Voice of the Experienced—Advocating for criminal justice reform in the incarceration capital

Changemaker Catalyst Award recipient Katie Gervase spent her semester as a Membership Development Intern with Voice of the Experienced, a grassroots organization that centers their policy agenda around the needs of currently and formerly incarcerated individuals and their families. Katie is a rising senior who is majoring in Economics and Social Policy & Practice and minoring in Political Science and Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship.

Leonard Johnson, of the Angola Special Civics Project, speaks about the importance of this movement.

In 1987, a group of incarcerated men at the Louisiana State Penitentiary worked collectively to become legal experts after discovering that detainees who are not on probation, parole, or serving time on felony convictions were eligible to vote. They formed the Angola Special Civics Project (ASCP) to mobilize their friends, families, and neighbors as voters to advocate for the rights of currently or formerly incarcerated people. The ASCP has evolved over the past 30 years into the organization that is now called VOTE, or Voices of the Experienced.

I spent Spring 2019 interning as a membership development intern for VOTE. The work of VOTE relies heavily on input from the most directly impacted communities to shape their agenda and efforts. One way VOTE actively engages with their member base is through monthly meetings. These meetings offer an opportunity for everyone to touch base on the different projects that committees are working on, our legislative agenda for the next few months, any initiatives that VOTE is coordinating, and what our partner organizations have been working on. Meetings typically have at least one member speak about their experience with incarceration, why they are currently involved with VOTE, and how they contribute to the mission. Hearing members speak about their motivation and experiences reminds us of the significance of this work.

Monthly meetings also provide time for members to break into committees. Members can be on as many or as few committees as they would like, and can choose from the Legislative Committee, Organizing Committee, Membership Development Committee, Soles to the Polls Committee, Housing Justice Committee, and Fundraising Committee. These committees also meet at least once a month on their own to discuss the direction of the organization. Members provide staff with valuable insights, direction, and assistance in planning events, fundraisers, community outreach, and training. They are the people who can most accurately speak to the needs of the community.

We had a great turnout at our March monthly meeting at VOTE!

As a membership development intern, I specifically worked with the Housing Justice Committee on an initiative to pass the Fair Chance in Housing ordinance through City Council. This ordinance would “ban the box” on housing rental applications, meaning that landlords could not inquire about prior convictions of potential tenants. This has been an extraordinarily difficult aspect of the re-entry process. One of the most fundamental of rights for an individual to have a roof over their heads. Yet when people look for housing post-incarceration, many have a difficult time. This presence of this question on the application is a source of discrimination for an already marginalized community.

As an intern, I co-coordinated monthly Housing Justice Committee meetings to strategize and mobilize our supporters as well as monthly teach-ins to educate the community. Each teach-in was held in a different city council district so that we could engage with all neighborhoods who are impacted by this issue. To prepare, I designed flyers that detailed the event, communicated via email and phone to engage our supporters, and brainstormed strategies to involve our members. After the first teach-in, I called every person in attendance to ask how we could make the program more effective and inclusive. We received positive feedback about the agenda of the teach-ins and turnout, and constructive ideas to make the program more effective which we were able to implement for the next one.

Something  learned over the course of this internship is that there is power in numbers. When organizations advocate for the same cause or do similar work, it is important to remember that no one can achieve societal change alone. The objective is not to do something “better” than another organization, but to work collectively to make a change. VOTE is a founding member of multiple coalitions– including Louisianans for Prison Alternatives, Louisiana Prison Education Coalition, and Power Coalition– to unify efforts across the city and state and enact meaningful change.

Members of VOTE, ACLU of Louisiana, Louisianans for Prison Alternatives, and other organizations came together to lobby at the state Capitol.

One of the most empowering aspects of this internship was the opportunity to lobby at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge. Before this, I had never gone to my legislators to demand change. To stand among a sea of blue Louisianans for Prison Alternatives t-shirts as people shared their experiences and motivations for legislative reform filled me with hope and a sense of purpose. With over 100 people there, I was part of a movement much larger than myself or even VOTE. As citizens, we sometimes lose sight of our role in government. The job of our legislators is to act in our best interests and to listen to our needs. By unifying our efforts to reach a common goal, change can become a reality.

As a changemaker, it is important to have an open mind and to step out of your comfort zone in order to engage with a community whose experiences differ from your own. I seized this as an opportunity to learn more about a massive issue and the people whose lives are most directly impacted. Incarceration is not something that I, nor my immediate friends and family, have experienced. I educated myself about these issues by doing my own research, attending coalition meetings, and talking with staff and members who have direct experience with the incarceration system. I tried to take every meeting, task, and event as an opportunity to learn something new, whether about myself, the community, or this issue. My time at VOTE was an incredible learning experience.