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Behind Issue 1: Student activists fight to reform criminal justice system

Deputy Director Kevin O’Donnell writes down future plans for Ohio Student Association to canvass for Issue 1 and partner with other organizations as Ian Gray and Baffoa Baffoe-Essilfie look on. Credit: Akayla Gardner | Lantern Reporter

Surrounded by members of the Ohio Student Association at the Summit on 16th United Methodist Church, deputy director Kevin O’Donnell sits on the ground with a marker in hand and white poster on the floor.

Written in blue and green highlighter are ideas for how the group can head out into both the local Columbus and Ohio State communities to support State Issue 1, an initiative that proposes to reclassify low-level, nonviolent drug use or possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, and reallocate funding saved from incarceration to drug rehabilitation programs.

This is the latest in the group’s attempt to pass the legislation after playing a major role in its placement on the gubernatorial ballot in November.

The baby blue painted room, appropriately named “Freedom Hub,” is the same room where the association held its first meeting in 2012. The group was developed on Ohio State’s campus as the result of a merger between Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street activists.

The shared goal: to sustain social justice movements and bring leaders together even after protests and media attention end.

Since then, OSA has expanded to universities and cities across the state with more than 400 committed volunteers. It offers fellowships and training to youth interested in community organizing.

“Our North Star is a world that doesn’t throw people away,” O’Donnell said.

The young people of the association are making major strides behind the scenes of progressive Ohio politics.

OSA is the only student-led organization in the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, the group that engineered Issue 1. OSA began collecting the first signatures to petition for the amendment on Nov. 2, 2017.

“Issue 1 takes money out of the prisons, out of the business of locking people up, and puts it back into restoring people,” said Afia Chrappah, a fourth-year in social work and OSA volunteer. “The premise of Issue 1 is, ‘You’re addicted to drugs, we are not going to incarcerate you. We are going to help you get your life back on track.’”

It has been “exhausting work to be constantly responding” to different crises, O’Donnell said, and the group seemed to hit a low at the start of 2017. However, he said the organization made up for it with a strong effort pushing Issue 1 onto the ballot in 2018.

“That shame is going to continue as long as we keep criminalizing people for being addicted to drugs. What kind of society would have made it so that my stepdad and my cousin didn’t feel like they needed to run away?” —Kevin O’Donnell, deputy director of OSA

O’Donnell said Issue 1 had the second-highest number of raw, volunteer signatures for a ballot initiative in Ohio’s history. OSA collected 20 percent of volunteer signatures, with 30,000 signatures from in-person canvassing with voters in the community.

“If you figure for every person that says ‘yes,’ there’s another four that say ‘no,’” O’Donnell said. “That’s several million conversations.”

O’Donnell’s stepfather and cousin died from drug addiction during his childhood, and he said he started to see the personal connections of the addiction crisis to his life while tackling Issue 1.

“There was so much shame around being addicted to drugs,” O’Donnell said. “That shame is going to continue as long as we keep criminalizing people for being addicted to drugs. What kind of society would have made it so that my stepdad and my cousin didn’t feel like they needed to run away?”

O’Donnell kept his family members’ deaths a secret and didn’t tell most of his friends. It wasn’t until OSA started campaigning for Issue 1 that he began to openly share his story.

“A lot of our work also is giving people space to come out of the shadows with these things and talk about what they’ve experienced, to undo some of that shame,” he said.

In the past year, OSA put forth the majority of its time and resources into getting support for Issue 1. It was approved for the ballot in July.

With less than a month until Election Day, OSA is working four to seven days a week. Its team of fellows and volunteers meets to strategize, canvass, register voters, enter data or contact people interested in getting involved.

If the ballot initiative passes, OSA plans to be a part of ensuring that it is implemented effectively and will continue to work on criminal justice reform.

“Whether or not this thing passes, if it doesn’t pass, in a sense, we’ve already won,” O’Donnell said. “We’ve started a massive conversation about reforming our institutions and have already forced some legislators to put proposals out that would be like Issue 1, so in a sense we’ve already come what we came to do.”

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