“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This quote, frequently referred to as an African proverb, sums up the importance of joining forces with like-minded organizations in the fight for criminal legal system reform. It’s crucial to find the right partners in this fight, partners who will stand together as they face seemingly-insurmountable barriers and stand together through thick and thin. And that’s exactly what Out For Justice and Common Cause Maryland have found in each other.
Brought Together By Determination
Common Cause Maryland is a nonpartisan, grassroots organization working to build a reflective and representative democracy that works for all Marylanders regardless of race, class, gender, and more. The Executive Director of Common Cause Maryland (CCMD), Joanne Antoine, is proud of the organization’s commitment to ensuring that the voting process is accessible and equitable for all, particularly for Black and brown folks. As Executive Director, Joanne is responsible for creating and implementing CCMD’s policy campaigns and building the organization’s capacity.
Common Cause Maryland and Out For Justice (OFJ) initially began working together out of a desire to restore voting rights for returning citizens. In 2019, CCMD and OFJ joined like-minded grassroots organizations to form the Expand the Ballot, Expand the Vote Coalition to ensure that justice-impacted Marylanders were able to exercise their right to vote. Despite their voting rights being restored in 2015, in the years following, many individuals with felony records were unaware they could vote. Furthermore, tens of thousands of Marylanders who were incarcerated, held in local jails, and on probation did not have access to the ballot.
Determined to right this wrong, Joanne and Nicole Hanson-Mundell, Executive Director of Out For Justice, became familiar faces to legislators in Annapolis as they advocated for policies to hold those responsible for implementing the law accountable. CCMD, OFJ, and their partners advised the State Board of Elections about jail and prison protocols for voting, assisted in creating and distributing voting packets behind the walls, and developed requirements for the State Board of Elections to provide voting data. This is the side of advocacy that most people don’t see, the boots-on-the-ground efforts that occur outside the formalities of the legislative process. “There’s a lot of work that goes into this that folks don’t realize. So much has happened that wouldn’t have happened without Out For Justice and other partners…we’re spending a great deal of time advocating and building relationships with decision-makers,” Joanne explains.
Beyond a Strategic Partnership
CCMD and OFJ are strategic about the roles they play in this work. Their partnership can be thought of as a puzzle: each organization contributes uniquely-shaped pieces that fit seamlessly together. CCMD provides extensive working knowledge on voting, elections, ethics, and democracy issues, but as Joanne says, “We (Common Cause Maryland) are the nuts and bolts of election policy, but I don’t know what it’s like to be incarcerated.” That’s where Out For Justice comes in, offering expertise based on the lived experience of justice-impacted communities that make up a large majority of the OFJ member-base. Their dedication and commitment paid off when the Value My Vote bill, the most comprehensive voting reform bill in decades, was passed during the 2021 Maryland General Assembly.
As Black women fighting to reform a system specifically designed to oppress them, Joanne and Nicole’s relationship has blossomed in ways that go far deeper than a means to an end. They are one another’s support system throughout an arduous journey that requires tremendous time, energy, and emotional labor. Their close relationship has gotten them through many challenges as they represent marginalized, stigmatized communities while directly confronting people in power who frequently seek to intimidate them. “We’ve had to lean on each other. Nicole was one of the first folks to celebrate me getting this position…In addition to the great work we’ve been able to do, we’ve been able to find support with each other,” Joanne says.
Although 2023 is not an election year, there’s still plenty of work to be done. Registering people to vote is a year-round effort. Additionally, the organizations are debriefing to learn lessons from past work and strategize for the next legislative session. Because the Value My Vote Act only requires state-run correctional facilities to provide voting access to incarcerated individuals, Joanne is interested in engaging local governments to see how it can be accomplished at a local level. No matter what advocates of reforming Maryland’s criminal legal system take on next, one thing is for sure: Common Cause Maryland and Out For Justice will be at the forefront.