Champions of Change in Minnesota: Octavia Smith

The Minnesota Freedom Fund board president saw rapid and exponential growth amidst a trying 2020
Octavia Smith – Board President, Minnesota Freedom Fund


What do you do when the hashtag #wheresthemoney is about you? In late June, the Minnesota Freedom Fund recovered from controversy after apparently underspending $35 million of public donations. By then, the fund had used $250,000 to bail out protesters jailed after the police killing of George Floyd.

Board president Octavia Smith coolly explained to NPR that her three-person team ordinarily spent $250,000 in two years, not two weeks. They weren’t used to Kamala Harris and Don Cheadle endorsing them as a social-justice go-to.

Since 2016, the small nonprofit has worked to end what Smith has described as the oppressively complex and expensive money bail system, which can trap low-resource individuals without a conviction. To navigate that system, Smith pointed out to The New Yorker that the fund’s work is on-the-ground and intensive, with “board members … going down to the courthouse and bailing folks out, doing what sometimes amounted to full-time work on top of their actual jobs.”

While she was born and raised in the Bronx, Smith says Minneapolis “has become my home and the place where I seek transformative and restorative justice.” Of those Minnesotans who have worked toward change before her, she notes, “I stand on their shoulders and I’m honored to be welcomed into their space.”

Who inspired you to be an agent of change?

I was inspired by the strong women in my family who have come before me. I particularly want to honor Odessa Reed, my maternal grandmother who recently passed away from COVID, as a woman with strong ethics who spent 90 years nourishing everyone she came in contact with. In terms of my experiences, being a witness to and/or a survivor of various racial and gender injustices has taught me that I needed to actively take part in shaping any change I wanted to see.

What are your central goals with the Minnesota Freedom Fund?

As board president, I’ve been working to set strategic goals that allow for resources and power to be transferred to those who’ve been particularly impacted by the criminal and immigration systems. For me, that means centering Blackness, leading with an abolition framework, and holding restorative-justice practices.

What accomplishments are you most proud of, especially in light of the protests following George Floyd’s killing?

This is such a hard question! Organizationally, I am proud that we didn’t crumble from the burden of such rapid and exponential growth! We are still learning and growing to better resource the justice-involved. Personally, I am so proud to still be alive. What the nation has learned, or been reminded of, is that white supremacy kills. So, for me, taking pride in being able to center my mental health so I don’t succumb to the weight all injustice is so real. I’m reminded of an Audre Lorde’s quote “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

What’s next for you?

I would like to take a long vacation, but knowing that is not likely to happen, I would be content with focusing on my day job and spending more time with my partner, dog, and cat. My hope is to do some more organizing work around getting folks more involved with each other at the neighborhood level, so it prevents cops from being called for petty things resulting in terrible outcomes for BIPOC residents. I will always fight to end detention in all its forms and look forward to having the road to abolition be clearer than it ever has been.

Read about all 22 Champions of Change featured in our Jan/Feb 2021 issue.

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