Working for Equality, Justice & Dignity in our Criminal Justice System Meet Southern Center for Human Rights, Executive Director Sara J. Totonchi
Q: What is your SCHR about and what do you all do?
ST: The Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) is working for equality, justice, and dignity in our criminal legal system. Our mission is to end capital punishment, mass incarceration, and other practices that are used to control the lives of poor people, people of color, and other marginalized groups in the Deep South. We do this through death penalty representation, impact litigation, policy advocacy, and public education.
Q: What do you love most about SCHR and the work you all do?
ST: I am the proud mama bear of a team of miracle workers who are fighting for liberation every day. At SCHR, our work is love in action. We believe that love is respecting the humanity and dignity of all people. Love is a desire for every person to have a full range of opportunities. Love is believing that every person’s life is worth more than their worst moments. We believe that love in action is using our power to push back against abusive, corrupt, reckless power.
Q: How has SCHR made a difference and what impact do you still wish to see made?
ST: The criminal legal system is the part of our community that has been least impacted by the advances of the civil rights movement. The politicization of crime has led to mass incarceration and the decimation of our communities not to mention unending human misery. Georgia has the terrible distinction of having the highest rate of correctional control in the country. SCHR is pushing back on all of this.
SCHR’s groundbreaking litigation challenging debtors’ prison practices heralded a new era in the movement to question the use of courts as money generators and to halt the criminalization of poverty. SCHR has argued and won five death penalty cases at the United States Supreme Court, four of which dealt with profound race discrimination. Through six lawsuits, two reports, and advocacy efforts with a blue-ribbon commission and the legislature, SCHR led the campaign that created a public defender system in Georgia. SCHR leads criminal justice policy reform efforts that resulted in the successful passage of smart-on-crime measures and sentencing reforms annually for the decade. And this is only the tip of the iceberg of what we have done and will do.
Q: What's the greatest fear you've had to overcome to get where you are today?
ST: Years ago, I had a ton of fear around public speaking. This was a big problem because being a compelling speaker is a huge part of my job. I worked through this by creating as many opportunities to practice as I could. I accepted all kinds of speaking invitations, from addressing Girl Scout troops and book clubs to giant college seminars. Now, public speaking is one of my favorite parts of my job. I have spoken to thousands of people, in spaces filled with giants in my field, and offered keynote addresses that I will never forget. Because I was able to move past this fear, I found my true passion.
Q: What’s one lesson you’ve learned in your career that you can share with our audience?
ST: Prioritize starting good, healthy habits that will increase your sustainability. For me, this means being vigilant to schedule time to spend with my family and friends, to exercise, to read, cook, and sew.
Q: Which woman inspires you and why?
ST: Stacey Abrams is my hero. I admire her boldness, her fearlessness, her tenacity, and her leadership in building true democracy. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Q: What advice would you give to young women who want to succeed in the workplace?
ST: Stay open; open to opportunities, to possibilities, and to feedback. You never know when or where your next great idea is going to come from. If you stay open, you won’t miss a gem when it comes.
Q: What's your advice for women in male-dominated fields?
ST: You must advocate for yourself- for advancement and for well-deserved recognition. Do not expect that people will automatically notice your hard work. Men do not hesitate to trumpet their small and large achievements. If we are quiet, others will get all the accolades and opportunities that we have earned.
Five Things About Sara J. Totonchi
1. If you could talk to one famous person past or present, who would it be and why?
I would love to have attended a party at Casa Azul, the home of Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. I would likely have been too intimidated to speak with them, but I would have loved to experience their atmosphere.
2. What’s your favorite Food to cook?
A Ratatouille-inspired shakshuka. It’s a Moroccan baked egg dish with veggies that you eat with crusty bread. It’s my Dad’s favorite and I love to make it when he visits.
3. If you were a superhero, what would your special powers be?
Teleportation. To be able to move within seconds from one place to another, anywhere in the world, would be everything.
4. What app can’t you live without?
Overdrive- it connects my library card with collections of thousands of digital and audiobooks for free. Thanks to it, I was able to hit my goal of hitting 100 books read last year.
5. Do you have pets?
A Beta Tetra Fish named Squidy, bought for my son but more beloved by me.