Giving – of time, of brainpower, of money – is in Jan and Howard Oringer’s DNA.
The importance of community service and support was not something they were taught in a schoolbook or during a formal dinnertime lecture, but it was a value modeled by their parents and grandparents for as long as they can remember – a value that they, in turn, worked to model for their own two sons.
Married for 55 years, Jan and Howard first met after they’d both moved to the Bay Area for job opportunities – she from rural Ohio, he from New York City. “I came to California because I wanted to make big changes in the world,” Howard says. “At the time, I meant that with respect to technology. Now, the big changes I want to make are societal.”
Despite their very different upbringings, Jan and Howard quickly bonded over this shared ambition, and they began looking for a church affiliation that supported their common values. They found that home in the Unitarian Universalists Society, drawn in large part to its focus on social justice. Decades later, they remain actively involved in the Church, volunteering their time to make an impact at the ground level: cooking meals for those experiencing homelessness, participating in after-school and summer enrichment activities for children, and more.
“We’ve always been very focused on our community, even if that focus has shifted over time,” the couple explains. “When we were a young family, we were very involved with our kids’ schools and activities. As we got older and started looking beyond the family to our broader community, we volunteered more of our time to the Church and related organizations. And 20 years ago, once we were financially able to do so, we established our own family foundation.”
When the Oringers created the Omina Foundation in 2000, they worked with their children to methodically and strategically identify less ‘reported-on’ causes for which a small foundation could make an outsized impact. One of their original areas of focus was prisoner reentry.
“The more I actually got to meet and interact with those affected by the criminal justice system, the more I realized the enormous waste of human capital created by mass incarceration,” Jan says. “Many of the organizations we support are led by intelligent, creative, formerly incarcerated individuals. . When we send our young people to prison, all those skills and abilities just go to waste.”
Howard adds, “Our society isn’t very forgiving – one stupid mistake can become a life sentence. Many incarcerated people come from resource-starved neighborhoods, and our criminal justice system makes it so that they can never really break free from their backgrounds.”
About ten years ago, the Oringers joined forces with the other members of the Race, Gender, and Human Rights (RGHR) Fund. Now housed at the East Bay Community Foundation, RGHR focuses on key criminal justice issues including preventing mass incarceration, improving prison conditions and supporting reentry. The Fund prioritizes the leadership of formerly incarcerated women and invests in efforts that build the criminal justice movement and advance systemic change. RGHR emphasizes the criminal justice systems’ impact on women, girls, trans people and gender nonconforming individuals in particular—the fastest-growing demographic in US prisons and jails today, but also often the most overlooked. “When a woman is incarcerated, the domino effect creates a reverberating impact on the entire family,” says Howard.
Jan and Howard are encouraged by the progress they see thanks to the work of RGHR and the impactful organizations it supports, such as the A New Way of Life Reentry Project, the California Coalition of Women Prisoners, the Young Women’s Freedom Center, among others in justice reform movement. They point to RGHR’s leadership in prompting other donors and foundations to support criminal justice reform, as well as RGHR’s initiation of the California Criminal Justice Founders Group, which provides educational opportunities and resources on criminal justice reform and has stimulated additional funding in the space. The Oringers also applaud the California government’s willingness to start making important and necessary policy changes—like ensuring that time served doesn’t preclude an individual’s ability to find decent employment, or the redirection of funding earmarked for incarceration to mental health services.
But the fight isn’t even close to finished—and neither are Jan and Howard.
“The more time we spend on these issues, the deeper my personal commitment becomes,” Howard says.
Jan echoes his sentiment. “We still have way too many people in prison. And our society still doesn’t seem to understand that incarceration is not a solution for social problems like mental health or poverty. There is such an over-reliance on the criminal justice system as the answer, and it doesn’t work.”
It is no surprise, then, that as they look forward to their next decade as givers, volunteers, and philanthropists, Jan and Howard expect to continue working toward meaningful criminal justice reform. But they are also sharpening their focus on a new issue closely linked to incarceration: homelessness. “You can’t solve having too many people on the streets by just putting them in jail. It’s costly, it prohibits future prosperity, and they’re just going to end up back on the street,” says Howard – and he’s not wrong. To incarcerate one young person in Alameda County costs approximately $430,000 per year (or roughly 30 years’ worth of tuition at UC Berkeley).
In addition to volunteering with organizations servicing and supporting the homeless, Jan and Howard want to find ways to address what they see as a key underlying driver of homelessness: tremendous and growing wealth disparity in the Bay Area—and with it, increased cost of living, a dearth of affordable housing, and the inability to find a job that pays a decent, living wage.
Acknowledging that major cities across the country are facing the same issues, Howard offers a seemingly simple philosophy that perfectly captures how the Oringers are making big changes in the world, after all: “We all have a responsibility to our communities to try and improve conditions for all residents. Jan and I are just trying to do our part.”
To learn more about the Race, Gender, and Human Rights Fund, visit ebcf.org/rghr.