The Vibrations of Trauma
During Kevin Reese’s 14 years of incarceration, he began addressing the injustices that permeate the criminal legal system. Today, he continues that work as the Executive Director of Until We Are All Free. Chanda connected with Kevin to talk about his dedication to restorative justice, reimagining the prison system, and the importance of healing from unchecked and generational trauma.
Souphak Kienitz 00:04
You’re listening to Conversations with Chanda, a Minneapolis Foundation podcast that unpacks the communities’ grittiest, most vexing problems hosted by Chanda Smith Baker. Today’s guest is the brilliant Kevin Reese who after 14 years of being incarcerated, is now addressing the injustices that permeate the criminal legal system today. Kevin is the executive director of Until We Are All Free. Chanda connected with Kevin to talk about his dedication to restorative justice, reimagining the prison system, and the importance of healing from unchecked and generational trauma.
Kevin Reese 00:50
When I was 18 years old, I was involved in a robbery and doing this robbery someone lost their life. So I went to prison for second degree felony murder. I got 22 years I spent 14 and a half years inside a Minnesota Correctional Facilities for what took place on that December afternoon, in 2004. I was sitting in solitary confinement and it was starting to like click that I had stuff to say, I had places I wanted to go, I actually wanted to be in college. I was sitting there thinking with it where you want to be man, I wanted to have a chance to go to college. I wanted to write poetry. I wanted to be an artists, but you know, before I was afraid to say on these things to say I actually want to be a student, you all. Actually I write poems, Ma’am, like I’m from North Minneapolis, right? It’s hard for me to go on the block and tell my own, hey, do you want to hear this poem, right? So it hit me, when I realized the only pathway to my future was going to be for me to fully step into who I am, it’s while I’m here, it was part of back to my self discovery. The only way I was able to pay it forward was to say, I must embody restorative justice. I must embody, something was taken from community because of my actions, and the only way that I can even give a shot at trying to pay it forward, is to dedicate my life to humanity to other humans, and understanding that I am one that’s a part of a collective. So it’s at the root of all the things that I do.
Chanda Smith Baker 02:23
You know, in our school system, and I’m reflecting on my mom to, who I lost in the last, you know, year and a half or so, and my mom would say, to me, like, no, I would have these moments where I would feel like I was extra smart, and she’d be like, you’re not extra smart. There’s extra smart people everywhere. They just don’t have what you have. There’s brilliant people in prison that weren’t nurtured in school, right? Like, don’t think the circumstances make someone not smart. And so I think a lot about our schools, and particularly our young men, right, and so if you had, sort, of this whisper in your head, and you wanted to do poetry, and you were, sort of, in one part of your brain discovering, or thinking that you wanted to discover part of that leadership, do you think it was effectively nurtured in school? And if not, what do you think might have assisted you?
Kevin Reese 03:25
Yeah, for sure, it wasn’t effectively nurtured in school, and I think one of the things that would have assisted me if it would have made sense into my real life, so when you’re poor, and you’re a poor child, and you come from generational trauma, and generational poverty, when you go to school, you’re going to a place where they don’t speak the same language that the people in your house speak, right? So I was in school, and they was speaking the language that I couldn’t translate towards my future. I couldn’t understand how this thing, this information that they’re telling me to memorize was going to help me get out of poverty. So there was no space for what I was learning, for me to feel like I could take this information and transfer it into my real life and make it make sense for Kevin. So if it would have been more of a holistic approach to my education, versus remember this information, two plus two is what four, okay, now you’re smart. I didn’t necessarily receive education like that, it didn’t make me feel smart. If I could just remember what you’re telling me to say, it would have been a more holistic approach and saying, Hey, Kevin, what do you like? Hey, Kevin, what are you good at? Hey, Kevin, what is the thing that you would come here to do every day that gives you joy, that’s fun. You know, school is this strict. You have this class, this class, this class, the teachers want to teach this, want to teach that, want to teach that and none of those things was translating to my real life, so I felt detached from it.
Chanda Smith Baker 04:48
And then as you were on this road of sort of discovery and transformation, perhaps in your life did you, it seems like that was being in jail, being in prison perhaps was a place where you were able to live more fully into that, like, were you encountering people that were nurturing that in prison or what? What happened there?
Kevin Reese 05:14
No, actually, yes, it was, you know, I went to prison when I was 18 years old. So you know, I study, showed a human brain going to fully develop, you know, 25, 26 years old. So around that time when I was 25, 26 years old, I looked up and I was in this place, and this place was called prison. So now my brain was a sponge. Now I was looking for all pro humanity, my body felt like it needed to be nurtured. I felt the way. It was a bunch of known, unknowns, and I didn’t know what to do with what I felt. Only thing that I could do first was watch and observe. There were some of the best human beings I’ve ever met in my life, it’s unfortunately incarcerated inside prisons and jails across this country, particularly here in Minnesota, some that I know, and I love. So in prison was the first place that people spoke to me and said, hey, Kev, actually you’re a writer, bro. They came, actually, you know what, how you are you always kind of been like that, where it was space for me to be chill, where it was, it wasn’t that I was soft, it wasn’t that I was this, the people that I knew that I grew up with, everybody will tell me it was others that will say to me, Kev, that’s how you always been. And I will say, oh, actually it is, and it was a space for me to be that way, and I was being accepted. As we were getting older, it was being accepted from my peers, and from mentors and folks, and no, just the way that you are, is grand and beautiful. So it gave me permission to continue to be myself and say, oh, my self is valued. Oh, I got more of myself, of you all like self, I got some more of you for you. I got some stuff that I’ve been burying, I have a place to put it. So in prison was the first place that I had a place to practice stepping into my own and being myself and it was, I learned a lot from the people that was around me. Yes, for sure.
Chanda Smith Baker 06:57
I think we briefly talked about this, and I’ve watched a lot of TV, it’s quite amazing that I fit it in. One of the shows that I really like that’s been on television is For Life. It’s about a guy who’s in prison for life who passed the bar exam, and so now he’s an attorney, but he was in prison, and he was providing counsel to folks. And I think that show for me sort of illustrated all the different communities that exist, and how they show up for each other inside. So you know, understanding that people have done some pretty bad things to get there, but once you’re in there and understanding that bad things don’t happen, and they’re right, so I don’t want to gloss over any of those things. But within those institutions, there’s still a community of people that are nurturing each other and supporting each other. Can you just shed a little bit of light on that, because my version is a TV version, right?
Kevin Reese 07:56
No, absolutely. I learned so much about manhood. Being inside of prison. It’s nothing like seeing someone in prison with life, right? When I’m a 21, 20 year old kid, here’s this other black man, he has life, and I used to see that he’ll be on the phone all the time. I used to think he’d been here like 20, 30 years, who the heck is he talking to, right? And then going to visit him, you see family members come and visit folks who have life and they’ve already been here 20 something years, and to see their family coming up there to still see them and nurture them, in that way. It shed the light on humanity on this part of humanity that I was never exposed to because it was like everything says that this human being is disposable. But there’s so many people around and still loving this human being. What is this human being doing, right? So I had to like, talk to somebody man and say, hey, how do you got life and you still got your family, your friends, and you’re still walking around with hope? You, encouraging me? Where is this coming from? And it wasn’t just one person, it was a culture of that. It was so many men who had took the same role that I’ve taken now. We’ve completely taken accountability for the actions that took that led them there. And then right after that, getting back up off the ground and saying, okay, this is my station in life, but that don’t mean that I can’t actually impact the world from right where I’m at, that can start by Hey, being nice to the 19 year old kid that just wants to know who clearly don’t know what’s going on. It means making sure no one starve inside a prison. No one starves. We will literally feed each other white person, black person, it don’t matter. When I was in prison and that he was hungry, and I had food I’m gonna give you food. If you didn’t have soap to wash up with, someone will give you soap. You didn’t have deodorant, someone will give you deodorant. It was just the culture there. The culture of taking care of each other. Someone would give a stranger something and this one across color lines. It went across all of that and it was just like culture. This is the right thing to do. Someone comes in they don’t have nothing. You got something you make sure that they’re okay. Before I went to prison, I was thinking it was going to be the complete opposite. But when I was learning the ropes and how to swim inside of prison, that was the ropes, the ropes was one of mutual respect, one of community, one that each one of us must do what we can to try to take care of each other. And my actions impact what’s happening with you, and what’s happening with you, now. This is what’s not taking place across the board, now. Of course, we got the dark corners of all places that exist, but for the most part of culture inside of prison was, of that and I was astonished by being there and saying, oh, as I was stepping into my own, these were the things that was required of you, right to be a steward, and to also be a part of the greater good. We were all in a part of a chain, and also seeing fathers in prison, sending money to their families. It was were like people, we were imprisoning with the culture inside of Stillwater, like folks, children’s birthday will come by, people will save up their 25 cent, our paychecks, right for a period of time, I know my child’s birthday in three months. So for the next three months, I’m going to save every 25 cent, and I’m going to send it to my child for a birthday. I actually do this every year, I’ve seen so many people, and so it set the tone that Oh, while I’m in prison, I too, got a son. I had a son, like always set the tone, saying, okay, I’m incarcerated, but that doesn’t mean that I still can’t contribute to my family, contribute to raising my son. The culture inside of prison was you better call your family, you better call yourself and people were asking when the last time you talk to your son, is why I got it from where I spent 14 and a half years in prison, and probably 95% of those days, I talked to my son. I talked to him every day, while I was in prison, and I got that from watching others, it was the culture inside.
Chanda Smith Baker 11:49
You brought up the 25 cent pay. What is the financial system inside of prison, right? Because I hear a lot about the fines and the fees and the phone calls and there’s video visits maybe or not video visits? Like, do you have a, do you have a handle on what that is?
Kevin Reese 12:07
Yeah, for sure. The financials is when you’re poor, right? You’re going to make 25 cents an hour, at some jobs up to 50 cent, and if you if you don’t owe any fines or fees, the state will take 10% of every dollar that is sent to you. If your family send you $100 to take the state will take 9, I mean 10, when you get the money, it’s only $90. And if you owe fines and fees or restitution, they want to take 20% of every dollar that your family sent to you in another 5% surcharge on the back end, right? Everything costs, right? Soap costs, toothpaste costs, deodorant costs, lotion costs, all the things that you need. Of course, the chow hall is no five star restaurant at all. So you want to eat, we’re like creatures of conference. So of course, you’re gonna you want some things that help you make you feel comfortable. So you need to buy food, and the price of the food and the wages that you make does not come inside, it’s saying that you’re going to need family members to send you money, in order for you to be able to live comfortably inside of here. You can’t live comfortably inside of there from the wages that you make in prison. And then also, a lot of the programs that’s inside it is very exploitive. You are contracting with large corporations, the state is contracting the large courts of corporations for your labor. You will see on your paycheck where the state is getting paid $9 an hour or so, for your labor, and you are making 50 cents, and they will put it on your on your pay stub. You will see that your check was really like 400 something dollars, right? You got 80 and the rest went to the state and this you’ve been in the warehouse slaving overnight for the last two weeks, right? And this was considered a good job inside a prison, and this was a good job. The economic system inside of prison is one of exploitation. I feel that prison is like kidnapping and ransom. It’s the way it feels. It feels like they take your body, not at your will. No one, you know, signs up, they take your body against your will, and then they tell you if you want to talk to your family got to pay. If you want to eat, you gotta pay. So they’re holding your body for ransom, and that’s the way it feels inside of it.
Chanda Smith Baker 14:19
And for the people that say, well, there’s things that you could do to avoid being in there. Do you think that that’s a legitimate response?
Kevin Reese 14:29
It has context, both things can be true, right? Where, yes, that’s absolutely true. But the response to the system can also be wrong. What I did to do with someone there to get in prison can be wrong, very much. And then the system’s response to that wrong also is wrong. So I will tell those people that by saying, yes, that could very well be true, but do we want to live in a world where we have an actual restorative model, and someone did something wrong and then we want to send them to abusers, who is going to abuse and exploit them and get sweat 90%, over 90% of these people will be coming back into our community. So yes, both things are true, the individual has to take accountability for their actions and what landed them there, and then the system who claims to want the greater good and the benefit of the community and public safety, they also have to be held accountable for the way that they treat human beings and the conditions that they’re having them live in and transition back out into.
Chanda Smith Baker 15:24
For the phone calls in for you staying in touch, that 95% of the time, with your son does that also cost?
Kevin Reese 15:34
Every penny, over the years the price fluctuated. In some of the prisons, the state of Minnesota actually has some of the lower phone rates, though, across the country. In some of the prisons, you pay up to 81 cent for a 15 minute phone call. At one point it was 37 cents, and we did a bunch of organizing around the prison phone cap, and then the federal FCC changed it. And actually it lowered in other states, but in Minnesota, it actually rose right. So we were actually in that actively organizing. And we was like, hey, when they’re going to put a cap on the phone prices, and then when they get the numbers and it came back from Minnesota actually bad news for you guys, your all phone calls are going up. But yes, a phone call, you can’t make a free phone call unless you call collect and it’s gonna, your family gonna have to pay for that, too.
Chanda Smith Baker 16:26
So you were an organizer inside of prison?
Kevin Reese 16:29
Chanda Smith Baker 16:30
How’d that work out for you?
Kevin Reese 16:32
I’m here, it was out of necessity. It was a day where it was like, not only am I here, with so many of my friends that I went to school with, we are here. And we’re sitting here joking about some of our childhood memories, how we play Sega Genesis at each other’s houses. And remember that day at school, remember that one time at the park. And one day just came, I was just overwhelmed with grief and sadness, we were all in our mid 20s. A lot of us still had years and years ago, I was overwhelmed with grief and sadness. And it was like, we need to create a place in a space to discuss what got us here. What’s keeping us here? And what is it that we need to do to go home and not only go home, but to be assets and pillars back in our community. So in the spirit of that I created a space inside prison where we can just come and we can build with each other. Because we all felt like we had a future though we were all talking about this future that we were looking forward to. But we didn’t know the pathway to get there. Right? How are we going to get to this future of like peace and prosperity, when all of these barriers is going to be in front of us. So while in prison, I organized and I did this work, a lot of the times it was contrary to the actual rules of prison because prison says you can’t gather with more than six people, and want to talk, right? And it came to a real revolutionary moment when I had to say listen you all, I’ve been held accountable for doing wrong in my life, and they didn’t have enough handcuffs or mace or correctional officers to make me stop gathering with my brothers once a week and have these conversations about what got us here, what’s keeping us here and what we need to do to get out and to be able to boom, and so are for sale. So it worked out really well for a lot of us because it was like this place was so many of us was fair. We used to tell each other we love each other. At the end of every group, we would go around and look each other in the eye and say I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. And it was so many brothers that will come to the group and say man, nobody never told me that they loved me before. And this was astonishing to me, because I’m like, I feel like I grew up in poverty. I came from nothing but I’m like we had love, my grandma used to tell me she loved me. My sister never used to tell me that she loved me. You have so many man like, no, I’ve never seen love express like this in this way. So it benefited us a tremendous amount. But also, the system cracked down every time I spent my days in solitary confinement inside a prison for organizing. They were seeing that I was enterprising, and inside of prison, it’s against their policies. So, the brothers seeing me walked away in handcuffs on many a day for doing this thing that we were doing.
Chanda Smith Baker 19:19
I don’t even know what to ask here, because that’s just It’s troublesome. The things that I have heard that you can go to solitary for in prison have been surprising to me. I don’t know if they’re all true, right, because I’m a TV watcher. I mean, I read a lot and I was reading I can’t even remember the name of the book. But there was a journalist that pretended to be, he went and worked in a prison and chronicled it and did a book, right? So he was talking about like if certain books are read, if they’re stuck in one go to solitary, or if you’re organizing in a certain way, or if you’re talking about certain things. Is this a true reflection, here in Minnesota?
Kevin Reese 20:03
Absolutely inside of Minnesota, there’s an actual list of books that you can’t receive. None of these books is titled, kill everybody, blow up the prison, right? There are actually like revolutionary books or just like some books or poetry that they get to make this black list of books that’s not accepted into the facility. And also, the books that’s accepted into the facility is at the discretion of the actual officer that opens up the box, right? I’ve had books denied because the officer, personal opinion with it is posed a security threat to the institution, right? Particularly when we’re talking about any Afro centric books, I’ve had so many Afro centric books. They used to deny Dr. Naim Akbar books to me, right, and say that this is a security threat to the prison. So yes, it’s actually true, that they monitor the information that you can have inside of prison, and if you’re caught with certain books, you will go to solitary confinement. So yes.
Chanda Smith Baker 21:03
I remember reading that book, and several of the books that were mentioned, were there on my bookshelf?
Kevin Reese 21:10
Yeah, and I’ve seen it was a tragedy, because it was books that I’ve had, and I will order them over because I used to give my books away. And it was certain books that I will have for my collection, because you ain’t read a book until you read it twice. And that’s how I feel right? And it will be books that already got, and it would be another officer telling me all this time, we can’t get it as a security threat. So picture how that felt when I felt like it was a personal impression of me, when I knew that this was one individual’s discretion over this information that I’m saying that I want to read from my own self development. It’s a real thing.
Chanda Smith Baker 21:42
And how does education work in our prison system here? So you went in at 18, were you able to take college courses? Is that available to everyone? Or how, what is that system?
Kevin Reese 21:54
No, it was not available to everyone. It’s now it has changed. I was in prison over a decade ago, we’re back to progress, we’re making progress, so things are shifting. But in the mere early 2000s, when I first got to prison know the way that the college courses were set up, you had to have under 10 years, under five years, you couldn’t be in prison for violent crime. So there was a bunch of criteria and barriers that excluded a lot of folks from being able to actually take the college courses right? When I was, I got in, I didn’t get a GED, I got my high school diploma while I was in prison. They got trade courses where you can learn carpentry, where you can learn flooring, and drywall and things like that. One of the things that the man will hear back from other people that was released after doing those programs, which was beginning to take the path of the programs was, man, I did that in there and I thought I got a certificate with the certificate that they gave me when I got out into the workforce, they told me that it wasn’t valid, it wasn’t accredited. So folks was actually taken programming inside a prison, getting these things that they thought was trades and skills, and when they will come out into the job market, the employer will tell him, never heard of this, don’t know what this is, can’t credit you for it. So inside it will be what’s the purpose of taking these courses or taking these classes, if when I go home, this information doesn’t translate to my real life, you will have people that will still do it because they will learn how to do the thing. But they will not get the actual credit from doing it. They’ll come out into the world, and then they’ll have to do it all over again and prove themselves. So education exists inside of there, but it does not have no roots to community, and there’s it’s not a pathway from this education to actual sustainable living. That’s, it’s a huge gap between learning thing, and this thing was actually helped with your rehabilitation. They’re not connected.
Chanda Smith Baker 23:48
And that is improving but it still does connected.
Kevin Reese 23:51
Yeah, it’s improved, right? Right now we have, you know, multiple college courses that’s inside of prison. I’m a part of the legal revolution in which is a project where Until We Are All Free, All Square and Mitchum Hamlin Law Clinic where we’re actually trying to create space to breathe more folks like the man from for life will be given space for some of our incarcerated scholars to be able to get their GEDs and their law degree. So this is a very revolutionary time where we are trying to push the envelope as far as we can. But some of these folks, of course, there’s barriers to them actually getting this education. Some of the folks that we’re working with actually have life. None of the programs inside of prison is still accredited, they’re still not accredited, but there’s just more community organizing and movement building where there’s more space in community for folks where directly impacted knowledge to be able to contribute to the greater good.
Chanda Smith Baker 24:44
So let’s talk about what you just laid out very quickly and like swept over that seems like a pretty powerful thing to be doing here. So you’re doing what to get GEDs for who?
Kevin Reese 24:56
And so we are all free, this project is led by our partners All Square Minneapolis, which is another organization, you know, founded and ran with directly impacted folks in my Mitchell Hamlin Law Clinic. We are part of a project that we call the legal revolution, and the legal revolution is this partnership between the DLC Michonne Hamlet, and so We Are All Free, All Square. Well, we have two incarcerated scholars right now who’s currently in law school. And we are supporting them through law school, and we want to hand over the keys to the law, back to the folks who’ve been directly impacted by there are so many people in prison that’s here for this thing that’s called the law, right? But we don’t understand the language of the law, right? The language of the law is something that was like told to us that wasn’t provided for us. When you learn the law, most of us we sit in an interrogation room, we’re sitting in the courtroom, and they’re telling us how this language is going to be ruled over our body. So our goal is to give the keys of the law back to those who’ve been impacted by the law the most, right, but we will have folks to be able to have to not continue to do post conviction. I’ve seen people inside of prison having to get post conviction lawyers right? And get post conviction lawyers and their families is going to scrounge up all of this money, take out a second mortgage on a house, do all of this stuff, get a lawyer, still doesn’t change, it still doesn’t affect the their loved one incarceration, right? When we know some of the best legal minds in the country is actually incarcerated people, and we want to give power to those legal minds, it’s too much brilliance is too much light that we have locked inside the cages. So this partnership is our way of trying to open up the doors and allow that knowledge and information that they’ve had to get because it’s their freedom that they’re fighting for. They had to learn the law because it was their only pathway to freedom, and we want to unleash a whole generation of them to dismantle the criminal justice system, and that’s what we’re building.
Chanda Smith Baker 26:58
Yeah. How was this idea born? Like, where did it come from?
Kevin Reese 27:03
It’s the brainchild of Emily Han Turner from All Square. She’s a lawyer, you know, they have All Square Law Firm that they’re building right now. She had this grand idea, how great would it be to allow people to become lawyers, while they are currently incarcerated. And Until We Are All Free looped in because one of the things that’s a part of our program, and it’s something that we call internal investment. Now internal investment is this, this this way in which community can help with rehabilitation. My story is, while I was in prison, I was working with Voices For Racial Justice, which is a local nonprofit here in Minneapolis. While in prison, I heard our former executive director vindicate on the radio, talking about the organization talking about what they do, I wrote her letter, I told her who I was, told her that I was organizing with this group of men in prison, and there was a bunch of known unknowns, and we wanted to be connected to community in any way possible. And she responded, and I spent my last six and a half years being a prison justice organizer, with voices for racial justice. A few of four staff members, my last six and a half years in prison meant I spent 80% of my phone, my time on the phone, building a community being a part of the VRJ staff. They invested in me, they sent me books, I was able to be compensated for my time, my expertise. It gave the group that we were having in prison legs, because the group was actually connected to a community organization, and I know what that did for me, right? If someone will say, Kevin, what was the pivotal point in your rehabilitation, it was community, speaking to me while I was in prison. When I still have 6, 7, 8 years left, say, hey, Kevin, actually, your valuable and actually your contribution to community is needed. Keep reading, keep building, there’s a place for you and community. I know what that did for me. So Until We Are All Free, our internal investment program is that reaching into our folks who was currently incarcerated and began to support them while they are in prison. So when they come home, they will have relationships in community, they will have resources, and I’m just one, this was just my idea of coming home and being a community organizer. There’s so much brilliance inside of prison that we need to tap into, and we can’t wait till they come home to do it. We must do it while they’re currently incarcerated. So until we are all free, that’s the role that we play with the legal revolution. We give internal investment to our legal scholars, which means we’re sending them all of the information that they need, making sure that they are able to join us for all of our meetings, connecting them to other community members, making sure that they have a one on ones. When they come home, we have a welcome home kit for them and a whole entire program set up for them. But our goal is to begin invested in our folks, while they’re currently incarcerated. We don’t want to wait till they get home to say oh, now you’re valuable. They are valuable now.
Chanda Smith Baker 29:56
So, Kevin, tell me about Until We Are All Free, you’ve been referring to it, it’s quite exciting work, but tell me, tell me what that is and how that came about.
Kevin Reese 30:05
So Until We Are All Free is the prayer that I left out the door when I left prison July 11 2019. The first place I read this was Michelle Alexander’s, The New Jim Crow. She in her book with, you know, the letter from, James Baldwin, to his nephew, out of the Fire Next Time, and he ends the book with that, you know, none of us can be free until we are all free, drop the book. I remember dropping the book and having chills. This is in like, 2012 had dropping a book and having chills. And it was something that stayed with me was imprinted in me, and I knew that Kevin would be alright, for some strange reason I knew I’m like, I’m gonna be all right, I’ll be all right, but I can’t be out right alone. So Until We Are All Free was my approach to her out of the collective organizer, that I was doing this out of prison. So when I came home in 2019, I originally established Until We Are All Free as a consulting group, because there was so many people that was reaching out to me to tell my story to do this. They say, hey, Kev, can I pick your brain? Tell me all the grandest things, you know, tell me the worst day in your life. Tell me how you made it here, all of these things, right? So I established this as a consulting group where I wanted to set precedent for the directly impacted folks who are in movement for their contribution to be valued and respected, just like anyone else at the table, just like the judges, like the lawyers, like the county attorneys, like the case managers, like everyone. We’re saying that you’re asking us these questions, because this is a problem that we didn’t create that you all know what to do. And they’re saying that we can’t do it without the contribution of these people’s expertise. And what I wanted to say is, these people will also be compensated for their expertise and their intellectual property, which means that it will give folks a pathway back to the community by saying, so my day job can be the serving community. For folks in prison, it was revolutionary, they were able to wrap their brain around it, and say, so there’s a way that I can go home and embody restorative justice. There’s a way that I can go home and embody that I understand that I need to take accountability from what I took from community, and actually, I can actually do that with my own merit? And I can actually do it with my own intellectual property and all the things that I know, and all that I can actually do that for a living? So I established it as that because that was wasn’t what was important. And then in 2020, I was out about a month before, you know, the world changed, and COVID happened. So when COVID happened, I was currently still director of criminal justice at voices for racial justice. All of our pretty plans for the next three years and stuff that we can hope to change in three years, you know, I had like a three year map vision, I had it all mapped out and being COVID happen. Then the phone calls, like the first weeks of COVID, you know how we were all scared. We didn’t know what this meant, you get it, you die. So I started getting phone calls from folks, my brothers and sisters in prison, saying, I’m afraid and I’m about to die, I don’t know what’s happening. So all of the needs that we thought that if we can change this thing in three years, it’d be granted all like, merge to now. And then the needs and community, they arose. I forgot how many people I don’t know, right? From you do 14 and a half years in prison, I forgot how many people that I know, and how many people that they were connected to. So it was a day that I woke up, and I had like over 90 something missed text messages from family and friends and people that I did time with. The thread went like this, some people were saying, hey, I have these resources, do you know where they can go? The next person was saying, hey, I need this thing. Right? So it organically just was like, I forgot how many people that I know. And I wanted to, like I left my role for Voice for Racial Justice to fully focus on Until We Are All Free, because the needs of the people like my generation was saying, we need a place to call our own, we need a place to be able to fully bloom, and so ourselves, we need a landing spot and a launching pad. So I chose to found this organization, and I want to continue to create space and capacity for those who are currently incarcerated, post incarceration to know that whatever your dreams are, whatever the light is, whatever the thing is that you do that there is space for you in community for you to do it. And I found that this organization to be a walking talking embodiment of that, in a nutshell. So we’ve been around, we’ve officially been around since April of this year of 2021, officially filed our 501 C3, we operated as an LLC for like 18 months. In April of 2021. We officially you know got our nonprofit status, and now we’re currently building our internal organization, making sure that everything internally is in place and building the resources that we need to run off for programming.
Chanda Smith Baker 34:53
And when you say we who else is involved?
Kevin Reese 34:56
My colleague, Katie Griffey, who’s actually also a justice impacted person, who was my co-executive director, and our communications director, Sariah. Sariah is a student that I met when I came home I actually someone that reached out to me when I came home. I helped her and some of her college buddies with some papers, they intern with me at Voices for Racial Justice for a while. She was a sophomore in college, when I met her, I was able to support her through her college and see her graduate and after she graduated for communications, it was like such an honor for Until We Are All Free to be able to give her her first job in movement. So I’m really proud of my team. We’re taking a marathon route, we’re going slow and building intentionally. And we have, maybe eight ambassadors in community and our ambassadors are other justice impacted folks who work at other organizations as well, and they just ambassadors Until We Are All Free and they show up in certain spaces that I can’t.
Chanda Smith Baker 35:52
Would you mind naming who those are?
Kevin Reese 35:56
Antonio Williams who works for Black Visions Collective right now, the People’s Campaign, Noel Fay, who’s currently working at Mitchell Hamlin Law Clinic, Alexander Canados, who’s working at All Square, he’s one of the fellows at All Square, Myon Burreal, who actually found it Myon Speaks, who’s out here right now. Eli Darris, who’s running for president one day, that’s my brother, I love him to death. Jiamesia Donaldson, who’s someone who’s currently in pilot, she’s still working and going to college, she’s someone who’s just as impacted was in prison since he was 16 years old. She’s a 29 year old black woman right now, we’re able to support them, and all of our ambassadors pay them. So we are able to set precedents and say, we pay you to embody, whatever the thing is that you do, you just do it proudly, boldly, until we are all free and able for us to be able to compensate them for just being in themselves and saluting me say you are out walking, talking solution, keep doing it, keep doing it. And our goal is to like, continue to create space, we need more and more and more, I don’t want to be the only one talking.
Chanda Smith Baker 37:06
Yeah, I hear that. So we have lots of work to do in terms of reforming our criminal justice system. And I know why I got involved in this, and it was through the murder of my cousin, you know, some of the reading that I was having, and what, probably 11, 12 years ago, and the more I read, the more I was just astounded by what was happening and what wasn’t happening. And we’re in a moment now you mentioned the world changing, and it changed in a very dramatic way here in Minnesota with the murder of George Floyd. All of the convergence of all the things and now we have people that are listening, or they’re listening, they’re position to listen. There’s some people that don’t like to listen, they just like to act, right? They just got to find a solution right now, and we’ve got the gamut. But from your point of view, from your experience, from your expertise, where do you think the most opportunity is for reforming this system, right now?
Kevin Reese 38:06
We got to look at the system truthfully, first, I think it must start with understanding that the actual criminal justice system itself is criminal, and for America was put on trial by its own laws, it will get the death penalty, right? So I think that we need to like fully, boldly look at the system for the hypocrisy that it is right? The next thing that we need to do is say, if the system is not working, this thing is not working for some people, right? The solution can no longer be how do we tinker? How do we reform? What we need to do is reimagine right? A lot of these systems is in place, I actually want to live in a society with laws. I don’t want to live in a lawless society, I actually believe in living in a society where laws and some type of collective understanding of humanity, how we live amongst each other. I don’t want to live in chaos. But the current way in which we do it is not pro humanity. So we need to reimagine a world that exists where we have all of the functions that we have now. Everyone wants safety. Everyone wants security. Everyone wants a chance to pursue their dreams and happenings right? But we do not know when states agencies have agents of the state who gets to come into our community and take our bodies. If the police come into community right now the current way that the police structure, if the police pull up on you right now shot and they say hey Chanda Baker today’s your day you’re under arrest. You don’t get to say no, right? You gotta, you can fight with a lawyer and tell it to the judge and you have your legal process for right now in your home, the police can come and knock on your door and saying, you are under arrest and you have it there, then you’re going either in handcuffs or body bag if they have an arrest warrant for you. And we all need to think about that. How scary that is that we live in this society where we have these agents of the state, with this as much power over our bodies. So I think one of the things that needs to change is we need to be brave enough to say, abolishing the system does not mean chaos. Abolishing the system does not mean that there’s going to be anarchy. And I don’t think if they think black people is going to run over the hills and go to all the farms and take all the cows on know what they think is going to happen. Abolishing the system actually gives space for us to create a real future. There are so many folks and community white, black, brown, yellow, all different kinds of colors, who have these natural abilities. These natural abilities of humanity, and we need to create space for them to actually be able to do it as their natural self and organic way without having to go to school with our system, in order for you to get accredited to say now I’m certified to be a community member, or now I’m certified to contribute to the greater good. I don’t think we need the system for human beings to function together. So what I will say is abolishing the system does not have to be scary, right? It does not have to be something that we are afraid of, it actually can be very beneficial to us all. It will actually create a more safer society for us all. And for the folks who have, who see the system and the police as people that protect them like I when I see the police I don’t think of you know, protecting serves me but you have other people in America who do see the police that they see the police is that first line of defense, right? Ask yourself, protect you from what, protect you from all, right. In your head, you’re like you have this image of some crazy color person who’s going to run in your house and take all your stuff. And then ask yourself, how many times have you actually experienced that in your real life? Then you will be able to know oh, this is actually prejudice. This is actually bias that I was taught that you might somewhere, right? We don’t see the police is protecting and serving, because we have all of this history, all of these examples of the time that they did it. So we have a reason to not trust the system, right? On the other side of that, there is no one coming for your wealthy white people. That’s not the plan of black people, when we say abolish the system. I didn’t go to the meeting, there’s no active weakness, and when they abolish the system, we don’t get them all. We actually just want peace and harmony and the system is actually a barrier to us right now.
Chanda Smith Baker 42:28
So speaking as a fellow Northsider, pray for us, just pray for us. Pray for us right now. But as so I’m not an abolitionist, right? I think I’m bold in how I think about things. And maybe my imagination isn’t yet big enough to see it without the structure of policing, right? What I can imagine, however, is like, you know, I have family members and that are in, you know, that are police officers. And I have others that I know that have respect for us that that show up, they show up for the kids that models that, you know, engage community in the ways that I think, we’re aiming for, in a moment where we’re seeing the levels of violence, right, because I agree with you, right? Like there is a whole system that is organized the belief system that there’s going to be the scary black man that’s going to come and get you, right? Like, I know this, right, and I also live in a community where, you know, the FBI report just came out 30% increase in violent crimes across the nation, right? I was driving home the other day, and I was like, I prayed all the way.
Kevin Reese 43:55
Down and go is tough.
Chanda Smith Baker 43:58
So I’m just saying like, if something happens to me, mine and others that live near me and beyond me, I want to know that someone is gonna show up, right? I want to know, right? And there’s a lot of things I want to know about that right? I want to know that they’re going to show up and then not turn the gun at my sons. I want to know that they’re going to show up and protect me and not assume that I’m the culprit. I want to know there’s a lot of I want to knows in the scenario, and I think the uncertainty of how they might show up is where my angst is. But in some situations I might take the gamble if I feel like my life is in danger, right? So, like, speak to me because I ain’t I’m not the abolitionists now. Like I need someone to roll up with some sirens and be ready.
Kevin Reese 44:44
Now for sure. I think it’s just we sent a perpetuating cycle. So it’s a tragedy what’s happening like really pray for North Minneapolis, my black body don’t feel safe in North Minneapolis. This has been a horrible year for my black body. My anxiety has been as worse as ever been. I don’t feel safe, every day before I go out, I pray, I look like this, I’d be smiling, I’m happy and stuff, you know, it’s like a real I’m saying thing. I’m a brother, I’m an uncle, I’m a father, came, nothing happened to me, You hit me. So it is a real thing that’s happening in our community right now. Even my black body don’t feel safe. But what’s happening is this perpetuating cycle, so what’s happening right now is similar to what happened in the 80s, with the war on drugs and the rise of mass incarceration. The uptick in violence and what happened in our community, the actual community members didn’t feel safe, no more. So we didn’t know who to turn to. So it was this huge push around, we got to lock them up. We got to get them off the streets, and this was like the rise of tough on crime, like rhetoric, and you have folks in community who was actually agreeing with it. Why? Because they living with it, who was he just shot through the house, you got three year olds getting killed, and these people’s fears was not coming out of nowhere. There were tragedies happening in community, whatever, blocks in their communities actually turned to war zones. And they didn’t know what else to turn, except say, we got to do something, we got to lock them up. But what happened was when we turned the power over to the system, they’re going to always overdo it. Today, like, oh, you don’t feel safe, start building prisons, so they started building prisons, right? And then they started over policing our community. Then they started killing our sons, killing our nephews, locking our brothers up, our fathers up for, and then once you get into the courtroom, you know, they were saying, that you did, you don’t want to say how many years they’re saying, right? And so we start seeing the golf of fathers and brothers and uncles being gone for a whole entire generation, and that’s what we have right now in Minneapolis. So in 2020, the death of George Floyd, there was this global revolution that took place here on the ground. And one of the things that community was screaming, we need less police, we need less police. So the City of Minneapolis was like, hey, okay, so we got less police, and guess what happened? None of the trauma was all of that unchecked trauma happened. Also any city right now, George Floyd, wasn’t the beginning of anything. He was just a continuation of everything that was already going on. George Floyd, we just seen what happened to brother George Floyd on tape, and it was egregious. But you may not know that the issues had already been here for decades, for generations now. So what happened in Minneapolis now is you have this whole entire generation of late teens, early 20s, year old kids who don’t know what to do. So they have literally waged war with each other in the streets of North Minneapolis, South Minneapolis, Minneapolis period. And I will say what’s going to happen is a generation of where we got up to like 70, something homicides this year, in Minneapolis, there’s like over 70 something, homicides. Now, those are real people, blessings, this pray over all of everyone who lost their life to violence and gun violence in Minneapolis this year. The children, it’s been tragedies this year. Let’s pray for all of those folks. And then you have the culprits who did it, guess what, but for the ones of those that got caught, they’re going to jail. The system is going to send them to prison away for life, right? Why they did it won’t be x don’t matter. Whatever trauma, whatever generational trauma, they came from, wherever they came from all of that trauma is unchecked, right? So they just want to go to prison with that trauma. Their families still got their trauma, their loved one doing this thing. So that energy is still vibrating in the city, even though they went to prison, the trauma was unchecked. And then on the other side of that, the phase is going to come in 2022 is going to be a year of sweeping indictments in Minneapolis for the rest of them, right? So what’s going to happen, there’s another generation that’s going to be dead and in jail, but all of the trauma is still unchecked, right? There was still no place to say, why what is this? So they just went to jail with all the trauma. The family members who lost loved ones sitting with a trauma, my family lost one of my female cousins was killed this year. She was murdered and dropped in an alley, this year in North Minneapolis. Guess what I did time with the person who did it. So when his pitcher came and actually knew this man, I actually did time with a tragedy. Guess what, he just went to prison. I knew Brown was crazy. Pardon my French, but guess what, he’s just going to get held accountable. He’s going to prison, and all of that trauma, and whatever it took for him to do that it’s unchecked. So I think we need to create a space where both things can be true that needs to be an answer, to remove people away from people that’s not having pro community and pro humanity thinking, I don’t want to be in the middle of a gunfight. I don’t want the person next door to me shooting through my house to shoot to the house, right? So folks that do such a thing. We do need to do something with them. But the thing we need to do is get to the root cause issue. And just sending them to prison is not the answer because we just want to send them to prison with all of that unchecked trauma that the next generation is going to pick up and care.
Chanda Smith Baker 50:02
As we as we wrap and then, you know, I mentioned my cousin getting killed, he was also killed by someone I went to high school with. There’s something about holding all of that I knew his family, right? I love his cousins. I respect his dad, this is what happened. I always felt like he was capable of this, and now, it happened to me, right? Like the mix of range of emotions around this because you can actually grieve for everybody. And I think that that’s what we don’t always understand the level of grief and the complexity and the relational aspects of it that’s happening in community. But what I think is what what’s profound about what you just said, is the vibration of trauma, right? And, matter of fact, he was, so my cousin was killed in 2011, and 2016, at his five year mark, for me, I needed to, I needed to rearrange my emotion and my heart around the situation. So I did a gun buyback in the city of Minneapolis, and I started Art As My Weapon that Nikki McCollum now leads, and she owns it, now she moved on with it. And the idea was, how do we take something tragic and be creative around spreading the message. And the idea really was seeded from some work that happened in New Orleans. And one of the artists in New Orleans had a piece, I think it was called the plague, and it talked about every time someone is killed, I think it was that it affects 300 people. It affects all the kids and the families that that person went to school with both the offender and the victim. It affects everyone that the parents work with, right? Everyone in the church community, everyone in the neighborhood, like you don’t think about how many people get touched by the trauma, right? It might, it might move from being really close and immediate, but it doesn’t mean you’re not thinking about it. It doesn’t mean his classmates are looking at their own life, and saying, what does this mean for me, you don’t know how it’s playing out. And so we have all these young babies in their formative years, and this environment of toxic stress, of extreme poverty, of instability, on top of what happened with George Floyd and on top of what happened across the country, with people that look like them. People that are in their age group, people that they might know people that they’re connected to on social media, we have this this plague of trauma, that is there. What we’re not doing enough, are we not acknowledging it? Like, do you think that that’s part of the solution to how we tackle a lot of things that are happening right now in community, or…
Kevin Reese 52:51
Yes, I think creating space for a place to check the trauma as kind of, as we were saying, is so important, because also such a powerful thing that 300 people are impacted by is, I can feel that right? Can’t you feel it in the city. So if we set up is over 75 homicides just the impact, I could feel it, we live in a city, I could feel that. And there needs to be space for the why, because to just send them to prison without the trauma being checked, is going to continue to vibrate. So we need to create a way in which we can hold them accountable, and we can also stop the vibrations of trauma, right? Because if we don’t, the next generation and other people is going to continue to pick them up. And I think one of the ways in which we do that the system has to give back some of its power. It has to give away like community needs to be able to decide what is an actual sentence for someone sometime, right? This was the crime that happened, and community actually be able to say, this is how we impacted us. And this is what accountability for this person looks like, what a chance for the person to actually not give when they say pay your dues, or pay your debt, not to pay your debt back to the system, but to pay your debt back to community. Currently, I know we got to wrap up and currently the way the system is designed, I can’t say sorry to my the person who lost his life, his family, it’s against the law, right? I wake up every day, I wish I could like, in my real life, pay for it back directly back to community. But the system said no, that’s against the law. So that’s what happens when the system gets involved. They were actually…
Chanda Smith Baker 54:40
Say that again, Kevin. So you can’t, you want to apologize to the family, and you’re not allowed to because it’s against the law.
Kevin Reese 54:48
It’s against the conditions of my parole I will go straight to you.
Chanda Smith Baker 54:53
If you make contact.
Kevin Reese 54:54
If I make contact with them straight to do, right? Then I can get how they set that up, right? At some point, it sounded like you I bet you it’s a great idea. Of course you want to keep them safe from people, of course. But what about me? What about the folks who actually do believe in restorative justice and rehabilitation. There is no place for them. So I think that that’s what happens when the system takes control. They take the humanity out of it, they don’t see it as humanity, they see it as checks and boxes, right? Check, so it leaves me and community with the whole every day. So anything I can do is try to pay it forward and my marriage and what I do, but I still have this hole, because I haven’t been able to say, I am sorry. It’s against the wall for me to say I am sorry. So that’s what happens with community. If you talk to some of the man who’s in prison, who maybe did a horrible thing 10 years ago, if you talk to them now, right? A lot of them may say, I’m sorry. What did I do? Right? So what do we do with that grief? Now too, right? There needs to be a place for that grief as well.
Chanda Smith Baker 56:05
and you can say I’m sorry, right? Like you can say it on this podcast, what you can’t do is say it to them in their face even the same room, that’s what’s against the law.
Kevin Reese 56:14
Yes, that’s what’s against the law. So everywhere I go, I tell the story. It’s my way and hopefully it can vibrate out in that way. I dedicated the rest of my life to this. I think about him, I think about him, often, something real to me, and I’m didn’t know a way to say it, I just had to embody it. So everything that I do in community is rooted in understanding that I took something from community, and I must pay it forward. It’s why I dedicated the rest of my life to being a part of the solution, whatever the solution is, and I am sorry, I am sorry.
Chanda Smith Baker 56:52
There is nothing else left to be said. I appreciate you, Sir, and your time, your commitment, the value and the expertise that you bring to the community. I hope that it continues to grow, that you continue to bring voice to the trauma and how that trauma moves in decision making, that how people are more than their worst day as Bryan Stevenson says, and I look forward to continuing to partner with you. Thank you for advising us on our work. Thank you.
Kevin Reese 57:23
Thank you for having this sacred space to be able to come on here today. And all the things I’ve said but I feel a little bit of healing. We’re having the space to say I’m sorry. So thank you for that. I’m all for having a sacred space where I could be praying for Minneapolis, pray for us all. I can’t say it enough. Like, please pray for us all.
Souphak Kienitz 57:45
And that’s Kevin Reese, and our host Chanda Smith Baker. To learn more about Kevin and his work, please visit his website, which is the first letters of Until We Are All Free. That is uwaaf.org. Kevin also has a poetry book called Luckily, Fish Don’t Need Raincoats. To find where you can purchase this book, please visit ConversationsWithChanda.org. And if you enjoy our podcasts and are looking for ways to become a sponsor, please contact me. You can find my information on our website, under the About section and click Our People. Thank you to Sarah Gillund, John Cuoco, Darlynn, Benjamin, and our host Chanda Smith Baker. This is Souphak Kienitz, thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you soonClose Transcript -
Kevin Reese is a Twin Cities leader who is committed to serving his community and using his platform to make effective change. His personal experience with the judicial system opened his eyes to its inadequacies and injustice. As a result, he has dedicated his life to rectifying the detrimental effects of mass incarceration. The founder and Executive Director of Until We Are All Free, Kevin also served as Director of Criminal Justice at Voices For Racial Justice for more than six years. In 2018, he was named an Intro Journals Project Winner by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP), and his poetry was published in the Hayden’s Ferry Review. His writing has also been featured in Emily Baxter’s nationally acclaimed book “We Are All Criminals.” Ultimately, his work focuses on the power of humanity, organizing, and transformative movements.
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