Trailblazer: Amika Mota

Fighting the system’s Goliaths.

amika mota
Carolyn Fong

From a young age, Amika Mota was immersed in the advocacy for women’s wellness that was central to her mother’s San Francisco sex shop, Good Vibrations. At 19, Mota started her career as an apprentice midwife, then became the assistant director at the Andaluz Waterbirth Center in Oregon. There, she advocated for teen mothers like herself. When the center was faced with bullying by a nearby hospital, Mota weathered a “David and Goliath–style fight,” she says. Andaluz prevailed. The experience would prepare Mota for a life of battling Goliaths, one that would lead to her role today as policy director at the Young Women’s Freedom Center.

This article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Alta Journal.

Mota ended up in policy work after experiencing the prison system firsthand. After moving in with a violent partner, she slipped back into the substance use that had plagued her teens and was incarcerated in 2009 for vehicular manslaughter. In prison, she took nationally accredited courses to become a jailhouse lawyer and helped demystify tricky legal jargon for her peers, including one woman whose life sentence was reduced to 18 years. Mota also shaved two years off her own sentence.

In 2012, while incarcerated, Mota joined the Central California Women’s Facility fire department. Quickly promoted to engineer, she led a four-person crew that battled wildfires. “Every time we walked away with a victory, we started to recognize ourselves as having a different type of value in the world,” she says. Meanwhile, she earned roughly $54 a month for “grueling” 24-hour shifts.

Now, seven years after her release, Mota sees clearly how much California relies on incarcerated people as a labor force. She’s pushing for the enactment of ACA 3, which would put an amendment to the state constitution on the ballot that, if passed, would bar involuntary servitude as a criminal punishment. “I get to do a lot more legislative finesse behind the scenes,” Mota says of her latest work. But, she says, “I have never stopped analyzing…the [criminal justice] system since I was in it.”•

Jessica Klein is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the Atlantic, the New York Times, and the Guardian.
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