Sarah Ferber is the newest organizer in the WISDOM Network. As the organizer for Chippewa Valley EXPO, she balances her passion for organizing formerly incarcerated people with her social work studies at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and motherhood. She is excited about her story and her future, but that has not always been the case. Sarah is a recovering addict whose history of using and selling drugs has landed her in and out of jail, as well as a variety of treatment programs.
Sarah believes that three things have contributed to her recovery and her new direction in life. More than a decade ago, Gamaliel’s Wisconsin statewide affiliate, WISDOM, began to focus their organizing work on criminal justice reform. One of their earliest efforts was a campaign to provide treatment alternatives instead of prison for people like Sarah. Sarah was a functional addict, able to keep a job and to provide for her two sons, but her world came “crashing down” a few years ago when she lost her job and became homeless. She found herself with few choices that would allow her to keep her family together and get her life back on track. She chose to go through the Alternatives to Incarcerating Mothers (AIM) Court—a treatment-focused alternative to prison that WISDOM was successful in moving Eau Claire County to implement. The treatment court, along with Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) for Addicts courses and support groups (also implemented by the county), provided her with life skills that she had not acquired during childhood or early adulthood.
WISDOM has also successfully organized people with conviction histories—Ex-Prisoners Organizing or EXPO—to “find their voice” and to build power to begin addressing the issues that formerly-incarcerated people struggle with, for example, reentry barriers like the lack of affordable housing in decent neighborhoods, mental health and alcohol and other drug abuse (AODA) services, and living wage jobs. The local WISDOM affiliate in Eau Claire, JONAH, which includes an EXPO chapter, has become Sarah’s new community. She credits these new relationships with people who are interested in her growth as the third critical element of her recovery.
Shortly after she was hired to organize the Chippewa Valley group she shared the following vision with her leaders:
“I envision EXPO leading the change in the narrative around incarceration. I feel that those of us who have successfully transitioned, or are in the process of transitioning, need to be visible to the greater community. Most of what we hear and see in the media revolves around individuals getting charges, but rarely do we see success stories. I hope to see EXPO lead the way in finding alternatives to addressing the meth epidemic that plagues the Chippewa Valley. It was stated by the Eau Claire County Sheriff’s Department the we “can’t arrest our way out of this problem” so it is clear that new ideas are necessary to make an impact. Most importantly I envision EXPO offering peer support to individuals who are reentering our community from jail or prison. I would like EXPO to be the first thing someone thinks of when trying to find support for a person who is formerly incarcerated. We have all lived through the struggles related to incarceration, probation/parole, and reentry which makes us the best group to walk with others while they navigate these things.”
Sarah’s greatest joy is her children. She worries about the ultimate impact of her years of addiction on her boys and speaks honestly about the ways in which she “broke trust” with them. A few years ago, if Sarah were to leave the house, her boys would ask many questions about where she was going and when she would be returning. Today, however, they kiddingly ask: “Are you off to save the world again?”