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key to communities of color: what doors does that key open?

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by Lorenzo Jones and Kenyatta Thompson


Rapper and REFORM Co-founder, Meek Mill. Matt Rourke/AP


On Monday, March 18th, Quinnipiac University held a Criminal Justice Reform Summit, and hosted attendees Governor Ned Lamont, TV Commentator and CEO of the REFORM Alliance, Van Jones, some local advocates, and elected officials, to discuss criminal justice reform. Following the meeting, the Governor tweeted, “these are important conversations to have and we want everyone at the table so that we can hear all perspectives in this critical conversation.”

Based on news reports, it appears that the most tangible outcome of the meeting was state leaders giving Van Jones and REFORM co-founder Meek Mill “Keys to Communities of Color”, in recognition for their work on criminal justice reform outside of Connecticut. Following the meeting, Governor Lamont declared March 19th as “Meek Mill Day”, creating a day to uplift the issues of criminal justice reform in Connecticut that is named after someone from Pennsylvania.

To be clear, it’s great that Meek Mill is using his star power to tell the story of his own awful experience with the criminal justice system, and to bring awareness about the urgent need for reform. That’s good and we commend Meek for it. But what does that have to do with Connecticut? We’re not aware of any work either Meek Mill or Van Jones have done in Connecticut to end mass incarceration. We can think of many people working in Connecticut who deserve recognition for their work to end mass incarceration: people like Barbara Fair, a community leader in New Haven; Keshanna Staten, an activist mom in Waterbury; Tamara K. Lanier, the State NAACP Criminal Justice Chair; Katal member Cherell, who’s fighting to change policies and procedures for halfway houses given the challenges she and her son experienced; and many, many more. There are numerous, respected community organizers, activists, and advocates throughout our state who have worked for years to build this movement to make Connecticut a national leader in criminal justice reform.  


REFORM CEO, Van Jones. Galit Rodan/The Canadian Press


Our state leaders, enamored with the flash of celebrity, are now giving out Keys to Communities of Color. An important question to ask is: What do these keys open?

  • Do these keys open the doors to employment and entrepreneurship in communities of color? Connecticut is one of the wealthiest states in the country, yet formerly incarcerated people in the state, including some of our members, can barely earn a living wage given the barriers to employment they face. Even more, many formerly incarcerated people are barred from accessing certain grants to start their own businesses.
  • Do these keys open the doors to educational opportunities in communities of color? Many Connecticut residents, including some of our members, have been excluded from higher education because they have a criminal record. The Connecticut State University System has barred people from entering their institutions based on their record as recent as last year.
  • Do these keys open doors to strengthen the family reunification process that is central to reentry in communities of color? Incarcerated parents in Connecticut have a difficult time raising their children from behind the wall. Families impacted by incarceration, including some of our members, need better support to keep families together and whole. We need a comprehensive reentry strategy that seeks to strengthen the bonds between incarcerated parents, their children, and their families that are impacted.
  • Do these keys open the doors to affordable healthcare and mental healthcare in communities of color? Despite being the insurance capital of the country, communities of color face extreme disparities in healthcare access and outcomes. Men and boys of color in Connecticut are more likely to die early from preventable diseases, and less likely to have health insurance, than their white counterparts. Babies born to Black women in Connecticut are nearly twice as likely to die in the first year than are babies born to white women. And it’s not just communities of color that are impacted: just last year, Sally Grossman had to switch to a HUSKY plan — Medicaid — after the insurance from her employer didn’t cover maternity care.
  • Do these keys open doors to housing for communities of color? Affordable housing continues to be a major barrier in Connecticut. There is a persistent disparity in affordable housing options available between communities of color and whites in Connecticut. Housing segregation continues to burden communities in cities like New Haven. Homelessness remains a tough challenge in our state as well.
  • Do these keys open doors to reparations for communities of color? Communities of color in Connecticut have been devastated by the war on drugs and mass incarceration. As Michelle Alexander has noted, these policies are extensions of the legacy of slavery in our country. Will these keys help us address the question of reparations? Will, for instance, these keys open doors for marijuana legalization to be grounded in reparative justice?

It is unlikely that the keys provided by state leaders to Jones and Meek will open any of these doors, and even if they did, neither of these stars lives or works in Connecticut. Fortunately, Connecticut has many state based and local leaders and organizations that are doing the work right now to open such doors, though they are often doing this work without recognition, fanfare, or support.                                                        

Based on the media reports, Monday’s meeting apparently lacked both robust representation of community members or any tangible action steps, with timelines, for state leaders to take to advance reforms in our state. Hosting television personalities and musicians and giving them “Keys to Communities of Color” might make for nice headlines, but people in our state have lost family, freedom, and lives due to draconian drug laws, mass incarceration, and knee jerk reactions that become Executive Orders. Our members and communities are tired of the nice headlines; we demand action to advance the cause of freedom and justice in our state. Let’s get serious.

We call upon Governor Lamont and leaders of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus to meet with directly impacted community members and local and state based organizations from throughout the state for a real, action-oriented discussion about the agenda that our state urgently needs to end mass incarceration. And for this meeting, you don’t need to bring Keys to Communities of Color — we don’t need keys to our own communities, and we’re not looking for selfies with celebrities. We want justice. We want freedom.



Lorenzo Jones, Co-founder and Co-Executive Director; Kenyatta Thompson, Community Organizer for the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice, based in Hartford, Connecticut. Subscribe to our weekly newsletter for updates about our work to end mass incarceration across Connecticut and New York State.

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