I am not a lawyer. I got involved in the struggle to reform criminal justice for very different reasons; personal reasons.

When I was five years old my father went to prison for ten years. He was convicted of crimes that were committed years earlier. Before my two sisters, my baby brother, and I were born. Although there was a lawyer assigned to represent him, he never had an advocate to fight for him. By the time he was arrested he was a different man. He converted to Islam, owned a fish market, married and was raising four young children. But without a champion to speak for him, my father’s story was never told.

His absence hurt me and my three siblings. It crippled our family. I was forced to become a parent, helping my hard-working, single mother maintain our household. My baby brother, raised with no male role model, struggled the most. He is now incarcerated.

I grew up having no faith in the criminal justice system or the lawyers appointed to represent the people I saw every day in my community. So I became a public school teacher working in systems that had great social challenges.

I tried to break the cycle on the front end. But despite my best efforts, my children brought challenges far greater than the public school system could overcome. I felt helpless and hopeless. I felt like I couldn’t save my students from the cradle to prison pipeline.

That’s when I met Jon Rapping (whom I later married). He introduced me to so many passionate public defenders fighting every day to learn and tell their client’s stories. They were the safety net so desperately needed when the education system failed its children. I realized there was hope. These public defenders humanize their clients. They remind the system of what justice is; and of the dignity of those the system impacts. So in 2007 I decided to leave teaching and to help Jon build Gideon’s Promise. 

Gideon’s Promise exists because we believe that in order to stop the processing of poor people into prison cells, we must have a committed community of public defenders to force the system to treat people like human beings and not numbers on a court docket.

Although we’ve come a long way since the Birmingham Bus Boycott, Selma, and the March on Washington, Martin Luther King’s dream will not be fully realized until we have equality for all people; and that includes people affected by the criminal justice system. It is in court houses in Clayton, DeKalb, and Fulton counties where poor people and people of color are adversely impacted. Families are being torn apart and lives are forever changed.

As we continue to honor the memory of Dr. King, this generation will continue to fight today’s greatest civil rights challenge; an unbalanced justice system.

Without committed public defenders every day citizens do not have a chance.

In the wake of events in Ferguson, Staten Island and Cleveland, the nation has focused on the issue of abusive policing. My heart goes out to the mothers of these slain men and children.

But for every person of color killed by a police officer, tens of thousands are processed through a criminal justice system without an advocate with the time or resources to ensure they get justice.

I have a six year old son. I am saddened that my husband and I have to teach him NOW that he will be viewed differently than his sister, simply because he is an African American male.

One of my greatest fears is that he will make a mistake in life. And that mistake will land him in our criminal justice system.

My fear is that he will not have a lawyer who has the ability to tell his story…and his life will be destroyed.

That is why Jon, our team, and our outstanding faculty spend our days building an army of public defenders to make sure the promise of equal justice is a reality in communities where the challenges are the greatest.

So, on behalf of some child out there whose father or mother made a mistake, I want to thank the public defenders who are part of this army. I want to thank you for helping a little girl like me know that the lives of her family members matter.

Ilham Askia is the Executive Director of Gideon’s Promise, an organization dedicated to grooming a community of public defenders to help transform some of the nation’s most broken criminal justice systems. This article is adapted from her acceptance speech when Gideon’s Promise was honored by Emory University with its 2015 Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Service Award. Illy’s speech can be heard here