Photo by Leslie Barbaro
The justice system is deeply flawed, says the former veep’s daughter. She wants to make sure it gets fixed, starting in Delaware.
As the young daughter of a United States senator, Ashley Biden would often accompany her father on the campaign trail. Along the way she was exposed to communities and individuals of varying means. It was a crash course on the disparities of race, power and money, and she learned early on that the idea that all people should be treated as equals was just that: an idea.
“But the thing that always stuck out to me was how Dad treated all people, no matter of their circumstances, the same,” Biden says. “He would treat the CEO of DuPont the same way he would treat a custodial worker at a hotel.”
And that is how the youngest of former Vice President Joe Biden and wife Jill’s children tries to treat people. More important, as executive director of the Delaware Center for Justice, she is driven by a need to reduce social and economic injustice.
That’s just what happens when you fall asleep in the lap of one of the most influential and longest-serving U.S. senators while family gabs at the dinner table every night.
“I have always considered myself to possess a sixth sense, and my mother always told me to tap into my gut, my intuition,” Biden says. As a child she wasn’t sure what that meant, but she knew it helped her see herself and others more clearly.
“I was always a mediator, and couldn’t stand someone getting made fun of or being bullied as a young girl,” she says. “My dad always taught me that silence is complicity, and that I must stand up for anyone who was being treated unfairly. That has stayed with me through adulthood, and is the guiding principle in my professional life.”
As a child, Biden was passionate about animals, especially dolphins, and it turned her into an activist.
“Often when I was 8 and 9 years old, I would talk to my dad when he came home from work about dolphins getting caught in tuna nets. I would come prepared with research and posters and talk about how we needed to save the dolphins.” So senator Joe and Barbara Boxer teamed up to write the 1990 Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act. Ashley Biden herself, armed with her posters and research, went to Washington to lobby members of Congress. When the law passed, Boxer mentioned her and her tireless efforts in her remarks on the floor. That was only a start.
During her undergrad years at Tulane University in New Orleans, Biden tried to satisfy her curiosity about cultural differences by diving into anthropology courses.
“My first semester of freshman year, I took a class titled ‘Street Ethnography’ and not only loved my professor, but was engrossed in the readings for the class,” she says. “I was always interested in what made people different, unique, and how social and structural organization influenced behavior and circumstance. Anthropology is closely related to social work, and having a foundation in cultural anthropology served me well as I earned my master’s in social work.”
Since joining the Delaware Center for Justice as associate director in 2012, Biden has been outspoken about the flaws of the justice system. Her relentless fight against excessive incarceration made it easy to promote her when former director Joanna Champney left. Biden, a social worker for 15 years before joining the Center for Justice, most recently at the Delaware Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families, lives by the adage, “Never judge a person until you walked a mile in his or her shoes,” which she cites as the essence of her major.
With all the charm you’d expect from the daughter of the former vice president, Biden has evolved into a force to be reckoned with. With her balance of grace and feistiness, Biden will quietly, brilliantly convince you not only that it’s her job to make change in the world, but that it’s your job, too—whether crusading against archaic legislation or advocating for those stuck in the justice system, or promoting her new line of designer hoodies to raise money for nonprofits.
Biden’s values started with her parents, both of whom grew up with several siblings and a strong belief that, “family is it.” Says her father, “there’s no one you’re closer to than your siblings. In Ashley’s case, this was especially true.”
“From the minute she was born,” says her mother, “her brothers looked after her. And, she always looked up to them. Wherever they went, she wanted to go, and they took her.”
Her oldest brother Beau, a former Delaware Attorney General, died in 2015 at the age of 46 after battling brain cancer.
“It was very important to Ashley,” adds her mom, “to carry on Beau’s legacy—the reforms in criminal justice, his work with children. Hunter, too, set an example with the work he was/is doing. She always had a reason to be engaged with them and she found a way to follow her own lead.”
Joe jokes that his daughter inherited her mother’s sense of humor and her stubbornness.
“She stands up for her people and wants others to see what she is seeing, first-hand, rather than solely from her,” he says, recalling the time Ashley invited her mother to visit a women’s prison alongside her, so she could hear their stories unfiltered.
Ginger Ward, a board member of DCJ at the time of Biden’s transition to director, says her promotion has been good for the organization.
“Her style is very 21st century—hands-on, collaborative, transparent,” Ward says. “It is the first job where she took a seat at the top, but she was fearless. I have watched her grow into the chair, and into herself as an advocate and a leader. She sees social justice as the cause she’s been called to champion, and no one is going to change her mind.”
Biden’s former roommate at Tulane University, Seema Sadanandan, managing director of the Alliance for Safety and Justice, has a similar take.
“Ashley was raised with a strong public service background in a family intent on being the voice of the people who need it most,” Sadanandan says. “One of the things she was really impacted by was Hurricane Katrina. She saw how poverty and race diminished access to services and kept people from changing their circumstances. Seeing her grow from student to social activist was exciting to all of us around her.”
Sadanandan was involved with the branding of Biden’s new line of Livelihood hoodies. “Her sensitivities to others’ struggles and creative visual sensibilities foreshadowed her decision to launch a clothing line around a social cause,” Sadanandan says. “I was not surprised. The [Livelihood] brand personifies her constant status as a social justice champion.”
She cites Biden’s clinical social work experience as valuable in helping to identify those in crisis who are also caught up in the criminal system.
“Sometimes, they wind up behind bars when they really need mental health and other social services,” Sadanandan says. “Ashley sees it as her mission to help those stuck in the system find a way out—and a way up through pretrial reform and behavioral cognitive therapy.”
Driven by the sense of powerlessness felt by many men, women and youth moving in and out of Delaware’s justice system, Biden advocates for comprehensive, coordinated social services that uncover—not mask—the underlying mental health, behavioral and economic struggles that influence criminal actions.
“We need to move beyond silos and create a social enterprise,” she says. “We need to accept that most people are not inherently bad. They simply don’t know another way and, if they do, they don’t have the means and support system to overcome the trauma, drug addiction, low-level education and income they’ve carried on their shoulders. We need to stop judging and come together to bring these incarcerated people back into society.”
One of her favorite messages is this: You are no better than anyone else, and no one is any better than you—something her father has always said.
“If you’re looking to make positive changes, you can’t hold onto the past,” Biden says.
Biden has been through a lot. Family tragedy, youthful party days, and a life lived in the public eye have shaken and shaped her, and they have afforded her an authenticity that resonates with those she serves.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s overcoming incarceration and poor choices—I’ve made plenty, too—or grappling with a sibling’s death, you can move forward and be better,” says Biden. “Getting people out of the justice system, or simply getting them the services they need, is about hope and possibilities. I am in my job because our system is malfunctioning. Mass incarceration isn’t the answer.”
Says Ward, “Her own struggles have led her to understand what it means to be out of control, which is something she can relate to her experience here, where a number of our clients also have lives that sped out of control. She isn’t trying to live up to anybody but herself, which is exactly what she encourages those with similar struggles to practice as well. She isn’t just giving clinical advice. She has personal experience that creates a unique bridge for those she is helping find a new direction and place in life.”
Like most of Wilmington’s social advocates, Biden blames poverty, lack of education, lack of jobs and lack of decent housing opportunities for violent crime.
“We know what we are facing, what those in and outside of the justice system, and their families—especially their children—are up against,” she says. “There is no rising above when there are no ways up economically. It’s not about talking anymore. It’s about acting.”
Creating role models who can help combat the perception that gang life is the only life and who can argue from experience that having a gun and holding power over someone through fear doesn’t equate to swagger on or off the streets, especially for young men in Wilmington’s most troubled neighborhoods.
“We need to change the way kids think if we expect them to change their behavior, because what they’re seeing out there isn’t the American Dream. It’s discrimination, welfare, life on the edge,” says Biden. “If there is no role model, who is helping to change the world they see?”
The Student Warriors Against Guns and Gangs prevention and intervention program at Ferris School for Boys exemplifies Biden’s commitment and philosophy. It teaches boys skills and strategies for coping with chaotic environments and reducing violent behavior.
“Youth intervention—and any intervention, really—is about breaking a cycle,” she says. “If a kid goes to the equivalent of prison and doesn’t get services during and after his residency there, what has he gained?”
A collaboration between DCJ and the Division of Youth Rehabilitation, the program provides participants with aftercare support groups so they can focus on community service projects.
“We have been acting with a small-town mentality for too long,” with too much breakdown in services, says Biden.
SWAG 2.0 is a similar program for students at Bayard Middle School in Wilmington. “Even if a kid is not experiencing the trauma of crime and incarceration (of parents, siblings or other family members), he typically has a friend whose family is,” she says. “These kids see a lot at an early age, and they’re watching older siblings and other family members getting stuck in the cycle. Middle school is the perfect time to intervene and deter any potential at-risk behaviors.”
DCJ’s programs are all-encompassing. They reach those who have committed crimes and who have been victims of crime. Providing the same level of support and access to Wilmington’s disenfranchised community is Biden’s ultimate goal.
“It’s not that people who are well-off don’t have issues. They still have [similar] problems, but the quality of access to—and of—treatment is much higher,” Biden says.
DCJ offers support services for adults seeking support before, during, and after arrest and incarceration. It engages a range of partners for a comprehensive approach to reducing pretrial detention, increasing therapies and preparing people for life outside the justice system. The underlying goal of each program is to help men and, in particular, women overcome their risk for future criminal behavior by coming together and developing personal and social resources to move away from sabotaging behavior.
“There is a lot to be done,” says Biden. “There is not a lot of funding that speaks to this. We strive to push positive outcomes, along with data collection and reporting, in hope of attracting more grants. A thousand youth and adults come through DCJ each year—victims and perpetrators. Think how that number could change with meaningful intervention and training resources.”
One of Biden’s most ardent directives, and a core principle of DCJ, is pre-trial reform—what Sadanandan cites as essential to ending mass incarceration. But, she adds, it’s more complicated than changing the bail system. It requires changing attitudes about who gets released before trial.
“As a clinical social worker with experience on the program and political side of interventions and policy, she brings a valuable skill set to the criminal justice system,” Ward says. “When you can identify in-crisis individuals before they get caught up in the system, a lot of things change. Ashley has always advocated against unnecessary pre-trial detention in favor of behavioral cognitive therapy.”
Launching Livelihood was a way for Biden to amplify her personal commitment to helping people seeking to overcome past mistakes and economic challenges. Underneath, though, the idea of a cozy hoodie was symbolic. The hoodies represents comfort—and they echoed her need after Beau’s death. The creative process, along with the purpose, was “a way to distract myself from my grief” as much as it was mission-driven. Sales from the hoodies, for now, are dedicated to two distinct regions: Wilmington, where Biden was raised, and Southeast Washington, D.C., where she first practiced as a social worker, and, where many people live in poverty.
The second collection in the Livelihood line is currently in production, with a fall launch planned. Livelihood accentuates Biden’s soft, yet strong character.
“DCJ and Livelihood both are philanthropic organizations,” Biden says. “Every dollar is earmarked for a program here or in one of the communities receiving support through Livelihood sales. I’m still working on how I can tie the two together, but of course, my first obligation is to DCJ. Ask anyone in nonprofit: Change has a high price tag.”
Those closest to Biden know that money and power are the furthest things from her mind.
“Ashley comes from a family of achievers,” Ward says. “She was taught to be a community servant. She is true to that family mission. Ashley is good at what she does, because she is able to understand what it is like to not be in control of what’s happening around you, and how that loss of control can debilitate you.”
A lot of growing pains, and a lot of personal growth, have taken place since young Biden took her passion to Washington. But to those looking in from the outside, there is an undeniable sense of peace and gratitude.
“Everyone struggles with something. Some simply struggle more,” says Biden. “I’ve had a lot of advantages, but that didn’t prevent my life from spinning out of control or the devastation of losing my brother. But what I had was support and the safety of being vulnerable. I am comfortable in my own skin. And sure, it sounds esoteric, but when you’re comfortable in your own skin, you’re kinder. And I think we all can agree, the world needs a lot more kindness.”