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When President Obama delivers his last State of the Union address, a leader of a valley nonprofit with ASU ties will be sitting with the First Lady in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives.
“I still can’t believe it’s real,” says Sue Ellen Allen, founder and director of Gina’s Team, which conducts leadership classes for incarcerated girls and women to help them be successful upon release.
Allen served seven years in state prison for financial fraud and saw first-hand how many incarcerated women lacked the education and skills that would help them upon release. She started Gina’s Team in 2009. The nonprofit is named after Gina Panetta, a former cell mate and mother of two young children who failed to receive proper medical care in prison and died from Leukemia within weeks of her diagnosis. Panetta’s mother, Diane, is accompanying Allen to the State of the Union address.
“When you cross over into prison, you automatically become faceless and voiceless,” says Allen. “I’m incredibly honored to represent all the faceless voiceless people behind bars.”
Allen is a graduate of the GenNext Leadership Academy, now called the American Express Leadership Academy, part of the college’s Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation. The Academy is a yearlong professional and personal leadership development program.
“Like others who have benefitted greatly from our center’s American Express Leadership Academy, Sue Ellen demonstrates that leadership is evinced in many ways and through many pathways of impact,” says Robert Ashcraft, executive director of the ASU Lodestar Center and professor of Nonprofit Studies in ASU’s School of Community Resources and Development. “We are proud that our knowledge and tools for leadership platform has helped Sue Ellen and other Academy alumni enact their full potential in making the world a better place in which it live.”
And Allen is doing just that. Her goal is to create a paradigm shift in our nation’s approach to how we deal with people who have been incarcerated.
“At Gina’s Team we have a plan to Re-invent Re-entry,” Allen says. “The president has a national council on reentry and just appointed the first ex-felon to the table. No one knows better than we do the complete journey through the criminal justice experience.”
Allen hopes the State of the Union address and a push by Congress will help kick start prison reform nationally and at the state level. She hopes policymakers will bring more people with her kind of experience to the table to allow for a more informed conversation.
“There are many people who are very smart and whose experiences are unbelievable. We all have a lot to contribute,” notes Allen. “I’m also grateful that there is now a bi-partisan focus on this very expensive $80 billion incarceration business. People don’t realize what it is costing us in tax dollars and our humanity. We cannot afford it.”
Gina's Team has also been a community partner with the College of Public Service and Community Solutions. Many criminal justice students have served internships with Gina’s Team and had their careers shaped by the experience.
Allen will be a guest at the White House and attend a reception with the Attorney General before heading to Capitol Hill for the State of the State address in the evening.