2016 Room at the Table: Justin Terrell

December 20, 2016 / By: Editor, for Fall 2016 Perspectives Newsletter
Justin Terrell, Justice4All program manager at TakeAction Minnesota, was the final speaker at the St. Kate's - St. Thomas School of Social Work's 2016 Room at the Table event, VOTE for Participatory Justice: Working Together for the Promise of Democracy
Justin Terrell, Justice4All program manager at TakeAction Minnesota

VOTE for Participatory Justice: Working Together for the Promise of Democracy

In support of the School of Social Work’s 2016-17 annual theme Participatory Justice

On October 14, our community participated in its annual Room at the Table event, this year reflecting on the power of our vote to influence and shape the political, economic and social future of our nation, state and local community.

The first speaker, Dr. Jessica Toft, associate professor, School of Social Work, and president, NASW-MN, provided a framework of participatory justice (read Toft overview). Dr. Katharine Hill, associate professor, School of Social Work, and a national thought leader in Voting is Social Work, built a compelling argument that supporting nonpartisan voter registration should be a part of every social worker’s professional practice (read Hill overview). Justin Terrell, the Justice4All (J4A) program manager at TakeAction Minnesota, shared his work on removing barriers to employment and democracy for families impacted by the justice system, including voting rights restoration (see below).


“TakeAction Minnesota is a statewide, multiracial organization focused on racial, economic and gender social justice. At the end of the day, we’re organizers, so we believe that when you bring people together you can deal with some of those big problems that can seem overwhelming.”

“I run a program called Justice4All. We’re focused on removing barriers to employment and democracy and housing for people who have criminal records. We’re moving, now, towards  fighting mass incarceration.”

“In the state of Minnesota, about one in five have a criminal record. That’s a million people in our state with criminal records. There are over 50,000 people in the state who cannot vote because they’re on felony probation. Less than 6 percent of the state’s population is black; 35 percent of the state’s prison population is black. This is a very big problem and it has a  huge impact on our communities.”

“One thing we talk about [at TakeAction Minnesota] is that a people-made problem can be people solved. So, while we can talk about the fact that there are all different kinds of oppression, the thing we focus on is institutional oppression. What we care about are systems that were made by people so we can un-make them. We can redesign them and we can come up with our own definitions of justice.”

“Another thing we talk about is that if you don’t tell your story, other people are going to tell your story for you. So, let’s talk about voting. We go to the ballot box and we cast our vote – but there is so much more to our democracy than this! There are 201 legislators at the State Capitol who probably aren’t ever going to hear from you or hear your story. The world is not run by the smartest people; it’s run by the folks who show up. We’ve seen that over and over again. If you don’t show up, they don’t hear from you and they go with the story that they know – the story that we subscribe to blindly without challenging it. For example, there’s an idea that if you’re Muslim, you’re a foreigner, you’re different. You’re an outsider. You are not good for us. Right? And that story goes unchallenged unless YOU tell YOUR story.”

“The last thing I want to name is that our liberation is bound to each other. Many of you are social workers, which is considered a helping profession. We don’t need your help. You’ve heard the quote, ‘If you’ve come to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound with mine, then let us work together.’ You have to stand in solidarity, shoulder to shoulder with those who struggle, whose struggle may be different from yours. But I guarantee you, their struggle is linked to yours.”

“As a man, I will stand here and tell you that misogyny and patriarchy grant me privilege. When I walk down Broadway Avenue, I have a different experience than my wife when she walks down Broadway. And as a black man, I will tell you that when I get pulled over by the police, the chances of me getting shot are higher than my wife’s are. My liberation is bound to hers. Because the same hyper-masculinity that teaches a man that he has the right to put his hands on a woman because he thinks she’s attractive is the same hyper-masculinity that makes an officer fear me as a black man, that will justify him shooting me down in the streets. Our liberation is bound to each other: as long as women are sexually harassed while walking down the street; as long as my life is on the line and I’m seen as a threat just because of my skin and being a man.”

“I frame this up because I want to be clear about the fight it is that we’re in. We’re talking tonight about participatory justice; well, none of these problems are going to fix themselves, right? We have to get to work … and that’s why I’m here. To give you an example of a big problem, an example of how we talk about these problems as we challenge them. Now I’m going to tell you about how we can try to fix them. At TakeAction, we work on issue campaigns. We endorse candidates, we go to work for candidates, we’ve got a phone bank and organize door-knock campaigns, but when we’re not working for candidates, we work for the issues.”

“In the Justice4All program, the top of our campaign list is restoration of voting rights for people who are on felony probation. We call people in their districts and ask them to contact their legislators and say they support it. Then the next day they get 30 voicemail messages. It matters because they don’t hear anyone else’s stories. The story they hear about people on probation is: ‘You do the crime, pay the time.’ It doesn’t matter to them that these people are parents whose kids are in school and they can’t vote for school board. These are people who’ve been to prison and can’t vote for judges. These are folks who pay taxes, but can’t decide how they’re spent.”

“Voting is just one part of this fight. It’s people with our values, governing. Who are accountable to us. Forget about what’s happening on the national level. There are 201 people in office in the state of Minnesota who are either going to go get some work done, or they’re going to continue this nonsense where they just get in the way of getting stuff done. We don’t elect people to obstruct; we elect them to go to work.”

TakeAction believes that one of the most important factors in winning the big fights to remove more barriers to people impacted by the justice system is that those who are most directly impacted must be engaged in this work to dismantle these oppressive systems.

Learn more at: takeactionminnesota.org

Other resources can be found on the event page: stthomas.edu/socialwork/Vote4ParticipatoryJustice

This article was published in the Fall 2016 School of Social Work Perspectives newsletter