May 5 means a lot to Topeka K. Sam. On that day in 2015, she was released from prison, and on May 5, 2022, she’ll be honored with Google’s inaugural Social Impact Award, for her efforts toward ending the poverty and incarceration of women and girls worldwide, at Variety’s 2022 Power of Women: New York event.
“This is like a full circle moment for me, to be honored on 5-5,” Sam says. “It’s my seventh year home and seven is God’s perfect number. It just feels like I have been fully redeemed.”
When Sam was released, she sought out other women with experiences in the prison system, and quickly recognized the threads that connected them.
She founded the Ladies of Hope Ministries in June 2017, and by October had opened Hope House NYC in the Bronx as a housing program that provides essential services to women fresh out of prison. Since then, LOHM has launched projects in Maryland, Louisiana, Florida and California, offering career mentorship, tutoring and training for public speaking, writing legislation and even learning how to become a doula, plus addressing such basic needs as food insecurity.
While Sam has huge ambitions for LOHM, she says her number one priority is leveling the playing field for women like her to follow their own passions.
Between 1980 and 2019, the number of incarcerated women rose by more than 700%, which is twice the rate of men, according to the Bureau of Justice. More than half of those women are mothers.
“The one thing that everyone needs, which is why I tackle so many things, is [getting] their basic human rights met,” Sam says. “I cannot think about advocating for myself or even someone else unless I have those basic rights, which are safe and affordable housing, access to healthy food and health care and equitable opportunity through career development and entrepreneurship training.”
Sam’s work has been recognized by everyone from John Legend to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, she’s received funding from the NFL and Chanel and has partnered with universities and documentarians. She’s also an adviser to Google’s criminal justice reform efforts, which led to the company prohibiting bail bond ads on its platforms. Along with the award, Google is also providing Sam with a $100,000 grant, which she says will be used to compensate her employees, in addition to combating homelessness in Trinidad.
“Topeka has been more than a partner — she is an inspiration and a trailblazer,” says Maab Ibrahim, the racial justice lead at Google.org, the company’s philanthropic arm. “She has played a key role in aligning Google tools and resources with the needs of those most impacted by mass incarceration.”
“Google has been an incredible support and partner of the work of LOHM, but really me and my leadership, so to get this award from them is just incredible,” Sam says. “I’m hopeful that we’ll get more people like Google to recognize and provide these platforms, so other people can learn the work that we’re doing and want to invest their time, talent and treasure.”
In the meantime, Sam is looking toward the growth of LOHM with the goal of finally buying a home for herself. To do these things and more, she says she’s “unapologetic” about advocating for her worth.
“I personally want to be a billionaire,” Sam says. “Really a trillionaire, because I ultimately want to make a bunch of money so I can fund my own work and all the work of sisters that are doing work like me. I would like to get $100 million grants and truly get someone to invest in us like that. We deserve it.”