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Q&A

Arnold Ventures’ New Criminal Justice Advocacy VP Sees Once-In-A-Lifetime Opportunity For Change

James Williams comes to Arnold Ventures from The Bonner Group, The Trimpa Group, and the New Cuba PAC, and will work to turn evidence and data into criminal justice policy.

Lady Justice

Arnold Ventures recently named James Williams its Vice President of Advocacy for Criminal Justice. The Washington, D.C.–based political consultant previously worked at The Bonner Group, The Trimpa Group, and the New Cuba PAC. For the past five years, Williams has served as president of Engage Cuba, a national coalition of private companies working to end the travel and trade embargo on Cuba. At Arnold Ventures, Williams will lead efforts to turn evidence and data into criminal justice policy at the state and local level. We sat down with Williams to talk about the issues he will work on in his new role, how criminal justice reform is like marriage equality, and the irony of entrepreneurs becoming risk-averse philanthropists.

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Arnold Ventures

Can you tell me a bit about your career?

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James Williams

My most recent job was at Engage Cuba. At the time I started there I was working as a political advisor to philanthropists as part of the Trimpa Group, which advises funders on the best way to maximize the return on their time and investment. It was similar to what I’ll do at Arnold Ventures, except here I’m in-house. We worked with funders to advocate for marriage equality, health care reform, environmental issues, marijuana decriminalization, and many other issues.

In 2012 a Cuban-American philanthropist came to us for help on trying to reform America’s Cuba policy. She was frustrated that she couldn’t travel freely to Cuba. I ended up running a campaign to get the Obama Administration to open relations with Cuba, with travel being the focus. After we were successful, we assembled a coalition to continue the normalization process, Engage Cuba, and I ended up becoming the president of that organization. I wanted to be a part of history.

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Arnold Ventures

Why did you decide to come to Arnold Ventures?

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James Williams

I had long admired Arnold Ventures from afar. When I saw that they were becoming more forward-leaning on advocacy, I was really excited. I find philanthropies incredibly risk-averse. They’re very small-c conservative. It’s largely people who have been incredibly successful in entrepreneurship and business by taking enormous risks, by being bold. But when it comes to committing their resources to making the world a better place, they don’t take the same approach. That’s what I like about Arnold Ventures.

For one thing, it’s an opportunity to work with living founders who are driving the vision and are willing to be courageous — even to ruffle feathers at times. Then there’s the combination of extremely smart, evidence-based research with a willingness to take risks. We know we aren’t going to get everything right, but if you’re succeeding all the time, that means you aren’t being ambitious enough. With some organizations, you read their annual report and it says they accomplished everything they set out to do and surpassed all their goals. To me, that means they aren’t trying hard enough.

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Arnold Ventures

What drew you to criminal justice reform?

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James Williams

It’s a very exciting area. We’re in a position where, because of the work of so many advocates and community leaders, there really is a growing bipartisan momentum and attention to the issue. That has not been the case previously. To me, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to harness that momentum to change laws in ways that materially improve people’s lives. We need to use all the tools of advocacy and lobbying to make sure we’re changing policies for the better. But there’s also a clock on the work we do. It’s a campaign, and we’re operating at campaign speed. My goal as a non-profit advocate has always been to put myself out of business, to do my job so well that I don’t have to keep doing it.

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Arnold Ventures

How did George Floyd’s murder change the national discussion around criminal justice reform?

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James Williams

It led to a much-needed reckoning. America is not very good at living with tension, but I think tension is healthy at times. I think the fact that we’re going through this is important. I started interviewing for this job before George Floyd’s murder, and for me it only heightened my desire to be part of the criminal justice reform movement, and to push things further.

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Arnold Ventures

What are some of Arnold Ventures’ top priorities in criminal justice reform right now?

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James Williams

This is a particularly unique year. There’s a been a groundswell of support for criminal justice reform after George Floyd’s murder, combined with the Covid-19 pandemic. Those two things have upended everything. AV’s role is to make sure we’re advocating for evidence-based policies, whether it’s police reform or eliminating juvenile fines and fees. Are the things we’re calling for backed by really strong evidence?

We are also going to continue to be extremely active on police reform. America has a very fragmented system, with local, state, and federal police systems. They all have their own policies and structures, so it’s very complex and difficult to scale change. But I think what is clear is we can’t keep on as we’re doing things today. We’re seeing that so painfully right now, although activists and community leaders have seen it for a long time. We’re all awakening to it and reckoning with what has been the lived reality for Black and Latinx communities in the criminal justice system. You have to approach the issue seriously and with great humility, because it’s a matter of life and death for so many people. We have to bring that level of urgency to it.

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Arnold Ventures

How have you seen the political climate for criminal justice reform change over your time working in D.C.?

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James Williams

You have to give incredible credit to all the activists and community leaders who have pushed on this issue. Because it isn’t that long ago that virtually no politicians were talking about criminal justice reform. It’s a bit like marriage equality — a decade or two ago, there were only a handful of Democrats who supported it. But it moved and moved, and then there was an inflection point. Looking back now, it all seems inevitable, which it certainly was not.

Similarly, there’s a growing bipartisan realization that our criminal justice system is ineffective and unequal. We’re spending so much on imprisonment and punitive measures without getting a return on that investment. Then there’s growing libertarian concern about individual rights and the role of government in locking so many people up. It’s been exciting to see the speed of the change.

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Arnold Ventures

What role can an organization like Arnold Ventures play in advancing criminal justice reform?

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James Williams

A major part of it is applying academic and intellectual rigor to some of the reform proposals. What are the most effective approaches? I credit the Arnolds for recognizing that, first, we have to study the problem. We all have assumptions about what will work, but they need to be tested. Politicians respond to the mood of the moment, for better or worse. They’re doing that right now, and we want to enable them to choose smart evidence-based policy solutions.

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Arnold Ventures

As a lobbyist, it must be helpful for you to have that robust research on your side when you go to press your case with lawmakers.

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James Williams

We have the research on what works, and we can also tell lawmakers the financial implications of what we’re currently doing. What connects all the issues in the Arnold Ventures portfolio is a focus on results. Take health care — we’re paying a fortune, and we aren’t getting the outcomes we want. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are receptive to the fiscal argument that we’re spending too much for substandard results. With respect to criminal justice, we’re spending all this money on police and jails without reducing crime as much as we should be. Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to shine a light on it.

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Arnold Ventures

Why is making criminal justice reform a bipartisan issue so important?

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James Williams

Because political winds change. It’s relatively easy to get wins when you have Democratic control, but if you want sustainable change that you can build on you need both parties to buy in. They won’t buy in to the same degree, but you need at least some common ground.

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Arnold Ventures

A broad coalition of lobbying groups on the left and right have come together to support criminal justice reform legislation. How significant is that lobbying effort?

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James Williams

Elected officials at the state and federal level are tasked with the impossible. They have small staffs, yet they have to weigh in and vote on laws affecting every single element of American life. They have to make that manageable for themselves, and one of the ways they do that is to turn to trusted voices that they respect and trust. When you have the top thought leaders on the right coming to Republican lawmakers and supporting criminal justice reform, that makes a big difference. You have Grover Norquist and Americans for Tax Reform, the American Conservative Union and the Koch Brothers all pushing for reform. It’s really a groundswell.

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Arnold Ventures

What is your favorite part of being a government relations specialist?

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James Williams

I love the chance to leverage philanthropy to affect incredibly important policy issues — to bring the same political savvy to fighting for criminal justice reform that major corporations do in advancing their own interests. At Arnold Ventures we have some of the smartest people in the world researching and designing policy, including our grantees. They’re the world’s leading experts on these issues. What we’re trying to do is put that together with a robust, sophisticated advocacy operation. Not just to pass a bill, but to create sustainable change that is scalable. There’s nothing more exciting than that.