Katherine Katcher ’07 says she was never quite sure what she wanted to do after graduating. “I’ve always leaned toward advocacy, and have always admired people whose role in life has been to fight for justice and stand up for people who’ve been oppressed,” she says. “I admired Jewish attorneys who went to the South and fought in the civil rights movement. I’ve felt like my calling is to figure out, what are the biggest human rights issues of our time? How can I fight for justice today?”
“We spent a whole semester reading Moby Dick, then rereading it — dissecting it. What is the whale? What is the sea? Who are the foes, and who are the allies?” she recalls. “[Ferguson] was a law professor, so he used literature as a vehicle to go more deeply into some of these questions of how we define good and evil.”
The class proved eye opening and helped propel Katcher into a career as an advocate for prison reform — as the founder of the Oakland, Calif.-based criminal justice reform nonprofit Root & Rebound. “I work with a lot of people who are both victim and offender,” she says. “Most perpetrators of crime have suffered immensely in their lives, and that course taught me to look at people in a new way.”
Katcher spends her days leading a team of lawyers and advocates working on behalf of the formerly incarcerated. Her organization helps released offenders reenter society, guiding them through the parole system while educating the public on the ins and outs of hiring employees with a prison record. “Though [the law] has often been used against certain communities, we use it as a support,” Katcher explains of her organization’s approach to helping end mass incarceration.
Katcher worked at nonprofits after graduating, but kept bumping up against frustrating policies she couldn’t change without legal training. “I wanted to do more in terms of fighting for justice,” she says. “I wanted to get to the root of these issues on a systemic level.”
She founded Root & Rebound in 2013, almost immediately after graduating from UC Berkeley’s law school, hiring a classmate as her first staff attorney. Together, they developed the team’s three-point strategy: educating people and families affected by mass incarceration on how to reintegrate into their communities post-prison, providing legal services directly to the currently and formerly incarcerated and their families, and advocating for policy reform on a state and national level. “Six years later, we have 24 people on our team; offices in Oakland, Fresno, Los Angeles and San Bernardino; and we recently launched a sister site in Greenville, S.C.,” Katcher says.
The plan is to continue working with grassroots organizations that are already established but could use some legal support. “We’re lawyering alongside communities that are most impacted,” she says.
And 12 years after leaving Morningside Heights, Katcher is eyeing a return to her Columbia roots. She’s in talks with the Business School’s Tamer Center for Social Enterprise to create a guide for hiring people with criminal convictions, and working with the school’s Justice Lab to analyze data on opportunities for success within parole and probation policy reform.
Her overarching goal, Katcher says, is to help others act on what they know is right, like she did. “I did not grow up in any way directly affected by mass incarceration, and I still feel like all of us have a role to play in undoing a lot of these harms.”