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We Are All Criminals: A reflective story via a visit with criminal justice reformer Emily Baxter

Date Published: 01/27/2021

Author: Elyse Eckert

“One in four people has a criminal record; four in four have a criminal history” 

– header on the We Are All Criminals website

What illegal acts have you gotten away with? What bad decisions have you had the luxury to forget? These are the type of difficult questions Emily Baxter has been asking people for years. And not just regular people, but those who hold positions of power in our world: legislators, policy makers, landlords, employers, licensing boards, prosecutors, judges— the list goes on.

What she has found is that most people have participated in criminal activity, regardless of their race, age, gender or class. The difference, however, is that some groups of people -- poor people, people of color, and Indigenous People across the United States -- are disproportionately punished for illegal acts while others seem to seamlessly slip through the cracks of our criminal justice system. This paradox is what spurred Baxter to found the non-profit organization We Are All Criminals (WAAC).

According to WAAC’s website, the organization is dedicated to challenging society’s perceptions of what it means to be “criminal.” WAAC catalyzes conversations about crime, privilege, punishment, and second chances. Through shared stories of those who committed or were accused of committing crimes, those who got away with them, and those who have been directly affected by the criminal justice system, WAAC seeks to erase the barriers that separate us. In doing so, more people are opening their doors, their hearts, and their minds and creating the opportunity for second chances.

After graduating from law school and working as a public defender, Baxter left criminal law to work in public policy, becoming the Director of Public Policy and Advocacy at the Council of Crime and Justice in Minneapolis. There she worked with legislators and policy makers on criminal justice reform legislation, most notably to pass a “Ban the Box'' law in Minnesota that prohibits employers from inquiring about an applicant’s criminal history on a job application.

Soon after, she began working with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights to audit employers’ hiring practices to ensure they were adhering to the newly passed legislation. However, according to Baxter, many employers were not following equal opportunity employment standards and “there’s a lot of education and paradigm shifting that has to accompany any legislative change.” She found that the antiquated ‘once a criminal always a criminal’ belief was common among employers and others with decision-making power.

She started asking these same people if they’ve ever lied on their taxes, thrown a punch, driven drunk, or engaged in any other form of criminal activity.

“I would sit down with them and trace out if they had been pegged with a felony when they were 20 years old all the opportunities in their life that would’ve been foreclosed to them,” Baxter said.

These conversations, coupled with the Bush Leadership Fellowship she received in 2011, allowed Baxter to begin collecting the stories of those who have a criminal history, but no criminal record. She officially began conducting interviews in 2012, and We Are All Criminals was born.

“I had to find a way to relay those stories so that I could collect them and show them to people in the future, that people aren’t the sum of their mistakes,” she said.

In 2017 Baxter compiled five years’ worth of interviews, portraits, research, and statistics into a book, appropriately titled, “We Are All Criminals.”

Since the publication of her book, Baxter’s focus has shifted away from telling the stories of those who have evaded the justice system to telling the stories of those who have been ensnared by it. Her new project within We Are All Criminals is SEEN, a collaboration with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop that collects and shares the experiences and voices of writers and artists who are currently incarcerated in the state of Minnesota.

“The hope is that through this project, their words, their worth, their humanity is recognized by the broader public,” Baxter said. “And that as a state, we wrestle with what that looks like, when we recognize we’re no longer just caging ‘criminals,’ we’re caging mothers, we’re caging scholars, we’re caging people capable of growth, hope, and redemption.”

In the words of B, a poet whose work is showcased in the project: “This is about being seen (not looked at: truly seen)—but also about seeing yourself, or a piece of yourself, or a piece of someone you love, in me.”

More of B’s work, along with the poems, stories, and pictures of countless other artists, can be found at https://www.weareallcriminals.org/seen. In light of the death of George Floyd and the subsequent social unrest nationwide, Baxter says that people are more receptive to and interested in her work, especially white folks.

“They are more willing to have the conversation about privilege, about how deeply unjust our criminal justice system is— in a way that was a passing curiosity before, and now is a hunger for deeper examination. And the recognition that even if you have been untouched by the criminal justice system doesn’t mean you don’t benefit from it,” she said. 

Even though these conversations are a bit more difficult to have during a pandemic, Baxter says those with privilege are more readily willing to accept the idea that they have an obligation to “change the system and support the people who are calling for change.”

Currently, Baxter is focusing on developing and growing the SEEN project and its “networks and partnerships that allow people to transcend prison walls.” Recently she has been working on pairing artists on the ‘outside’ with artists on the ‘inside’ so that the work of the SEEN artists can reach a broader audience. The Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis presented some of the artists’ work on their public access channel in October. Baxter has also been successful in connecting SEEN artists to renowned visual artists and University of Minnesota faculty, including the director of Dance and Theatre. In light of its success, the future is bright for SEEN and its artists. The project is assisting the Science Museum of Minnesota in revamping their race exhibits, allowing stories of injustice to be told by the people directly impacted. In addition, We Are All Criminals will be the resident organization at the Weisman Art Museum for 2021 and will be showcasing the work of SEEN artists.

In addition to We Are All Criminals, Baxter does anti-death penalty work in North Carolina, where she currently resides. As of January 2021, however, she will be moving back to the Twin Cities to focus on We Are All Criminals and SEEN. Our community will greatly benefit from the rewarding conversations and reflection produced by her projects during these changing and challenging times. Whatever form her work takes, Baxter helps remind us that we are all criminals, and all criminals are humans. For more info, contact Emily at emily@weareallcriminals.org

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Social Justice

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