocating with them for a society that is just, fair, and equitable.

"I am excited about working with colleagues to think strategically about ways to leverage Vera’s power and access to people in positions of power to open doors that remain closed to poor and Black and brown people—people that have been shut out of places where decisions about their fate and futures as justice-involved people are made.”