When Kim Kardashian-West recently became the face of prison reform activism, many of us watched the news and social feeds with a "Chile, bye," and a sigh of disbelief. Those who have been in the trenches fighting for years to right the wrongs against incarcerated people of color, scoffed at the headlines with some amused and others utterly disgusted and appalled.
Let's face it, few people think of Kim Kardashian as a top-of-mind beacon of change for black women behind bars.
Yet, when the reality star's visit to the White House and subsequent nail-in-the-coffin request to President Trump---a pariah among people of color both domestic and abroad---led to the release of Alice Marie Johnson, you couldn't help but salute. The second-eldest Kardashian sister used her influence beyond hawking makeup, celebrity, and extravagance to change the life of a grandmother who, after being convicted on a non-violent drug charge and serving 21 years, would have died in prison, away from the family and friends she had to leave behind.
According to reports, Kardashian was moved to get involved after seeing a Mic video on social media that detailed Johnson's story, but there's an even deeper story behind that---one that includes a tribe of women and men who have been working on Johnson's behalf long before Kardashian got her White House photo-op.
A major catalyst in this tribe is Topeka K. Sam, a formerly incarcerated activist. She worked with producers of the infamous video that led to it all, having built a personal relationship with Johnson that spans more than a year.
Topeka K. Sam
"That same morning [of the clemency granting], Ms. Alice and I were on the phone. We had no idea she would receive clemency that day. None. It was shortly after she and I got off the phone that she received that call from Kim Kardashian saying she'd be going home," Sam recalled during this exclusive interview with xoNecole.
When speaking with Sam about the experience and her role in it, I was privy to a wonderfully passionate, faith-filled woman of power whose candor and straightforward yet eloquent manner is intoxicatingly inspiring. Her drive to empower and assist women who seek to rebound and thrive post-prison is undeniable, and Johnson's case has thrust her into the spotlight.
"I am a woman of God, and I believe that when we walk in our purpose---when we walk in an anointing---and our steps are ordered, that's what happens. Ms. Alice [Johnson] is a woman of God. There were a lot of women of God who were surrounding Ms. Alice and her family. The woman who produced the Mic video is a woman of God," Sam added. "We were doing videos with Ms. Alice for years...and maybe we got [at most] 10,000 views---but it wasn't being shared in a way that [the Mic video was shared.] I heard [Kim Kardashian] talk about the universe, and people talk about their faith and how their spirit moves in different ways. For me, when she saw it, [I believe] she felt compelled to activate. And for whatever that's worth, she did it. As a woman of God, I understand that she was used in this by God."
"As a woman of God, I understand that she was used in this by God."
Sam recounted how the video that would change Johnson's life came about, and according to her account of it all, it's a perfect example of how one link can lead to another to form a chain of extraordinary action:
"I met Ms. Alice through Amy Povah, [founder of] CAN-DO [Foundation.] Amy received clemency from President Clinton [almost] 20 years ago as a first-time nonviolent drug offender...She highlighted 25 women and 25 men who she's vetted and worked with who are deserving of federal clemency. Ms. Alice was the number 1 person on her list," Sam said.
"I read her story three years ago and I said, 'I wanna help her.' ...I reached out to her case manager at the time, and asked if she could get permission to sit on these panels with us, and so she did. She Skyped in from prison, and we went to about 11 law schools around the country, [starting] February 2016. [That sparked more] panels… Google did a panel with [one of her] attorneys, Brittany Barnett, and #Cut50, and at that panel, Jake Horowitz [editor-at-large and co-founder of] Mic saw the video. [Entrepreneur and activist] Michael Skolnik reached out to me and connected me to Mic. I introduced them to Ms. Alice and I helped to facilitate the video that ended up getting 4 million views."
No one's a stranger to the shenanigans of the Trump administration, and for anybody who supports equality, freedom and basic human rights and respect, he is often seen as the antithesis of them all. Thus, holding confidence in him doing anything that benefits folk outside the golden 1%, for some, would be like waiting to meet Santa Clause.
"Many people, who are in this work, believed that nothing would happen under this administration...We could either say we're not going to fight because this is an administration people don't believe is going to act---a racist administration that only cares about themselves and the rich," Sam said. "I don't agree with some of the things that have happened [during the Trump administration], but you put your personal feelings aside when you're fighting for people. For us, it's people over politics. We know God can use anyone. To me, despite what anybody says the agenda might be… I just believe that God is saying to believe in Me. It didn't matter to me that they wanted to call Kim Kardashian the new prison reform activist or whether I was acknowledged for having a small role in the bigger picture. What mattered to me is that Ms. Alice is home."
"What mattered to me is that Ms. Alice is home."
Sam's faith and self-reflection is what led to her own redemption and renewal. She was convicted on drug conspiracy charges in 2013, and has since used her experience to build prison reform awareness and a safe community of sisters who have overcome the challenges of transitioning into life after prison. Sam grew up in a two-parent household of entrepreneurs and was a college-educated professional and businesswoman when she was arrested.
"I ended up going to college in Baltimore, where I was exposed---off-campus---to different things--things I was not [previously] aware of. I started dating guys who were engaged in the street lifestyle and I got caught up in that. As a result, I ended up in federal prison. Prior to my incarceration, I was division chairperson for Amtrak's On-board Service Workers Union. I was also a business owner and I wanted to open another business," she said. "While I was in prison, I had friends, family, resources---had visits if not every week, every other week, whether I was in Virginia, Connecticut, or Illinois, and I knew that my experience was different because I had resources and support. The women I met did not have, for the most part, the support I did. I saw the injustices that were happening in the system, some things I experienced---and it was placed on me by God, that when I came home, I had to help women to have access to education, entrepreneurship opportunities, spiritual empowerment, and advocacy."
Upon her release, she got busy launching The Ladies of Hope Ministries (LOHM), and partnered with friend Vanee Sykes to found Hope House NYC, a safe space and resource for women and girls formerly incarcerated.
Topeka K. Samme & eve
And the adage that behind every successful woman is a tribe of women who have her back is not lost on Sam, as she pointedly noted that she got her early support from veterans advocating for women in and released from prison, including Susan Burton, founder of A New Way of Life.
Hope House NYC's first facility in the Bronx is now full, and Sam has expanded her reach by serving as Director of Dignity for #Cut50, a national initiative led by Van Jones. She's also served as a Justice-In-Education Scholar at Columbia University, a Soros Justice Advocacy Fellow working on Probation and Parole Accountability, and host of "Last Mile Second Chances" on Siriusxm Urban View.
"Everybody has a lane, and I'm good in mine. When Kim Kardashian is in her lane---she has over 100 million followers on social media---and her lane is that she has the privilege of not only being a white woman but having access… She can walk into the White House, set up a meeting with this man, and compel him enough to want to stroke his pen. She's saying now that this isn't the last time she wants to do that, [and] she'll be held accountable, and continue to move forward, push more people, and move in the spirit [as] she feels needed."
"Everybody has a lane, and I'm good in mine."
Sam continued, "Hopefully she gets some of her friends involved and more people to step up and take chances--[people] who have the access--- instead of saying they're more concerned about their brand. I'm excited because I know who God is. For me, this just speaks volumes to what God can do and what God has done."