We sat down with Jamie Lunder, Board Chair of Dream Corps, to talk about why she spends her time working with us.
Q: Today, you’re the board chair and a longtime supporter of this organization. But how did you first get involved with Dream Corps?
A: It was a Dream Corps #cut50 event. It was right after the 2016 election when so many Americans’ spirits were low – I live in a community where everyone I knew was just devastated about Trump’s victory. At this event, (Dream Corps Founder) Van Jones was talking about his life, pointing out that when he was at Yale students were doing drugs right on campus, how the police wouldn’t even touch them, but instead would go to communities six blocks away and arrest the local kids. He spoke about the school-to-prison pipeline. It was just one of those moments where everything he said rang true to me on a soulful level, and I thought I have to do something to get closer to this work. Van and I got to talking, and he connected me with Dream Corps CEO Nisha Anand and #cut50 cofounder Jessica Jackson. I was proud to support an event in San Francisco for one of the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Acts. I didn’t have a personal connection to the prison population, but I started to get to know people who did and it became personal for me. Then I went to San Quentin, and that experience changed everything.
Q: That would be San Quentin State Prison. What was that experience like?
A: I first went for an event where the San Francisco 49ers were giving a pep talk to a group of prisoners. I was really blown away. There was so much heart in the room. One of the guys I met was a man named David Jassy. David organized and produced the San Quentin Mixtape. I started going to the media room while they were working on the mixtape, getting to know the incarcerated men. When you spend time with them, you really see and feel the untapped potential behind bars.
Some people ask me: how can you go there, aren’t you nervous? I was never afraid. I never felt nervous. They never ever made me feel like anything would happen to me. If anything, I felt like these guys would look out for me. I started really listening to their stories, especially through their music and it broke my heart open. One young man told a story about how his grandfather was in the same prison, and how that affected his family. It brings to mind the fact of ancestral, inherited trauma, and the heaviness of that. When you listen to the Mixtape, you realize that hurt people hurt people. You see the faces and lives in the school-to-prison pipeline. When they were kids many of the men dealt with neglect and abuse, and naturally they acted out. They didn’t have educational opportunities – and this is true in a lot of underserved communities. When kids don’t have those opportunities early on, it’s nearly impossible to avoid falling through the cracks. Abused and neglected children find community in gangs and there they are exposed to violence and drugs. Maybe their parents were struggling as well, and were unable to provide the physical, emotional, and spiritual bandwidth to nourish these young souls. This is how we end up with a generational pattern.
On top of it all, I noticed that mostly everyone was Black or Brown – there were a few white guys, but the contrast just felt so obvious.
It was also painful to see how demeaning some of the guards were towards the prisoners. I genuinely believe in redemption and second chances and the atmosphere inside the prison walls didn’t promote either. There was no humanity. It was a big wake up call for me. Honestly, I feel like I am the one who has benefitted tenfold from my work with Dream Corps. I’m incredibly grateful to have been introduced to this work, and I talk about it with everyone, everywhere.
Q: I’m told you actually became quite good friends with David Jassy, the force behind the San Quentin mixtape. Is that true?
A: Absolutely. David is a very talented Grammy-nominated music producer from Sweden. An unfortunate situation occurred which led to his incarceration. Obviously he didn’t have any of his music equipment with him in prison. After getting to know him better a friend and I bought some basics for him to create a makeshift music studio on site. Prison is tough – it is a whole world that people on the outside don’t know anything about. There’s gang pressure, the resulting tribal behaviors are pervasive. It is really hard to survive in that environment. David was committed and he would work with other young men to teach them how to tell their stories and express themselves through music. The result is the San Quentin Mixtape. It was deeply moving to hear these young men pour their hearts into the music. David was actually released right before Easter. 2020 has been a tough year for almost everyone, but for me one of the bright lights was David’s sentence commutation. Talk about second chances! He is back in Sweden, living his life in freedom.
Q: One of the things I am hearing is the importance of stories. Having formerly incarcerated individuals lead the fight for criminal justice reform is central to Dream Corps’ work, have you seen that power personally?
A: Yes, I have. We have to be a society of second chances, of restorative justice. When people hear these stories, they realize the system is broken from beginning to end. Specific communities are targeted. People who have only committed small infractions end up behind bars for years. Then what happens when they get out? They have no opportunities, they can’t vote, they don’t have access to fair lenders and often cannot buy a home, they face stigma and discrimination in the workplace – how are they going to get a job? How are we helping them reintegrate? When there is recidivism, everyone loses. It is hard to care about progress unless you start with real people’s stories. Personal stories make the harm less abstract and more real. The current system is not about rehabilitation, but breaking people down. I have read many books on the criminal justice system and listened to endless podcasts. But if I hadn’t seen it up close with my own eyes, I would not have fully comprehended how truly broken the system really is.
Q: Shifting gears a bit, you also went to an early Dream Corps TECH event, right? Back when it was called #YesWeCode?
A: Right after I first met Van and got involved with Dream Corps, there was a #YesWeCode (now Dream Corps TECH) awards ceremony in San Francisco where I said a few words. Afterwards these two young Mexican-American brothers came over to me. They were thanking people who supported their cohort. Without the TECH training, they said, the highest position they might have would be a manager at a McDonald’s. They deeply believed that this work – the tech boot camp training and all the wrap-around services #YesWeCode provided – would really change their lives. It was such a personal interaction. Sometimes these problems we face seem so big and difficult to tackle. Just look at diversity in the tech world. We need Black, Brown, and low-income voices in the conversation. Why should older white engineers be the only ones in the room making an app that everyone is going to use? We’re entering a new world with artificial intelligence, and if we don’t have Black, Brown and low-income voices in the conversation we’re going to have tons of problems. From AI to facial recognition, we face big challenges collectively. We need all voices in the conversation. This felt like an intensely tangible, person-to-person experience of changing an issue. Not only the training, but the wrap-around services, including coaching and psychological support. #YesWeCode was so different than anything I’d historically supported. Sometimes it does feel like you’re just giving to the ether….that you’re four steps removed from whatever beauty you’re attempting to create in the world. But not with Dream Corps. Right in front of me were these two brothers saying this made all the difference in the world to them. It was such a pivotal moment for me.
Q: In a sense, you’re helping tackle huge systemic issues like inequality, but being able to see some of the results?
A: Exactly. That is why I was originally attracted to this work. Inequality is the thing that keeps me up at night. This current pandemic is exposing so much. There are people who will be able to provide tutoring for their kids, and other kids who won’t even have access to the internet. What will happen to the communities that are in unsafe environmental zones that have already been hit the hardest, and now are struggling even more?
Q: That’s where Dream Corps Green For All comes in.
A: Dream Corps Green For All is such an important initiative. Look at air or water quality disparities in communities across America. Think about Flint, Michigan, and the unfairness of a community dealing with tainted water. The California wildfires are not too far from where I live. The air quality is terrible for everybody. But air and water quality hits some communities harder than others. Same is true of COVID-19, and of the climate crisis more broadly. Hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires don’t care about your age, your race, your socio-economic status, and yet they hit our poorer communities harder. There are communities in Oakland, CA that are nestled against freeways, choking on exhaust and rattled by noise, there are others where the government isn’t making sure the pipes are safe. These big crises expose the inequality and hit the poorest communities the hardest. At the same time, we know about the potential for green jobs to be a game-changer for everyone, but those jobs will mean more for communities where jobs are sparse. I have seen how Dream Corps Green For All is fueling change in our underserved and pollution-burdened neighborhoods through the creation of clean green jobs. We are seeing the possibilities of a green future right in front of us.
Q: There are other organizations that work on these same issues. Why Dream Corps?
A: I love the team. They are committed to making dreams happen. They want to level up and that is what I believe in. We all win when we all win. We all rise when we all rise. That’s Dream Corps, and I’m all in.
A: My friends always ask me why I give so much time and money to Dream Corps. It comes down to seeing the power of personal transformation and the profound impact that has on our shared world. Van has taught me that we can turn our common pain into common purpose by turning to each other instead of on each other. We can create unlikely partnerships and open unexpected doors. That’s why Van created Dream Corps, and why I joined the board to work in solidarity to transform our lives and our communities.
In my daily life, when people ask, “what’s new with you?” all of this is on my mind. I think of the guys at San Quentin or the people who have gone through the TECH cohorts. This work has truly grabbed my heart and I can’t imagine that I would ever want my heart released from this purpose.
Q: People who don’t have that personal connection yet, what do you say to them?
A: Dream Corps itself is an umbrella model. We have three initiatives, Dream Corps #cut50, Dream Corps TECH and Dream Corps Green For All. It is one vision, working through the three programs, bringing the issues to life. We impact real people and the work never feels philosophical. We have a well-thought-out plan for closing prison doors and opening doors of opportunity. We’re not new to this issue. We have measurable goals and achievements. People want to see measurable results. We can provide that. The work we are doing is not abstract. We have passed federal legislation such as The First Step Act and a dozen or so Dignity for Incarcerated Women Acts at the state levels.
Then there is the bipartisan way we work with unlikely allies. That speaks to me and sets Dream Corps apart. There is another magical part – the “secret sauce” of Dream Corps is that it has shown me the beauty of unexpected allies who show up for each other. Jews standing up for Muslims, men speaking out against sexual assault, you name it. I love when you don’t expect to see people come together and they do. We do that really well.
We also do it without losing track of what’s important. We’re always rooting for the underdog. We’re constantly looking to elevate communities who are underrepresented and underserved. Every issue is on the table and open for discussion, a real skill-set in these uncertain times. Dream Corps approaches things with a big-hearted, open-minded thought process, and that keeps us rooted and flexible at the same time.
Q: Do you ever get pushback on that common-ground approach given all the partisan divides out there?
A: All the time. Here’s my answer: I will work with anyone who is open to fixing the broken criminal justice problem. Ask any person behind bars. They don’t care who is in the White House, they want to go home to their house. Talk to them, and you will hear that politics feels like a game to them and they feel totally disconnected. Even if I disagree with someone on 90% of the issues, if we can come together on 10% or 3%, then there is nobody off limits for collaboration.
I want to work with people who are solution-based, who are looking for answers, and who are willing to do the nitty-gritty work. If you focus on solutions, on the goals, it matters less who you are working with or who you are talking to. By the way, the other thing people will say is, “Why should we care about prisoners? Why do a music program for them, what about the ‘good’ kids?” To which I always say it is about mercy, and redemption. Nobody is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. We all deserve second chances. I don’t have a Pollyanna attitude, I’ve lived in the world long enough to know there are people who want to hurt others. But the vast majority of people, if given the love and nurturing homes that we all wish we could give to our children, wouldn’t be pulled into these unfortunate circumstances or lives of violence. At the end of the day, we need to care because they are human beings. They are somebody’s child. Nobody ever gave birth to a child saying, “You know what, I’m sure this kid will do terrible things in the world and I don’t care.” The work is to find common ground. If I am going to go down, I am going down believing in the best of humanity.
Q: To close out, we’re living in what truly feels like a pivotal moment. America is waking up to its history of racial injustice. The climate crisis is turning our skies red and flooding our cities. A pandemic is exposing inequities. What makes Dream Corps essential in this moment?
A: Adaptability. IQ matters at this moment, our EQ – our emotional intelligence – matters, but it feels like AQ – our Adaptability Quotient – is now more important than ever. I start out everyday asking myself “What is my adaptability quotient?” Am I going to be able to pivot to the needs of the day – whether it is my child, something in the world, whatever it may be. We need to be able to constantly and consistently evolve and adapt in this new world.
Dream Corps is an organization where adaptability is an embedded practice. Van has a saying, “Breakdowns can lead to breakthroughs.” We are seeing this in every sector of our life, from education to health care to our finances, even spiritually. Everything seems to have blown up. We need to be able to think fast so we can adapt and emerge stronger. The pandemic has made things worse, but it has revealed so much more. It has revealed and exacerbated some of these underlying inequalities. I feel like we are all being stripped bare, and this is a test in a way or in a lot of ways. How are we going to move forward? I know Dream Corps can adapt, and that Dream Corps will always lead with love. Both of those things are essential right now.