Over the course of the past few weeks, Rebecca’s been having a series of conversations with some of the folks behind Next100—a think tank that’s turning the traditional think tank model on its head, to create a public policy sector where those with the most at stake are driving the change they and their communities want to see. We at Off-Kilter enjoyed what started as a single episode conversation so much, we decided to turn it into a three-part series.
So, to wrap up that series of conversations with Next100 leaders about what it looks like to put people at the center of policy change in the areas of antipoverty policy and climate policy… for this week’s show, Rebecca sat down with a set of current and former Next100 policy entrepreneurs—Michael “Zaki” Smith, Isabel Coronado, and Vidal Guzman—all of whom are working to transform different facets of America’s Jim Crow criminal legal system, and to ensure directly impacted folks are leading the way.
And ICYMI: Don’t miss the first and second episodes in this ongoing series.
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REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca Vallas. Over the course of the past few weeks, I’ve been having a series of conversations with some of the folks behind the Next100, a think tank that’s turning the traditional think tank model on its head to create a public policy sector where those with the most at stake are driving the change they and their communities want to see.
We at Off-Kilter enjoyed what started as a single-episode conversation a couple of weeks ago so much we literally decided to turn it into a three-part series. So, to wrap up that series of conversations with Next100 leaders about what it looks like to put people at the center of policy change in the areas of anti-poverty policy (that was week one), climate policy (that was week two), now for this week’s show, I sat down with a set of current and former Next100 Policy Entrepreneurs—Michael “Zaki” Smith, Isabel Coronado, and Vidal Guzman—all of whom are working to transform different facets of America’s broken criminal legal system and to ensure that directly impacted folks are leading the way.
You can learn lots more about the Next100 at TheNext100.org and in our last two episodes as part of this ongoing series, and you can learn more about Zaki, Isabel, and Vidal’s work and how to get involved in show notes. Let’s take a listen.
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Vidal, Zaki, Isabel, thank you so much for taking the time to come on the show, and I’ve been really, really, really excited about this particular conversation for a lot of reasons, but I’m just really grateful to each of you for taking the time.
ZAKI SMITH: Thank you so much for having me, Vallas, yeah. I was definitely a yes before I could even read the entire email. I was like, yup. I’m there.
VALLAS: Well, let’s go ahead and get into it. So, I feel like the place to start is really to give each of you an opportunity to talk about how you come to this work and to talk a little bit about your pre-Next100 lives. And so, Zaki, I’m gonna start with you in part because you’re the one of the three of you that I’ve known the longest. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know you through some work that we’ve actually gotten to do together. But Zaki, talk a little bit about how you come to this work, and then we’ll go in turn for a little bit of a round robin.
SMITH: Yeah. In short, I came to this work just really after being fired from a job which I was extremely passionate about, and that was working with young people. And I was fired from the job after working in this particular space for about four and a half years. And I was relieved from my job because of a criminal record. And so, for the first time in my life, I said, hey, wait a minute. You know, I’ve been out of prison for about 15 years now, and I’ve been, you know, really, been very impactful in the community, especially working with young people. So, why am I still being judged for this, right? And so, that’s how I got into the work.
So, I asked a question, like this should not still be happening. And I stumbled on the terminology “collateral consequences,” and I was like, whoa, OK. I didn’t hear this in any of my sentence commitments. I didn’t hear the judge or the District Attorney mention this terminology before. So, essentially, I was actually given a life sentence, and I was being punished long after I had served my time. And so, I got into the work on saying, yeah, we need to dismantle. Like, this should not exist. But, you know, yeah, so.
VALLAS: And you mentioned the phrase “collateral consequences.” There’s a powerful quote from one of the pieces that you’ve written for the Next100 and for The Century Foundation. We’ve got a link to that and all the other pieces we’re gonna reference today in our show notes. But you’ve described those so-called collateral consequences—a term that always just sounds so kind of empty and antiseptic to me, right—you’ve described them as, “perpetual punishment.”
VALLAS: “A silent life sentence.” You’ve described them as, “The 44,000 ways we continue to punish formerly incarcerated individuals after they’ve served their time, 44,000 ways we continue to take away the rights and opportunities of people after they are released from prison.” Talk a little bit about what that phrase “collateral consequences” really means. It impacted you very deeply, very personally, which, as you said, was sort of your wake-up call to even this issue. But this has really been the thrust of a lot of what you’ve really become a leader on since coming to the Next100.
SMITH: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, you know, they say, hey, listen. You served your time, and go after your release, like go and be a productive member of society, right? But then they don’t say that, “But we can now legally deny you employment. We can deny you housing. We can deny you occupational licensing. We can deny you education, right? We can deny you life insurance.” [chuckles] Like, wait a minute. You’re talking about the essentials, the basics to maintain that productive citizenship that we are supposed to participate in. But then the things that I need to sustain that are now legally blocked from me, right? And I can be denied access. I can live in poverty.
And a lot of times, the belief that I’ve always had is that it is the heartbeat to recidivism, because if I’m unable to, many of the individuals and most individuals who are incarcerated, who have entered the prison system, it is actually for the lack of resources. Now you legally deny me the resources, right? And so, it is the heartbeat to recidivism. And so, if you continuously deny individuals that access to the basics that they need to sustain life, you can result in individuals returning back to prison. And that’s the reality of it.
VALLAS: And staying with you for just one more moment, Zaki, before bringing other folks in here. You’ve done a lot of writing. You’ve published policy reports. You’ve done a lot of public speaking. You’ve testified in front of state legislatures. And one of the phrases that really rings through, the clarion call that you bring to pretty much every conversation that you are part of these days when it comes to how we address these collateral consequences you’ve been talking about, which now impact as many as 100 million Americans, depending on what estimate you look at, a phrase that you have said many, many times. And so, I feel like I always have your words echoing in my head is, “Automatic expungement is the only way.” And this was actually how you and I met years ago around some of the work I’ve been involved in as well. Talk a little bit about what you mean when you say that automatic expungement is the only way. Expungement’s a term people may or may not be familiar with. And how have you been pushing to bring this idea of automatic expungement to New York through what’s called the Clean Slate New York campaign?
SMITH: Yes. So, definitely. So, I’ve been working with the clean slate campaign for automatic expungement, or sealing, and those terminologies could mean different depending on what the law actually is written in though. So, you would believe expungement is delete, right? And sealing is just sealed, that people can limit its visibility, right? But those words are interchangeable, right? And so, automatic is, listen. My time, when I am sentenced to my prison term, it automatically ends. My parole automatically ends. Like, there’s a date on when it ends, right? If I have not received a prison life sentence, I have a two to four, right? In four years, my prison is done. Automatically. No one comes in to say, “No, we think we need to give you six more years.” No, this is what the court has appointed me or anyone to serve. Whether that be probation, whether that be prison, whatever it is, there’s an automatic end to that, to that debt. There’s an end to the debt. Except for this! How is this? So, it has to be automatic.
There needs to be an automatic process to where after you have served your time, automatically should be able to reintegrate and move on with your life, period. No one needs to come in. We do not need a prosecutor to come in and actually retry you. Because that’s what happens when you have prosecutor involvement, and we need to approve it and stand before a judge again. It’s going through a trial. I’ve been through the trial. You sentenced me already. I’ve been through that. Why do we go through this again? No. Automatically, my records should be sealed or expunged, depending on the terminology that is being used legally. And that is exactly what should happen for individuals.
You can imagine an individual who has been long finished their sentence, 20 years, 15 years, a person who may have had an addiction back in the ‘80s during the crack era racked up 15 cases who has been a peer counselor for rehabilitation for people kicking drugs and addiction. They’ve been an advocate for 20 years, but they still can’t get a job! They still can’t get a house. They can’t get employment. Like, this is ridiculous. It doesn’t make sense. And it’s very much intentional, right? It’s very much intentional, and it specifically impacts people of color. And I’ll stop there.
VALLAS: Well, and there’s so much more we could get into there.
VALLAS: But I wanna bring other folks in. I’ll just say I could not agree with you more. And you know that and that these are conversations we’ve certainly had. A lot of states have started to do exactly what you’re describing, and you’ve been really at the forefront of trying to get New York to join that list. And it’s not just blue states, it’s red states, it’s purple states. It’s some weird states, right, who are doing this.
SMITH: Yeah, Utah. [chuckles]
VALLAS: Right. Utah, Pennsylvania, Michigan, right? It’s states—
VALLAS: Because it’s such a common-sense idea, like you said. So, a lot more we could get into there and that we will.
But Isabel, I’m gonna bring you in next. And we’ve been talking about collateral consequences and how Zaki experienced them and became aware of them. You also have done extensive work that gets into these issues both at Next100 and before and now after. And I would love for you to talk a little bit of how you come to this work, because a lot of your experience really adds another layer to some of what Zaki has been talking about here. So, Isabel, how do you come to this work?
ISABEL CORONADO: Yeah. So, prior to Next100, which when Zaki and I started was in 2019, I was living in Oklahoma in my tribal reservation, in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, working a lot on tribal reentry. I was helping develop and start an organization called the American Indian Criminal Justice Navigation Council where a small group of us impacted people from the criminal justice system got together. We’re seeing the situation in Oklahoma, where at the time, was number one incarceration, mass incarcerator in the United States, number one for male and female. Which was a scary statistic to hear because a lot of our community members were being impacted by the criminal justice system, either going to prison themselves or having family or community members. So, we created that organization to try and close those loopholes, to start equipping our own people with legal system jargon that people would throw around so that they can go in and be peer mentors to people going through the process themselves and be their own advocate and gearing them up with information.
But I quickly realized the situation in Oklahoma was a systemic issue in that it was really a need for policy change. So, I didn’t feel like I could get the policy training or even really the knowledge that I was really wanting to in Oklahoma at that time. It’s changed. Contrary to popular belief, Oklahoma is changing. So, I decided to apply to Next100 and come in and get the knowledge that I was so desperately seeking to help my community.
And so, in my two years, I really did a lot of research on specifically children of incarcerated parents, but also raising awareness over the mass incarceration of Native people. And prior to Next100, I could never call myself a policy expert. But now, with my two years of all the research and the policy writing and all the advocating, I feel more than confident calling myself a policy expert on these issues and in this area. And I’m really excited to be continuing this work.
VALLAS: Well, and Isabel, staying with you for just a moment here, Zaki mentioned, and I think it’s well known at this point because it has been so thoroughly documented now in the research and also in the public discourse, but communities of color—Black folks, brown folks—have without question, been hardest hit by our broken criminal legal system in this country over the past 40 years and change. It’s communities of color who have been disproportionately impacted and both by incarceration, but also by criminal records, as Zaki was talking about. But the impact on Native communities and on Native families really has been mostly invisible in the national criminal justice conversation. Talk a little bit about the picture for Native folks and communities. And what is it that people really need to know about why Native communities need to be part of the conversation about disproportionate impacts on communities of color when it comes to our criminal legal system?
CORONADO: Absolutely. I think it’s an understatement when we are left out of this national conversation because a lot of the national conversation is around the crime bill and how that accelerated mass incarceration. But really, mass incarceration started with colonization when English settlers brought their practices to this land.
CORONADO: That’s when mass incarceration started [unclear]. And so, there was no way that this hasn’t impacted us. Because a lot of those, the early times when they would use incarceration as a tactic for land grab, which if you’ve heard like the Sooner land grab, there’s a lot of different deep histories on this of the way just to take land, and that’s another way of power. But fast forward today, it’s impacting Native people in a different way because we have different systems. And it’s very, very, there’s a lot of information out there, but just the basic, to really break it up: When a tribal member commits a crime on tribal land versus state land, instead of getting the same sentences as a white man would get on U.S. land, they’re getting federal time versus state time. And usually when you get federal time, it’s a lot longer. It’s a lot harsher.
CORONADO: You can be sent to federal prisons all over the country, which impacts their family to having to go visit them. If they’re in Oklahoma City, then they got to go all the way to New York or California to go to those federal prisons. And so, these are the kind of disparities that we’re experiencing within our tribal communities.
And then on top of that, we don’t know the stats. So, Native women are actually six times more likely to be incarcerated than white women, and Native men are four times more likely to be incarcerated than white men. So, I mean, those are the stats that we have, and we know, I know, from personal experience having my mom be incarcerated for several years of my life what that feels like and what it feels like as a child—and not necessarily the incarcerated person, but what the child’s perspective is like—having to grow up, growing up and really understanding that it’s a shared sentence. That person didn’t just go away. It impacts that whole household from that child’s health care, education, housing instability. There’s so many different factors that go into that. And so, that’s why I’ve been really focusing on family-based alternative sentencing, where instead of sending parents to prison, they’re staying home with their children and receiving resources such as housing, job training, education, mental health services for them and their children. And this is why it’s so important that we start looking to the equation.
VALLAS: And there’s a ton more we could get into there. But I really appreciate that you started to take us into policy solutions because that’s a big part of what you’ve been putting forth.
VALLAS: And you, I mean, we’re gonna include some of these in show notes. You’ve got more policy reports than I think we could even possibly include, but you’ve got some really, really creative ideas that you’ve been putting out there that’ve started to gain real traction, like your proposal for a Flourishing Children Initiative as you’ve called it. And you’ve got another report that puts out nine policy solutions all focused on children of incarcerated parents and how we can actually be supporting those families. Because, as you put it, “We are not collateral consequences,” right, speaking of yourself and other children of incarcerated parents. So, are there any other policy solutions that you wanna give a quick plug to you before we bring Vidal in?
CORONADO: Yes. Of course, the family-based alternative sentencing is out there. We got $3.5 million in appropriations funding last year. Hopefully this year we’re getting $7 million. So, I’m really excited about that. Like you said, the proposal that I put forward, the Flourishing Children of Incarcerated Parents Initiative, I’ve been working with Senator Warnock’s office. I’m starting to get that off the ground. And then there’s, like you said, there’s a report out there that I’ve researched local, state, federal, and tribal policies that we can start implementing to help children across all aspects of their lives. Because, like I’ve said, and what I was hearing from Zaki, collateral consequences are fines and fees, are occupational, but it’s not children. And they deserve the resources and opportunities as much as anybody else.
VALLAS: So, we’ve got all of that in show notes for folks who wanna click through and dig in and read some of this in greater detail, as I recommend everybody do.
But Vidal, we’re gonna bring you, definitely last but not least by any stretch, into this conversation as well. Thank you so much for taking the time to come on the show. And of the three of you, Vidal, you’re the most recent Next100 criminal justice reform champion that I have had the pleasure of getting to meet and starting to get to know ‘cause you are a current Policy Entrepreneur with Next100. Zaki and Isabel are both alumni at this point. Talk a little bit about how you come to this work and a little bit of your pre-Next100 life.
VIDAL GUZMAN: Yeah, yeah. How I come to this work is truthfully, you got to know where you come from to go where you’re going. And I think that quote really hits me. I came from, I’m from a country, from Dominican Republic. Before it was Dominican Republic, it was Hispaniola. And for a lot of people that don’t know, it was enslaved Africans and enslaved Tainos who was fighting against colonizations to happen. And also, my moms was someone who was an organizer in Dominican Republic fighting against police brutality. And I personally am an individual who have been through a system, you know, experienced the immigrational system because of my family. But I experienced a system in all different levels from being unhoused, selling drugs at a very early age. I was a part of a member of the Bloods. I was a high-ranking member of the Bloods. I also was a very, I did a lot of time incarcerated, did seven years, and also, I spent 905 days in solitary confinement.
I think for me, a lot of these struggles of trying to survive and also, being the wolf in the sheep really got me to the point of understanding my struggles. But I think for me, what really got me into this work, I think it is with one moment where we was do doing a hunger strike in Greene Correctional Facility, and I was active with the Bloods. And we was not getting medical attention. And at that time, it was me, a Crip, and someone who was Muslim started organizing to deny food, to deny the abilities, if we’re not heard, to make it hard correctional officer until we got medical attention. For me, that was a spark of the importance of unity, the importance of understanding that we all are struggling, and we all are fighting the same oppressor. When I came home, I started getting active with food justice, but also getting active with the criminal justice conversations.
So, in 2015, I was a part of Drive Change. We won a Vendy Award where, you know, this is the food truck that only hires formerly incarcerated people.
SMITH: Jordan! Nice. [laughs]
GUZMAN: We won a Vendy Award. Yeah. We won a Vendy Award in 2015. And in 2016, I helped launch the #CLOSErikers campaign and also helped launch the Free New York campaign. I was around, you know, we was on both sides. The #CLOSErikers campaign was advocating as all we know to close Rikers. The Free New York campaign was advocating on the Kalief law, speedy trial, the law and bail reform, and started getting work in the solitary confinement work. And a couple years ago, I started the End Qualified Immunity campaign. So, I’ve been in a lot of different, you know, in a lot of different tables and in a lot of different suits. But I say to you the most important things that really got me in this work is just the history of struggles of what my own family went through, like learning that they’d been struggling against this system, against this oppression for a very long time. And especially for myself, me being in the system when I was 16, being tried as adult, I worked on the Raise the Age campaign, spoke around the state around it, and I was one of the youths who was tried as a adult when I was 16 years old, facing 15. So, these are like, these are the things that I was facing personally that really led me to being in this work.
What was the other question again? I think I was so busy paying attention to who we got, like Zaki and everyone else, they really, I’m just honored to be here. And I think what they said was like, I’m just here with y’all like this. Like, I hope I’m not, I don’t need to be a part of this. I just wanna listen.
SMITH and GUZMAN: [laugh]
VALLAS: You are most definitely a part of this panel.
SMITH: No doubt.
VALLAS: So, we’re not gonna let you just sit here and listen.
SMITH: No, that’s right.
VALLAS: And I know your co-panelists agree with you.
SMITH: No doubt.
VALLAS: But, Vidal, no. I mean, just I feel like that’s a great segue then into talking a little bit about what it is that you are focusing on at the Next100. You’ve got so much experience. You’ve been part of so many important and really successful and high profile and impactful criminal legal reform campaigns, particularly at the state and local level and a lot of it in New York. One of the things that you have written about—and you’re just a few months into to being a Policy Entrepreneur at the Next100—but one of the things that you’ve already written about, I’m gonna quote you here. You’ve written that, “Slavery hasn’t been abolished. It’s been reformed,” right? And you have personal experience with what you and other advocates have, I think, very fairly described as modern-day slavery behind bars.
VALLAS: Talk a little bit about what you mean when you say that slavery hasn’t been abolished, it’s been reformed. There’s a policy failing there, and you’re trying to draw some attention to it.
GUZMAN: Yeah, yeah. I think as a historian—I call myself that—I think we all need to understand some of the history, herstory, and their story that really got us to this point now. I studied a lot of past advocates, people who’ve been very vocal on convict leasing or even been vocal around when people was enslaved, right? And for me, that quote really talks the real truth. Scholars, advocates has always tried to figure out how to connect mass incarceration to slavery. And there’s one amendment that does that, and that’s the 13th Amendment.
GUZMAN: The 13th Amendment has been out there. I’ll tell you right now, I don’t think our former, I mean, our president, Abraham Lincoln, is probably turning in his grave to know that the 13th Amendment, the loophole that it created, it will actually become the ability to keep repressing people who are, people who was enslaved, people who was forced to get in this country. So, I say what people don’t understand is after the Civil War and the 13th Amendment happened, the South had to figure out how were they actually gonna replace cheap labor or labor at all? You know what I’m saying. Or actually building back the South. And what South delegates or elected officials started looking at was at the 13th Amendment. The loophole of that 13th Amendment became something that has impacted us to now, has impacted all of us even here.
And it came from, you know, that 13th Amendment what rolled out or that was convict leasing, the Jim Crow, you know what I’m saying, and Black Code and also, the abilities of parole supervision, any type of supervision—4.5 million people on supervision—incarcerated people getting paid as low as 16 cents for their labor. Understanding that an individual who’s incarcerated contributes billions to our outside society as license plates that we are driving and making fun of. Or even from our benches that our students are learning from, our country preparing lawyers, preparing any type of people to be in the fields that will move this country forward. That’s even from our own state, you know, we have a subdivision called Corcraft that actually makes 53 million per year off of Black, Latinx, and oppressed people’s labor. You know what I’m saying.
So, because of that slavery clause, you know what I’m saying, this is where we at, where we have 4.5 million people on supervision, 1.8 million people incarcerated, and where incarcerated people are not protected by any health insurance. They’re not protected by OSHA. They’re not protected by overtime. They’re not protected by the civil rights. They’re not protected by any federal law, any federal labor laws, let me correct that. And this is a shame when the state and the Department of Correction can create this legal fantasy to actually describe who has civil and who has human rights. Because in reality, in the real, as a historian, if we look at the reason why incarceration was started, it was to take away your liberty and to have the individual pay the debt that they had to pay. Anything that became more than that, it became a system that starting oppressing.
So, the 13th Amendment and the abilities when I started this campaign with other directly impacted people because I was coerced and forced, and I am a survivor leaving slavery, as many people in our system right now. Example, a individual who is a correctional officer or citizen who distributes a program or distributes a job, if you’re coming into the facility, and let’s say, hey, I wanna get, you know, you’ve been skilled in porter work and this is what you wanna do. And you tell the correctional officers, say, “Hey, this is what I wanna do.” And they say, “No, we don’t have that. We’re gonna put you in the mess hall.” And it’s like, “Whoa, whoa. I just literally told you, these is the skills I wanna build on because these are the skills I wanna take out there with me, so I’ll be well prepared to really do the work and build on the skills.” What they can do, they can coerce you and say, “What? Now you’re denying, and we’re sending you to solitary confinement.” And these are stories that I hear from people in my community. These are stories that I hear from incarcerated people, people who are behind the wall.
So, the Fix the 13th campaign is to, it’s easy. It’s to eliminate and abolish the abilities of legal slavery, making sure that we are giving incarcerated people minimum wage, not no competitive wage. Minimum wage. This is a national push. We have seen in Nevada SB140 are pushing for minimum wage for incarcerated people. And Baltimore in Maryland, they almost had it right, but they’re also in somewhat advocating for incarcerated people to get minimum wage. So, we have seen that it is very important for incarcerated people while they’re still inside to get minimum wage. Why do I say that? Because it’s very important for us to return people back to society, especially in a way that poverty has a way to become a quicksand to get people back into incarceration or to further be more in a poverty state of mind or state of life.
And the other most important thing is unionizing. Incarcerated people in early 1970 was 13,000 strong that was a part of unions. But the history behind that was that they fixed a lot of the conditions inside of suffering that they was dealing with. And it is very important as the campaigns start pushing forward, we’re not just a campaign. We think of ourself as a think tank ‘cause we are at a think tank. And some of the things that we are pushing for and making sure that we’re holding every elected official accountable that, right now, in your state, legal slavery is happening. And the question I ask you is, what are you doing about it?
VALLAS: Whoo. Powerful words to end that thought on. And we’ve got a ton more for folks who wanna dig more into this. And if anyone’s listening and, “Going wait a second. I didn’t know that we had exceptions to our constitutional amendment that abolished slavery. What are you talking about?” Well, we’ve got a great explainer that you wrote for the Next100 and for The Century Foundation in our show notes, talking a little bit about the Fix the 13th New York campaign and really what it looks like to end that loophole and to treat people behind bars with human rights, with human dignity instead of continuing quietly to have a loophole that allows for forced labor and for paying people pennies on the hour, pennies for their labor as well.
I wanna now bring all of you back into this conversation so that you can sort of talk a little bit to each other and also opine and weigh in on some themes that I know all of you have a lot to say on. The first place that I really wanna start here is to ask all of you, any of you who wanna jump in on this, why it’s so important for folks who have lived experience of the broken criminal legal system, directly impacted folks, to be at the center of the policymaking that then fixes our broken criminal legal system. And that is really the through line for a lot of each of your work. You’re not just individuals doing this work, you’re also bringing entire communities to the table in a lot of ways. And as I ask this question, I ask the question very aware and very glad of the trend in recent years that we really have started to actually see this shift. We’ve seen some real shifts in how criminal justice reform, as it’s often called, work is done. Talk a little bit about why it’s so important that this work be led by directly impacted folks and how that has changed the way this work is done in recent years. And Zaki, I’m gonna go to you first with that.
SMITH: Yeah. Well, I’m still floating off of what Vidal was saying, you know what I mean, about the 13th and just everything is around language. You understand what I’m saying. We can shift even what I’m doing, right? All of this is part of the 13th Amendment. Like, all of it is a part of it. If we just remove the word, “except” from the 13th Amendment, just remove “except, slavery is abolished, except.” Just delete the whole sentence. [chuckles] Just delete it, right? Now we won’t have all of these other systems that exist, right, that will continue to produce slavery systems.
But in any event, one of the reasons why it’s extremely important, because traditionally, I didn’t come from a policy background or voting in my elected officials. That just wasn’t a thing in my community because those spaces represented harm, right? Because they were the individuals that were creating the policies that was harming us or kept us in oppressive situations. And so, rather than participate, the mentality is, well, if you don’t fool with me, I don’t fool with y’all. So, I’m just gonna not even participate in your system or what have you. But what happens is, what I’ve realized and come to the understanding is that people are gonna make decisions with or without you. And so, I made a conscious choice that, no, I need to be at this table because I am impacted by the policies that you are creating. And then there are policies that are just allegedly in the name of the people, and the people are never sitting there. The people never even know that it’s actually happening.
It’s disgusting, right, that it happens this way, and our communities are oblivious to some degree that they just feel the ramifications of it. And they don’t never get an opportunity to advocate for themselves in a way that is actually inviting, right? Because a lot of that system, a lot of those spaces, is not necessarily really inviting, right? We’re gonna go to, you know, politicians, we’re gonna go to the churches, right? We’re gonna go to the church, right? We’re gonna go to the old folks’ home. They’re not coming to the corner, like Brownsville. They’re not coming in Brookline houses. They’re not coming in Fort Greene and holler at that young man and them standing on the corner, right? They’re not talking to them. They need to be engaged too. But the system is not created necessarily to engage them or have them a part of those situations, and they actually need to. So, it’s very important.
So, I was very excited about Next100. When my friend sent me the text about Next100, I was like, what? Oh, I’m in! I’m there. I’ll get a chance to do this on a policy level and let me get a chance to understand what policy is and so forth and so on. So, it’s very, very important that we are able to be at the table to advocate for ourselves. That someone is not present trying to say what they think we need. I can tell you what I need, if given the opportunity. I don’t need you to try to define what I need and what type of help. No. I know what my, I know what has happened to me. I know what I need. I know what my family needs. I know what my community needs. We are best to tell those things. The problem is, is that many of them are not trying to have those things served. There’s a benefit in having us not at the table. There’s a benefit. So, it’s very important that we are present.
VALLAS: Well, and Isabel, I’ll bring you in on that point as well. And I’ll add sort of another layer to this question, which we’ve talked a lot in the first two installments of the series with y’alls Next100 colleagues. We’ve talked a lot about the unstated limiting beliefs that are holding back the public policy sector, even though no one ever says them out loud, and maybe a lot of folks aren’t even really aware that they’re there governing how the work gets done. But I’d love to sort of add into the mix as you reflect on the same point that Zaki was just speaking to, what unstated limiting beliefs do you see that are holding back the policy sector when it comes to reforming our criminal legal system?
CORONADO: So, I think Zaki made a really powerful statement when he said, “I know what I need” when it comes to this table. And so, I think that’s why it’s incredibly important to have lived experience people at the table because researchers aren’t gonna understand the nuances when it comes to, oh, you wanna put out a policy where SNAP benefits can be given to anybody? OK, but how do we get to that office? What if those offices are closed when we’re at work?
CORONADO: Like, what about childcare? There’s so many different nuances that people in policy really don’t, miss the mark on that lived experience people do. But that also brings me into another thing I’ve noticed being in this space is, yes, we need to have lived experience, but they need to be paid as experts for giving their lived experience, knowledge, and experience and time, frankly. It’s another job to sit there at the table and be giving this knowledge to policymakers or with policymakers. And although I wanna see that trend starting to change, that we are bringing in lived experience people, no, they need to be treated as such professionals as well. So, on the discourse side, I think this, more than any issue of criminal justice, is such an issue that there’s so much back and forth, and it’s around this one word around safety.
SMITH: Whoo! [clapping] Girl! You took the words right out of my mouth. I couldn’t sit in my seat. My seat, still I can’t because I was hoping, “Please say the word ‘safety’.”
CORONADO: [laughs] Yeah! Yeah!
SMITH: Yeah, their limiting belief is that anybody involved criminal justice work—
CORONADO: It’s not work!
SMITH: You don’t want safety.
CORONADO: It’s unsafe, yeah.
SMITH: It’s crazy!
CORONADO: Yeah, absolutely.
SMITH: It’s so ludicrous!
CORONADO: And it’s such a arbitrary word, and it’s a used word to keep us versus them context.
CORONADO: I mean, everybody deserves safety, everybody. It isn’t a word that’s supposed to separate one from another. And so, I think that is the number one limiting belief that when we come into this conversation. Safety, we need to change that word. We need to come up with something else because it’s just not working.
SMITH: Whoo! No, I think, just, I’m sorry, just real quick. I’m sorry.
VALLAS: No, come on in, Zaki. This is what I want.
SMITH: I don’t even think we need to change it, right? Yeah, safety, right? And just a narrative that we don’t want it, like, we don’t hold the value of safety, right? And it’s not even that. It’s like, OK, if safety’s the issue, cool. I want safety, too. You want safety? OK, cool. Guess why we’re not safe. We’re not safe if you let me out of prison and then deny me access to employment. That’s not safety! That’s not safety. It’s not safety for you to take the victim of a crime, 10 years later bring them to the parole board to now relive the trauma of the experience of what happened! Is that safety? No! That’s horrible. You mean to tell me you wanna open that wound back of that person? Right? All of the things that they claim is safety is not safety. Add the system that they have, if this is the foundation of slavery, I mean safety, we should be the safest country on the planet. And we’re not. Violence is still happening. Crime is still happening. No matter how many police you put on a thing, no matter how many barriers you put in people’s way, all of it is still happening. We’re still not safe. Lock them up and get more police officers is not keeping us safe. It hasn’t. There’s no record of it.
VALLAS: Zaki, I’m only jumping in here ‘cause I feel like—
VALLAS: You’re also taking us— No, I love this!
VALLAS: And you’re taking us to the elephant in the room, which is where I wanna go. So, I’m gonna pull on that thread ‘cause you’re going there, and I feel like we got to talk about it in this conversation, given when we’re actually having this conversation, right? This is March 2022, and right now, we are in a moment where there is a lot of tough-on-crime talk, right? It’s back on the upswing. We had a moment where folks were really kind of moving beyond tough on crime, at least in how folks were talking about the need for reform of a system we could all agree, even on a bipartisan basis, has been broken for a long time: The criminal legal system I’m talking about here. But now we’re in a moment where we’re seeing an uptick in crime, as you just referenced, an uptick specifically in violent crime, over the past couple of years. And that has a lot of folks in powerful seats all kind of going right back to that tough-on-crime talk, almost like it’s the 1990s all over again.
I would love to hear from all of you, any of you, who wanna weigh in on this, what do you say to people and policymakers who are worried that we should, well, maybe we should be hitting the brakes on criminal justice reform right now? What’s your response to those folks who are getting into that kind of worried tough-on-crime place?
GUZMAN: I can help out on that.
GUZMAN: I think it’s very important. I think, first of all, violence should be treated as a health crisis. That is scientifically studied from the Cure Violence. These is scientifically studied, basically. Basically, if someone see violence, violence was done on them. You know what I’m saying. It attached to you as a disease. So, these are studies that Cure Violence, people who are Credible Messengers understand this.
I think we have to also talk about the pandemic, right? Like, the pandemic impacted locally a lot of different states. You know what I’m saying. It really, from a lot of our local budget, our state budgets, a lot of our state budgets and a lot of our stuff was cut. A lot of the importance of youth-built, youth leadership, you know what I’m saying, a lot of the programs that keep some of our youth more involved in critical thinking and getting them pushing forward. There is a problem that’s happening, and that’s resources. I was a part of helping out building the Built Community platform and where we went to all five communities, and we used some of the old study called the Greenhaven Think Tank, where these individuals who was incarcerated people that figured out where exactly, where people was coming from, zip code wise, in New York and how they was actually filling up some of the prison system in upstate. And their study really got to the point that their communities are underfunded. There’s resources or abilities that can help resource communities, and it’s not fully funded.
Like a lot of our Cure Violence, even in New York, where we having, you know, even our mayor, Eric Adams, who is a former cop, you know what I’m saying. And we have seen the importance of Cure Violence’s incredible messaging work and how powerful and important. Even an individual, like I have one down a block from me, Street Corner Resources. My neighborhood is Blood, Crips, Latin Kings, Trinitarios, every game. It has not been no violence in my neighborhood because of them and because of community involvement. Because we as advocates has been making sure that we’ve been talking, how Zaki’s been talking about people not coming to Brooklyn and talking to the community or talking to these people. Some people just wanna be talked to. Some people wanna be taught entrepreneur skills. There’s a problem that’s happening why is it very important for directly impacted people to be at the table. And that’s the point that people are not talking to directly impacted people when it comes to real situations.
Like, what is happening is people not talking about these city budgets being cut, giving more money to police when they could’ve gave more money to programs to make sure violence is lowering. This is a national problem. This is not just New York where our budget is being cut, some of our major budget that will help our community grow. No, this is something that’s happening everywhere where people’s budgets are being cut, where they could’ve been using that extra money to be uplifting their communities. There’s a huge problem also coming from bad media understanding like, people don’t understand. Mass incarceration is at 1.8 million. So, when the civil unrest happened, all the protests that was happening on a international level for the civil unrest—George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, the Black Lives Matter—had a real importance and was a very important point to help lower the incarceration in our country. And a lot of people don’t talk about that. But because of their organizing and advocating, a lot of people got released. And also because of the pandemic, a lot of state campaigns was making sure people was getting released from state facilities.
This sounds like right now, that there’s corporations behind this. You know, people who are on the right wing are trying to pay media to put this false information out there. And I think I have to tell advocates out there, stay strong, do your research, and make sure you talk to directly impacted. But not just talk to them. Make sure you follow they lead because there’s a problem that’s happening in this country. Because when it comes to direct—and organizations too—when it comes to directly impacted people, you’re saying that we got directly impacted people at the table. How are they really at that table? Are you limiting their way to be at that table? Are you telling them they can only speak about their struggles, or you telling them they can learn about policies and input additional stuff on policies?
This is very important that people who are saying they’re afraid of crime being arising and they don’t know what to do, the question I ask you, have you spoke to a directly impacted person? How did you actually get someone who are from these neighborhoods where crime is spiking up? Have you spoke to the grassroots advocates? ‘Cause they know! Like in New York City, we have 100 community centers right now that are closed that our communities can be highly using. They’re where these housing complex are at, where our communities, especially in New York City, where housing complex are the first to be gang raided, are the first to be harassed, are the first to keep, you know, police brutality happens, are the first individuals that feel any type of impact. The question I ask you, are you doing real data? Are you door knocking about real, talking to real community members? ‘Cause they they’ll tell you what exactly is being missed out that’s not being seen, and that’s what crime is. They’ll tell you about, look, they got the drug dealers down a block. I talked to people down a block from me, and I’ll say to them, like, “Yo, man, marijuana’s gonna get legalized.” “Yo, Imma get a job right now. I’m putting my money together. How much is the license?” You know what I’m saying. “I don’t know where to get a job that, I don’t know if I got a felony.” “Aight, you can go to these reentry organizations.”
There’s a problem that happens when people who are in these nonprofits, people who are in these spaces, are not really talking to community members. You know what I’m saying. You can, the work doesn’t stop when you’re in that office and saying, “I have this behind me, so I did my job for my community.” No. It keeps going on until you get to your house, and the work doesn’t stop. So, I say to people right now, like, you gotta talk to community members. People really know what exactly resources they need to lower the spike of violence.
And let’s be really truthful. Violence should be treated as a health crisis. The Cure Violence has did excellent work. We also did a excellent work with overseas when they changed the culture of even police overseas of how they’re policing the community. They’re attacking the system from health, basically making sure they have mental health workers, making sure they’re, you know, if someone called 9-1-1, example, they’re sending in mental health workers, making sure they have resources. The Cure Violence individuals have been doing amazing work. The Credible Messengers has been doing amazing work. And these are individuals who’ve been experience of violence, of elements in different ways, as just like myself.
SMITH: One thing I wanna say real quick.
VALLAS: Please go ahead, Zaki.
SMITH: I’m sorry, yeah.
VALLAS: I was gonna say, you made such an important point before. And I just wanted to give a little plug to another episode that folks should listen to if they want a little more of the research on something you mentioned before. You said, it’s not like if we just keep throwing money at police that we’re somehow making ourselves any safer, to come back to that safety word that you guys both raised before, you guys all raised before, right? We had a whole episode actually talking about that last fall. The title of the episode is “Crime, Boy, I Don’t Know…” and had a couple of researchers on talking a little bit about that myth, right? That somehow, we’re gonna just throw a ton of money at police, and that’s gonna make us safer. We know that that is not the case. So, go check that episode out if you’re hearing that and wanting to get a little more familiar with some of that research. But Zaki, please go ahead. And then after this, we’re gonna do a quick lightning round to close this out.
SMITH: Here’s what I understand to be real. Violence is real. We are not denying violence. And there’s this myth that individuals, especially in criminal justice, do not want people who have committed crimes to be held accountable. That is a lie. The reality is, is that we do not have an accountability system. We have a punishment system. So, while we’re talking about tough on crime, the reality is, is those who are perpetuating violence, it’s about 98 percent of those individuals who’re perpetuating violence—I would go as far as to say 100 percent of those individuals who are perpetuating violence—are also survivors of violence themselves. They are also victims of violence.
I speak from that space because I was a victim of violence, and the way to eliminate violence against myself was to perpetuate it, so it would not happen to me again. And that is a lot of the mentality of survivors of violence or crimes, is that they do not want it to happen to them again. Now, people take different approaches on how they choose to handle that, right? But the reality is, is that violence has always existed. This is nothing new. We just came from out of a pandemic. Why are we not looking at the research? In fact, the individuals who are locked down for two years. So, all of these things, the fact is we’re not saying it’s an excuse. We’re saying it is factors, and that they need to be treated accordingly, right?
And so, we also know that violence has always been the blueprint, it’s always been the blueprint to lock up Black people. Since the inception, since the alleged abolishment of slavery, the first movie was Birth of a Nation. “If we let these Negroes free, they’re going to rape and pillage and kill your women.” That’s what they put on TV. That was their movie. The same thing to justify the 1994 crime bill. Individual let out on parole. What they do? They put Willie’s whatever his name was Black man on the front of the TV. Like, these are all of the things that begin to scare and continue the fearmonger conversation.
So, as if what is happening now, everything else in reform as if the system does not need to still be reformed ‘cause violence is happening. We’re clear that the system still needs to be reformed, whether the violence is happening or not! It needs to be reformed. There are things that are unjust. One thing has nothing to do with the other. And what it is, it’s a play on the intelligence of the people. Individuals who are not necessarily following this who get their news from The Post, who get their news from Fox 5, who get their news ABC, right, who get their information, right, they rely on these things.
And so, I think the thing is like conversations like this, creating platforms like this, there has to be alternatives to what the language that is being put out there because we are being lied to. Yes, violence needs to be dealt with, without question. But I understand also why this is happening and the system that they are currently looking to put, or to continue to put, into play is not going to solve the issue. Our young people are hurting. They are dealing with trauma, unresolved trauma for real, right? And if a thing, you know, I know there’s individuals who are abolitionists. If you’re gonna put individuals in prison, there needs to be a way for there’s accountability versus punishment. You can’t throw a individual in the box with seven years, in solitary confinement for seven years. You can’t use violence and hope that it will deter violence. It just doesn’t make sense. And that’s what it is. It’s a violent system that they’re looking to put in place to deter violence. That’s what the toughness is. And it’s ridiculous. And we just need to have a real conversation about it.
VALLAS: Well, and Isabel, I’m gonna give you the last word instead of doing a quick little lightning round here because I mean, some really powerful thoughts there from Vidal and from Zaki. This feels like really the conversation of the moment. So, I’d love for you to be able to get in on this as well. And I’ll close us out with a little bit of where folks can learn more about each of your work to really give you most of the time for the last few minutes that we have. So, Isabel, over to you to weigh in, in any way that you want.
CORONADO: Again, it just, I’m so blown away being on this panel, of course, always hearing Zaki speak and now hearing Vidal speak. It’s amazing to hear just how much passion there is and just the history of where this is all leading up to. And really, I just wanna leave us off that change is great, and we need change. But what are we doing to support the people that are making these changes? We need the support. We need the opportunity. But we’re not having those opportunities. So, how are we ever gonna make those changes to see these issues through? Like I said, we need to be paying more people with lived experiences to be at the table. We need to be giving them the opportunity to even get to the table. We need to be not limiting their opportunities.
And you know, it was great to be part of the Next100, but how do we have more Next100s? How do we bring more people to this conversation, to this space? Because there’s so many more amazing voices out there, like I wanna say Kemba Smith, who I met on this journey. Even my mom, my own mom, Sariah Cooke, who’s on this journey. There’s so many amazing people out there and so many more stories there about that. I really recommend people to go out and seek those stories and seek those people out.
VALLAS: I can’t think of a better note to end on. And for folks who are interested in learning a little bit more about how you guys have each been doing this work at the Next100 and lots more of what you’ve been doing while you’ve been there, or in the case of you, Zaki and Isabel, what you guys did when you were there and what you’ve been doing since, we’ve got links in our show notes to each of your little landing pages at TheNext100.org so folks can see each of your individual work. But folks should be following you on Twitter too. We’ve got your Twitter handles in our show notes too: @ZakiTheBarber, @IAmVidalGuzman, and @GraduateIsabel, graduate or graduate Isabel. So, each of those is also in our show notes so folks can click through and give you a follow on Twitter and see more of your work as it comes out.
I’m so grateful to each of you for taking the time to talk about your work, to talk about how you come to the work, to share in a lot of very personal ways of your lived experience, which has become just such important expertise for each of you as leaders in this movement. And I’m just so incredibly excited to see where the work goes for each of you. There’s tons more we didn’t have a chance to talk about, for example, how Zaki, you’re using art in your work. You’ve got a whole murals campaign that we’ll have a link and show notes to that folks can learn more about. But I wish we had two hours instead of one. And so, what that means is I’m just gonna have to have each of you back on the show at some point to continue this conversation.
SMITH: Please do.
VALLAS: But in the meantime, just a huge thanks to each of you for your work, for your leadership, and for taking the time to come on and share it with Off-Kilter’s little fam. I’m really grateful to get to know each of you, and I’m grateful to get to be in this work with each of you. And I’m just really incredibly grateful for each of your incredible leadership at this critical moment. [theme music returns]
VALLAS: Thank you so, so much, Vallas. You rock.
CORONADO: Thank you.
SMITH: Thank you for having me.
GUZMAN: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
SMITH: No doubt. Word.
VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s show. Off-Kilter is powered by The Century Foundation and produced by We Act Radio, with a special shoutout to executive producer Troy Miller and his merry band of farm animals, and the indefatigable Abby Grimshaw. Transcripts, which help us make the show accessible, are courtesy of Cheryl Green and her fabulous feline coworker. Find us every week on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your pods. And if you like what we do here at Off-Kilter Enterprises, send us some love by hitting that subscribe button and rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts to help other folks find the pod. Thanks again for listening and see you next week.