Deborah Peterson Small wants you to know that she is a native New Yorker. Ms. Small’s political education and social activism began early. Soon after graduating high school she went to work for a national youth voter registration organization and organized the first state-wide voter registration campaign on the campuses of the State University of New York. She went on to work as an apprentice to Bayard Rustin at the A. Philip Randolph Institute and participated in an exchange program that took her on an extended trip to Israel and the occupied territories.
After a year as an outreach worker for a community based organization in Buffalo, she returned to New York with her infant son and entered the City College of New York as a student in the alternative legal education program started by the late civil rights attorney Haywood Burns, graduating magna cum laude in 1983. She went on from there to Harvard University as a joint degree student in law and public policy.
After several years as a corporate attorney working in the private sector, she found her way back to her true passion – public interest work. She served as Chief of Staff to a member of the New York State Assembly representing one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City and immersed herself in the issues that had initially propelled her towards a legal career. A few years later she became Legislative Director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, in that capacity she lobbied the state legislature on behalf of the poor, disenfranchised and incarcerated. It was during this period that she became an ardent advocate for drug policy reform as she became increasingly aware of the ways that the “war on drugs” impacted most of the issues she addressed as a lobbyist. Because of her commitment to promoting drug policy reform, she left the NYCLU to become Director of Public Policy & Community Outreach for the Drug Policy Alliance. Over the past eight years Ms. Small has been at the forefront of the national movement seeking to change our nation’s failed drug policies. She helped bring public attention and legal support to the victims of the Tulia drug sting and prosecutions; she worked tirelessly to promote reform of New York’s infamous Rockefeller Drug Laws and helped organize community support for ballot initiatives requiring treatment instead of incarceration for non-violent drug offenders. Ms. Small is a nationally recognized leader in the drug policy reform movement and has been a major catalyst in engaging communities of color and their leaders to address the negative impacts of the war on drugs in their communities.
Two years ago, she founded a new organization entitled Break the Chains: Communities of Color and the War on Drugs. The mission of Break the Chains is to help build a movement in communities of color in support of drug policy reform with the goal of replacing our failed drug polices with alternatives based on science, compassion, public health and human rights. Follow her on Twitter @oshun125.