Voter Suppression? We’ve Got An App For That

Election-Collection-Screenshots

These days it seems like there’s an app for everything. If I can map my daily jog, surely I should be able to use this new technology for a greater good. With this in mind, we set about designing an app that would use mobile technology to help prevent and document incidents of voter suppression. Southern Coalition for Social Justice has launched Election Collection, a data gathering initiative that uses a location-based mobile data collection app to document, track, and rapidly respond to voting irregularities and instances of voter suppression at polling places nationwide for the 2014 General Election.

The app’s design was guided by community geography principles and is directly informed by the array of needs communicated by litigators, organizers and researchers in attendance at the inaugural convening of the Southern Leaders for Voter Engagement in May of this year.Election Collection is a free app designed to help voting rights advocates record instances of voter suppression for use by election protection volunteers as well as voting rights litigators, social scientists, and other voting rights advocates.

This app allows users to nimbly relay the status of Election Day events in real time to both in-house legal response teams and to fellow volunteers on the ground. On Election Day, trained volunteers will be able to log in to personalized accounts and record incidents of voter suppression using its listed forms. The intuitive app is easy to navigate as it follows a simple design that should be familiar to those who have ever filled out a form on a website.

Volunteers can select from a wide range of text fields, drop-down menus, multiple-selection buttons, and photo and audio file attachments to relate a highly accurate and comprehensive account of voter suppression events.
SCSJ, in cooperation with several partner groups, is leading ongoing training sessions for teams of Election Collection volunteers to use the mobile app to gather information from voters on-site at polling locations nationwide.

Each time the app is used to record a voter contact, it will upload immediately to the Election Collection cloud database and mapping service, where it will then be relayed to or conveniently accessed by remote teams of legal monitors at different locations throughout the country. From there, attorneys can effectively respond to voter problems as they arise using the desktop interface in either a map or spreadsheet view. Polling place monitors can similarly view an up-to-the-minute map of recorded incident reports on their smartphones using the mobile app.

The Election Collection app was designed by a community-based activist and researcher in collaboration with organizers, policy analysts, litigators, IT entrepreneurs, and mobile GIS industry specialists. These participatory and multidisciplinary roots account for its characteristic flexibility in form and function. The app is intended to record not only general data that national voting rights advocates, researchers and litigators might desire, but also such information that voting rights advocates at the state and local levels have identified as being critically important to protecting voting rights in their respective areas of operation.

Generally, the app collects data in several categories: voter information, wait time, ability to vote (regular ballot, provisional ballot, no ballot), types of voter problems encountered (voter registration problems, identification problems, etc…), witness information, and media attachment or documentation. It is also configured to support tailored forms to gather data related to state- or locally- specific policies or practices that impede a voter’s access to the ballot.

Election Day collection is designed for two audiences: (1) volunteers in the field, who will have simple interfaces that work across platform and device; (2) back-end users (litigation, policy, research), where immediate voter problems are flagged and routed in real time to attorneys.

Individuals or organizations interested in downloading the app and participating in Election Collection, please contact Sarah Moncelle sarah@scsj.org. Not able to use the app on election day but still want to help? Learn more about the project here.

[vimeo]http://vimeo.com/105528834[/vimeo]

Ban the Box: A Second Chance for People with Criminal Convictions

People with a criminal conviction know the drill when it comes to employment. When filling out a job application, there is that question again: Have YOU Ever Been Convicted of a Crime? What do you do? Check it and you will never hear back from the employer, or leave it blank in hopes no one will find out. If you are one of the 92 million Americans with an arrest or criminal record, you run the risk of losing that job down the line when a background check is conducted.

All of Us or None
All of Us or None

The Ban the Box movement, started in California in 2004 by our friends at All of Us or None, seeks to address this issue by banning the criminal history question on job applications. Now over 45 cities and counties across the country and a handful of states ban the box on their employment applications. SCSJ has contributed to successful Ban the Box campaigns throughout North Carolina in both Durham County and the City of Durham, Cumberland County, Carrboro, and the Town of Spring Lake.

We are actively working on initiatives in other counties such as Nash, Edgecombe, Scotland, Hoke, Robeson, Richmond, and Wilson.  Also, we created the  Ban the Box initiative guide  as a tool communities can use to start a Ban the Box movement in their communities.

The latest development in the movement seeks to ban the box on the applications of private employers. For example, Minnesota is one of the latest states to do so, with a “private employer ban the box” law that went into effect January 1st. Kevin Lindsey, Minnesota Commissioner of Human Rights, said “This is a significant piece of legislation. This law will offer the vast majority of individuals with a non-violent criminal record a second chance in gaining employment opportunities that will help better their lives.” Some private employers, such as Target, have taken the initiative themselves to remove the box on their applications. Additionally, Target is Banning the Box in all of its stores throughout the U.S.

All of Us or None is now spearheading a Fair Chance Pledge that asks nonprofits and social justice organizations to commit to hiring people with past convictions. Here at SCSJ, we have two staff members who were formerly incarcerated.

We want to hear from you! We would like to hear stories of people who have benefited from the Ban the Box movement and from nonprofits who have hired people with a criminal record. Write to us at info@southerncoalition.org and we will share you success stories with the wider community!

Community Organizes to Stop Racial Profiling by the Durham Police Department

In response to the community activist group Fostering Alternative Enforcement Action (FADE) ongoing efforts to expose troubling reports of racial disparities and bias by the Durham Police Department, Mayor Bell convened the Human Relations Commission on Tuesday October 1, 2013 to hear from the community.

As the meeting commenced, there was a palpable sense of urgency and somberness among the packed audience. In a orderly and quiet manner, a steady stream of community members, eighteen in all, came before the Commission to speak. They were an impressive cross-section of Durham—old and young, black and white, the primly and casually dressed, all united by a desire to make the community they love work better for all people.

With three minutes to address the 15-member Commission, speeches ranged from those highlighting SCSJ’s recent Durham PD Racial Profiling data to emotional pleas regarding the perilous state of young black men in Durham. One white pastor talked of “two Durhams”, one where he was able to do drugs freely as a Duke undergrad and another where a black neighbor was unable to get police to respond in a timely matter to a missing child report.

When he called on her behalf, the police promptly responded. This combination of data and personal stories of ill treatment at the hands of law enforcement was a potent mix. While Commissioners asked no questions and made no comments, it is hard to imagine they could have sat through the testimony and not been deeply moved and alarmed. At one point, one speaker addressed the Commissioners directly, rhetorically stating that all of the African American members knew what he was talking about, that they had either experienced police mistreatment because of their skin color or knew someone that had.

As the meeting came to a close, the Chair of the Commission informed the audience that members would now take time to review written and oral testimony and data reports, conducting further research as needed. Ultimately, the Chair said, the Commission would make recommendations to City Council regarding the issues raised at the hearing. When it become apparent that there would be no further comment from Commissioners, an audience member haltingly shouted out, “Will we know what recommendations you make?” The Chair responded formally and somewhat unconvincingly, “You will know.”

Want to get involved? You can visit the FADE Facebook page to learn more and attend the group’s next meeting. You can also email shoshannahsayers@southerncoalition.org to join SCSJ’s Criminal Justice Reform Initiative email list and receive regular updates.

What is Thunderclap and How can It Help Grassroots Organizing?

by Madeline Anderson, SCSJ Communications Intern

Thunderclap logoThunderclap is a free crowd-speaking platform that allows a message to be seen by a multitude of people on a variety of different social media sites at the same time. The purpose is to help maximize the chance of your message going viral by coordinating a multi-media strike alongside your loyal supporters. Thunderclap sends a message to each supporter’s preferred social media outlet such as Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr which automatically posts your message on their page at the same time. This technique could possibly expand your message and reach to thousands and even hundreds of thousands people at the same time creating a viral message.

So, how exactly does it work? In order to “thunderclap” a message, select a mission/message that you wish to broadcast widely over social media. Create a catchy tag line, add an image that illustrates your goal, and insert this information into the Thunderclap website. To avoid spammers, the message will go through an online approval process. For a message to go into effective “thunderclap state,” you must get a certain number of supporters to participate by a certain date which is set by you, the organizer. The default setting is 100 supporters within a week.  However, you may adjust the time and the number of supporters to best fit your needs.  The more supporters you have the greater the social media reach of your message.

When you create your Thunderclap, you share it via any social media sites which can include Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Personal webpage, Tumblr or by e-mail in order to get your supporters to participate. When you have the amount of support you need, the Thunderclap message will be sent out on the date and time you specified. For example, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice set up a Thunderclap to remind North Carolinians to register to vote by the October 11, 2013 deadline, and we are seeking 100 supporters. When we reach this number, Thunderclap will arrange for our reminder message to be posted to the social media pages of each supporter at the same time on the same day. This will increase our chances of creating awareness on this important matter.

What about the supporters? What are they signing up for and what are their options? Supporters are allowing Thunderclap to share this one message on their behalf.  It will post on their feed ONCE at the time/date they agree to, and it will not be sent out as spam (i.e. a message sent to all their friends). Facebook and Twitter only store the information through a secure connection to spread this message so there is no personal information shared (i.e. passwords). Supporters are also able to opt out of the project at any time if they change their minds.

Thunderclap and grassroots campaigning In terms of increasing the scope of your grassroots message, this tool is phenomenal. IF you were to get 250 supporters for your Thunderclap message, the total social media reach could be well into the millions. The goal is to hone a strong, simple message and make it viral. Given the amount of media shared every day, trying to get a message noticed can seem daunting. With a Thunderclap coordinating a multitude of voices discussing your message at the same time, your message will be mass pushed to the forefront of all of your supporters’ feeds. Want to give it a try? Check out SCSJ’s Thunderclap – and please support it!

Watch the Thunderclap how-to video:

http://youtu.be/vsKf587KJO8

Cory Booker Runs for Senate on Criminal Justice Reform Platform

By Meredith McMonigle, Macro Social Work Intern, SJSC

UrbanJusticeEvent2013-2In August 2013, Cory Booker, candidate for the United States Senate from New Jersey and the presumptive winner in a state that has not elected a Republican to the Senate in decades, made the bold announcement to run on a criminal justice reform platform. In an obvious signal that he is spending his considerable political capital on what up to now has been a losing issue, Booker released a 16-page document outlining his plan which is a laundry list of policy recommendations hitting on every phase of the justice continuum.

As mayor of Newark, he made reforming the justice system a priority by creating the Office of Reentry at City Hall which is one of a few in the country. Partnering with the conservative Manhattan Institute, the program works with hundreds of returning inmates each year to find employment. Community partnerships allow the office to offer the wrap around services needed for successful reentry such as housing and legal services to circumvent  the collateral consequences of having a criminal record.

Booker pulls no stops in the report, and he sounds off on all the familiar complaints on both the left and the right about our broken system. On efficiency he states:

“We waste massive amounts of money on strategies that make our communities less, not more, safe. “ On the impact of mass incarceration on families and communities—“Not only do they lose their incarcerated parent’s income and other direct support, but innocent children who have one or both of their parents in prison also suffer trauma, social stigma, and destruction of their familial relationships.” And on racial disparities—“Today, 1 in every 15 black males is in prison or jail, compared to 1 in 106 white males.”

Under six broad categories including modernizing incarceration and investing in re-reentry, Booker offers the kinds of solutions we at SCSJ have been advocating for years. Through our work on the Ban the Box campaign in Durham, we have reduced the collateral consequences Booker highlights in his report. Applicants for county jobs in Durham will no longer confront the criminal records question at the front end of the application process. In our effort to document racial disparities locally and across the state of North Carolina, we have helped to increase the public’s understanding of the fundamental issues of fairness and justice in the system.

To anyone that cares about the fact that we as a nation house 25% of the world’s prisoners, this is exciting news. Booker brings the kind of star power and charisma not seen in politics since another African American burst onto the scene with a run for the Senate from Illinois. But the real question is, can Booker deliver? Jim Webb left the Senate recently, failing to find traction for a similar reform effort. All he was asking for was a Commission to study the issue.

Of the Republicans that blocked the bill by a 57-43 vote, Webb said:

“Their inflammatory arguments defy reasonable explanation and were contradicted by the plain language of our legislation. To suggest, for example, that the non-binding recommendations of a bipartisan commission threaten the Constitution is absurd.”

However on rare occasions, winds can change directions quickly in Washington, D.C.  Booker entered the Senate race on the heels of Attorney General Holder’s speech calling for reform of drug sentencing laws. “It’s clear,” Holder said, “that too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason. The speech was roundly praised with little blowback from the right.

According to the National Review by conservative writer Micheal Barone:

“There is something discordant about mandatory five-year terms for marijuana possession when voters in Colorado and Washington State have legalized the drug, and medical-marijuana laws elsewhere have made it easily available.

Moral issues are raised as well. We have a duty to prevent the rapes that too often occur in prisons and a duty to care about the plight of prisoners’ children.

Americans still favor capital punishment, with 63 percent support in 2012, but several states have abolished it recently and executions in most states are rare. Perhaps more important, many states, Republican as well as Democratic, are scaling back mandatory minimum sentences and releasing prisoners earlier than previously. Read Full Article

The special election to fill Senator Frank Lautenberg’s seat is on October 16, 2013. We will find out soon enough if Cory Booker can turn his political superpowers (for which he has been both mocked and praised) on the world’s biggest jailer.

Photo Courtesy of Triplets in Tribeca

What’s the Difference between Social Justice and Social Work

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice  (SCSJ) is a nonprofit dedicated to the expansion of civil rights located in Durham, North Carolina, and I have been watching their activities for a long time. They are truly on a mission to reform the criminal justice system, protect voting rights, racial profiling, and immigration reform.

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Shoshannah Sayers, the Deputy Director at SCSJ. Although mostly composed of lawyers, they also have community organizers who assist with outreach to help aid vulnerable populations. Before we get into the interview, I want to share several reasons why I believe collective collaboration with various fields is needed in order to impact today’s societal problems.

social justiceOften, I talk about my work as a social worker, but I have never really discussed what fuels my passion and desire for systematic change. When I got out of college, my first job was at a Youth Correctional facility until I was transferred to the Super Max facility which housed the worst of the worst inmates in the State of North Carolina.

It was a 24 hour lock-down supervision facility, and once I entered, I was locked-down with them too. To transfer an inmate, they had to be strapped down like Hannibal Lecter, and this is no joke. Then, I went into law enforcement as a patrol officer because I thought I could do more prevention, but this proved to be problematic for me too because of the systematic flexibility.

After I finally started working in the field in which I was educated, social work, the realization hit me that these systems are not designed to do prevention.

As a third generation teen parent, I may not have a PhD behind my name, yet I feel uniquely qualified in understanding how education, social services, law enforcement, and the criminal justice system aids oppression and retards vulnerable populations’ ability to rise above their circumstance. Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is not possible without opportunities and a support system. These systems can not be reformed from within because one must either conform, leave voluntarily, or against their will.

My hope is that macro-practice social work and organizations such as SCSJ will begin to collaborate and share resources by realizing you are working to uplift the same demographics.  Here is the Q&A with SCSJ on their mission and vision for the future. Spoiler Alert…They will have their first MSW Macro intern starting in the fall.

SWH: Tell me a bit about the mission and goals of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, when it was formed, and your role there.

SS: The Southern Coalition for Social Justice, or SCSJ, is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization founded in August 2007 in Durham, North Carolina, and I was privileged to be part of it. We were a multidisciplinary group, predominantly people of color, who believed that families and communities engaged in social justice struggles need a wide variety of tools to be successful in overcoming structural racism. We saw the need for a team of lawyers, social scientists, community organizers, and media specialists to support them in their efforts to dismantle structural racism and oppression.

Most importantly, this diverse group of experts needed to be willing to listen to what each community wanted instead of “parachuting in” and telling a community how we experts thought the problem should be addressed. SCSJ was born from this deep passion for listening to communities first and foremost. We do give advice and provide multiple options, but in the end, it is the community that decides how their issue will be addressed and our commitment is to provide the highest quality tools available to execute the community’s plan of action.

I was a board member from the organization’s founding in 2007 until early 2013, when I resigned from the board in order to pursue a staff position with SCSJ. I am currently the Deputy Director, and quite honestly it’s my dream job – I get to help people and support our mission every single day. I also get to work with some of the most dedicated, passionate social justice advocates I have ever met.

SWH: What kind of tools and research do you guys use in helping to support the cases and projects that you take on?

SS: Because our staff includes a variety of experts, we are able to bring many tools to the table. We have a policy analyst/researcher who uses GIS maps to give visible representations of inequality in the system. For example, he was able to create maps showing where marijuana arrests take place and then lay that over a map of where high concentrations of African American communities were. The result is a clear visual depiction of the practice of targeting African American neighborhoods for marijuana arrests. Being able to see this on a map is so much more powerful than reading statistics in a report.

Other tools include our legal team, which engages in social justice litigation ranging from voting rights to environmental justice to criminal justice reform. And our bilingual community organizer is able to mobilize local communities on issues from immigration reform to job opportunities for formerly incarcerated people.

SWH: Social Workers were originally the staples in the social justice movement, and now social justice advocate positions tend to be held by attorneys. In what ways have you guys engaged macro community practice social workers or would like to engage for collaboration or partnerships?

SS: This is an exciting area that we are just beginning to explore. Our first macro social work student will begin her practicum with us in the Fall 2013 semester, and we are excited about the new tools she will bring to the table. Her work will largely be around helping formerly incarcerated people organize and gain the tools they need to successfully reintegrate into society. Based on her experiences, we plan to create a plan to more widely integrate macro social work into our efforts.

SWH: What are two of the highest advocacy priorities of the coalition at this time?

SS: Right now our two highest priorities include one litigation strategy around voting rights issues and one community organizing effort around empowering formerly incarcerated people. We have been involved in redistricting litigation since 2011, where our goal is to get over 40 North Carolina voting precincts redrawn in a more fair and equitable way. In our opinion, the current redistricting plan attempts to dilute the vote of African Americans by cramming them all into a few districts and leaving their voice unheard in many other districts. We had a trial on part of this case during the week of June 10, 2013, and we hope to hear back on the success of that effort very soon.

Our second effort is around solutions to the epidemic of unnecessary drug arrests in communities of color. The general population of North Carolina is 68.5% white, 21.5% black, and 8.4% Latino, while the state’s prison population for drug-related offenses is 28.5% white, 53.2% black, and 17.6% Latino. Communities of color are obviously disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, which makes these communities more likely to face the harsh, sometimes lifelong collateral consequences triggered by a criminal conviction. Last year we supported a bill in the general assembly that would have gotten rid of criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana, replacing these with civil penalties and fines that did not involve a criminal conviction. In the current political climate, this bill died in committee.

As we regroup and wait to see what the legislature will look like in the next long session, we need to find more immediate remedies. Our first community organizing effort was a successful Ban the Box pilot in Durham, NC. Ban the Box campaigns ask local government employers to remove the check-box question, “have you ever been convicted of a crime?” from their employment applications. This gives formerly incarcerated people the chance to get a job interview where they can explain, in person, the nature of their record rather than being automatically excluded without ever getting an interview. Once we were able to pass Ban the Box in Durham, it was taken up by other communities across the state and we now have 6 municipalities participating. SCSJ continues to organize communities to expand Ban the Box.

Building on this success, our new community organizing project is to make marijuana possession a “lowest law enforcement priority.” This means that the police would be seeking out people committing more serious offenses rather than seeking out marijuana possession. We plan to use the same community organizing model (and probably work with many of the same communities) for the LLEP initiative as we have used for the Ban the Box initiative. Together, this type of community organizing can make important strides in reducing the collateral consequences of incarceration while we await a General Assembly that may be more interested in these issues.

SWH: What vision does the coalition have for the future?

SS: Our vision is simple: Communities will succeed in realizing their own goals and people will know from experience that they can make a difference on issues that matter to them. I think of it like this: once a community works with SCSJ and has a victory, they will know that THEY hold the power to make real chance. They will go forward, either with our help or on their own, to make more and more positive social change.

SWH: If readers want to follow your activities and projects, how do they find you on the web?

SS: I encourage people to visit our website at www.southerncoalition.org. We are also available on Facebook at www.facebook.com/southerncoalition and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/scsj. Readers are also invited to join our LinkedIn Group at http://www.linkedin.com/groups/Southern-Coalition-Social-Justice-5021808

Daryl spent 40 months in an Alabama Prison before getting his associate’s, bachelor’s, and law degrees. Listen to his story and plea for change:

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