There is something to be said about the kind of person who can manage to drag 19 college students from their beds to Queens at 4 a.m. on a hazy, frosty Saturday morning.
CAS junior Amanda Lawson stood at the center of the Broome Street Residential College study lounge, wearing a “Close Rikers” T-shirt, which was on brand for the Public Policy major. Everyone stopped and listened as she began mapping out the logistics for the day. We were to volunteer at the annual Queens Half Marathon to help raise money for the Bronx Bail Fund — an organization that Lawson interns for and a cause she feels passionately about.
After receiving a grant through Broome Residential College during her sophomore year to get more NYU students involved with the BBF and the criminal justice system at large, Lawson co-founded the Dollar Bail Brigade. This organization coordinates volunteers to go to New York City jails and post $1 bail for people who are only incarcerated because of a system glitch. Her interest in bail reform specifically was circumstantial, but she said that aspects of the justice system that unfairly target low-income people resonate with her because of her own low-income background and her father’s extensive history with the justice system.
“A tie to it is being a low-income person — bail uniquely targets people who don’t have money,” Lawson said. “Bail is something that I sort of stumbled on as far as an issue. But when I analyze it, it’s something that’s important to me and it’s something that is affecting people of color and people without means; people who already don’t have the resources they need are then being sent to jail.”
She was exposed to the biases of the criminal justice system at a painfully young age. When she was 6 years old, her mother, who was in the hospital getting treatment and was going to be released in a few weeks, was given a fatal overdose of medicine by a doctor. She died in her sleep. Lawson’s family filed lawsuits against the hospital, the drug manufacturer and the doctor; but, her family couldn’t afford a good lawyer. The autopsy report was lost, a messy legal battle ensued and the hospital won.
“Obviously I didn’t right then and there know that I wanted to be a lawyer, but it shaped who I was,” Lawson said.
Human error massively impacted her life, but now she works to prevent similar injustices from happening to others: something she’s had great success with. The DBB has freed sixty-five people, mostly from Rikers Island, and the organization also helped pass a law through City Council addressing the issue of correction officers not checking their fax machines regularly enough — an oversight which can keep people incarcerated for longer than they should be.
But her advocacy extends well beyond the bounds of the DBB. On campus she is an organizer for NYU Dream and the Incarceration to Education Coalition, a Policy and Activism chair for the Governance Council of Minority and Marginalized Students, a CAS college leader and an alumni relations coordinator for the AnBryce Scholarship for low-income, first generation college students — a scholarship which she also receives. All of her time is dedicated to others.
“She’s somebody who is not only empathetic, but she is somebody who takes the empathy and does something with it,” Senior Vice President of Student Affairs Tom Ellett said.
Ellett has watched Lawson grow and change over her time at NYU — from when she was a candidate for the AnBryce Scholarship visiting the school during Weekend at the Square to a confident and incredibly talented woman. Noticing Lawson’s academic and extracurricular capabilities, Ellett recommended that she apply for the Harry S. Truman Scholarship. She is a now an NYU finalist for the Truman process, which is one of the most competitive scholarships in the United States for students who want to work in public service.
Lawson is a private person who works quietly and effectively, often behind the scenes. She doesn’t tell her story or talk about the challenges that rock her to the core. She doesn’t complain or brag. She simply does. Ellett said that although he has seen her come more and more into the limelight, her fundamental nature has not changed.
“It’s a tough place,” Ellett said of NYU. “It can be easy to be invisible here, and I think some people choose to be visible by being loud, and others choose to be visible by doing things that bring visibility. She has been able to do that. She hasn’t changed that piece of her. I don’t find her to be an influential loud leader; she’s one of those people who does it because it’s the right thing to do, not because there is praise to be given back after it.”
Email Jemima McEvoy at [email protected].