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Omaha Magazine

Go-Getter With a Cause

Dec 21, 2023 01:44PM ● By Claudia Moomey
gen o olivia larson january february 2024

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

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25-year-old Olivia Larson is a policy fellow at RISE, a nonprofit organization that aims to “end generational cycles of incarceration.” Through the fellowship, she focuses on criminal justice reform, particularly voting rights restoration.

“I knew that I wanted to be in the nonprofit space,” Larson said of her early career and schooling. Through fellowships with Swing Left and Planned Parenthood, she soon found her passion. “I like to have a cause,” she asserted. “My mom likes to say I’ve always been a fighter.”

And a fighter she will remain. “I think I’ve got a lot of gas for this area specifically, so this is where I see myself,” Larson said. “I feel like a little sponge, and I’m just trying to get really good at this.”

Jasmine Harris, director of public policy and advocacy at RISE, agrees that Larson belongs in this business. “Olivia brings a light into the work,” Harris stated. “She’s a go-getter, ready to move things forward and to get everyone involved in the process. She has the knack for being able to get people together and see the plan through.”

Currently, Larson’s main policy goal is to amend the voting rules for imprisoned Americans. “For folks who have had previous felony charges, Nebraska law says you have to serve your full sentence, another two years, and then you are able to vote,” Larson said. “Our bill is pretty simple–it’s just to remove the two years, because there’s not really a functional or administrative purpose for that.”

During the legislative session, Larson is usually lobbying and is present at the state capitol every week. Having met most Nebraska senators, she is confident she can influence change in policy. 

“People aren’t so black and white–just because someone voted one way on an issue doesn’t mean they won’t work with you on another,” she reflected. “It’s like a series of negotiations and relationships, so I’m really liking the fluidity that working with policy issues gives, as opposed to politics, where you work for a specific person or campaign and have to hold all their beliefs.”

When asked about costs, usually by government officials, Larson loves to reply with a simple, “Sure, I’ll give you numbers. It costs $45,000 a year to incarcerate a person. Our programming costs $5,000, and studies show that it works. Do you want to invest in people or pay to incarcerate them? It’s a choice.”

RISE offers several programs and resources for incarcerated individuals designed to reintroduce them into their communities. Through in-prison education, reentry and employment services, and the RISE Business Academy, the organization hopes to lessen the stigma associated with formerly incarcerated individuals as well as give them the stepping stones needed to reach their goals once outside prison.

The success of RISE’s programs can be found within the organization itself. “At least half of our staff have been formerly incarcerated,” said Larson, “and they’re great at their jobs. Every day I go to work, there’s a RISE graduate on staff. It’s really encouraging.”

The RISE Business Academy offers classes beyond in-prison education to help and encourage entrepreneurial hopefuls. “Through the business coaching side of things, the folks doing that programming will help people do a business pitch competition–kind of like Shark Tank–and the winner will get seed money to start their venture,” Larson explained. Many of the business owners are then invited to participate in or cater for RISE events, allowing them to shine in the community. “It’s so wholesome. It’s really cool to prove that we walk the walk, too, and not just say we care as an empty statement,” Larson said.

When not actively advocating for human rights causes, Larson can be found shopping at thrift stores or at the Union for Contemporary Art utilizing a pottery wheel. Practicing hobbies outside work, she claims, keeps her fueled. 

“I think that’s what’s hard about being a young professional,” Larson said of balancing work and other activities. “I think I’ve got a pretty good balance, but it is hard when you’re so passionate about what you do, so it can be hard to say, ‘Ok, I still care about this, but I need to do my laundry. I need to go to this family game night and not talk about legislature.’”

Larson plans to finish her next year of policy fellowship and see where it takes her. “With a mission like RISE’s, it’s an ocean. Every single day, the more I get into it, the more I realize that I still have things to learn and there are so many things to do,” she reflected. When she reaches her policy goal, it’s on to the next cause.

“She’s overall a great person,” Harris said, “and it’s great to have someone so young interested in this policy work. I’m really glad to have her on the team.”

For more information about habilitative programming in prisons and reentry support in Nebraska, visit seeusrise.org.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Omaha Magazine. To subscribe, click here. 
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