An attorney and policy practitioner with a passion for ending mass incarceration, Elizabeth Swavola is a program manager at the Vera Institute of Justice, working toward data-driven policy reform around jail decarceration.
Swavola fights for criminal justice reform in the US. She believes the current system hurts individuals and families, and prevents them from living in a just and equitable society.
“In a business community, if something wasn’t working you would fix it. But we seem to be stuck in this paradigm of ‘This is the way we’ve always done it,’ and it’s not working,” she says. “It’s breaking up families. It’s hurting individuals. It’s preventing communities from being healthy and safe. I think it’s time to shift, get back on track, and do a better job.”
Swavola sees prison reform for women in the US jail system as an important part of gender justice, vital for promoting social change.
“Even though we’re in this moment of reform and we’re starting to see the number of men in jails tick downward, the population of women continues to grow and is now the fastest-growing correctional population. And so that suggests that reform efforts are not reaching women to the same extent that they’re reaching men.”
Swavola is part of the #FutureIsHers multimedia series of interviews, essays, and more, celebrating the innovators, risk-takers, and change-makers the Ford Foundation has proudly supported and the impact they’ve had on the lives of women and girls everywhere. Despite the many challenges women and girls face, around the world they’re rising up. Determined and persistent, they’re leading the way in showing us what gender justice looks like, disrupting inequality and creating a world where social change is possible: The future is hers.
These videos are part of our featured series, The Future Is Hers, celebrating the power of women and girls around the world.
Other videos in this series
Technology is dominated by men, featuring Steffania Paola Costa di Albanez, a Ford Mozilla Open Web fellow
In technology, women’s needs and values should matter just as much as men’s do, says Steffania Paola Costa di Albanez. The Ford Mozilla Open Web Fellow is working to make all platforms more welcoming to women, particularly Black women, and designed to help fight gender inequality.
Empowering women in technology can help address the issue of gender inequality. The first Afro-Colombian woman and the youngest person to lead a cabinet-level ministry in Colombia, Paula Moreno is encouraging young women to become the next generation of leaders in tech and beyond.
Ending recidivism by helping women leave prison for good, featuring Susan Burton of A New Way of Life Reentry Project
Women leaving the criminal justice system face nearly insurmountable hurdles. They need support to not reoffend and get caught up in the prison cycle. According to Susan Burton, founder of A New Way of Life Reentry Project, expanding opportunities for women leaving prison can help end recidivism and create prison reform.
College & Community Fellowship’s Vivian Nixon believes education has the power to transform lives. To end mass incarceration and empower overlooked communities, Nixon is working to change the way society views formerly incarcerated people by helping women with criminal histories gain access to quality education.
Change for LGBTQIA people in South Africa, featuring Sibongile Ndashe of Initiative for Strategic Litigation
Violence against LGBTQIA people in Africa needs to be addressed beyond legal and policy changes, says human rights lawyer Sibongile Ndashe. She advocates for working with people affected by the law to disrupt inequality and create lasting social change.
Documenting overlooked communities is essential to disrupting inequality. African LGBTQIA voices exist—and need to be heard, says journalist and filmmaker Selly Thiam. By sharing their perspectives and encouraging them to tell their stories, we recognize their existence and begin to capture a fuller, more accurate picture of an equitable society.
Monica Simpson found her calling when she established SisterSong, an organization that focuses on the reproductive rights of women in marginalized communities. She explains how the reproductive justice movement, with its intersectional framework, is key to gender equality.
Fighting sexism on the internet, featuring Steffania Paola Costa di Albanez, a Ford Mozilla Open Web fellow
Women need safe spaces on the internet. Steffania Paola Costa di Albanez believes gender inequality is possible when we address the issues women face online, which are the same as they face in real life, such as sexism, harassment and violence.
The criminal justice system is costly and unfair, featuring Susan Burton of A New Way of Life Reentry Project
The criminal justice system creates a burden on the U.S. economy with the amount of money it spends on corrections. Susan Burton, who founded A New Way of Life Reentry Project, advocates for prison reform by expanding the opportunities extended to formerly incarcerated women.
College & Community Fellowship’s Vivian Nixon knows firsthand how higher education can be transformational in reforming America’s prison system. She helps women with criminal histories gain access to quality education to end mass incarceration and empower overlooked communities.
For trans people to achieve equal rights, we need a cultural shift, featuring Isa Noyola, Transgender Law Center
A cultural shift, in which people understand gender in all its complexities, is essential for equality, explains trans activist Isa Noyola. She says trans people deserve equal rights before the law and also within society at large.
Equal rights means not being attacked, featuring Sibongile Ndashe of Initiative for Strategic Litigation
Inequality exists wherever LGBTQIA people are attacked and prevented from participating in society. For Sibongile Ndashe of the Initiative for Strategic Litigation, LGBTQIA rights are human rights that need to be protected and upheld to advance social justice.
Trans activists face unique, at times dangerous challenges when they choose to speak out for justice. Trans activist Isa Noyola shares what it’s like to lose people when fighting for social change, valuable voices violently taken away trying to advance trans rights.
Reproductive justice is an intersectional framework created by women of color to help organize communities around issues of inequality and social change. As artist Monica Simpson explains, reproductive justice is about the human right to self-determine—and is essential for gender equality.
As the first Afro-Colombia woman and the youngest person to lead a cabinet-level ministry in Colombia, Paula Moreno is no stranger to breaking barriers. She sees power as a way of serving society, and is cultivating a new kind of leadership in her country through the work of Corporación Manos Visibles
Art has allowed #AfricaNoFilter fellow Phoebe Boswell the space to explore both her identity and the collective identities she feels connected to in her life. To her, art is a powerful tool that can help address race, gender and class inequalities.
Women with disabilities make up 20% of the world’s female population. Human rights lawyer Stephanie Ortoleva says the voices of women and girls with disabilities need to be centered because of their potential as change agents in the fight to end inequality.
For the first time in history, women make up more than half the global workforce. Feminist Cecile Richards believes this pivotal moment calls us to recognize the critical role women play in the economy—and in building a just, sustainable future.
A longtime advocate of workers’ rights, Dina Bakst believes that workplace equity needs to be addressed with an intersectional lens. Economic justice can’t be achieved without tackling issues of maternal health, reproductive health, and racial inequity. To Bakst, workplace equity is a fundamental right for all Americans.
Gender justice needs to include people with disabilities, and disability rights need to include women. Women Enabled International’s Stephanie Ortoleva says women and girls with disabilities deserve advocacy, protection and education so they can lead self-determined lives.
Fatima Goss Graves of the National Women’s Law Center believes creating equality through the law is possible. She credits her family’s activism in the civil rights movement as the inspiration for her own trajectory to become the first lawyer in her family and an advocate for human rights and social justice.
Equality is a fair and stable economy that supports the rights of millions of American workers. Dina Bakst of A Better Balance has a vision for building an economy where workers across the economic spectrum are able to care for themselves and their families without risking their jobs.
Cecile Richards, feminist and former president of Planned Parenthood, was inspired by her late mother, the former governor of Texas, to push for more women in government. She believes we need to create more opportunities to see women in government at both the state and federal level.
Equality is women and girls living free from discrimination, featuring Fatima Goss Graves, National Women’s Law Center
Fatima Goss Graves of the National Women’s Law Center finds inspiration in seeing young, Black activists exercise their power. She envisions a future where women and girls realize full equality and are free from discrimination.
Africans can change the narrative around Africa and drive social change. Visual artist and #AfricaNoFilter fellow Phoebe Boswell advocates for Africans to take ownership of their history, their stories and their futures.
Shifting the narrative around African LGBTQIA people begins with making sure their personal stories are told, shared, and preserved. According to journalist and filmmaker Selly Thiam, giving voice to LGBTQIA stories by documenting them can help in disrupting inequality.
America’s criminal justice system urgently needs reform, says attorney Elizabeth Swavola. The system now hurts individuals and families and prevents them from living in a just and equitable society. We need to shift thinking to make sure reform is designed to dismantle inequality.
Reproductive rights are human rights, featuring Lourdes Rivera of the Center for Reproductive Rights
Lourdes Rivera of the Center for Reproductive Rights believes women should have agency over their bodies. As a longtime advocate for women, she maintains that gender equality can only become a reality when society treats reproductive rights as human rights and protects them with law.
Around the world, women have become an unstoppable force for social change. They are rising up to create solutions to the biggest issues facing society, from institutional racism to abortion rights. In the #FutureIsHers, we spotlight the women rewriting the rules, redefining power and reimagining what equality looks like.
The government should help you realize your rights, featuring Lourdes Rivera of the Center for Reproductive Rights
Women having individual agency over their bodies is an essential part of gender equality. But, reproductive justice advocate Lourdes Rivera believes, the government has a role to play in fighting inequality by helping secure human rights for all citizens.