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Rooting for the underdog

ASU alum Jimarielle Bowie cares for those in need in Bay Area

Woman passing out food to the homeless.

ASU alumna Jimarielle Bowie shares a laugh as she hands out food and hygiene products on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023, near the dry Ledgewood Creek in her hometown of Fairfield, California. The criminal defense attorney co-founded Fairfield Change in 2020 with five friends to promote social causes. She and her friends are helping homeless people in the area once a month with warm food and personal hygiene products. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

February 22, 2024

Editor's note: Arizona State University alumni are making a difference in every corner and community of the world, positively changing the lives of those they encounter. ASU News traveled around the U.S. in 2023 to profile five of those alums.

FAIRFIELD, Calif. — Jimarielle "Mari" Bowie pulled a red wagon as she walked along the dry and dusty Ledgewood Creek bank.

It was a spectacular November Saturday afternoon in Fairfield, situated about halfway between San Francisco and Sacramento and home to Travis Air Force Base. A cool breeze offset the 76-degree weather and bright sun that occasionally peeked through the clouds.

Inside the wagon — and two containers that were being carried by her friends — were 30 cups of homemade chili, bottled water, napkins, cookies and toiletries such as Band-Aids, Chapstick, toothpaste and deodorant.

Bowie saw a man and woman who had set up an encampment at the bottom of the creek.

“Are you hungry?” she asked.

They were. And thirsty.

A few more feet and a man in a military jacket approached Bowie and her friends.

“Are you hungry?” Bowie asked.

He was.

On and on they walked, feeding the homeless people and, in front of Target, about 10 day laborers, all of whom conversed easily in Spanish with Bowie.

About an hour after she had retrieved the day’s goods from the back of her Nissan Rogue, it was time to go home. All of the food and water had been dispersed. Bowie’s 2-year-old daughter, Zhuri, was crying and in need of a nap. Her 6-year-old son, Zaiden, was hungry and wanted to watch Spider-Man.

Bowie smiled and extended her hand.

“Thanks for coming,” she said.

When Bowie graduated from Arizona State University in 2018 with a Bachelor of Arts in political science — graduating in 3½ years while taking care of Zaiden — she wasn’t sure how she wanted to make a difference.

She just knew she had to.

Woman sitting at dining table in home with coffee in front of her
ASU alumna Jimarielle "Mari" Bowie is pictured at her mother's house in Fairfield, California, in November 2023. The ASU alum, mother of two young children and criminal defense attorney co-founded the community organization Fairfield Change in 2020. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

What prompts a 26-year-old mother of two with a thriving career as a criminal defense lawyer to start an organization — Fairfield Change — in her hometown that helps to feed and clothe the less fortunate?

It’s a question that has a layer of answers, from the deaths of George Floyd and Trayvon Martin to Bowie’s work history, but who she is today is directly a reflection of how she was raised.

Bowie comes from a family of caregivers on her mother’s side. Her great-grandmother and her grandmother, who helped raise her, opened their home to hungry people in the communities of Berkeley and Oakland.

“Mari would see certain acts of kindness from the time she was a child,” said her mother, Frenchelle Franklin. “That’s where the seeds were planted. I think she picked up those things along the way. But she’s also naturally always been a caring person.”

That characteristic showed up early, at K.I. Jones Elementary School in Fairfield. A child alone on the playground soon would find Bowie at her side. Bowie shared the lunch Franklin made for her with students who didn’t have enough to eat.

“There were times she would come home, and I’d be like, ‘Why are you still hungry?’” Franklin said. “She’d say, ‘Oh, because so and so ran out of lunch money, and I wanted to make sure they ate.’ So I started packing extra sandwiches she could share.”

Bowie stood up for kids who were being bullied because she remembered being “traumatized” when a classmate cut off her ponytail and she was the only child with curly hair.

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“I was bawling my eyes out,” she said. “I was really sensitive, so if I saw people being bullied, I just couldn’t allow it.”

“She always rooted for the underdog,” Franklin added. “She always wanted to make sure she was protecting those that didn’t get a fair chance.”

Bowie enrolled at ASU on the recommendation of a friend, and after touring the campus with her mom — “I just fell in love,” she said — the college experience both enriched her and drove her.

“I was just into everything that the professors taught me,” she said.

So much so that after becoming an online student in the summer of 2016, she took a history final while in labor with Zaiden.

After graduating from ASU, Bowie attended the Charleston School of Law Magna Cum Laude and passed the California Bar Exam — while she was pregnant with Zhuri.

None of that surprises Victoria Barnett, who became close with Bowie while they were in high school.

“Anything that Mari participates in, she is a driving force,” Barnett said. “She’s one of those people that once she wants to do something, you can not steer her away from it. With or without you, she’ll do it."

In her work as a criminal defense attorney for the Nieves Law Firm, based in Oakland, Bowie helps undocumented people seeking to gain citizenship. It feeds her desire for social justice, a passion that was ignited in high school after the deaths of Floyd and Martin — “we would go down to Oakland to protest,” Bowie said — and reignited in 2020 after she settled down in Fairfield.

She and her friends had continued to join protests in Oakland, but Bowie realized she wanted to do more.

“We wanted to start actively working within the community,” she said. “I was tired of going all the way to Oakland. I don’t live in Oakland. Fairfield is where we live. Let’s start something here.”

Bowie got together with five of her friends and posted a notice on Instagram saying they were looking for people who wanted to help homeless people in Fairfield. They named their organization Fairfield Change, and within weeks, 25 to 30 people were on their weekly Zoom calls.

Bowie or one of her friends went to every Fairfield city council meeting to get to know the local politicians and better understand where homeless people congregated and how she could best help them.

“Homeless people don’t have access to the city council to speak on their behalf or know the jargon to tell stakeholders how things need to be changed,” Barnett said. “Mari, with her legal jargon, was able to help.”

Bowie wasn’t the designated leader, but she ran the meetings, cooked and coordinated.

“She was the head of the spear,” Barnett said.

By the end of 2020, Fairfield Change was helping homeless people and low-income families on several fronts. Every Monday, members would hand out food. During the holidays, a member adopted a homeless person and provided items they wanted or needed, whether that was blankets, toiletries or similar items. Donations were used to buy gifts, and Fairfield Change threw a Christmas party at the park, provided food and gave gifts to both homeless people and their pets.

Those who were homeless also received food around Thanksgiving, and low-income families who had the option to cook received free turkeys as well as side items such as macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and stuffing.

In addition, Bowie set up a storage unit for used clothes, shoes or other items to be handed out.

“We would get a lot of clothes from people,” she said. “We sorted through them, put them on racks, gave the houseless a Thanksgiving meal and then they could go shopping and get as much as they wanted.”

Bowie also worked with Food is Free Bay Area, which creates permanent and temporary free food stands in Solano County, which encompasses Fairfield.

“We would get about 100 boxes of food,” Bowie said. “It would have items like milk, cheese, onions and other bulk items. We’d hand out about 50 boxes of food to families, change locations and hand out 50 more. We’d post on our Instagram account where we were.”

Bowie gave out her cell number to homeless people. When she got a call saying police were cleaning out encampments, she and her friends would show up early in the morning to help homeless people relocate, keep their things, or, if possible, provide new items like tents.

Bowie said it’s been more difficult the past year to keep Fairfield Change going. Many of the people who helped start the organization have moved, and Bowie is busy with work and her children.

But she is still the same person who is determined to help the underdog.

“I try to at least do something once a month, and I try to really keep good connections (with homeless people),” she said. “Even if I can’t do something, I still will go and visit them. I don’t want them to feel like I forgot about them.”

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