Exclusive: Meet Topeka K. Sam, The Black Woman Behind The Video That Led To The Trump Clemency

Human Interest

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."

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
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