The Catalyze podcast: Amber Koonce ’12, civil rights attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, on juvenile justice advocacy; redefining beauty standards for women of color

Amber Koonce ’12 is a civil rights attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. 

Amber shares how her Morehead-Cain summers working at a women’s correctional center in Ghana and at a young boys’ correctional center in Scotland helped inform her vocation to defend human rights and civil rights in representing incarcerated people, particularly people who’ve been incarcerated as children.  

Following the alumna’s graduation from Carolina and before entering Yale Law School, Amber worked as a juvenile justice policy analyst at the Humanitarian Legal Assistance Foundation in the Philippines on a Luce scholarship. After earning a JD, she clerked on the U.S. federal judiciary for the Honorable William Fletcher on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Amber is also a social entrepreneur and the founder of BeautyGap, a nonprofit that supports the development of girls worldwide by distributing dolls of color. Since 2009, BeautyGap has distributed Black and brown dolls to girls in orphanages throughout Ghana, Kenya, Haiti, and the Philippines.

How to listen

On your mobile device, you can listen and subscribe to Catalyze on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. For any other podcast app, you can find the show using our RSS feed

Catalyze is hosted and produced by Sarah O’Carroll for the Morehead-Cain Foundation, home of the first merit scholarship program in the United States and located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You can let us know what you thought of the episode by finding us on Twitter or Instagram at @moreheadcain or you can email us at communications@moreheadcain.org.

Music credits 

The intro music is by Scott Hallyburton ’22, guitarist of the band South of the Soul. 

The music for the mid-episode break and ending is by Nicholas Byrne ’19. Follow Nicholas @art.sandcrafts on Instagram. 

Episode Transcription

(Sarah)

Amber, thanks so much for joining us.

(Amber)

Thanks for having me, Sarah. I'm excited to speak with you.

(Sarah)

So, you are in Charlotte – working remotely, I'm guessing? What does life look like for you right now?

(Amber)

Yes. So, I am in Charlotte, North Carolina, working remotely. I was working out of New York when the pandemic first hit, and after about two weeks of quarantine in my shoebox apartment, I decided it was time to go back to the comforts of the suburbs.

(Sarah)

Well, I'm glad to hear that you're doing well. You're at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, defending human rights, civil rights, and representing incarcerated people, including people who were incarcerated as children. What first got you interested and involved in human rights, civil justice and juvenile justice advocacy?

(Amber)

That interest actually began at Carolina. When I got to campus, I knew that I really wanted to find a student group that would give me the opportunity to get involved in the community, and that I wouldn't just be confined to the classroom or to campus. And I found that outlet through a student group called Criminal Justice Action and Awareness that was offered through the Campus Y. 

Every other weekend, we would go out to mentor children who were incarcerated in the Durham County Youth Home. A kid who was there, he was sixteen for the first year I was working with him. And then as his seventeenth birthday was coming up, we knew that he was going to be transferred to the adult prison, because in North Carolina at the time, children as young as sixteen, seventeen could be incarcerated with adults. 

I grew very close to him over the course of the year, mentoring him, doing workbooks with him, planning for the future, and on our last visit to the detention center, we had a birthday party for him before he was transferred. 

One of the guards was schooling him on what to expect at the adult prison. She was explaining to him, and I would like to say trigger warning here, because I know some folks may not want to hear this, but she was explaining to him that he would be vulnerable to sexual assault or sexual abuse in the adult prison because he was so young and because he was so small. And she shared stories about young people who had passed through the juvenile detention home before, and been transferred, and the abuse that they had experienced there.

And that really struck me because, in the United States, we pride ourselves on being a country that upholds human rights. And so, from there, I actually used my Morehead-Cain summers to explore how other countries dealt with their incarcerated youth.

(Sarah)

You were in Scotland, and then Ghana? 

(Amber)

Exactly. For my first summer, I was teaching at an elementary school in Ghana, but then I started volunteering at a young women's correctional center in Ghana, mentoring those girls in very much a similar way that I was mentoring the kids at the Durham County Youth Home. 

And then for my second summer, I went to a young boys’ correctional center in Scotland. The most meaningful experience I had there was that the guard at that correctional center, he told me, “In Scotland, what makes us different from America is that we understand that just because you're in prison doesn't mean you're no longer a part of our community.”

They had structures in place to make sure that when children went into the institution that they came out ready to contribute back to their community. And after my Morehead-Cain summers, I just knew that I wanted to try to take those lessons and bring them back to the states.

(Sarah)

What I'm hearing you say is that in Scotland's approach, they provide certain structures to help individuals really be able to contribute to society upon their release. Can you tell us a little bit more of what you mean by that and what sort of educational programs or other resources they made available?

(Amber)

Yeah, that's a really great question. First and foremost, there was a huge focus on rehabilitation. So, your sentencing hearing wasn't the last time you saw a judge. They treated imprisonment a lot like probation. And what I mean by that is, you would have to check in with your judge, and if the family was up for it with the family of the victim of your crime, for them to assess if they felt like you were exhibiting characteristics of change in your behavior. 

They had classes where they were teaching these boys how to weld, how to build things, skills that they could then turn into jobs if and when they rejoined society. They had – and this is something that we didn't have the United States in the Durham County Youth Home – guaranteed outdoors time every day. 

It very much resembled school in its structure. They had instructional time every day. School and kind of like rehabilitation, counseling, on a daily basis with folks checking in to make sure that the necessary changes were occurring as far as their behavior or their mental health, and that they had the tools to rejoin society when that time came.

(Sarah)

Following your graduation from Carolina and before entering Yale Law School, you worked as a juvenile justice policy analyst at the Humanitarian Legal Assistance Foundation in the Philippines. You were on a Luce Scholarship at the time. Was earning a JD always the goal during that period or what sort of aspirations were on your mind as you considered going back to school?

(Amber)

I actually wrestled with whether I wanted to get a JD or not up until about my junior year at Carolina, I would say. One of my majors was public policy. I was working with Professor Daniel Gitterman. 

At the time, if you wanted to apply for public assistance, there was a separate paper application for every different type of public assistance, like food assistance, monetary assistance, housing assistance. And Professor Gitterman was working on a project called the Benefit Bank, which would make all of those applications an online platform.

And you would just insert your demographic information and your income, etcetera, and then it would more efficiently tell you everything you qualify for. So, I was working on that with him. 

I also was working on the North Carolina Council for Women with my mentor, Jill Dinwiddie, who actually passed away earlier this month. We were working on issues of gender equity and making sure that women in North Carolina had equal pay, making sure that women in North Carolina had resources to what was like a domestic violence fund, so that if they left relationships where they were dependent on an abusive partner, that they could rejoin society safely with their children.

And ultimately, from those experiences, I got really frustrated because I found that, no matter how good your policy idea or your policy solution may be to address an issue in your community, if the political will isn't there, if the politics aren't right, it's not going to be implemented. 

Law, to me, seemed like a way to be above politics. Law, at its best, I should say. And to pursue solutions to problems that I saw in my community in a way that was apolitical and depended more on justice than on what election cycle we were on.

(Sarah)

Hmmm. Now, after law school, you served as a law clerk for the Honorable William Fletcher on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. How would you say that helped clarify that career path and really hone the questions that you wanted to tackle long-term?

(Amber)

Clerking for the federal judiciary was an incredibly eye-opening experience for me because it just showed to me how badly in the United States we need good lawyers. And we need good lawyers who are willing to represent poor people, who are willing to do pro bono work.

Because what a law clerk does is when you get your appellate briefs, you try to make sure that every side of the case, the appellant and the appellee, has the facts of their position laid out fully for the judge to then consider where the law should fall on the facts. 

What often happens far too often is that the person with the most resources, regardless of what the facts may be, has an attorney who has more time and the ability to put in more effort, digging up the facts on their case.

The role of a law clerk, specifically the role I was in at an appellate law firm, is to take the time. If it's obvious that someone's attorney didn't take care with their case, to go into the file and make sure the facts are brought out to the fullest extent on both sides of the issue, so that then the judge is looking at the issue with both sides represented equally. 

That was incredibly rewarding work, but it was also difficult because there were, again, far too many instances where it was obvious that someone's attorney was working with a template or something and didn't put much care into the facts. But then the law clerk goes into the record and says, “Wait, well this happened in this person's life.” 

I was dealing with people who were appealing for their Social Security benefits, their disability benefits, folks who were seeking asylum in the United States or in prison, people who were appealing their sentences. The most rewarding work was when I got to go into their records and dig up the facts that maybe their attorney didn't have the time to do.

(Sarah)

It doesn't sound like it would be all about . . . that these attorneys didn't want to spend more time. It seems like it would be more of they just don't have that time because they are pressured, they have to represent this amount of people, this is how much time they have, and that often is at the expense of the rights of the people that they represent.

(Amber)

I think that's exactly right. And that's why I say we need more attorneys and I'm always excited when I hear people who are interested in going into the law because people have their rights violated every day, for folks who are seeking asylum or applying for disability every day. And the more attorneys we have who can take the care with their cases that is needed, the better off our justice system will be because the system only generates justice when both sides of an issue have zealous advocates.

(Sarah)

We'll be right back. Stay with us.

Tomorrow on Wednesday, March 3, Julie Huffaker from the Class of ’91 will deliver a SEVEN Talk beginning at 7:00 p.m. Eastern Time. 

Over the past twenty-five years, the social scientist has worked in four emerging sectors, including specialty coffee as one of the first employees at Starbucks in the nineties; global technology adoption at Microsoft, Intel, and Hewlett-Packard; experiential leadership education at Nike and Disney; and collaborative intelligence and the future of work at Deeper Funner Change, where she is now as principal and founding partner. 

You can find more information on the event and on Julie through the Morehead-Cain Network. 

(Sarah)

Speaking of the next generation of civil rights lawyers, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund just launched a 40 million dollar scholarship program to support young people who are interested in pursuing racial justice throughout the South of U.S. You're certainly a role model for anyone who's interested in getting into civil rights work and getting into law, but what might you say to the individuals who receive the scholarship? What advice would you give to them beyond how to survive law school but to really understand the issues here? And what resources might you point them to?

(Amber)

A good place to start would be, civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson often talks about the importance of proximity and being close to the suffering that you see in your community. I think it's important to start with this work by being close to the issues that you care about, so talk to your community members, understand from their perspective what's going right, what's going wrong. 

When it comes to folks who are incarcerated, children who are incarcerated, adults who are incarcerated, I don't want to give the impression that folks don't have autonomy in some of the decisions they make. I wouldn't say it's always by no fault of their own, but I would say that taking responsibility for the wrong that is done is important. And then once someone has taken responsibility, that has to be met with resources so that they can make those meaningful changes and rejoin our community.

And the only reason I have an appreciation for that, the importance of that process, is because the CJAA, the Chapel Hill organization, gave me the opportunity to be in close proximity with folks who are incarcerated. 

So, yeah, that's the first step. Ask your community members what issues are plaguing them and be really attentive and observant to that. 

I then just started reading books on these issues. Some of the books were required reading for classes I took at Carolina, but others I just found along the way. The ones that have informed my thinking the most, and that I would recommend, are Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, Medical Apartheid by Harriet Washington, and The Color of Law, by Rothstein. And I think those are great places to start if you want to be a civil rights attorney in the South to understand where we are at the moment, we're in today, and what we need to do to move forward.

(Sarah)

I'm curious to get your take on Biden, even though you said earlier in this conversation that you don't love to get bogged down into the politics, but in his first day in office, he issued an executive order on advancing racial equity and support for underserved communities through the federal government. And we know from his campaign that racial equity was a big focus. To what extent are you thinking about your work differently, even though the mission remains the same, as you look ahead to the next few years under the Biden administration? What opportunities do you see and what challenges will remain priorities to tackle?

(Amber)

I am encouraged that we have a commander in chief who recognizes that not dealing with the issue of racial inequity threatens our domestic tranquility and threatens our international standing in the world, especially as a human rights leader. 

I have a friend who went to China, mainland China, and brought me back this piece of propaganda poster they had over there that essentially said, “If you don't like the way you're being treated here, look at how white people are treated in America.” It is jarring to see how countries that are not our allies point to a lot of the racial equity struggles the United States has to excuse their own bad behavior. I think it's good that we have a commander in chief who's saying that this type of treatment is unacceptable. 

One thing I'd like to bring up because I think that it's not appreciated enough, but it's that our country has a really long history, and really its recent history of treating people differently because of their gender or their race. 

My parents are only sixty-one years old, and they attended segregated schools. They went to Black schools in North Carolina. And my mom didn't have a school bus in elementary school because she went to a Black school. Women couldn't open bank accounts in this country up until the 1970s. Until 1968, you could have a clause in your housing contract called a Racial Restrictive Covenant that said, “Do not sell this house to a Black family.”

This is all recent history, and because of that, because we codified discrimination for so long, a lot of those consequences still exist today. Women still do not have pay parity with men. Many African Americans are still confined to neighborhoods that are poorly resourced because that is the only place they could live due to redlining. 

So I think it's important that as we move forward, I see that there is a profound opportunity for us to do the deeply patriotic work of making sure every American, irrespective of their gender or their race, has the opportunity to live up to their fullest potential without discrimination. And I think that once that's able to happen, our nation will be better for it.

(Sarah)

I think the things you've been speaking to also relate to your time in Ghana, where in addition to your internship, you launched BeautyGap. Tell us about the nonprofit and what kinds of problems your organization seeks to resolve.

(Amber)

The primary reason I went to Ghana was actually to teach at an elementary school. And I went with my classmate Susan Clark, and the girls we taught were the girls who lived in our village. And as we traveled throughout the country, I saw that they all had white dolls with blond hair and blue eyes. I was like, “What is going on? I’m in Ghana.” 

And then in the correctional center, those girls were in high school age. During our workshops or our mentoring sessions, they would want to talk about boys, of course. And it was upsetting when one of the girls said her dream in life was to marry a white man so her child wouldn't have to look like her. The girls would talk about using skin lightening creams or frustrations that they had with their hair. 

BeautyGap became an idea because I just remembered that when I was growing up, my mom made it a point to buy me dolls that looked like me and to buy me books that had characters that looked like me, because she knew the importance of surrounding me with self-affirming images, especially when living in a society that values an unattainable standard, a Eurocentric standard of beauty, that can challenge how you view yourself. 

BeautyGap just started off as a drive, an idea, “Oh, if I can just collect dolls in the United States and get them back to these girls in Ghana, that will be a good thing to do.” But it was such a hit that I decided to 501(c)(3) and we have been delivering dolls to countries around the world ever since. Things are on pause right now because of COVID-19 restrictions but I do look forward to once all of this is over, being able to get back out there and deliver more dolls.

(Sarah)

No, it's so important. And I feel like fashion or “girly” toys, what people would think of as girly toys, are often sort of disregarded as frivolous. It might be harder for people in the U.S. to imagine not being able to go to Wal-Mart and see different kinds of toys available for their children, or as a little girl, what your options are, so it's really interesting to hear about that.

(Amber)

No, that's exactly right. Dolls sound frivolous. And I remember, I was in the entrepreneurship minor at Chapel Hill, and I made a business plan for BeautyGap, and I was really wrestling with that for a little bit, like, “Is this really serving the mission statement? Is it that serious?” 

But it came full circle for me when I realized so, Brown vs. Board of Education was a Supreme Court case that decided segregated schools in the United States were unconstitutional. That case was actually brought by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where I work now. 

And the key piece of evidence that the justices used in that case was called The Doll Study. And in that study, sociologists saw that Black students were adversely reacting to Black dolls, and they took that to mean that segregated schools were having a detrimental impact on the self-esteem, the self-concept of Black students. And that impacts the way you move throughout life, how you feel about yourself, and how you view yourself. So, I'm really proud of the work that BeautyGap does. And I look forward to continuing it in the future.

(Sarah)

I never feel more out of my water than going down Target’s toys aisle while looking for something for my niece and nephew, because I'm always struck . . . I go to the boys section, and it's fighters and cars and things you can build, then I go to the girls section and everything's pink. I feel like I'm failing if I just succumb to, I guess I'll just get the traditionally feminine, you know, whatever it is. And so, to also be thinking along race and all of the other factors that go into it, it does make a big impact in thinking about what kind of messages that gives to people.

(Amber)

Right, and that is important to think about. It's not that girls get dolls and boys can’t . . . I have a little brother and he used to just want to copy everything I did, so he would get dolls for Christmas, too, because he didn't want to feel left out. But I think it's important to have the thought of, “OK, if I'm getting a toy or if I'm getting a book for this child, I want to make sure that I'm not doing any unintentional harm in that they can't see themselves in it.” That's what we are really aiming to contribute to. 

(Sarah)

Well, Amber, it's been terrific to talk with you. Anything else you'd like to add? 

(Amber)

No, thank you for having me on the podcast. I really appreciate it.

(Sarah)

Well, thank you so much. And enjoy life in Charlotte, and hope that vaccine rollout continues to go smoothly so that we can get back to the new normal, one day. 

(Amber)

Yes, I agree. Thanks.

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