Note: I had intended to write a light-hearted little post to close out the month here on Shrinkrapped, but with all the horrors in our country right now–particularly those visited upon people of color–I just couldn’t. Nor could I find new words to channel my heartache and rage. Instead, here is my latest piece for Airlift, an organization that supports grassroots organizations to engage and expand the electorate in key areas around the country. This post features Michigan Liberation.
Turning non-voters into voters: Airlift’s mission aligns perfectly with Michigan Liberation, one of several grassroots groups our “Lift the Midwest” fund supports. Founded in 2018, Michigan Liberation is a statewide network of people and organizations organizing to end the criminalization of Black families and communities of color in Michigan.
One of the group’s first endeavors was a series of listening sessions that revealed just how widespread the impacts of archaic and discriminatory laws and policies have been among poorer communities, especially among people of color. As one participant noted, “Too often, people are caught up in the system because of financial instability. Between cash bail, court fines, legal fees, and other costs, it seems impossible to escape from under the load of expenses that start to rack up, further oppressing marginalized people. How is that about justice? A wealthy person could pay up and be done, but that’s not true for most of us.”
Those who have been incarcerated and their loved ones—which includes over half of Michigan Liberation’s staff and volunteers–know all too well the long-term devastation caused by criminal-legal involvement. Their leadership is key in healing communities from the pain and trauma of incarceration, and in transforming a broken system.
One such leader is Kimberly Woodson, Canvass Team Leader extraordinaire who was sentenced for life as a pregnant 17 year-old. After the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles serving a life sentence could apply for case review, Woodson was released in 2017, having spent 29 years behind bars. She started the non-profit Redeeming Kimberly to assist other returning citizens with housing, food, clothing, and jobs. Woodson facilitates forgiveness sessions, and inspires everyone at Michigan Liberation with her incredible energy and warm-heartedness.
Deep engagement and multiple conversations with low-propensity voters about issues that affect their daily lives were key to the electoral successes up and down the ballot in the 2018 mid-terms. In just five weeks, Michigan Liberation knocked on nearly 28,000 doors and talked personally with more than 5,000 people in three counties. Those for whom every day is a struggle may not pay much attention to national politics, but they care deeply about who’s elected as local sheriffs, prosecutors, and judges. Michigan Liberation’s education, endorsement, and empowerment efforts create powerful community advocates, and get people to the polls.
Michigan is one of the few states that automatically restore voting rights once people who have been convicted are released from jail or prison. But as Co-Director Meredith Loomis Quinlan explains, returning citizens often don’t know they can vote. Many probation and parole officers tell them it’s illegal, and people are too afraid to do anything that jeopardizes their freedom. Michigan Liberation works hard to change this through education and voter assistance. They’re advocating for registration forms in every release packet in the state. Quinlan even imagines the day when packets include a letter from the Governor saying, “Welcome back to the democratic process!”
Such long-ignored voices matter in rebuilding an engaged citizenry and achieving electoral success up and down the ballot. In 2018, Michigan Liberation helped flip four state Senate seats, three State House seats, three County Commission seats, and a US Congressional seat. Statewide offices turned from red to blue in the Governor, Attorney General, and Secretary of State races.
“A Vision for a Liberated Michigan” was launched in November 2019. The agenda highlights eight themes vital to resolving the state’s mass incarceration crisis, including the school-to-prison pipeline; police and surveillance; mental health; sentencing; jails and prisons; and re-entry services after release. An example of the latter is Michigan Liberation’s Technology Empowerment classes for returning citizens.
These amazing successes by an increasingly effective movement not only have been transforming families, individuals, communities, and the state; they‘ve also paved the way for even greater voter engagement and turnout for 2020.
Then came COVID-19. The virus has had a particularly devastating effect on incarcerated populations, where overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and inadequate health care are routine. High rates of infection and even death among inmates and staff have catapulted the crisis into the news. Michigan Liberation and others are calling for immediate steps to stop the spread and save lives. On March 30, Governor Whitmer issued an executive order permitting (but not mandating) the early release of vulnerable inmates who pose no risk to public safety.
Earl Burton, a formerly incarcerated Michigan Liberation organizer, said Whitmer is on the right track, but more needs to be done, such as immediately releasing elderly and medically infirm prisoners and those already granted parole. “I personally know a few who are in no way shape or form a threat to public safety. You have prisoners who have been there for decades, and are no longer the same people that they were 30, 40 years ago,” Burton notes.
In addition to highlighting the urgency of Michigan Liberation’s criminal justice efforts, the coronavirus has also shifted the organization’s focus to providing desperately needed services such as water and food to suffering communities.
The political work continues under extremely trying circumstances. The staff switched to working from home before the shelter-in-place order. They all know someone who has died from COVID, and are hearing horror stories from friends and loved ones who are currently incarcerated.
Nonetheless, Michigan Liberation has nimbly pivoted to online community outreach and organizing. The prior year’s experience with Zoom and providing Tech Empowerment classes has come in handy! Michigan Liberation recently hired 14 online organizers and 4 digital communications people to amplify social media content. Canvassers engage in wellness checks, then relate people’s experiences with how their votes are vital in bringing about change.
Co-Director Quinlan notes a silver lining: As COVID has exposed the fault lines of a broken and unjust criminal-legal system, it has generated more empathy. “COVID provides a tangible measure of elected officials’ performance. What did they do or not do during this crisis?” she remarks. “We see it as an opportunity.”
Airlift also sees it as an opportunity. Michigan Liberation exemplifies how building movements from the grassroots up engages marginalized communities, which in turn translates into meaningful and progressive electoral change. Now more than ever, your contribution matters.
Your generosity makes a difference. Please support Michigan Liberation and all the other great grassroots organizations Airlift funds by donating at https://secure.actblue.com/donate/airlift. Thank you!