About Our TeamDedicated to creating a system that works for everyone.
Meet Our Team
Justice system involved attorney Sarai Cook has been directly impacted by many systems and cycles of oppression and poverty. Through those experiences, she has made it her life’s work to empower and encourage others by modeling the possibilities of overcoming cycles of oppression by lending a directly impacted voice to policy discussions and advocating for systemic change.
Since graduating law school in 2011, Ms. Cook has worked in community development, and public service at the Tribal level with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, National level with the United States Department of Energy, and Internationally.
Ms. Cook is the recipient of the National Center for Native American Economic Development 40-under-40 award, the Muscogee Creek Nation’s professional of the year award, and the New Leadership Oregon outstanding alumni award. In her current position with PDA’s Civil Survival Project, Ms. Cook will work with a team to assist community members to overcome barriers to re-entry and organize people who have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system to build connections, gain knowledge and increase political participation.
South King County Game Changer Leader
Michelle has experienced the challenges of incarceration first hand which propelled her to engage in her community as an organizer, a social justice advocate, and a public speaker. Michelle is the founder of L.O.V.E Talks (Ladies of Vision and Empowerment), a support group for women of color. She has served as the Job Readiness Instructor for Seattle Urban League’s Career Bridge’s first women’s cohort, a program that helps formerly incarcerated individuals reintegrate back into the community by addressing areas in their lives that create boundaries, such as housing, driver’s licenses, and employment. Michelle is a member of the No New Jim Crow Seattle Campaign, a community organization that speaks to issues around mass incarceration.
In addition to Michelle’s community work, she attends Highline College where she is pursuing a BA in Behavioral Science where she is the Work Study Supervisor, and the Community Based Organization Outreach Coordinator.
Pierce County Game Changer Leader
A formerly incarcerated resident of Tacoma, Christopher is the Pierce County Game Changer Group Leader. Christopher also a teaches a life skills class to people transitioning out of the King County Jail. A graduate of the University of Washington Tacoma, Christopher likes to sing and play music in his spare time and is planning to continue working toward his master’s degree in Urban Studies; Community Planning.
Thurston County Game Changer Leader
Kelly Olson is the Thurston County Game Changer leader for the Civil Survival Project. Kelly started as the Thurston County Game Changer leader in October 2018. She also works full time at the Washington Student Achievement Council, where she works as a state regulator in postsecondary degree authorization. After leaving prison in 2007, Kelly used education and volunteering in her community to help rebuild her life. She graduated from The Evergreen State College in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and an emphasis in communications and public policy. She graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy in 2013 with an Executive Master’s in Public Administration.
Although Kelly achieved academic success and became a leader in her community through her volunteer work, and some paid positions with nonprofit organizations, she struggled to find a living wage job due to the collateral consequences of being formerly incarcerated. After a decade of struggling to survive in a society that consistently told her she wasn’t welcome, she realized it was time to advocate for herself. She has found her voice and is using her story to advocate for systemic change for all justice involved individuals.
Kelly is a 2019 graduate of Leadership Tomorrow, a program that teaches civic leadership, and is excited to be a coach for the new 2020 cohort of leaders just starting on their leadership journey.
Tarra Simmons is the Director of the Civil Survival Project where her work is building holistic advocacy and legal services led by and for the formerly incarcerated. Tarra’s commitment to this work stems from her own experiences as a survivor of multiple forms of violence, substance use disorder, and incarceration. She believes those closest to the problem are closest to the solution and should have an integral role in leading the end of mass incarceration and healing its aftermath. Together, the Civil Survival Project is building community power, providing legal services and leadership development opportunities to its own communities across Washington State, and advocating for a bold legislative agenda to treat root causes of crime instead of perpetuating harm through criminal legal system involvement.
However, Tarra’s own fight to become a lawyer was riddled with complications when the WSBA denied her application to take the bar exam due to her past. It was national news when the Washington Supreme Court ruled unanimously in her favor and allowed her the opportunity to sit for the bar exam. She is passionate about helping others with a similar past on the journey from system involvement to system change agent and/or lawyer.
Tarra sits on numerous boards and commissions including:
- The Washington Statewide Reentry Council, Co-Chair
- The Public Defense Advisory Board
- The Washington Statewide Sentencing Task Force
- The Washington Supreme Court Gender and Justice Commission, Advisory Board Member
- Economic Opportunity Institute, Board Director
- The National Council of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, Board Director
In her free time, Tarra likes to garden, travel, and spend time with her family.
Cory Walster is the Community Organizer for the Civil Survival Project. He started with Civil Survival as a volunteer 3 years ago, was one of the original founding board members, and has led the Kitsap County Game Changer group since 2018. He is a father of two children, a son, and daughter, he’s a registered member of the Oglala tribe, of the Lakota Nation. Cory’s passion for this work stems from his own lived experiences with the systems of oppression and his own incarceration in four of the Washington State prisons. After release from prison, Cory found himself as a single parent to his daughter and struggling to overcome the many legal restrictions and barriers for people upon reentry. He did not realize the power of sharing his story until finding others in Civil Survival to connect with and learned how to get before decision-makers and elected officials
In addition, Cory is passionate about school push-out and it fueled him to organize with others after his own daughter was being suspended due to her mental health issues. His contributions to the work of Civil Survival are bountiful, but he is most proud of his position on the Central Kitsap School District Student Rights and Responsibilities Committee where he was an integral part of redrafting the discipline code to keep children in a learning environment. He is generous with his time and talents and is highly active with other groups and committees in the community such as Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ). He values advancing racial equity in all of his work and building relationships with others who have been impacted by any systems of oppression. Cory is also a skilled gardener in his free time and enjoys sharing his harvest with other activists and organizers.
Recent Blog Posts
Educate. Motivate. Liberate.
Session One This webinar will kick off our first day of National Expungement Week (N.E.W.). Tarra Simmons, the Director of the Civil Survival Project, will launch this series. We will have national speakers Torie Marshall, Visionary & Founder of N.E.W. Director,...
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xuRIDK7QaEI Carolina Landa and her family are featured in support of HB 2793 Clean Slate Washington. The Clean Slate Act would automatically clear the records of qualifying criminal records for people who remain crime-free for a set...
Formerly incarcerated advocates change their ‘label,’ get involved in Olympia and beyond
Our 2019 Impact Report is now available! We thank our community, friends and partners for all we have accomplished in 2019 and look forward to tremendous growth in 2020. If you are on our mailing list, you should have received a copy by email. Please contact us if...
December 15, 2019 Please join us in congratulating our first graduating class from the 2019 Civil Survival Leadership in Advocacy Fellowship program! In July 2019, we launched our inaugural fellowship program to invest and develop skills in community leaders who were...
In partnership with Olympic College, Saturday, October 19th, we (the Civil Survival Project) held one of our Reentry Advocacy Workshops in Bremerton. A room of formerly incarcerated people, allies and three elected officials made space to talk and unpack how barriers...
View or download our One-Pagers for more information about our legislative priorities for 2020. Civil Survival 2020 Priorities Reentry Advocacy Project Clean Slate Washington