Olivia Ashe | Photo credit: Will Austin
It was while she was a student at Cleveland High School in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood that Olivia Ashé found her calling as a volunteer for Youth Ambassadors, a Seattle-based organization with a mission to reduce truancy through restorative justice and peer counseling, rather than through the criminal justice system. Advocating for her peers facing court proceedings for truancy, Ashé discovered that she wanted to become a lawyer in order to counteract a deeply entrenched school-to-prison pipeline.
At first, Ashé says, she planned to advocate for the accused as a criminal defense attorney. “I certainly started out thinking I’d work on the defense side. I even worked as an investigator for the public defender service in Washington, D.C., right out of college. But as I was engaging in that work, I saw how the courts work and where the power was. At this point, I see the prosecutor’s office as the place where I can affect the most change.”
Today, Ashé hopes to become a prosecuting attorney so that she can bring about systemic change for those whose “backs are against the wall” — a term often used by Howard Thurman, a civil rights leader and theologian who inspired Ashé’s career goals. She was also influenced by Black spiritual leader James Cone, D.D., considered the father of liberation theology, a doctrine that connects the interests of God with those of the oppressed.
Her commitment to equity and justice was recognized in 2015, when she was named the Washington state Truman Scholar while attending Seattle University as an undergraduate student. A nationally recognized activist for disadvantaged communities, she was also invited by the NGO Charter for Compassion to speak at the Empathy and Compassion in Society Conference in San Francisco.
The daughter of a pastor, Ashé is presently pursuing a Master of Divinity degree at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and a law degree at Loyola University School of Law in Chicago, where she lives with her wife, Qiddist Ashé.
At least in one field, she hopes to have a short career: “It’s my hope that I can transform the system from within and then retire as a pastor. Honestly, as a prosecutor, I hope I can work myself out of a job.”
Who is your personal hero?
I have four: My mothers Angela Carrion and Katrina Boatright and fathers Mark Smith and Edward Jones. When I think about who I am today, so much of the passion I have and the way I move through life seeking liberation is because of them.
What do you want people to understand about your work?
I wish that people understood that my goal is not to make prosecutorial work my “forever job.” Instead, I want to change the way our system addresses harm.
What’s one small action our readers can take in their own lives to make positive change happen?
Pursue healing for themselves and their community by having difficult conversations, listening deeply to others, and working alongside and with communities who are the most impacted by injustice and oppression.
What one thing did an adult or mentor do for you as a youth that helped you succeed?
All four of my parents, my pastors at Valley and Mountain Fellowship, my high school principal Princess Shareef and Youth Ambassadors founder Lori Markowitz all gave me the space and encouragement to think critically.
Best advice for kids with big ambition?
Find other kids with big ambitions and small ambitions and all ambitions in between, and do things that feel relevant to the struggles you’re facing.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
A superpower that allows people to feel seen.
Fill in the blank:
What the world needs now is to understand how deeply interconnected we are to each other.