It was at a young age that Ashley Bellant was introduced to the idea of organizing. Having come from generations of Michigan automotive workers, some of her earliest memories are dinners at the union hall or hours spent bundled up in the cold with her dad on the picket line.
“He always made it a point to explain to me in age-appropriate ways what was going on. Why we were out here, why he wasn’t going to work, or what a strike means. He taught me the importance of standing up for what’s right, even if it means making sacrifices,” said Bellant, Safe & Just Michigan’s new social media specialist.
Bellant learned about more than just the labor movement at those gatherings. She learned about the power that people have when they direct their efforts toward a common goal.
An Aspiring Advocate
Bellant held onto these lessons as she grew older – repeatedly witnessing what she felt were attempts to dissuade her peers and community from recognizing their capacity. Growing up in Lansing and attending Lansing schools, Bellant grew tired of the constant negative narrative she heard about herself, her ‘inner-city’ schools, her family, and her friends.
“I wanted to advocate – but didn’t know the word for it at the time,” she said. “People live up to the expectations that are set for them. If all you ever hear are negative things about yourself – especially as a child – it’s not going to be easy to believe that you have worth, power, and agency and that you’re capable of living the life you want to live.”
Bellant again witnessed successful community organizing when she started volunteering at a local nonprofit, Allen Neighborhood Center (ANC), at the age of 12.
“I watched a diverse group of people come together to collectively improve their situation. They organized, held meetings, knocked doors – and the neighborhood improved because of it. Parks were cleaned up, streetlights fixed, and neighbors were helping neighbors.” These lessons would guide Bellant for years to come.
When Bellant had the opportunity to attend Michigan State University, she wasn’t sure what to study. Counselors and advisers suggested helping professions as she wanted to serve her community but the word ‘helping’ didn’t sit right with her.
“Helping felt similar to other disempowering messages I’d heard much of my life. I didn’t want to help anyone,” she explained. “I wanted to gain the skills and knowledge needed to organize people and convince them that they had the power to help themselves.”
This line of thinking eventually led her to study social work with a focus on organization and community leadership. Bellant appreciated the profession’s emphasis on the dignity and worth of each person and promoting socially responsible autonomy.
Committing to Change
Upon graduation, Bellant was looking for a change. Having watched in disbelief the systemic failure that was the response to Hurricane Katrina just a few years prior, she decided to look for work in New Orleans. Her first position was funded by the federal AmeriCorps agency with one of the many rebuilding nonprofits operating in the city at that time. Quickly recognizing her knack for relationship building and messaging – her organization pulled her off the construction site and into the office to be trained in development.
Initially planned as a year-or-two-long excursion, Bellant found herself in the Crescent City for nearly a decade, “The culture, the music, the way of life – all the things you hear about New Orleans are true.”
Bellant continued to excel in nonprofit development, being offered an entry-level position with the large human services organization Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans (CCANO). She quickly worked her way up, eventually holding the position of grants manager for all 30 CCANO programs serving more than 70,000 people each year.
“This was a dream job,” Bellant said. “I got to research social issues and best practices in addressing them for such a wide variety of topics. I wrote grants for domestic violence prevention, immigrant and refugee initiatives, foster care, disaster response, elder care, early childhood education, youth development, and CCANO’s prison ministries.” Of all the programs Bellant had the opportunity to advance, she couldn’t help but be most moved by her work with the justice-impacted community.
“I used to regularly cite the statistic that in New Orleans, 1 in 7 Black men are in prison, on probation, or on parole – and that we imprison more people per capita than anywhere in the world,” said Bellant.
Bellant began traveling back and forth from New Orleans to the state capital with CCANO’s Cornerstone Builders. The program organized and trained formerly incarcerated individuals to advocate for smart criminal justice reform. The legislation for which they were advocating was based on reforms that had recently passed in Michigan – and Bellant turned to the Citizen’s Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending (Safe & Just Michigan before rebranding) for data.
Bellant truly threw herself into this work when she heard of the National Organization of Forensic Social Work. Their annual conference was being held in New Orleans and was looking for volunteers. Bellant attended this conference and a whole world of career opportunities opened for her. It was at this conference that she first learned of holistic defense and social workers as mitigation specialists.
“It was like writing a grant but for a person. I knew how to craft messaging that would reach my target audience. In mitigation, my target audience is the judge and I’m trying to present my client as a full human in the context of their reality,” she said.
Bellant was convinced she needed to return to school to shift her career to work exclusively in criminal justice – and that it was time to return home.
Bellant moved back to Michigan and enrolled in Michigan State once again to obtain her master’s in social work. At the same time, she enrolled in an online program through Arizona State, which trains social workers in criminal sentencing advocacy. Social work grad students are required to complete two one-year practicums to accompany their classwork. Bellant’s first year was spent at the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office serving as a victim advocate in their domestic violence division. Her second was an especially rewarding experience serving as a mitigation specialist with the State Appellate Defender Office’s (SADO) juvenile lifer unit.
Bellant was asked to stay on with SADO after her year was up to finish her case. Over the last 18 months, she had gotten to know her client intimately and had poured through the details of his life.
“The judge granted him a term of years – 25 years – of which he’d already served 22 – the best possible outcome – everyone was in tears. Not only my client but the victims’ family as they’d been advocating for my client to receive a second chance – it felt so hopeful and healing,” she said.
Throughout grad school, Bellant was employed at the organization that meant so much to her as a child, Allen Neighborhood Center. Bellant served as ANC’s resource and communications director relying heavily on the use of social media to grow the organization’s reach and to fundraise during a period of critical growth. Having followed Safe & Just Michigan since before their rebrand from CAPPS and having always had great respect for the organization’s work – when Bellant saw they were hiring, she had to apply.
Bellant concluded, “Serving as SJM’s social media specialist, I plan to continue organizing citizens that want something better. Citizens who know we can do better in ensuring safety and justice for all. This pandemic has highlighted the utility of social media in doing so – I’m excited to use this medium to reach people.”