2023 Social Justice Assembly Recap

Locked Out: Concepts of Criminality and Housing Security in our Community

What comes to mind when you hear the word criminal? What does restorative justice mean? What implications do these things have for our legal system and society as a whole? The 2023 Social Justice Assembly brought together a panel of Minnesota voices working on housing security, restorative justice, and systems change to address those questions.


2023 Social Justice Assembly Summary:

Keynote with Emily Baxter – Founder & Director of We Are All Criminals

Baxter dove into discussion about the meaning of criminality and the American system of mass incarceration. “One out of four people have a criminal record, but I would contend that four out of four people have a criminal history”, she began. The fact that race and socioeconomic status largely dictate who is more likely to be caught and punished for committing crime led Baxter to ask us to reflect on our pasts: “what have you had the luxury to forget today?”

Baxter then highlighted the exponential growth of the federal prison population that began in the 1970’s and has resulted in the imprisonment of nearly 1.5 million people today. “This mass incarceration is not only unprecedented in our own history, it’s unparalleled in the world”, Baxter said, “and the US holds approximately 5% of the world’s general population but boasts nearly 25% of the world’s incarcerated population.

Baxter finished with three takeaways:

    One: Stay horrified. Get re-sensitized. Don’t take our mass criminalization mass disaster as given.
    Two: Stay hopeful. There’s a groundswell of change happening across the nation and we have the last time I checked, nearly 200 people on the call. You are a necessary and vital part of that change.
    Three: See people. Mass incarceration is dependent upon the ignoring and the erasure of the human beings we cage. You can listen to those stories. You can see people in prison, in jail, in the system, with criminal records as brothers and sisters. As friends and neighbors. As truly beloved people trying to come home.


Panel Question #1: What Does Restorative Justice Mean?

Nadine Graves, Esq: “Restorative justice is a means to build relationships and repair harm. Our criminal legal system is adversarial. When you walk into a courtroom, you have the judge that’s perched up looking down at you. You have opposing counsel and defense counsel sitting across separate from each other. You have jurors looking at you, and no one is sitting in a circle.
How I’ve seen restorative justice happen is everybody has to be quiet and has to listen to what everyone else says. Everyone has an opportunity to talk and share.”

Fong Lee: “It’s not about forgiveness, it’s about healing. It’s about humanity. It’s about listening. It’s about understanding. It’s about responding to crises—responding to the person in front of you that needed help.”

Rich McLemore: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the table. As an individual that has been victimized by this [existing legal] process, I just want to see some equity built.”

Panel Question 2: What are some of the biggest barriers that our homecomers face along the road to housing stability or stability in general?

McLemore: “The intersection of housing and criminality. We can’t enable folks that are coming out of incarceration to believe that there’s going to be systems in place to supplement and supply them for life. We have to give them a foundation. That’s why they need to be at the table.”

Lee: “My thing is, if I’m sitting here, trying to be transparent with you, you’re not gonna give me the time of day to tell you the story of where I’m at. And you’re just gonna automatically turn a blind eye or turn a deaf ear simply because of the very mention of my past.”

Panel Question 3: Where have you seen us as a community fall short in the way that we approach crime? How do we use or fail to use restorative justice and how can we think about reintegration?

Fr. Dan Griffith: “When I look at our current culture in the United States and Minnesota, I think we have to examine our culture honestly and with an eye toward what we might say as Americans as ‘fostering a more perfect union’. When it comes to our criminal legal system, we have a huge gap between what we desire—hopefully desire collectively for human flourishing and justice for all—and what we currently have.

Disproportionate effects on people of color and not fostering good outcomes is madness. We’ve got to look at American culture, Minnesota culture, the criminal legal culture, and the culture of law, and ask tough questions and advocate for change. Restorative justice has really powerful potential, and an important role in crafting a better future.”

Panel Question 4: From a legal perspective, as well as a personal one, how do you see our perceptions of crime or criminality impacting access to housing?

Graves: “Unfortunately, due to our legacy of slavery, white supremacy, racism, and so forth, most black and brown people already have this presumption of suspicion and criminality, and therefore, ultimately guilt. And so, if you add on the layer of a criminal record, it only exacerbates the stigma. We have to question why some things are considered a crime for one person, but not a crime for another person, when doing similar conduct.”

Panel Question 5: What can folks do to help untangle these systems of incarceration—whether that be with your organizations, or just generally speaking?

McLemore: “Talk to your local representative about one thing . . . and that one thing is making sure that all landlords, with the exception of none, put their rental criteria on their website. That’s it. Right now, a lot of landlords don’t do it. It causes folks to have to apply for a place five or ten times and some folks may not know, but that’s $40 to $50 per time. That’s some people’s car payment.”

Griffith: “Volunteer at particular organizations that are either promoting reentry, or listening. We do this at basilica every week. So, there’s opportunities to volunteer at the facility of Saint Mary’s, but become informed.”

Lee: “Take it to your family, take it to your friend, talk to them and stop the stereotypical perception of those who are impacted by the law. Give us a shot. Give us your ear. Be open minded and open hearted.”

Graves: “I would say there’s spaces where these conversations are already happening. Show up in those spaces and listen. Don’t center yourself in that space. There’s a ton of literature out there about the criminal legal system. You can read two books that I would recommend”:

    Until We Reckon – Danielle Sered
    We Do This ‘Til We Free Us – Mariame Kaba


Thank You to our 2023 Keynote/Moderator

Emily Baxter

Emily BaxterEmily Baxter is the founder and director of We Are All Criminals (WAAC), a photo and story-based catalyst for conversations about race, class, privilege, and punishment. Prior to this, Emily served as the director of advocacy and public policy at the Council on Crime and Justice and as an assistant public defender representing members of the Leech Lake and White Earth Bands of Ojibwe. She is an attorney, advocate, and photographer, working with families, community groups, and national organizations to highlight injustices and amplify the voices and stories of people most impacted by our criminal legal system. Emily recently moved back to Minneapolis after six years in Durham where, in addition to her work with WAAC, she served as the director of the North Carolina Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.


Thank You to our 2023 Panelists

Nadine Graves, Esq.

Nadine GravesNadine Graves is the Deputy Director of Community Legal Services at the Legal Rights Center, where she oversees the criminal defense unit. Nadine has a long history of working with, advocating for, and empowering marginalized people. Nadine is a former public defender and has represented parents in child protection matters and tenants in housing court. Outside of the courtroom, Nadine served as the board chair of a non-profit, We Are Criminals, an organization dedicated to challenging society’s perceptions of what it means to be a “criminal.” Nadine embodies the importance of perspective-changing through storytelling. She has testified at Minnesota’s Second Chance Day on the Hill in support of Ban the Box, highlighting collateral consequences and the need for expungement reform, and voters’ rights restoration. She is currently the host and producer of The Waiting Room with Nadine Graves Podcast, where she provides a mic for the unheard, exposing the invisible impact upon families affected by the criminal legal system.


Fr. Dan Griffith

Father Daniel GriffithFather Daniel Griffith joined the University of St. Thomas School of Law faculty in 2011 and currently serves as the Wenger Family Faculty Fellow of Law. At St. Thomas Law, Griffith teaches courses in Catholic Thought, Law, and Policy, Jurisprudence, and Restorative Justice, Law, and Healing. He is the founding director of the Initiative on Restorative Justice and Healing (IRJH) which seeks to respond to harm that occurs from leadership and institutional failures, racial injustice, and polarization in a way that promotes accountability and healing. He was named pastor and rector of The Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis in the summer of 2022. Fr. Griffith, preaches, teaches, and facilitates restorative practices in response to harm of the three focus areas of IRJH. His work in restorative justice has taken him beyond the Twin Cities where he regularly speaks and facilitates programming.


Fong Lee

Fong LeeFong Lee is artist and storyteller based in St. Paul. Fong spent nearly 18 years inside Minnesota State Prison. He is a dedicated restorative justice practitioner, a fellow with We Are All Criminals (WAAC), a published writer and photographer, and a Community Partnership Coordinator for The Legal Revolution. Fong and his family immigrated to the U.S as Hmong refugee when Fong was a child, after his family was displaced from their borrowed home in Laos.


Rich McLemore

Rich McLemoreRich is the Executive Director at 1 Day at a Time (1DAAT). At 1DAAT, we believe knowledge is critically necessary to end homelessness. 1DAAT’s foundation is our holistic housing education – and through education, we demystify the path to stable housing. Rich is also a master trainer for fellow Mental Health practitioners at various State and County Correctional Institutions throughout the nation, facilitating balanced and equitable approaches in dealing with their population of clients. Rich formerly served as the Director of Housing & Employment at Ujamaa Place; an organization focused on supporting young black men who have been involved in the criminal justice system. He serves on multiple executive boards, including the historic Dispute Resolution Center, located in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Rich is a Summa Cum Laude graduate from Metropolitan State University, with a Focus in Psychology and a minor in Computer Science. And he spends his leisure time jumping out of perfectly good airplanes at 13,000 feet.


Thanks to our Community Partner

Black-owned, Minnesota-based TurnSignl is an on-demand, real-time service that provides 24/7 legal guidance from an attorney to drivers while their camera records the interaction. When drivers are stopped by law enforcement officers or involved in a car accident, they can access live video chat with an attorney at the press of a button or voice command. TurnSignl attorneys are vetted and trained to de-escalate interactions between police, drivers, and passengers.

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