Nurturing the Soil of Racial Justice Organizing: Our Emerging Strategic Plan

Next year, Voices for Racial Justice will be celebrating 25 years of working with our community to grow the organizing capacity to lead for change. Over those years we have adapted and shifted, and emerged differently as the work and conditions of our communities have demanded change.

This willingness and ability to adapt in response to what the community around us needs to thrive is our greatest strength as an organization. By listening, we learn. In learning, we grow.

When the Organizing Apprenticeship Project – as Voices was then known – heard from alumni of our organizing training that they did not have the tools and language to lead for racial justice, especially in a predominantly white organizing community, we adjusted. That change challenged the organization to shift itself, but what emerged was a stronger training program that better supported racial justice organizing.

At the same time, we introduced tools like the Legislative Report Card on Racial Equity that explicitly named the structural racism that is deeply embedded in our communities and highlighted the policy solutions for addressing it. We brought together community partners like the Education Equity Organizing Collaborative that pushed at the local and state levels for more consistent and impactful commitment to racial equity in schools.

Three years ago, OAP unveiled its new name: Voices for Racial Justice. We knew that shift was our name catching up with the work we were doing. But it also came at a time of changes in staff and leadership, which brought new voices to our work.

Since then, we have committed more deeply to working with community partners to claim research justice, collaboratively developing the kind of research that comes directly from communities experiencing structural and institutional oppression. Our youth organizing training has emerged, and brought a lens of culturally grounded organizing and healing justice. We have learned, led by youth, that organizing that is depleting of communities, that does not generate healing from the trauma of racism, is not truly sustainable.

And so we continue to grow. Through an eight month strategic planning process, we have come to see that the work of Voices is rooted in supporting a healthy ecosystem of racial justice organizing in Minnesota. We see the power of organizing – including the self-determination and voice that comes with naming what the community wants and working together to achieve that vision. We all want that organizing to be successful in changing the policies and conditions that support structural racism.

We also want organizing to be healing in itself. We want the soil that supports the growth of strong and healthy organizing to be free of toxins and full of the nutrients that feed our communities. Over the next five years, Voices is committed to nurturing that soil through shared learning that supports organizing, culturally grounded tools that communities truly own, and offering spaces that are generative and healing in which to develop solutions and organize.

In everything we do, we are asking ourselves: “How does this nurture the soil of racial justice organizing?”

Over the next year, we will be expanding and sharing with our network what this shift looks like for Voices. We will invite you to grow it with us. We will ask you to join us in digging in the dirt, and to love what emerges.


Remember to vote on November 7th!

Voices for Racial Justice, in partnership with Hope Community, Parks & Power, Rhymesayers Entertainment and Pollen Midwest, has produced a non-partisan voter guide called

The website features questions which require the candidates to escape their copy and past cycles, reveal a bit about who they are and what they value, and answer meaningful questions about the work they want to do if they get to city hall.

Remember to vote on November 7th!


Bridging The Gap: Why Language Matters

Bridging the Gap is biweekly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.

Using derogatory terms for incarcerated persons only makes matters worse

We are all human beings but are often not all viewed as such. If you are a “criminal,” an “inmate,” an “offender” or a “convict,” your identity has been stripped of all of its humanity.

You are now viewed as less than — less than deserving of respect, dignity, compassion and opportunities. Compacted with the intersections of race and or sex, we have created a caste system in America where those Black or Brown and incarcerated are extremely restricted in their ability to fully participate in society.

There is a movement happening across the country to remove the use of the words criminal, inmate, offender and convict from our language. By no means am I saying that the removal of these terms from our everyday life is the only solution to reshaping incarceration in America. However, there is importance in reframing language in tandem with social movements.

Many Americans have relied on the narrative that hard work is the backbone of our society. America is not only the “land of the free” but the “home of the brave” where anyone can bring themselves up by their bootstraps. If we are to accept this narrative as being the landscape of America, then how do we leave space for incarcerated individuals to transcend their “transgressions”?

While the Department of Corrections (DOC) believes that it is operating with the goal of incarceration as rehabilitation, the reality of this goal seems at odds with our language of those currently and formerly incarcerated. If rehabilitation is truly the goal, then we need to remove barriers to employment and housing that continue to punish those who we have deemed unworthy of compassion, dignity, and opportunities.

Re-entry needs to be something that is incorporated into how the DOC treats those currently incarcerated while they are serving their time, and not just weeks before persons are released. That starts with resisting the need to demonize those who are incarcerated.

Octavia Smith is a participant in Voices for Racial Justice’s “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to To learn more about the organization’s work, visit