Social Justice Heroes

The year in review: 15 highlights of 2015 at Grassroots Leadership!

Massive march in Dilley, Texas to #EndFamillyDetention!

As we finish up 2015, we thought we’d reflect on the year at Grassroots Leadership.  We’ve had a terrific year of work and it couldn’t have been possible without the hard work and support of our staff, board, volunteers, allies, and donors.  Please consider making a donation to help our work continue in 2016.  Thank you, we couldn’t do it without you! [node:read-more:link]

Working for Justice: Celebrating Father Les Schmidt's 80th Birthday

Eighty years is a very long time, but for someone who has

 lived those eighty years dedicated to a fight for social justice, it is not nearly long enough.

This month, we are celebrating the 80th year in the life of Father Leslie Schmidt, a Glenmary priest of humble beginnings, one of twelve children born in a farm in the middle of the country.  A man who very early on decided that he wanted a life worth living; focused on a God of mercy and justice and love.

Father Les, as we all know him, pretty much lives out of his car. In any given month he will travel from Indiana to Virginia, through North and South Carolina, on his way to Georgia, or Mississippi, or maybe Tennessee, wherever he might be needed; living the life of a “regional priest”.  He follows the mission of the Glenmary Catholic society of brothers and priests dedicated to serving the spiritual and material needs of those living in impoverished counties in the South and Appalachia. He eats food on the go, sleeps in cheap motels, on someone’s couch, the local church or will stay up through the night if he is needed somewhere, and yet, he has the lanky built and the energy of someone a fraction of his age.


Grassroots Leadership honors Robert H. King of the Angola 3

Last Friday, Grassroots Leadership board and staff spent the evening with Robert H. King, the sole freed member of the Angola 3. We are so profoundly thankful for the opportunity to sit with King as he shared his experience as a political prisoner for 31 years, and to honor him for modeling resilience and hope in the service of social justice.

King, alongside fellow Black Panthers Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, spent 29 years in solitary confinement in the Louisiana Angola Prison after the 1972 killing of a prison guard, despite the absence of any physical evidence linking them to the murder. In truth, the Angola 3 were targeted for their activism and organizing against injustice inside the prison.


In Remembrance of a Trailblazer: A Legacy Gift from Long-time Friend Gerda Lerner

In June, Grassroots Leadership received a legacy gift from long-time friend and s

upporter Gerda Lerner.  Gerda had been a financial supporter since 1988, as well as a cherished friend of Grassroots Leadership's founder Si Kahn and his partner Elizabeth Minnich.  Many things tied Gerda to Grassroots Leadership: a passion for justice, equality, and the vision of a better world where the common good is defended and preserved.  Ms. Lerner left a portion of her estate to Grassroots Leadership to continue our work.

Born Gerda Hedwig Kronstein on April 30, 1920 in Vienna, she passed away  in Madison, Wisconsin on January 2, 2013. The Nazi occupation forced her and her family from Austria to Liechtenstein and from there to the United States. After marrying Carl Lerner in 1941, the couple lived in Hollywood, California, where Mr. Lerner was a film editor. Because of their leftist politics and increasing work with community groups to organize supermarket boycotts and neighborhood child care centers, it became increasingly hard to find work and they moved back to New York.


Social Justice Hero: Pamela Reséndiz

Welcome to our Social Justice Hall of Heroes: once a month we’ll be highlighting someone in the field fighting to end for-profit incarceration and reduce reliance on criminalization and detention through direct action, organizing, research, and public education.  

To start the new year, our January Social Justice Hero is Pamela Reséndiz, a Texas-based activist for immigrant youth. Ms. Reséndiz has courageously spoken out about her own experiences as an undocumented student, including her incarceration in the T. Don Hutto Detention Center; you can see her speech at our recent protest at the Polk County Detention Center here.  Below is Pamela’s story in her own words.


Social Justice Hero: Caroline Isaacs

Welcome to our Social Justice Hall of Heroes: once a month we’ll be highlighting someone in the field fighting to end for-profit incarceration and reduce reliance on criminalization and detention through direct action, organizing, research, and public education.

Our Social Justice Superhero for November is Caroline Isaacs, the program director for the American Friends Service Committee office in Tucson, Arizona.  Isaacs began her work with the Quaker organization in 1995, when she was hired on for a one-year internship; she became the Criminal Justice Program Coordinator six years later, and in 2004 moved into her current position.  I had an opportunity to talk with Isaacs last week about her life as an activist and Tucsonian. 


Social Justice Hero: Gail Tyree

Welcome to our Social Justice Hall of Heroes: once a month we’ll be highlighting someone in the field fighting to end for-profit incarceration and reduce reliance on criminalization and detention through direct action, organizing, research, and public education.

On Wednesday, October 10th, Grassroots Leadership and Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary will be co-sponsoring a guest lecture by Gail Tyree, a Soros fellow and former organizer for Grassroots Leadership.  In honor of her upcoming visit, Gail will be our first Social Justice Superhero.Gail Tyree with Rev. Neal Presa, Moderator of the PCUSA

As a 2011 Soros Justice Fellow, Gail is creating a network of organizations and individuals in the southeast U.S. who can respond quickly and effectively to stop for-profit prisons, jails, or detention centers from moving into their communities.  Currently, she is a board member of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, and Tyree boasts over 30 years of Labor and Community organizing experience.  

Her experience includes: international representative for the Workers United Labor Union; campaign director and organizer with Grassroots Leadership in Charlotte, North Carolina; board member of Workers Interfaith Network; advisory member of the Presbyterian Child Advocacy Network; campaign director for the Southern Faith Labor and Community Alliance in Memphis, Tennessee; project labor organizer with the Communications Workers of America; organizing instructor for the MidSouth Peace and Justice Center. She was also an AFL-CIO Teaching Fellow and a graduate of Southern Empowerment Project 2005 Advance Leadership Preparation Initiative.  Most recently, Tyree was asked to help form the Presbyterian Criminal Justice Network and was elected to the board of the Presbyterian Health, Education, and Welfare Association.

At the most recent congress of the PCUSA, Tyree represented the Presbyterian Criminal Justice Network as a resource person to the Social Justice Committee.  Gail was integral in passing the overture “On Instructing MRTI to Report to GAMC on the Corporate Practices of Publicly Traded Corporations That Operate For-Profit Prisons.”  For Gail, this overture is an extension of the Presbyterian Church’s 2002 condemnation of for-profit prisons; she’s glad to see the denomination finally “putting its money where its mouth is” as it ensures against investment in companies that profit from imprisonment.

Despite her impressive CV as an activist, Tyree maintains that her work and her journey are more personal and spiritual than occupational.  I had an opportunity to talk with Gail on the phone and over email.  Click "Read More" to see my interview with Gail.


New Leader for Grassroots Leadership


Beginning July 1st,  Bob Libal will be Grassroots Leadership’s new Interim Executive Director.

Bob, currently our Senior Organizer, brings with him more than a decade of work around the issues of prison and immigrant detention privatization.  He has worked in leadership positions with Grassroots Leadership for almost ten years, managing some of our most successful program.  Please direct all Grassroots Leadership communication to him at


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