Why you should care
Because unconventional actors like Sarah Catherine Walker are effecting change.
It’s July 6, the first anniversary of the death of Philando Castile, and three weeks after the officer who shot him in a St. Paul suburb was acquitted of all charges. Sarah Catherine Walker stands outside the 4th Police Precinct in nearby Minneapolis — the same precinct protesters seized almost two years ago after cops killed 24-year-old Jamar Clark (police say he grabbed a gun, while witnesses claimed he was shot while handcuffed; a federal investigation concluded proper procedure had been followed).
Distant sirens can be heard, but it’s the quiet Walker notices most — no bullhorns, no voices of outrage. The community feels traumatized, powerless, Walker thinks. Or maybe she’s the one who feels that way, ever since she watched the Facebook Live video of Castile last summer. Like she hasn’t done enough, as the calendar fills with names and dates of tragedies like these.
Her sense of helplessness would surprise many, considering few have done more to confront equity issues in the Twin Cities the past few years. The only African-American lobbyist pacing the state capitol, Walker founded the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition, an advocacy group for the formerly incarcerated. Last year, she was named to the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal’s 40 Under 40, after helping usher through the largest state criminal justice reform bill in a quarter-century — it diverted some offenders to treatment and reduced recommended sentences for those charged with first-degree heroin, cocaine and meth offenses, among other things — with a unanimous, bipartisan vote. “Nothing passes unanimously these days,” notes Brian McClung, a Republican whose public relations firm hired Walker to work on criminal justice issues.
Kids of color are suffering while we refuse to work together.
Sarah Catherine Walker
This spring, she pushed passage of legislation limiting civil asset forfeiture — a process allowing police to seize, without a trial, innocent people’s property if it’s tied to a crime. And with her sights set on probation and education reforms next, politicos in the Twin Cities are watching her efforts closely. “I don’t know what the future looks like, but I expect Sarah to be in the room where it happens,” says Sara Grewing, a state judge and left-leaning former prosecutor for the city of St. Paul.
Lobbyist wasn’t her original plan, insists Walker, shaking her head over a shrimp po’boy at a local diner. Born in Zambia to a Black father and a white mother, she double-majored in African-American studies and political science at Minnesota-based Carleton College. The activist and nonprofit leader served as chief operating officer for 180 Degrees, Inc., a criminal justice nonprofit, from 2007 to 2012 before transitioning to her current job title. “I wanted to always keep my foot in the community,” she explains.
Walker is tall, 5-foot-10, and glamorous: gold earrings, manicured nails, a floor-length dress. And despite the seriousness of her work, she’s funny — laughter ripples through her body and animates her curly black hair. Between jokes, she’s startlingly honest: She admits the tattoo of the African continent on her left arm was added to cover up not one “bad boyfriend tattoo,” but two. And when I mention Betsy Hodges, she’s bluntly critical of the Minneapolis mayor, surprising for someone whose job is fostering political relationships.
A job that at times has depended on her willingness to work with Republicans on major reforms. To pass her landmark reform bill last year, Walker accepted a new “kingpin statute” making sentences worse for offenders with aggravating factors, such as being caught with firearms or transporting across state lines — a stance that drew criticism from some on the left. “We looked at the data,” Walker says, claiming the number of people affected by the kingpin statute was marginal. “Yeah, we could walk away from the table, but I try to put the people who can benefit from the policy first,” she says.
Still, her sincerity is an asset at the negotiating table, says Dan Cain, president of RS Eden, a drug treatment nonprofit, and a mentor to Walker. “She’s personable,” he says, describing her work as “a marathon, not a sprint.” It’s no small task aligning competing interests, from activists and police to politicians. And she hasn’t been helped by a libertarian right that other reform-minded states, such as Texas, Georgia and Utah, have leaned on to push criminal justice fixes through as a cost-saver (less convictions equals less costs to courts and prison systems, the argument goes). Criminal justice “was not an automatic issue” in progressive Minnesota, McClung says: Local law enforcement mounted fierce opposition.
What’s next on the docket for Walker? The 40-year-old wants to restore voting rights to felons, and then move to … the classroom. Education is where criminal justice was a decade ago, she says, with partisan teacher unions unwilling to talk with reform-minded critics, and vice versa. And she sees the problems mounting, with three-fifths of African-American students in Minnesota needing remedial education in college. Once on the remedial route, she says, they’re less likely to graduate and usually end up dropping out — adding to the wealth and opportunity gap.
Controversial solutions could include an education tax credit allowing private schools to create nonprofit foundations that could solicit private donations for scholarships, an effort she backed last year and critics called a thinly veiled voucher system. “This won’t solve the equity problem,” she admits, but she believes unconventional ideas need testing: “Kids of color are suffering while we refuse to work together.” It will be a tough lift, but a decade from now, Minnesota’s criminal justice crusader may just have tackled its education problem, too.
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