Seeing video footage of a young Black man, Ahmaud Arbery, being run down and killed in Georgia last February was jarring for most. For Sacramento attorney Alana Mathews, it brought back haunting memories.
Ms. Mathews recalls being chased by a truckload of racist White men while attending a college preparatory high school located on the grounds of Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.
“I remember running all the way back to campus,” she said.
“That was a very triggering incident for me,” she said of Arbery’s murder.
Ms. Mathews says recent times have been “a moment of racial reconciliation for our country.”
Never the type to just sit and watch from the sidelines, she said, “I see a problem and want to find a solution.”
Ms. Mathews describes herself as an impact attorney.
“I try to use my legal education and expertise to have meaningful effects on people’s lives.”
Early in her career, she helped prostitutes obtain restraining orders against abusive pimps and find resources on the road to taking back their lives. Today she teaches a class on racial injustice and equity as an adjunct professor at the McGeorge School of Law. She’s also the founder and executive director of the Community Justice Collaborative, a grassroots organization that works toward criminal justice reform and restoring trust in what many view as a “crooked system.”
Ms. Mathews is a former Sacramento County deputy district attorney. Lawyers aren’t always viewed in a positive light in the Black community — prosecutors in particular.
“Initially, I probably get that, but within five minutes of meeting me, that’s broken down, they see me as genuine and someone who wants to help them,” she shared.
Most people get it, she says. She recalls a father thanking her for being fair to his son and the homeless man who told her he never rides the light rail without a ticket, because he remembers her skills working against him in court.
“I’m not just trying to punish you,” Ms. Mathews said of her approach to her work. “I’m just trying to be respectful and acknowledge the humanity in everybody.”
Make no mistake, Ms. Mathews is for and of the people.
“I don’t live in a gated community,” she said. “I live right in South Sacramento – Valley Hi. “I’m Alana first; my degree doesn’t define who I am. It just defines what I do.”
Being “on the other side of the law” doesn’t exempt her from being on the receiving end of treatment other African Americans regularly face. Ms. Mathews recalls the time police officers surrounded her house looking for the former homeowner who was suspected of a serious crime. They wanted access to her home, but she, as much as anyone, knew her rights. What if she hadn’t been able to show them a badge identifying her as someone who worked in the District Attorney’s Office? What if the officers didn’t care or didn’t care to have their authority questioned?
“I can see how things can change so quickly and I’m a lawyer,” she said.
Outside the courtroom, Ms. Mathews has served with the California Energy Commission, creating policies for fair and equitable energy distribution. She’s also an environmental advocate, serving as chief consultant of the Joint Legislative Committee on Climate Change. Among Ms. Mathews’ many affiliations, she serves as director of membership and training for the Prosecutors Alliance, is a member of the Florin Law Academy Advisory Committee and chair for the Girl Scouts Heart of Central California Council Board of Directors, and is active with Black Women Organized for Political Action, Sacramento County Bar Association, Wiley Manuel Bar Association, the Rising Sun Center for Opportunity Advisory Committee, Justice2Jobs Coalition; and the Jenessee Domestic Violence Center.
Ms. Mathews also battles racism and discrimination as an implicit bias trainer.
“I’m attempting to change the status quo and people can be very resistant to that. I stay firm,” she said.
Being what she called the “only chocolate chip in the cookie” in many professional settings, Ms. Mathews has come up against both bigotry and bias.
“I’ve experienced it all,” she said. “I’ve had ‘Karens’ in the workplace. I’ve had male colleagues try to intimidate me. When you’re a Black woman, you’re definitely going to face sexism or racism, or a little bit of both.
“I’m not one to be messed with. I won’t back down and I haven’t. I’m not guided by a level of comfort, I’m guided by the necessity for change.”
Ms. Mathews also mentors area youth through the Florin Law Academy. She’s hoping some will see a future in law enforcement and the legal field — to help bring some “order” to “law and order.”
“It’s not just about giving them something today, but giving them a future where they can be change agents.”
A change agent in her own right, Ms. Mathews wears many hats.
“I just make the time. There is so much to be done,” she said.
This summer she will launch a program that will provide legal education to five local organizations working on the frontlines of social justice work.
Ms. Mathews considers herself more of an “activator” than an activist.
“When I’m in action, it helps me feel like I’m addressing (an issue), not just seeing it happen passively,” she said.
Ms. Mathews is grateful for the rapport she has created with the community. She’s often the only lawyer people know and has become an informal resource for those who have questions and concerns.
“So many people don’t know about the justice system until they’re caught up in it,” she says.
By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
Sacramento OBSERVER introduces a special series, “Sistahs on the Frontlines,” acknowledging and highlighting the work that Black women are doing as “essential workers” on the frontlines, furthering the causes of the community. READ MORE