As an individual directly impacted by the justice system and an attorney by training, Azadeh Zohrabi leverages her hands-on experience and professional experience to create alternatives to incarceration via education. The Director of the University of California (UC), Berkeley’s Underground Scholars Program, Zohrabi creates programs to serve the university’s justice impacted students and also ensures they have the support necessary to succeed. Zohrabi recently shared her expertise with the Michelson 20MM Foundation during an interview.

“Higher education transformed my life and made it possible for me to have a huge impact on issues that impacted me and that I care about.” – Azadeh Zohrabi, JD

“I’m a first generation college graduate who has been impacted by incarceration for my whole life. I remember trying to navigate transferring to the UC system and later to law school without any of the support that exists today. Higher education transformed my life and made it possible for me to have a huge impact on issues that impacted me and that I care about,” Zohrabi reflected. 

A testament to her passion and commitment, she has led campaigns that have changed laws, freed hundreds of people from solitary confinement and prison, generated funds to create jobs and purchase property, and mentored and trained hundreds of students and leaders to be able to do those things as well. “I’m passionate about working with this community because I believe that the work that we are doing is creating the condition of possibility for a radically different world to exist,” she said.

When asked what keeps her motivated, Zohrabi highlighted witnessing the transformation of students and being able to celebrate their accomplishments with them. “There are so many of our students that I began working with while they were in community college and [were] nervous about applying to the UC and unsure how it would all work out. In the Spring, we celebrate all of our new admits and seeing how excited they are to become UC students definitely keeps me focused on making that possible for more students.” Later, Zohrabi has the joy of seeing her students pursue life post-graduation, including entering graduate programs to continue their studies. 

As the Director of UC Berkeley’s Underground Scholars, Zohrabi directly supports their work to make higher education in the UC system accessible to incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, and system impacted students with a focus on recruitment, retention, advocacy, and wellness. In addition to supporting recruitment and retention, Zohrabi is exploring methods to continue to expand Berkeley’s model throughout the UC system via a student-centered approach that emphasizes “engaging formerly incarcerated students on every UC campus as decision-makers, paid program staff, and campus leaders using a relationship-focused, community organizing, and coalition-building approach,” Zohrabi stated. 

Through her leadership and fundraising efforts, the UC system has professional staff at almost every campus. Additionally, Zohrabi and her team secured an ongoing allocation of $4M annually from the State of California, which is pivotal for the long-term success of the Underground Scholars. “This will allow us to fully scale our programs with full time staff and resources for students on every UC campus for the first time,” Zohrabi shared. “I’ve also increased our capacity to engage in policy work by creating a policy fellowship for our students where they learn CA’s legislative process and actually work advancing bills through the legislature in partnership with many of the organizations that are part of the Smart Justice Think Tank.”

The Smart Justice Think Tank (SJTT), convened by the Michelson 20MM Foundation in partnership with Root and Rebound, seeks to increase educational opportunities for current and formerly incarcerated Californians. The Berkeley Underground Scholars are one of the inaugural members of the Think Tank, and Zohrabi herself helped author the Think Tank’s Best Practices: Pathways from Prison to College. The Underground Scholars “believe it’s important to come together and talk about what’s working and how we can continue to improve the higher education opportunities that are available to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students,” Zohrabi said. “I believe convening this space with higher education providers as well as the organizations leading the policy, research, and thought leadership around this work…created a unique opportunity for us to establish a baseline for what effective programs serving this group of students should look like.”

 “In five years, I hope to see the Prison to College Best Practices adopted and implemented in the UC system for on campus programs and in prison programs.” – Zohrabi

Zohrabi is an advocate for the implementation of the Prison to College Best Practices because “having standards for these programs is really important to make sure we’re being effective,” particularly as the programs grow across the state and country, she noted. “In five years, I hope to see the Prison to College Best Practices adopted and implemented in the UC system for on campus programs and in prison programs.” 

Although she is a fervent supporter of the Best Practices, Zohrabi also understands the challenges that higher educational institutions may face in implementing them. “One of the biggest challenges being in the UC system is that we don’t have a lot of internal support,” Zohrabi said.  “If it wasn’t for the efforts of our own team we wouldn’t have a UC wide program right now. In that way, the UC system has positioned itself as an outlier in CA’s public higher education system in terms of serving incarcerated students and formerly incarcerated students.” 

Due to the challenge of fostering and maintaining internal support, Zohrabi and her team are tirelessly fighting to implement some of the Best Practices. As she reflected, “Although the Berkeley Underground Scholars program has been the model and inspiration for the rapid growth of similar programs across CA and the country, the UC has been slow to understand its significance and how deeply this program and model are integrated into the state and national trends relating to the intersection of the criminal legal system and higher education.”

Many programs across the UC system have inadequate staffing and oftentimes minimal support from leadership. In fact, “We haven’t had any support from the UC Office of the President (UCOP) and the bureaucracy they impose on our programs gets in the way of our work sometimes.” Zohrabi and her team’s persistence is paying off, however, as this year–for the first time–the UC system will have fully staffed programs on every campus. 

Such a widespread reach also comes with its own data management challenges across the campuses, which would benefit from leadership’s buy-in.  In the meantime, the Underground Scholars team has taken matters into their own hands by developing “system-wide data collection tools and key performance indicators for our programs across all campuses now,” Zohrabi shared.  “We’re looking forward to seeing it all come together as we continue to grow.”

The Underground Scholars team continues to persistent and looks forward to implementing all of the Best Practices because, as Zohrabi said, “We know education is transformative for people who are involved in the criminal legal system and I would like for it to be a real option for folks before they are convicted or sentenced to prison.” If you would like to learn how to be a part of the transformation and if you are interested in diving into the Best Practices, join our informational webinar with Zohrabi and her fellow Best Practices authors on September 14, 2022.

Register for the event

Michelson 20MM is a private, nonprofit foundation seeking to accelerate progress towards a more just world through grantmaking, operating programs, and impact investing. Co-chaired and funded by Alya and Gary Michelson, Michelson 20MM is part of the Michelson Philanthropies network of foundations.

To sign up for our newsletter, click here