OAKLAND -- His goal as the new executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights is a big one: curbing the incarceration of African-American and Latino youths. But those who work alongside Zachary Norris say the 36-year-old has the right blend of smarts, passion and people skills to tackle one of the nation's most vexing problems.

"Over the past 30 years, California went from being a leader in education to a leader in incarceration," Norris said in an interview in his Oakland office.

Turning around that trend is "not just an issue of criminal justice reform, it's an issue of the sustenance of our democracy," he said.

Zachary Norris, new executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, sits in his office in Oakland on Dec. 20, 2013. Raised in Oakland and
Zachary Norris, new executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, sits in his office in Oakland on Dec. 20, 2013. Raised in Oakland and educated at Harvard and New York universities, Norris brings to his new role a long history in East Bay activism. (Laura A. Oda/Staff)

Norris believes "everyday Californians across the state have really made a shift" in thinking since tough-on-crime policies in the 1980s and 1990s vastly expanded the prison network.

"Zachary has a whole vision, where basically we're at this inflection point where liberals and conservatives can agree that the government is wasting a lot of money on prisons," said Van Jones, Ella Baker Center's co-founder, board member and onetime White House green energy czar.

Raised in Oakland and educated at Harvard and the New York University School of Law, Norris has always gravitated back to the Bay Area. His experience studying at Harvard, and later trying to recruit Oakland youths to the prestigious university, exposed him to the disparities in how young people are treated when they get in trouble.

At Harvard, drug abusers got therapy and compassionate intervention. In Oakland, the same risky behavior led to arrest and imprisonment -- a fateful path from youth jail to state prison that has become a "normative event" for young men of color, he said.

Norris was an intern when he first met Jones, who had cofounded the Ella Baker Center in 1996 and named it after the civil rights movement leader known for her grass-roots, nonhierarchical approach to activism.

Norris appeared to embody the Baker ethic in his commitment to giving voice to the family members of incarcerated youths. He was a "secret to the success" of the center's Books Not Bars campaign, which won its battle against an Alameda County "youth super jail" that officials wanted to build in Dublin in the early 2000s.

"Our assessment was that there was not a coming juvenile crime wave," said Norris, arguing at the time that the jail would have been "too big, too far way" from affected family members and "disproportionately lock up young people of color."

A pared-down jail, eventually built in San Leandro, is routinely under capacity.

Norris' campaign later took its aggressive local strategy to Sacramento, fighting legislation and state ballot measures that sought to make crime laws more draconian.

"He was a quiet guy with this crazy work ethic," Jones said. "He would get to work before everybody and stay late and hardly say a word. But then I saw him dealing with and interacting with the parents of kids who were locked up. He was sort of the ultimate angelic nephew with all these moms and grandmas."

Jones added: "In progressive politics there's a high premium on bombast. He didn't have any of that. He was just the ultimate kind of workhorse: low-profile, high-intensity."

Another prison reform activist who worked with Norris, former Alameda County Probation Chief David Muhammad, describes him as "a ferocious advocate and organizer, but just so calm and collected and very steady. That I think is why so many families had faith in him and trusted him. He just always was very calm, very soothing, but also very passionate."

Shortly after hiring Norris, the center appointed to its board of directors this fall two nationally recognized figures. One is Jones. The other is legal scholar Michelle Alexander, author of the best-selling "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness."

Rebounding after losing staff and resources in the recession, the Oakland-based nonprofit organization's newly focused mission to end mass incarceration is also a careful and timely business decision.

"There's an awakening that's occurring all around the country, inside prisons as well as outside them, in a wide variety of communities, that this massive system of incarceration is immoral, unjust and utterly irrational," Alexander said. "It cannot be sustained."

Norris' "deep and rich experience working with families" will help bring a human and common-sense touch to an emerging movement, Alexander said.

"It's one thing to just point at what's wrong with the system," she said. "It's another to be able to identify what needs to be done. The Ella Baker Center is committed to doing both."

Zachary Norris
Age: 36
Career: Executive director of Ella Baker Center for Human Rights since August 2013; directed until 2010 the center's Books Not Bars campaign; worked as a law clerk and organizer for legal advocacy and human rights organizations in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Alabama and Latin America
Education: Comparative literature degree from Harvard University (1999); law degree from New York University (2003); human rights advocacy program at Columbia University (2007)
Family: Lives in Oakland with wife and two daughters, ages 3 and 1
Hobbies: Avid basketball player and visual artist
Quote: "It's not just an issue of criminal justice reform, it's an issue of the sustenance of our democracy."