S05 E08: Vote For Justice


Pod Squad

Sakira Cook Headshot Sakira Cook senior director of the Justice program at The Leadership Conference and The Leadership Conference Education Fund @SakiraCook
Reginald Belle campaigns and programs fellow at The Leadership Conference and The Leadership Conference Education Fund

Our Host

Photo of Vanessa N. Gonzalez Vanessa N. Gonzalez Executive Vice President of Field | The Leadership Conference @VNGinDC

Contact the Team

For all inquiries related to Pod For The Cause, please contact Evan Hartung ([email protected]).

Episode Transcript

Vanessa: Welcome to “Pod for the Cause,” the official podcast of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund, where we expand the conversation on the critical civil and human rights issues of our day. I’m your host Vanessa Gonzalez, She/Her/Ella pronouns, coming to you from Washington, D.C. And like we start off every show, we’ve got the Pod Squad. These are the folks we’re going to discuss, pop culture, social justice, and everything in between with on this episode. We have got some amazing folks for you today on the Pod Squad. First up is Sakira Cook, senior director of the Justice program at The Leadership Conference and The Leadership Conference Education Fund. Hey, Sakira.

Sakira: Hey, Vanessa. Thank you for having me today.

Vanessa: It’s good to see you.

Sakira: Good to see you, too.

Vanessa: And we have Mr. Reginald Belle, campaigns and programs fellow at The Leadership Conference and The Leadership Conference Education Fund. Hey, Reggie.

Reggie: Hey, Vanessa. Thanks for having me.

Vanessa: Of course. It’s okay if I call you Reggie, right?

Reggie: Of course.

Vanessa: Because, you know, fellow sounds very, very fancy, so I just want to make sure. In this episode, we’ll be talking about what it looks like to use civic participation to transform the criminal legal system. The vote for justice campaign was created to educate our communities about the roles of public officials and making policies that impact our criminal legal system and about the importance of voting and civic participation through promoting registration, increasing turnout, educating the public and building a community of Justice Voters. So we’re going to be talking about voting. I know we talked about voting a lot, but this is really important because we’re going to hone in on the issues that are really key to a lot of Black and Brown communities out there.

Let’s set the stage with some facts. First, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world with more than 2 million people behind bars y’all. The country spends more than $180 billion with a B annually to incarcerate people. In the last presidential election, 70.9% of White voters cast ballots compared to, are you ready, only 58.4% of non-White voters. This disparity is exacerbated due to restrictive voting laws that prevent voters form historically marginalized communities from registering and having their ballots counted. And it’s just getting worse. Only 27% of eligible voters participate in municipal elections, so that’s like your city folks, the people that have the most direct impact. Only 27% of us participated, only a fraction of a thousand of formerly incarcerated people whose voting rights were restored, so they made it back into the voter rolls, were allowed to vote. And in 2020, 5.2 million Americans were prohibited from voting due to laws of disenfranchised citizens convicted of felony offenses.

So, not only is it already hard enough for communities of color, Black and Brown communities to vote, we layer in all these different laws that still target the same communities but add even more restrictions to it. One of the things I want to talk about before we get into it is a little bit of language. And so I’m going to look at Sakira who is our in-house resident expert when it comes to all things criminal legal system. So, Sakira, we say criminal legal in the movement. I think a lot of people are used to hearing criminal justice system. So can you clean that up for us?

Sakira: I think it’s a bit of an oxymoron to call the legal system in America, a criminal justice system, because it’s often the case that many who come in contact with the legal system don’t see it as a justice system, don’t see it as a system that provides justice to them or to their families or their loved ones. It really is a criminal legal system. It’s a system of laws that were designed to criminalize certain behaviors, many behaviors often directed at the Black and Brown community. Starting from enslavement through reconstruction to present day, the laws in our legal system have always served to criminalize Black and Brown people specifically. So that’s why we use the formal terminology of criminal legal instead of criminal justice, because we’re striving for justice in the criminal legal system. We don’t have it yet.

Vanessa: Love it. Thank you so much for that. And I know that I’ve learned that as well. I think a lot of us just see, like, slogans and you’re like, “Criminal justice system.” It’s not real. That’s not what we’re talking about. And you also called into the space something that I really want to make sure folks hone in on here. We’re talking about since slavery. Like, let’s be really clear. People got really creative on ways to keep Black men in particular and Black women enslaved throughout this country’s history. And as they moved through reconstruction it wasn’t like prison systems were just created because, oh, we need something to do with people who broke the law, right? It was, like, very specifically engineered to maintain that sense of incarceration and making sure that they’re servitude, right? I mean, what is it written in the Constitution?

Sakira: Oh, yeah, the 13th Amendment, the Exceptions Clause in the 13th Amendment. We’ve “freed” the slaves but it was except for if you were punished for a crime. So, slavery in America was still alive and well in the context of the criminal legal system. We left that carve out. And what you saw was the implementation of things like Black Codes and convict leasing that were borne out of the enslavement system, right? So a way of keeping Black people subjugated after slavery “ended” was through the criminal legal system.

Vanessa: For sure. So, again, another piece of history that we don’t really uplift and highlight. Slavery didn’t end just because someone decided one day it was over. The systems, like I said, people got real creative. They didn’t want to lose that power. They kept that line going. They just called it something else, justified it differently, and so we’re still seeing the dangers and the damage to communities.

And, Reggie, I would love to grab you and get you into this conversation. So, as we talk about what happens when a person is incarcerated in particular to the family unit, to the community it’s not just one person going away. It has a domino effect on a lot of folks around them. So, can you tell us a little bit about your experience prior to becoming a very fancy fellow for The Leadership Conference?

Reggie: I mean, for me, I turned 17 July the 8th, 1994 and was arrested on September the 3rd, 1994. So just barely turning 17 years old, and it was just like the average teenager… I guess, in the Black community, when we’re in elementary school, there were a lot of afterschool programming, a lot of educational opportunities, a lot of things that we could invest our time in, but it seemed that once we hit junior high school, all of these things went away. The interest in us stopped. People stopped encouraging, having talks with us, engaging with us, empowering us to, you know, focus our attentions on the more positive things or productive things in the community.

And it got to a point where, you know, just being teenagers… And it’s not like we sat around and literally plot and planned on how to be criminals or how to be criminalistic in a lot of different ways. It just started with boredom, started with little innocent things, and it’s just like a snowball effect. Just over a period of time, being in an environment that didn’t believe in you, you stopped believing in yourself. Being in an environment where people were utilizing different methods and taking different paths to success, you know, as a teenager, you just believe that those paths and those means were the same paths and means that you needed to take, because it seemed that those were the only opportunities. Like, we never got a chance to really dream and hope that we could be anything other than what our environment reflected.

So the adults in the environment who were obviously kids, once upon a time like we were, they were subject to the same type of behaviors, and mentality, and brainwashing, and they pass it onto us, and recruited us, and called us to take the same paths that they had taken even though they themselves as adults going through their experiences understood that that wasn’t necessarily the best path, but because everything was so readily available, that that was a path that they encouraged us to go down.

When I was arrested, it was just unbelievable. I was a teenager, like literally a teenager. This happened one day and then the next day it was like everything was gone. So, it was just total disbelief. All of rights were violated. I was 17 years old. I was held in an interrogation room for hours, deprived of sleep, wasn’t given anything to drink, to eat. And I was questioned without a parent or guardian being present, and that was one of my due rights. Like, I had a right to actually have a parent or guardian there. All of these things were totally violated. I was manipulated and tricked. And, you know, when you think you’re 17, so you think you have things figured out. I had no idea that I was being manipulated the way that I was feeling manipulated. I had no idea that the things that I was saying were things that were going to be used against me to gain a conviction against me. Just being in prison around adults who had their experiences they’re going through. I was just totally lost.

My first day in prison, like, literally the first day I was in prison and was released from my cell, I got involved in some type of prison beef that I had no idea about and literally almost lost my life. I suffered a collapsed lung. I was stabbed in the head. It was terrible. And just seeing my mom coming to visit me in the hospital, crying her eyes out and just hope that I will be safe, you know, trying to encourage me to take care of myself.

Being given a 26 to life sentence, I couldn’t even imagine. And I was 19 at the time, 19, maybe 20. I didn’t see a beginning or end to serving 26 years in prison. And it didn’t take me 26 years to realize that I made a mistake. And not having any say in my life and what was going on, it was real traumatic. It was difficult and not even understanding what it was to be who I was. I had to learn a whole different culture, which was the prison culture, which is a whole different animal, a whole different beast in and of itself, and just trying to survive. I’m more emotional now that I’m free than I ever was when I was incarcerated.

It, kind of, makes me believe that, you know, when you’re in something and you’re doing what you need to do to survive it, you don’t focus so much on the effects that it’s having. You know, you just push through it and you just struggle on and continue on with it. Fortunately, I was able to get myself together, develop relationships with people, get my cognitive skills together, understand and realize that I had to stop blaming people for everything, that there were things that I could do to turn my life around and affect other people’s lives. It was just scary.

Like, it was just so many nights. Like, I was incarcerated in many different prisons, held in solitary confinement. As long as I spent in solitary confinement, which was 23 hours in a cell and 1 hour out the cell maybe to take a shower, maybe we was giving showers, depending on the circumstances of the prison, maybe three times a week. The longest I spent consecutively in solitary confinement was two years.

Vanessa: That’s horrific.

Reggie: And off and on throughout my prison system, I would say my prison stay over 26 years, I can honestly say that I spent at least 15 of those 26 years serving some form of solitary confinement.

Vanessa: Wow. That is horrific to hear. Thank you so much for sharing your story. And I think it’s easy for people to say, “Well, he was 17. That’s old enough to know what you’re doing.” I would just ask we all kind of take a pause and remember how dumb we all were at 17 and how lucky some of us, myself included who were doing things we weren’t supposed to, just didn’t get caught. I will also say I am not a Black man, and so I also realized there was not a focus to catch me necessarily, right? And so I think when we talk about that and when we connect your experience to civic participation and when we connect it to policies these are the stories people need to understand. There’s so many Reggie’s out there. And once you stop giving them the positivity and the options to go another way to break some of those generational curses, if you will, it’s hard because you don’t have anywhere else to look to.

How can we communicate the importance of civic engagement to communities, as you said, Reggie, that the negativity is what’s been pushed upon them? And we haven’t seen a whole lot of change and, you know, rightfully so, like even the Biden administration has not delivered on things that we were promised and things that we expected to be delivered on. How do you get people engaged in that? How do we start having those conversations? Because as you said, a lot of times people got to choose between surviving and going to vote. And you’re going to pick surviving and taking another shift at work or getting the kids, right? So how do we make that conversation real?

Reggie: It’s a difficult thing, and it’s going to be very challenging. Why? Because these things have been embedded in these communities for such a long time, that they’re just second nature to so many different people. Like, people actually raising their children to believe in the structure and the culture of what it is to be in these communities and live and survive. Is it possible? Of course, it’s possible. To me, I think it has to be a selective process. I think before you can reach the masses, you have to reach those who can reach other people.

I’ll use you as an example, Vanessa. Someone may not take to you giving them a message more so that they will take to me giving a message. And then in turn, some of them may not take to me giving a message as they will to someone that they can relate to. Like, I’ve been so far removed from my community, that people of my community have no idea who I am. Like, I went to my childhood block where I grew up and literally, like, two generations, like, they don’t even know who I am.

Vanessa: You’re just somebody else walking around. They’re like, “Who is this…?”

Reggie: Yeah, I’m just, like, some stranger that just showed up and popped up like I’m being introduced to people and it’s like, “Oh, oh, okay.”

Vanessa: That’s hard.

Reggie: But it doesn’t go any further than that. It’s very effective. Like, the systematic methods that’s been in place and been in practice for so many are very, very effective. They’re very effective because when you strip people of their identity, their self-worth, and their abilities to even believe in, like, just minor things, like people wake up and don’t even believe that they can make a change, they don’t believe that this world, that this country, that this system, that their city, that they’re block, that their schools, they just don’t believe in anything. So it’s difficult, like, all around, but it’s possible. And I just believe that we just have to focus on the people that we can reach that can assist in spreading the message and reach the people that we may not be able to reach ourselves.

Vanessa: Yeah, that’s some real relational organizing. Sakira, this is your brain child and the connecting of the dots. So, this is hard. This is really hard work. Can you tell us, kind of, what are some of the tenants that you go into this work with? What do you think about, you know, just why?

Sakira: I was trying not to get emotional hearing Reggie talk about his story. And, you know, as someone who has not personally experienced incarceration but has family members past and present who have experienced incarceration, much of my drive and passion for our work at The Leadership Conference and the Education Fund, and transforming the criminal legal system, and removing barriers to everyone’s ability to live and enjoy their human rights and dignity no matter if they made a mistake or not, is drawn from those experience, is drawn from the experience of being a nine-year-old kid and going into a prison in Indiana to visit my dad’s only brother.

And the fact that my dad, while his family lived in Washington, D.C., and he went and got educated and provided opportunities for us, never turned his back on his brother, never once said a bad word about his brother for what his brother did, which was, you know, at the time, selling what my uncle used to tell me a 30-cent piece of rock. He was talking about crack cocaine. And so what amounted to a 30-cent piece of rock got him almost 15 years in prison. And as a nine-year-old, I didn’t understand the policy choices that were made that determined the sentence that my uncle got.

But as I got older and as I dug more into it, and went to law school, and got more acclimated to the systems and structures as Reggie talked about, that allowed for long sentences, mandatory minimum sentences, applied to drug offenses specifically, and the worth of the war on drugs, etc., and how it was meted out disproportionately to Black and Brown people, that familial bond turned into a passion for advocacy and, you know, making a change for others even if I couldn’t effect the change for my uncle, I could effect it for other people, right? And that was really important to me.

And so, you know, I think, in Reggie’s story, you hear so much of what’s broken. The fact that he spent three years, three years on pretrial detention, pretrial. Again, this is pre-trial. He was not sentenced. He was just charged. And that is, if you hear about bail reform and what’s needed, this is who we’re talking about, people who have not been convicted of a crime will sit in prison. And it’s more likely if you sit in prison before trial, that you are found guilty. Young people, 17-year-olds who are tried as adults or who get lengthy sentences, the types of sentences that we give to adults, whose rights are broken and don’t have representation, the brain science we know now tells us that a 17-year-old is not the same as a 30-year-old in the decision making that goes on with their minds. And so to give de facto life sentences to a person like Reggie is unconscionable. It’s inhumane.

A lot of the passion that I have and the drive that I have for this work comes from my own experiences but also the experiences of people in my community, the people who I meet like Reggie. And I’m just so happy that The Leadership Conference not only is also living its values and the fact that Reggie is now a part of our team, and he’s able to use his voice, his own personal experiences to affect policy change across this country in many different ways.

Vanessa: Yeah, this is phenomenal. The program is phenomenal. The idea and the vision is fantastic. When we talk about how, again, we marry all of these things together, you know, Reggie, you talked about relational organizing security. You talked about understanding as you went through, you know, law school, what some of the policies and the practices are that really make the system broken. And it’s really technical. I think people take for granted, especially if you know folks who have gone away, you’re like, “Well, that’s just the system. That’s just the process.” Technically, you don’t understand where the interventions could be.

One, when we talk about being a Justice Voter, we’re not asking people to understand the entire system soup to nuts. This is like value space. You don’t have to be an attorney. Believe me, I wouldn’t be able to work at The Leadership Conference if you had to, but can you tell us, Sakira, what does it mean to be a Justice Voter?

Sakira: Two years ago, The Leadership Conference launched Vision for Justice, which was our North Star for how we will envision a new paradigm for public safety and to transform the criminal legal system. So it was a policy platform that we use to build a community of advocates, activists, policymakers, business leaders, educators, artists, people who are eager to make a difference that amplified the urgent need for us to change the way that we think about safety in America and how we achieve safety in America.

In a critical initiative of Vision for Justice is assisting the public and understanding the issues that impact our system, the criminal legal system in this country, and the roles that public officials in the justice system play so they can become more informed before they vote, in short, becoming a Justice Voter, right? So we launched Vote for Justice, a campaign to educate communities about the roles of public officials, the DAs, the governors, the mayors, the judges, the city council members, the county executives, the people who make very, very localized decisions, state and localized decisions that matter in our lives when it comes to the criminal legal system, when it comes to education, when it comes to housing, healthcare, all of the things that we, as humans need all of the services that we need, all the inputs in our communities that actually lead to real safety, right? The investments in those things that lead to real safety, to move us away from an idea of criminality or criminalization, I should say.

Justice Voters is a community of people who understand the connection between the issues that they care about globally, right? The things that impact their everyday lives, whether it’s the criminal legal system or its infrastructure, your roads potholes, healthcare social services, and supports, community investments, and community building opportunities, right? The things that young people need so that they’re not sitting at home bored and thinking all of the random things that they should not be doing, right? So sports outlets and other types of outlets. Those are the types of things that policymakers make choices about every day on behalf of us. And if we don’t have a voice in determining who those people are, we will never make the change that we want to see.

So, Justice Voters or people who are educating themselves about all of these issues, agreeing to participate civically and in our democracy, not only with voting but also, once the people are in office, continuing to engage with them and let them know what you want them to be doing so that we can ensure that everyone’s rights and freedoms are maintained in every election.

Vanessa: Love it. We talk a lot on “Pod for the Cause” about election days not just every four years. Election day [inaudible 00:21:36] for your sheriff, for your mayor, for your city council. Those are election days that should be celebrated and engaged just as much as the nightmare that is every four years. Just because we don’t have the media on it and CNN nonstop doesn’t mean it is not sometimes the most impactful decision makers that you will ever know. So when we talk about Justice Voters, we’re not just talking about the criminal legal system, right? It’s about all of the systems intersecting so that we are not, as you said, defaulting almost to the criminal legal system to fix it, right?

Sakira: That’s a perfect way of describing it. The current legal system is the hub where do you see the gaps in every other system, right?

Vanessa: Yes.

Sakira: So what happens, the failures of education, the failures of housing, of healthcare, of economic opportunity, all of those failures, you will see them borne out in the criminal legal system. And you can trace a line between them and what happens to someone who didn’t have the opportunity in any of those areas and how that plays out in the criminal legal system. And it has been used as the primary tool, again, for safety instead of thinking about safety as quality education, equitable education, instead of thinking about safety as communities that have economic opportunity where poverty is eradicated, right?

There’s a strong correlation if you look at any study or statistic between poverty and incarceration between lack of education and incarceration. There are strong correlations and links to those things. And so what has often been the case is that Black and Brown communities have been historically disinvested from in the ways that matter in historically over-invested in the criminalization ways with more police, and more arrests, and more prosecutions against those communities.

Vanessa: Thank you for that. I think, you know, one of the other things we have to talk about is empathy, right? I think a lot of people say, “Well, I came from a bad situation and I…” You know what? Good for you. Good for you. Everybody is cheering for you to succeed. If you didn’t have to make some of those choices, good for you. We’re not saying you shouldn’t be applauded for your efforts, right?

I think there’s a level of empathy though that we need everybody to have to understand. Some people are working two or three jobs, and it’s still not enough, right? And if you got to provide for a family, if you get hit with a doctor’s bill, if your car breaks down, like, there’s some stuff for survival that you may not really want to do but you gotta do, right? And, like, I think that conversation about how does empathy flow into the policy really needs to be had in a way that doesn’t individualize it. We’re talking about community investment and what does that look like.

I live here in Washington, D.C., and we’re seeing some rising criminal rates and things like that happening, but I also get the chance to live next to a school. And I will say to see the little kiddos, and I say little kids, they’re, like, in high school. But today they were, like, out on the field in the grass, like playing and running back and forth and being silly. And it was just, like, so nice to see, a space in a city where we’re making some decisions that these kids are like, nah, they’re still being kids. And it’s just a nice reflection that you invest. You know, they were in a safe environment in their school. They feel good. You know, they were cracking up some inappropriate language. That’s okay. But they were having a good time, you know?

Sakira: They were having a good time. No, that’s right. I mean, I think it’s important. Empathy is so important in this work and remembering that people are human. We are flawed people in many ways and we all, every last one of us, have made a mistake. And to your earlier point, some of us just get caught, some of us don’t. And some of us, the mistakes cost us our freedom, but it doesn’t mean that to hold people accountable, you have to have a system that’s based in retribution or that’s based in humanity and that strips you of your identity and your dignity or that further criminalizes you. People often don’t realize, you know, you might go into prison… And Reggie probably could talk about this. He went into prison as a naive 17-year-old person. What he had to go through to survive in prison could have made him even more criminalized because of the environment as a young person, things that he probably never would’ve thought of doing. He was more exposed to inside of the prison than he would have been if he was outside.

Vanessa: And you learn how to do somethings better, right…

Sakira: Yeah, yeah.

Vanessa: …that, you know, were not ideal. Reggie, so when you went in, you had never voted because you were 17. Unfortunately, that was stripped from you. Are you going to register to vote? Are you registered? How are you feeling about that whole engagement with that part of the process?

Reggie: That’s definitely the plan, to register. My main concern right now is to go above and beyond and being absolutely sure that I am fully reinstated because there I guess have been a couple of incidents where people have been led to believe…one particular case in Tennessee where a Black woman was led to believe that she could vote and come to find out that she was charged with voter fraud.

Vanessa: Oh, Lord. Yep.

Reggie: But she was told that she could vote, that her voting rights were reinstated, and she didn’t understand that at the time of her plea, that her plea prohibited her from, I guess, ever being able to vote. That was, like, a big deal, and she was sentenced to, I believe, six years [inaudible 00:26:50].

Sakira: And she was a prior candidate for office, and she was told not only by her probation and by the secretary of state that she was eligible. And this is, I think, part of the problem with these disenfranchisement laws, right? It’s a patchwork of laws across this country that have disenfranchised people with felony convictions. And in many places, people don’t understand their rights. It’s not clearly explained. Even the people who are implementing them, implementing the law don’t understand what the law is.

So, as Reggie said, his goal is to be registered. He’s been told that he’s eligible. He lives in Maryland, which restores your right. There are a few places that restore your right upon release, and he lives in Maryland, which does that. But we’re going to double check, triple check.

Vanessa: Please, Reggie. You’ll have all of the staff lined up behind you to double check, double ask.

Reggie: This is, like, so amazing. Like, even when I was incarcerated throughout my entire time, there was some very difficult times, some very depressing times, some very down times, but it’s an amazing thing when you reach a point in your life no matter where you reach it that when you really value yourself and you look around and you start to value the lives of others. And it goes beyond you. And from that point on, the things that you do and say are not necessarily to be to your benefit but to the benefit of others, aiding and assisting others because you’ve had your awakening, your moment where you’ve had your way, and you’re re-energized, and you’re moving forward. And you want to bring people along with you.

And that was one of the things that was touching for me when I was incarcerated. And once I finally, like, for whatever reason, I just had my moment and the light switch turned on, I tried to recruit whatever value, a sense of respect I had, I used it all to try to encourage people to get themselves together, to turn their lives around, and to start fighting for rights even in prison, because a lot of the conditions in prison were horrible. We were being mistreated. Like, some people even lost their lives due to, you know, the overzealousness of correctional officers.

Sometimes people, in the heat of the moment, we just don’t know what to do. And when they find that out, some of the officers, I explained to them. I said that’s exactly what happens to us in shoots. Sometimes you find yourself in moments, and you take it too far, and you don’t realize that the extent that you’re going to is going to end someone’s life.

Vanessa: You just talked about a ton of things, right? And if we break it down into policy issues and what politicians believe I think politicians is one thing. Let’s be honest. They want to go with where some of the popular rhetoric is, and I think we saw some of that in the State of the Union as well. So, we know that that’s one piece of the puzzle.

But, you know, we really want to focus on voting as a mechanism to increase power for communities, right? So taking it out of the whole moral imperative, “Oh, you should just vote because it’s good for the country.” That’s not enough, I think, these days. People need to understand the why, because there has been so many disappointments, and then particularly for disenfranchised communities, right? This is to both of you. Can you just tell me how can we transform the criminal legal system through voting?

Sakira: For democracy to work, it has to include everyone. It has to include all of us. Our vote is our tool to shape the kind of country, the kind of communities that we want for everyone. And with the criminal legal system that centers justice and humanity, overstate violence, and criminalization and funding for our children’s schools and healthcare and economic opportunity, that’s the way that we can see the change that we all want to see. And I know it’s hard to imagine it because you’re like, “But sometimes I don’t have the right. Who am I supposed to vote for? And, you know, how do I…?”

Vanessa: Or you get that massive pamphlet.

Sakira: You get that pamphlet, but read the pamphlet. Like, one of the things is people wait till last minute they walk into the booth. They’re like, “I don’t know who any of these people are.” Don’t do that. You can get a pamphlet in advance, and you can look up who the candidates are. You can go to their websites, and you can check out their positions on the issues that you care about.

But then once they get there, even if it’s a person you didn’t vote for, once they get there, they are beholden to you because they know that you have the power to take all of their power away. And you have to use that power in a way to continue to engage, to civic participation, to show up at city council members, to show up at mayors briefings, to lend your voice to every issue that you personally care about, not just the criminal legal system but any issue that you care about—education, the roads, healthcare, employment, etc. That’s the way that I think we all can make a change.

And then I’m going to just say it. You might also want to run. Listen, I mean, people always say, “Well, I don’t like any of the candidates. Have you all thought about you running?” They are just people like you. You know, they are…people at the state and local level especially are just everyday people who said, “You know what? I want to see something different or I want to make sure things happen the way I want to make sure they happen.” So they decided to run for office.

So, you know, there are many ways that you can be a Justice Voter. You can be educated about the issues. You can be educated about the people who are empowered, who inform those issues. You can be one of those people. You can run for office, and you can take others along. You can build a tent, right? Your church, your family, your friends. You can encourage everyone to use their voice. And you can go into that ballot box fully informed on the people, on their positions, on the issues that you care about.

Vanessa: Thanks for that. Listen, I know we’ve all gotten into that booth and be like, “Ugh.” You’re like, “This sounds like a good last name,” then you start just clicking buttons. We’re all guilty of it. And I think everybody kind of hopes they’re making a good choice but it is. You have to be really intentional to participate. Right now, voting can be a high bar for some people, and it can be the lowest bar for some people. And that’s fine, right? That’s a little bit of the beauty. You can kind of engage up and down the system.

But, Reggie, as you’re entering the system, as you’re going to have a whole army of people behind you, when they say, “Yes, you can vote,” and we’re all going to double check for you, what does it feel like to come into the civic system to engage in the democratic system? Does it feel welcoming? Do you feel like people have said, “Oh, no. Uh-uh. Like, you used to be incarcerated. This ain’t for you”? Like, what is that feeling?

Reggie: Well, for me, I mean, especially being at The Leadership Conference, starting with Sakira obviously, it’s been open arms for me. It’s actually disarming in a way, because being incarcerated and having a mentality or mindset for such a long time and then coming into a space like this where people are so kind, and giving, and generous, and thoughtful, it’s disarming. Like, it makes me step back at times and, like, wonder like, “Is this really real? Like, is this really sincere? Is this really going to happen? Are these people really going to be there for me?”

Because that’s one of the things that… Being a young Black boy… I think it’s a gender thing, too, that factors in school. Like, we’re told that, as Black men, we should be a certain way. Like, I think one of the biggest things that I spoke with my mom personally about was that they conditioned me and taught me, at an early age, how to ignore what I was feeling, meaning that when I would fall down and scrape my knee, I didn’t get hugs. I didn’t get peroxide and bandaged or anything. They literally just told me, “Stop crying. Stop whining. You’re a man. You tough. Don’t worry about that. There’s nothing wrong with you.” And being a child listening and thinking that they knew best, I would just try to soldier on knowing that my knees still was hurting like crazy or that my arm or my shoulder or different things were affecting me.

When my sisters suffered through whatever they suffered, everyone ran to them. Everyone, like, catered to them, and gave them what they needed, and comfort them, and allowed them to cry, allowed them to tell them what was wrong and be there for them. And I felt that that that initial neglect early on once I experienced that, I expected that from everybody, because I got this from the very people who should have given me something different. And it turned out to be unintentional consequences, but nevertheless, it affected me greatly.

Vanessa: I mean, that’s what we talked about, that generational piece, right? And people, our parents, I think, doing the best they could have and thinking, “Well, I got this far, so I’m going to pass this onto you,” right? So it’s good to hear that you feel like you’ve been embraced in open arms. And I asked that question because we always tell everybody, “Come on. Jump in. Join and participate,” right? For some of us who, you know, are hippy-dippy, we could be like, “Hey, come up to the rally and wave a sign.” And some people are like, “I’m never going to go to a rally. No, I’m not doing that.” And that’s fine, you know? And so I think there’s different levels in which people are comfortable engaging, but your experience should be the experience, right? Like, “Hey, this is democracy. This is your system. So come on in, participate how you’re comfortable, and then, like, keep moving up the way you need to move up.”

Let’s talk a little bit about how does justice show up on the ballot? So, Sakira, I want to break this down like ABCDE. So when we’re talking about people who have an impact directly on the criminal legal system, what offices do people need to actually read the ballot on?

Sakira: I mean, that’s almost every office, so let’s just start at the state level, right? So you have legislators, you have your state legislators, right? In many states, you might have a house in the senate similar to the congress where we have a house in the senate. And then down from there at the county local level, you have mayors, or county executives, or, you know, city council members, or county council members. Local judges. You have local district attorneys or county prosecutors. You have sheriffs, right? So, all of these people have an impact on how the criminal legal system operates. They either make the laws or they enforce the laws. And there’s a lot of discretion along that continuum of making and enforcing “the laws.”

And that goes not only for the criminal legal system. Again, that goes for every issue that we care about. That goes for good schools. That goes for economic opportunity. That goes for infrastructure, good roads, and parks, and social services and communities. That goes for healthcare. That goes for everything that matters, that makes up those needs that we all have to live as humans in our society.

It’s really important, I think, from our perspective that we all understand each one of those people’s roles, the power that they hold. Governors, I forgot about them. The powers that they hold to affect every issue, including the criminal legal system, but every issue that impacts our everyday lives. You know, when I hear people and sometimes when I stand out and I’m encouraging people to register to vote, and I hear people say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter.” Then I say, “How many times did you ride down the street and you hit a pothole?” And they’d be like, “Oh, man, all the time.” I said, “Do you know that there’s somebody who you did not vote for that is in charge of ensuring that that pothole is filled?” and they’d be like, “Oh yeah. Okay, I didn’t think about it that way,” right?

And I think that is really what it is. We have to make it tangible for people. You have to make it real for them as it affects the things that they go through every day. You know, if they don’t have the bus system, or if they don’t have childcare, if their education system isn’t meeting the needs of their children, I didn’t even talk about school board members. In many places, these people are voted. They’re voted in, and we have to pay attention to everyone on the ballot. Down ballot, up the ballot, across the ballot, you need to know who they are, what they are responsible for and to civically participate to hold them to the promises that they make with respect to what they say they’re going to do if you vote them in or even if you didn’t vote them in, if they represent you

Vanessa: You got to hold them accountable. One hundred percent. And I think you have to recognize sometimes that you are in a system that feels overwhelming by design, right? It’s supposed to play hide the ball a bit, and that includes making sure that you’re aware at the local level sometimes city councils appoint the sheriff. They go through interviews and the whole thing. And so you got to know who your city council people are and trust in them because they’re hiring that workforce.

There’s always opportunities for joining in and participating. You just got to remember that this is a system for you no matter if you’re a formerly incarcerated person, if you’re a single mom working three jobs, whatever. If you are on this Earth, in this country, you have a role to play and a voice, and you cannot allow a system to tell you otherwise, because they’re lying to you.

Sakira: They’re lying. Don’t listen.

Vanessa: They’re lying. I will say the first time I met Sakira, I will never forget this. And then I’m going to go to my final question. Sakira was advocating to me very emotionally and hyped up about the need to get rid of all prisons. And this was maybe my second day on the job. And I was like, “Who is this person?” I was like, “Absolutely not.” And I loved it. And I was like, “Hmm.” And I will say in my own evolution in learning and it’s the systems and where they’ve come from, I don’t have a criminal legal background and so I haven’t engaged in studying on this. I have focused on other areas of democracy reform. So, for me, I was like, “Oh, man.”

All right, so I just think, one, you need to cut some people some slack and not have that conversation on the second day of their employment, but I also think people gotta read. You gotta read, you gotta listen, and you’ll come on board to understand, like you said, we should not be a country that builds and continuously funds retribution. Like, that’s not what this is supposed to be about.

Sakira: And if you want to read and learn more about these issues…

Vanessa: Yes.

Sakira: …visit visionforjustice.org.

Vanessa: visionforjustice.org.

Sakira: Read our platform. And what I’ll say is about The Leadership Conference is not an abolitionist organization. We absolutely believe that we have to hold people accountable for their actions at The Leadership Conference. I was probably talking about my own personal views. We absolutely believe at The Leadership Conference there’s a way that we have to go about ensuring that people who make mistakes are, sort of, held accountable for it.

But what we don’t have to have is a system of retribution. What we can have is a system that’s designed around rehabilitation, around redemption. And if you look at the ways that the criminal legal system operates in America versus other countries, it is vastly different. There are countries in parts of Europe that you go home. Like, you might go to the prison to serve some time during the day, but at night, you go home and you’re with your family or that your family can come in and visit you. You maintain your sense of dignity, your sense of humanity. You aren’t stripped of your name. In prisons in America and jails in America, you are reduced to a number which is very reminiscent of signs of enslavement where you were a piece of property.

And that is the problem with the ways that we think about jails and prisons in America. They are not designed for redemption and rehabilitation, but they’re designed as systems of pure punishment. And that isn’t what we should be doing. That isn’t who we should be as a society. And it isn’t necessary because if you see, there are safer places in America that have vastly different prison systems. We can do better, and we have to do better.

Vanessa: I agree. You know, thanks for holding out hope for me, Sakira, that I would learn. You know, my nine-year-old child and their school operates on restorative justice principles. So when there is a massive fight or something’s going on, there’s a very clear process to follow for restorative justice principles. And they have peace corners with no questions asked. It’s fantastic. And I think that if you are someone like me who is a Texan, who grew up around law enforcement, who grew up with prisons that employed a ton of people in my small town, you come up with some preconceived notions about, “Hey, man, this is a pretty good system,” because that’s good for you in different ways. It provides jobs and food. So I think it’s just you gotta learn, and you gotta learn when you go to vote. You gotta learn all these things. It’s hard, but it’s also doable because you can listen to amazing podcasts like this, and we will provide you some nice little tidbits.

I could talk about this forever. Thank you so much. And, again, thank you so much, Reggie, for sharing your story. I’m sorry for all of it, but I’m so grateful that you’re here with us now, and that you’re going to register, and that you’re going to vote. And I’m sure we’ll have a lot of pictures. If Sakira gets to be there, it’ll be like a proud mama moment everywhere.

Reggie: Yes, yes.

Vanessa: So I want to give you the last word, Reggie. So I want to ask you, what gives you hope?

Reggie: What gives me hope is the future, knowing that what I endured, what I experienced doesn’t have to be everyone’s experience or something that everyone has to endure. So that’s what gives me hope. And I know that it’s fixable and it’s doable, but it’s going to take a lot of hard work, a lot of effort and patience. But that’s the main thing that gives me hope, believing that even now, in this space, that those who hear this story and hear this podcast, they can garner some hope and belief, and energize them, and reinvigorate them to focus more on their work and how they can affect policy change and who they can reach out to even if they haven’t experienced what I’ve experienced, or know, or love someone who has experience what I experienced, just to hear this story, I hope would be enough to light the coals or light the fire under them to get them home and inspire them to do whatever it is they can do.

Because if you look throughout history, and I love reading, like prison, that’s one of the beautiful things that prison gave to me, a desire to read because it took me out of that element and, like, transformed me so even though I haven’t physically been around the world, I’ve been heavy with it and I’ve enjoyed myself tremendously with reading. But I hope that people can just have faith in themselves and hope that you can help and you can participate no matter how little you think it is or how great you think your effort is.

It’s going to take all of us to enlist and enroll in this fight. Just like in any army, you have to enroll, you have to participate, and you have to fight in a belief that even right now, I don’t believe that a lot of things are going to change in my lifetime. But if I can effect some change now that can continue to affect other people, and they pass it on, and pass it on, and pass it on, one day this thing can be turned around and they will be turned around. But if I don’t start with myself and believe in myself and my ability to effect this change, then how can I expect anybody else to believe in themselves and their ability to effect the same tunes?

Vanessa: Thank you so much, Reggie, for that. That was phenomenal. You are definitely inspiring. And I so look forward to seeing how far you go and how brightly you shine. I think you’re definitely going to make some movements. Thank you for sharing your stories and for sharing your passion.

Before we head out, and thank you for this amazing conversation, I’m going to kick it to Sakira Cook one more time to tell us what is the campaign and shout out that website again.

Sakira: Vote for Justice. We need each one of you to become a Justice Voter. Visit visionforjustice.org/voteforjustice.

Vanessa: Thanks, Sakira.

Thank you all for listening to “Pod for the Cause,” the official podcast of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund. For more information, please visit civilrights.org and to connect with us, hit us up on Instagram and Twitter @podforthecause. And you can text us. Text CIVIL RIGHTS, that’s right, two words, CIVIL RIGHTS to 52199 to keep up with our latest updates. Be sure to subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast app and leave that 5-star review. Until next time, I’m Vanessa Gonzalez. Thanks for listening to “Pod for the Cause.”