"Organizing is a critical vehicle to ensuring that directly impacted people are centered in all parts of policymaking."

When COVID-19 hit, Smart Justice, like everyone, had to change course. What followed was a study in perseverance. In snow, rain, heat, and cold, Smart Justice advocated safely (masked, distanced, and outdoors) in the state Capitol Building parking lot to demand that legislators not leave currently and formerly incarcerated people behind.

On Thursday, October 21, 2021, Smart Justice gathered on Zoom for a special lunchtime digital watch party and panel discussion of "Smart Justice: Parking Lot Advocacy," a 10-minute video about Smart Justice's work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this intimate livestreamed event moderated by ACLU of Connecticut donor relations manager Téylor Davis, Smart Justice leaders Will Roberts and Shelby Henderson, as well as ACLU of Connecticut staff members Anderson Curtis, Gus Marks-Hamilton, and Claudine Fox, discusssed the importance of organizing in community and solidarity.

“Organizing is a critical vehicle to ensuring that directly impacted people are centered in all parts of policymaking," said Claudine Fox, ACLU of Connecticut public policy and advocacy director. "Organizing people that have direct experience with the harms of our systems of oppression ensures that policy solutions that come out of the Capitol are actually solutions that work for them. It allows folks to step into their power and be seen, heard, and felt by legislators.”

Anderson Curtis, ACLU of Connecticut senior policy organizer, agreed. “Showing up is all about the people for me," he said. "It’s all about giving people the opportunity to share their experience, which is their power, to elevate their voice to have a meaningful participation in the campaign, but more importantly in the process of change.”

"We have the responsibility to make sure we get the best laws in place, and the ones we don’t want to be voted out. We must remember that we cannot be disappointed if our voices are not being heard, if we don’t show up,” Smart Justice leader Will Roberts said, while speaking about the importance of Smart Justice being at the Capitol in the parking lot day in and day out throughout legislative session. 

Together, panelists also spoke about their efforts to successfully pass laws creating a Clean Slate, ending prison gerrymandering, making prison phone calls free, and why the way that Smart Justice does its work is often as important as its outcomes.

Shelby Henderson, a Smart Justice leader, provided her definition of what success has looked like during the past two legislative sessions, which have both taken place during COVID, and spoke about why Smart Justice's people-centered values make the difference.

“For me, the only successes I can celebrate are the ones that impact our lives and chip away at the mountain of barriers. Successes like Clean Slate, which for some removes the scarlet curse of being perpetually labeled as a felon or defined by a single moment, that was success," she said. "So showing up means owning my story, being vulnerable enough to speak my truth, inviting others to see not only my vulnerabilities, but also my humanity. Showing up means speaking truth to power. Simply put, showing up is a most. In the words of Ashata Shakur, ‘we have nothing to lose but our chains.’ I have to believe there’s a better way. I have to believe that members of my family, my brothers, my cousins, won’t be subjected to the same oppressive systems.”

As panelists looked to 2022 and the legislative session ahead, they spoke about the work left ahead for Smart Justice on issues like ending discrimination against people based on a criminal record, stopping solitary confinement in Connecticut, and more.

“This past year, we showed up in ways that were really unique and different from the ways we’ve showed up in years past, and next year is going to be different, too. But the one thing that Smart Justice has going is the momentum that we’ve built up, the relationships that we’ve made with legislators, the reputation that Smart Justice has that shows what a committed, a dedicated, a passionate and organized group of people can accomplish," said Gus Marks-Hamilton, ACLU of Connecticut campaign manager.