Fighting for the little guy with the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition: A profile of Sarah Walker

The Second Chance Coalition, co-founded by Sarah Walker, is blazing a trail for Minnesotans with criminal records who are reentering society and struggling to find jobs, housing and the right to vote.

In other words, fighting for a second chance at becoming contributing members of the community. With the help of Walker and the Second Chance Coalition, many are getting a new start.

At the coalition’s annual Day on the Hill, a lobbying-effort-cum-rally at the Minnesota State Capitol, you’re bound to hear ex-felons testifying about the power of regaining their right to vote and how that makes them feel part of the Minnesota community.

Four years ago, thanks to a spirited lobbying effort that included ex-offenders making their case to lawmakers, the coalition successfully pushed the state legislature and Gov. Tim Pawlenty to ban public employers from asking prospective employees about criminal convictions and arrest records on job applications.

“Having a Day on the Hill and hosting community forums serves a purpose to move the conversation,” says Walker. “But it also provides individuals an opportunity to share their own experience.”

Walker has been an advocate for ex-offenders ever since she wrote a paper as a student at Carleton College, which argued that modern-day incarceration and parole is akin to a form of slavery.

“There is a huge racial dynamic in who’s incarcerated,” she says. “Minnesota has the second highest racial disparity in the criminal justice system. One in five African-American men are denied the right to vote in Minnesota based on a felony conviction.”

“The criminal justice system has come to represent the nexus of all our institutional failures. It’s where, if you have not received adequate education, adequate mental health services, you face racial discrimination. All of those cumulative disparities come together in the criminal justice system.”

Walker seemed destined to embrace activism to combat disparities within society. She was born in Zambia to an African father and white mother. When she was three, they moved to Chicago and settled in a deeply segregated neighborhood.

There she saw firsthand the pain of racial disparities. That experience was reinforced when, in 2005, she moved her cancer-stricken mother to a hospital in New Orleans just before Hurricane Katrina arrived.

Walker’s mother died as residents scrambled to leave the city, and New Orleans became the nation’s modern-day poster child for the painful racial inequalities that remain in the U.S. The experience motivated Walker to want to bring radical change to the picture.

“The blatant failure at response and the racial dynamics associated with it” made her feel she “had to do something tangible” when she came to the University of Minnesota to complete her graduate work.

She not only battles, she paddles: One technique she has used to help break down barriers and promote understanding between urban youths and police is to help arrange canoe trips including members of both groups.

This year, Walker is lobbying lawmakers to “Ban the Box” for private employers as well. The “box” currently appears on job applications and asks job seekers to reveal whether they have a criminal record. On April 20, the Minnesota Senate passed “Ban the Box” for private employers by a bipartisan vote of 44-16. The measure now moves to the House.

The Coalition is also pushing to seal juvenile records and, ultimately, to restore voting rights for ex-felons once they’ve done their time.

“In Minnesota, if you have a felony conviction and if you are on probation, parole or in prison, you’re not allowed to vote,” Walker says. “We fundamentally believe that you should be able to vote if you are living in the community. As long as you’re not incarcerated, you should be able to vote.

“People are returning (from behind bars) and they’re becoming part of our civic and civil community,” Walker says. “They need to be treated like citizens. Whether or not you come at it from a social justice angle or a fiscally conservative angle, there is some reason why you should be caring about the system. It costs $35,000 a year to incarcerate a male adult in Minnesota.”

Walker’s work has empowered ex-offenders like Marvin Clark, who was in and out of prison for six years for drug offenses but is now a leader at Emerge in North Minneapolis, which helps people who were once in his shoes to re-enter society.

“I’m an ex-career criminal, I’m an ex-drug addict,” says Clark, who originally came to Minnesota to play college football, but fell in with the wrong crowd. “It will be 17 years this June of being out of prison. Today I’m the director of housing at Emerge, which prides itself on giving a person a hand up, and not a hand out. The best reward is to see someone finally make it.

“So what if I made some mistakes yesterday? That’s not who I am today. I think that’s what Sarah sees too. If a person got caught, got convicted, served their sentence…shouldn’t that be the end of it?”

It’s a myth that felons in Minnesota are mostly urban black men. In fact, most ex-offenders are whites from greater Minnesota. People like Rob Stewart, who did two years for drug offenses, and is now getting his Master’s degree in Sociology, with a focus on criminal justice, at the University of Minnesota.

“In 2006 I received my first felony drug charge,” Stewart says. “In 2007, I received a more severe charge and I served two years in prison. It was difficult to find an apartment. Most apartment applications ask whether or not you have a criminal history. It was difficult to find a job. The stigma or the mystique that comes with having a criminal history acts like a dark cloud over you.”

That dark cloud lifted for Stewart, he says, through the hard work of the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition and leaders like Sarah Walker.

“Seven years ago, no one was talking about these issues. No one was talking about criminal justice reform. No one was talking about felon voting rights. It’s remarkable to me over a short period of time how these issues have been put to the forefront. It’s affecting thousands of people throughout Minnesota. They’re gonna have opportunities to get jobs and put these criminal offenses behind them and move on with their lives —opportunities that they wouldn’t have if it weren’t for Sarah Walker, if it weren’t for the Second Chance Coalition.”

Through her charisma, passion and lawyer-like grasp of the issues, Sarah Walker has appealed to, and changed minds, on both sides of the political aisle. Republicans such as State Sen. David Senjem routinely speak during the coalition’s Day on the Hill.

“Who’s never made a mistake in life,” Senjem asked this year’s Day on the Hill event in January. “Raise your hand. There aren’t many of us. All of these people are going to get out of prison. They’re all going to be citizens, so we gotta make life right for them.”

Walker has convinced conservatives like Sen. Dave Thompson that criminal justice reform, and re-enfranchising ex-felons, makes fiscal sense too. In fact, the slogan of the Day on the Hill event was, “A smart way for states to save money and lives.”

It is a convincing argument for Thompson.

“If a person is released from prison and they have to presumably pay taxes and get a job, which we want them to do, I see no good reason why they should not be allowed to vote,” he says. “We should think about our criminal justice system just like we think about our school system, our economic system or anything else. That is, do the right thing as effectively and as efficiently as possible.”

The notion of personal redemption can have religious undertones that appeal to many lawmakers’ faiths.

“Most religions, whether Christian or otherwise, have some element of redemption,” Thompson says. “I think that a sense of human fundamental fairness says ‘all of us have come short and failed in one way or another, and that should not impact the rest of our lives.’ ”

Walker’s lobbying work isn’t confined to the State Capitol. She has also worked hard to find allies in metro governments, too. She has one in Saint Paul City Councilman Melvin Carter, who has promised to help Ban the Box in the city if the State doesn’t do it first.

“We bring somebody back into our community and say, ‘We want you to be a productive member of society, but you can’t live here, you can’t vote here and you can’t work here,’ ” says Carter. “Well then, what’s a productive member of society?”

Councilman Carter and former felons Rob Stewart and Marvin Clark all agree, Sarah Walker’s drive and determination are helping to increase the fairness, and improve the future, of criminal justice in Minnesota.

“I think some people work a job, and some people pursue a mission,” says Carter. “Sarah is clearly passionate about the work that she does.”

“Anybody who knows Sarah Walker knows that she is relentless and doesn’t give up,” agrees Stewart. “She’s very passionate about these issues, and she doesn’t ever let them go.”

“That’s what Sarah’s out there fighting for,” Clark says.

“She’s fighting for the little guy.”

Uptake editor’s Note: This is the sixth in an UpTake series of profiles on men and women whose names may not be widely familiar but whose leadership makes our neighborhoods, our cities and our state better places. — Nick Coleman, Executive Editor (nick [dot] coleman [at] theuptake [dot] org)

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