Photo of Sharanda Jones via CNN
 By Nikki Igbo

If you’ve ever signed an online petition then you probably receive at least two invitations a week to sign another one to stop, combat, protest, prevent, derail, support, fund, defund, rescue, remove, rebuild, renew and/or cancel one thing or another. You’ve also most likely forwarded an online petition. You may have even created an online petition. Why? Because we’re living in the age of internet activism, you’re woke, and woke people in the age of internet activism have to do SOMETHING. In the midst of all of this digital signing, you’ve probably wondered if these online petitions actually make a difference. The answer is yes. In fact, here are five examples of countless online petitions that have made a significant impact and will inspire you to keep signing, forwarding and creating.

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Sharanda Jones 
*The single mom sentenced to life in prison for a first-time, non-violent offense. In 1999, Sharanda Jones became one of thousands of individuals who was sentenced to mandatory life in prison with no possibility of parole for a non-violent, first-time, drug-related offense under mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Jones’ daughter, Clenesha Garland, was just eight years old when her mother went to prison. Fifteen long years had already passed when Garland started an online petition to request clemency for her mother from President Barack Obama. Just under 280,000 people threw their support behind Jones and Garland and their request did not fall on deaf ears. Two years later, Jones was indeed granted clemency on December 17, 2015.

*The “boys-only” elementary school STEM night. A Floridian elementary school in Orlando said they planned a mother-son, boys-only STEM night because they wanted to create a boys’ activity to complement the successful father-daughter dance they’d held the previous year. As a woman who works in tech, Helena Zubkow was furious at the thought of any event having to do with science, technology, engineering or math excluding females—especially when those fields have historically excluded women in general. Her online petition drew just 775 signatures, but that was more than enough to get Audubon Park Elementary to change their tune and open the event to all students.

*The national massage chain that would not address its sexual assault problem. When Danielle Dick of Richmond, VA was the victim of sexual assault at Massage Envy, the horror she experienced was further amplified by Massage Envy’s tepid response and failure to properly address and prevent sexual assault from occurring on their premises. After enduring an equally frightening and demoralizing trial which did result in Dick’s attacker’s conviction, Dick learned that she was not alone in her Massage Envy experience. She launched an online petition in October to make sure the company put proper measures in place to prevent and correctly handle sexual assault at their locations. Garnering 62,000 signatures, the petition triggered the announcement this month that the massage chain would comprehensively and transparently work with Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) to fix the problem once and for all.

*The issue with media using the terms “child prostitute” and “child prostitution.” Words matter. Especially when it comes to child abuse and child rape. That’s exactly why the Human Rights Project for Girls (Rights4Girls) petitioned the Associated Press to cease using the phrases “child prostitute” and “child prostitution.” Because “prostitute” and “prostitution” suggest consent, Rights4Girls rightfully took umbrage with these terms being used to describe what was happening to children forced into sex slavery. More than 150,000 petition signers agreed. The Associated Press got the message loud and clear and announced they would cease using those terms.

*Girls around the world lack resources to complete secondary education. There are more than 60 million girls and young women who are either not given the opportunity to be educated or are forced to drop out of school early. Thus Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai started an online petition urging the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) to expand their funding effort for free, quality education for girls from 9 years to 12 years so that girls would be given an opportunity to complete both primary and secondary education. More than 1 million signatures later and the GPE expanded their funding accordingly.

As stated earlier, it is a good thing to keep signing, forwarding and creating these online petitions. They bring so much awareness to underreported or otherwise unreported issues happening within our communities. One such petition is for Cyntoia Brown, a teen sex trafficking victim who at the age of 16 admitted to killing Johnny Mitchell Allen---a 43-year-old man who solicited her for sex. She killed this would-be rapist out of fear for her own safety and was convicted to a life sentence in 2004 because of it. Brown is now 29 years old. According to a 2012 Supreme Court ruling, mandatory life sentencing without parole for juveniles is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. But because Brown would be eligible for parole at the age of 69, her life sentence stands. Her petition can be accessed and signed here.

Do you sign online petitions?
Nikki Igbo is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and political junkie. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Political Science from California State University at Fullerton and a Masters in Fine Arts of Writing at Savannah College of Art and Design. When not staring in disbelief at the antics unfolding on CSPAN, she enjoys philosophical arguments with her husband, 70's era music and any excuse to craft with glitter. Feel free to check out her freelance services at nikigbo.com and stalk her on twitter @nikigbo or Instagram at @nikigbo.
LaVerne Knighten & Son Willie Knighten
By Erickka Sy Savané

African Americans are only 13% of the American population but make up the majority of innocent defendants wrongfully convicted of crimes and later exonerated, according to a study conducted by the National Registry of Exonerations on race and wrongful convictions. Blacks constitute 47% of the 1,900 exonerations listed in the Registry (as of October 2016), and the great majority of more than 1,800 additional innocent defendants who were framed and convicted of crimes in 15 large scale police scandals and later cleared in “group exonerations.” This racial disparity exist for all major crime categories, but the report focused on the three types of crimes producing the largest numbers of exonerations in the Registry: murder, sexual assault, and drug crimes.

This, however, was not on Laverne Knighten's mind in 1996, when her oldest son, Willie Knighten, was issed a life sentence in connection with a drive-by murder in Toledo, Ohio. For any mom this would be devastating news, but what made it even worse was the she knew deep in her heart that her son was innocent.
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Her first reaction was to blame herself, perhaps if she and her husband hadn’t both worked full-time time jobs she could have stayed home and things might have turned out different. Or maybe she should have been stricter when she realized that he was going astray. Eventually, she was able to see that she had a choice in how she was going to deal with his life sentence and it was a series of choices that kept her sane throughout the years he served in prison, leading to the day he was released.

The first choice that 50-something year-old Laverne made following the sentencing of her son was deciding to end the pity party that had been going full-blast since the moment he was convicted. It was a co-worker at the factory where she worked, who was relentless in getting Laverne to see that blaming herself for what happened was ultimately going to destroy her. She says,
“In time, I was able to accept what happened and let God take care of the things that I could not change. I knew that Willie didn’t kill that man, but I had to look at some of the things that he did do. I knew that he was running the streets and doing drugs, so I realized that it could be much worse. At least in prison, I wouldn’t have to worry about a phone call in the middle of the night telling me that I would have to go identify my son.”
Now that Laverne had accepted the situation for what it was, she was able to take the next step. She became ‘Little Willie’s’ biggest supporter, along with her husband of 47 years, Pastor Willie Knighten, and tons of church members and friends. They wrote letters to the judge, signed petitions and showed up to one of Little Willie’s hearings via chartered bus, determined to do whatever it would take to free Willie.

Laverne and her crew were no joke. But still, the years passed, each one packed with holidays, special moments, and the two toddlers that Willie left behind growing up fast. What does that do to mother’s  faith? For Laverne, the passing years brought with it the opportunity to make another choice.

“I told myself that God may not always be there right when you want him, but he’s always on time. I believed everyday that went by, we were getting closer to the time when he’d be coming home.”

About six years into Willie’s sentence, Laverne received an unexpected phone call from the mother of the man Willie was convicted of murdering. She told Laverne that she didn’t believe that her son had killed her son and it had been weighing heavily on her mind. She was sorry, and wanted to arrange a meeting with the Judge.

For Laverne this looked like a turning point. Was it the answer to her prayers? With a mix of anticipation and excitement they met with the Judge, armed with information that the victim’s mom had never presented before. However, things didn’t go quite as planned. The Judge had doubts. Why hadn’t she presented this information earlier? For now, Willie would remain behind bars. Laverne was devastated again. But again she had a choice to make.

So she dug her heels in deeper, throwing even more love and support behind Willie, making sure that she and her husband were there for every single visit, whether he was at a facility right in Toledo where they lived, or moved to a prison a few hours away. It was during those visits that she became aware that many of the inmates didn’t have the support that she was giving Willie. In fact, Willie told her that some inmates were committing suicide from being abandoned by friends and family. LaVerne wasn’t having any of that, and became a surrogate mother to some of Willie’s friends.

“My husband and I sent packages and little things to the inmates that didn’t have anyone. Sometimes we sent money. One of his friend’s mom had died was while he was locked up, so I adopted him as my son. If you got a loving heart you know that God is going to bless you regardless. It seemed like every time we reached out to them God blessed us more.”

Lifted by his mom’s unwavering support, Willie joined in on the fight, writing letters to the judge, re-proclaiming his innocence, presenting him with new evidence whenever there was a change to the story, which by that time, was happening with greater frequency. More witnesses began coming forward, changing their testimonies, at one point the judge ordered Willie to take a polygraph (lie detector) test, which he passed three times. Even though polygraph tests results aren’t admissible in court, they did however, place doubt in the judge’s mind. Had he unfairly convicted Willie?

Twelve years into Willie’s life sentence, the Judge was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Before dying, he wrote a heartfelt letter to the Ohio Parole Board stating that he believed he was wrong in convicting Willie of murder, and in good conscious he could not leave this earth without informing them. Shortly after he died, and sure enough the Governor of Ohio granted Willie Executive Clemency. After serving almost 13 years, Willie was free.

And what did it mean to his mother?

“It meant a new beginning for the whole family, and more importantly for Willie, as I was able to share with him what I learned during those 13 years. He could be anything that he wanted to be; it’s all a matter of choice. ”

This month marks the six-year anniversary that Willie was released from prison. As of today, he is an anti-gang activist who mentors at-risk youth, he sits on the board of directors for the Reentry Coalition of Northwest Ohio, and serves as a member of the African American Leadership Caucus (AALC). To hear more about his story, check out his Toledo TedX Talk.

This article appeared on Madamenoire.com

Do you know someone wrongly imprisoned?

Erickka Sy Savané is managing editor of CurlyNikki.com, a wife, mom, and freelance writer based in Jersey, City, NJ. Her work has appeared in Essence.comEbony.com, Madamenoire.com, xoNecole.com, and more. When she’s not writing...wait, she’s always writing! Follow her on Twitter, Instagram or ErickkaSySavane.com