The work Sodiqa Williams does as general counsel and vice president of external affairs for the Safer Foundation runs far more deeply than answering emails, reviewing documents and collecting a check – it’s a realization of her life’s work.
Last May, Williams completed five years working for Safer, a nonprofit focused on reacclimating people with criminal records to the workforce. It was a sensible career step for a woman who wrote her senior thesis at Princeton University on mandatory minimum sentencing and mass incarceration. Beyond that, she has worked on human trafficking and gender equity issues as senior presidential adviser for the American Bar Association.
As the Muncie, Ind., native has had to encounter issues with the criminal justice system within her own family, Williams believed her work with the Safer Foundation “was just a logical fit.”
“Growing up and looking at the injustices within my own African American community, I realized that I could make a difference,” she said. “But it’s not just an African American issue … it’s a social and economic justice issue for everyone.”
Williams talked to Chicago Lawyer about her Safer Foundation work and why she considers her fight for equality her life’s mission.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Chicago Lawyer: How did you start this work?
Williams: I always knew that I wanted to help others like me who came from a lack of opportunity. I grew up in Muncie and split my time between my mom and my dad in Chicago. My mother was disabled from polio and my luck didn’t really look good in terms of my trajectory, but I got into a private school in Indiana. I worked very hard and was able to get into Princeton.
It was there I took classes with professors Cornel West, Eddie Glaude and Beth “Kiki” Jamieson. From them, I realized I wanted to work to address the injustices derived from race in American politics. I thought I wanted to be a U.S. senator at the time and I knew in order to do that, I had to become a lawyer. I knew I wanted to commit my life to helping people who have the mindset and the drive to change their lives and do better for themselves.
CL: What does your work with the Safer Foundation look like?
Williams: For nonprofits, they have you wearing many hats. As corporate counsel, I look at contracts, new real estate ventures and I advise on any new development of policies, which are many because we are an expanding organization. I work with Legal Aid Chicago to ensure that our clients are receiving legal services to help with the removal of legal barriers that come as a result of their records. I also use my skill set to push through legislation for the state of Illinois and at the national level.
CL: What are some things you’ve accomplished on that front?
Williams: I’ve worked with Congressman Danny Davis to open up health care for people with conviction records, as health care is the fastest-growing industry. My team and I held a forum through which we got more than 130 people placed into clinical and nonclinical jobs.
As a result of that forum, I wrote a tool kit for the health-care industry [“A Healthcare Employer Guide to Hiring People with Arrest and Conviction Records”] that’s been disseminated locally and nationally. Just this week [on Aug. 4], we were able to lead the passage of a bill, [Illinois] SB 1965, that will make it easier for people with a conviction background to work in the health-care industry.
My team and I also led occupational licensing reform for the state of Illinois in 2017. It allows for a revision of licensing structures for people with convictions for occupations such as barbers, real estate brokers and nurses.
It stops blanket denial for licensing based solely on conviction. We created a fair and consistent process in terms of looking at rehabilitation and other mitigating factors, including clarifying that employers can’t look at sealed and expunged records. This was a big step forward because it’s long been known that if you have a conviction in Illinois, those living wage careers will be cut off to you. This piece of legislation is now actually being used for the emerging cannabis industry.
CL: What’s next for Safer?
Williams: We really want to highlight our 18th annual CARRE Policy Conference: ‘It’s All Connected: A Holistic Approach to Re-entry’ on Oct. 15. It’s an all-day conference that will host a series of speakers. It will focus on holistic re-entry — not just workforce development, but looking at health care, economic justice, housing and others.
For the first time, we’re bringing all the systems together for the conversation that needs to happen in order to establish meaningful criminal justice reform. Our hope is that criminal justice stakeholders come out with practical solutions.
Most importantly, we want community voices involved — those who are living it and are most impacted by these issues. We want to train them and make them leaders in dealing with the issues in their communities.
CL: What would you like people to better understand about your work?
Williams: When we’re thinking of the affected population, it isn’t a ‘they,’ it’s an ‘us.’ There are about 4.2 million people in Illinois with arrest and conviction records. In Chicago, the number of people with arrest and convictions records has a huge implication on violence, unemployment, poor health outcomes and educational opportunities.
Poverty pretty much puts you in a direct line of sight of the justice system, so it’s important to understand that a lot of these people are just like us. We need to think about how we’d react if we lived in communities where there was massive disinvestment and an incarceration rate that’s a result of a failed war on drugs … one that has generationally taken fathers out of households and helped to create communities with high unemployment and violence.
We’ve also seen that the people we serve are the best employees, more loyal and have higher retention rates than others.
There’s also an economic imperative at play: Even though we have low unemployment in Illinois, it’s at 27% for the justice-involved population. On top of it, we have low labor participation rates, which means we have all these jobs and nobody to work them because a whole group of people are being opted out.
People are leaving our state in droves and we’re sidelining this population of people who can take the jobs. We need to diversify the talent pipeline and start thinking differently about the myths associated with that population.
That education is what I’m here for. The population Safer serves is anybody with arrest or commission records; that could be somebody who got arrested 30 years ago and never got their record expunged. Our retention levels for the health-care collaborative is about 97% of people we place throughout the years and recidivism rate is very low. That’s what happens when you put people in living wage jobs.
CL: Why has this type of work been the focus of your career?
Williams: I believe it’s an honor to do this work. We need strong leadership, and I see myself and my team as critically important. (It’s) not just here in Illinois, but nationwide because the work we do continues to make a significant impact in terms of removing institutional barriers, providing the critical education necessary for employers, legislators, government officials and for the private foundation community so that they understand the importance of the re-entry issue that we’re working on and how it impacts all of those families generationally.
I want to break the cycles I’ve witnessed since I was a young girl in Muncie; I want to break the mass incarceration cycle. I think that we’re at a critical time in criminal justice reform where one system of repression can move to another one, which is what we’re seeing with electronic monitoring.
We’re also seeing it happen increasingly with the immigrant community. We’ve got to stop these cycles of oppression and we have to work together to do it, so I’ll continue to do the work no matter how long it takes.