Telling our stories is nothing new. Telling our secrets isn’t either, but revealing stories of crimes we once committed and then got away with — now that’s interesting.
This spotlight is on Emily Baxter, the director of We Are All Criminals in Minneapolis, Minnesota. WAAC is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that seeks out participants who are willing to admit the times they broke the law but got away with it. This kind of exposure — from doctors and lawyers, students or retirees and beyond — inspires empathy among all of us and social change in light of justice and injustice. We Are All Criminals “envisions a more just and equitable world, where each of us is able to transcend our past and reach our full potential.” This work encourages us to remember that we are all human, we all make mistakes and some of us “may be in need of a second chance.”
As a former public defender, Emily began We Are All Criminals two years ago in Minneapolis. She’s currently working outside the OTA region, but We Are All Criminals continues to tell stories in the Twin Cities area, and you can get involved in this work. As much as We Are All Criminals inspires empathy, they also encourage us to offer second chances and to advocate for compassion in our justice systems.
How can people connect with you?
Facebook (personal): Emily Baxter
Facebook (business): We Are All Criminals
Where do you live now? Where do you call home?
Last month I lived in St Paul, Minnesota; the month before, I was in Minneapolis; right now, I’m in Raleigh, North Carolina. But home will always be where I grew up, and where my parents still live: Sioux Falls.
Give us a behind-the-scenes look at your average day.
I spend a shameful amount of time online: from getting lost in news and emails to updating (and too often fumbling, breaking, and repairing) the We Are All Criminals website and social media sites. Four cups of coffee later I happily note that the window for morning exercise has conveniently closed.
In the late morning, I interview people who have gotten away with crimes. In bars and in cars and in offices and on boats, lawyers and legislators and cops and doctors tell me about what they’ve gotten away with. I love this part. Without fail, I leave the conversation in awe of the complexity, humility, and humor of each person I meet. It’s an incredible thing, to sit down across from a stranger, and leave knowing something deeply intimate and often fragile about them. Each conversation is a gift. It sounds corny, I know. So be it.
I meet with collaborators in the afternoon: I’m inspired and energized by the advocates and activists, scholars and policymakers who rise everyday to radically reform our criminal justice system.
I often have a lunch-hour or evening presentation — in a church or firm, at a university or gallery. I share the stories I’ve gathered over the past couple of years and encourage people to take action.
I then hide in my car or in a bathroom for a while, regrouping before heading out again. Turns out public speaking takes a lot out of me.
Some time in the mid-evening, I interview people who have been caught committing crimes (or have been accused of such) —people worth more than their worst moment: people seeking to reclaim their narrative, to regain their identity.
Finally back home after the sun has set, my partner, Mod, and I go on walks through the woods, swatting at mosquitos and searching the stars.
What projects are you currently working on, both in your career as well as hobbies or passions?
A couple of years ago, I launched We Are All Criminals, a story-based policy project — which I enjoy so much, it honestly doesn’t seem like work. And through it, I started taking pictures. I have loads to learn and love it, so photography is quickly becoming a passion.
If you could do any job, what would you do and why?
I’d be a photojournalist — but preferably not one that gets shot at.
What’s your desert island album/book/TV show/movie (answer one or all)?:
A self-help video titled How to Survive on a Deserted Island Armed Only with a Paperback Copy of Pride and Prejudice and a Learning the Languages of India CD set—Without Coffee and With a Paralyzing Fear of Sharks.
Since you live in one of the OTA states:
• What is the most beneficial aspect of living in the region when it comes to your career? The OTA states have been a welcoming womb for developing new skills and projects. In fact, while I’m currently living in North Carolina, We Are All Criminals will remain an MN-based project: Its roots in Minneapolis/St Paul, with a branch in Raleigh/Durham.
• What’s one thing you would change about the OTA region? Unfortunately, not all of our opportunities are accessible for everyone. There are unconscionable racial and class disparities that permeate our states — from education and employment, to housing and healthcare, to detention and incarceration. If I could change one thing about the OTA region, it would be to make available the opportunities I’ve enjoyed to everyone.
Where do think good ideas come from?
What’s one current trend you think will change the world?
The end of U.S. mass incarceration — and mass arrests. It can and must happen in our lifetime.
What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?
I’d say journal – you’re going forget it all, but not even my 36-year-old self heeds that advice.
Who is the most creative person in your life, and why?
Anna Perrotta — an artist living in St Paul, Minnesota. Anna is profoundly talented: her writing will make you weep and her drawings, your heart soar.
Who is the most connected person in your life, and what personal characteristics make him or her so well-connected?
Roopal Shah —She’s connected to herself and to others around the world in a way that I aspire to be.
And my dad, Pat Baxter, who knows practically everybody. Don’t go to Hy-Vee with this man if you’re in a hurry. You’ll spend an hour in the cheese section, saying hello to everyone.
Who is the most community-focused person in your life, and how do they impact their communities?
Nekima Levy Pounds. This woman is a wonder. She’s shining a light on racial disparities in Minnesota in a really powerful and personal way. Even before she was elected president of the Minneapolis NAACP, Nekima was leading the movement.
Jonathan Oppenheimer. Jonathan is the creative genius behind Midway Murals in St Paul. Midway Murals is a public art venture that paired local artists with immigrant-owned businesses on Snelling Avenue to create four large-scale murals around the theme of “starting anew.” It’s a truly beautiful (and community-inclusive!) sight to behold.
At what intersection do you live your life?
Stories, statistics and statutes.
Who are the three people you need to have coffee with when you visit Sioux Falls?
My 8th grade humanities teacher, Barb Iverson (I’m still learning from her); Cedric Chatterley, an artist who makes his own cameras out of cannibalized old cams and found objects (like a horse’s skull or an accordion); and Taneeza Islam + Melissa Buffalo: two phenomenal women I’ve spent too little time with, but really should spend more.
What’s the best way to put inspiration into action?
Set time aside to create. In a world that expects immediate responses, carving time out to create (rather than just react) can be very challenging.
Who’s one regional writer/artist/leader/entrepreneur we should pay attention to?
DA Bullock, a Minnesota-based filmmaker. Check out his work capturing the heartache and hope in New Orleans, a decade after Katrina. Wow.
What’s the greatest risk you’ve taken?
My last trip to South India: between nearly being stampeded by one very angry elephant and being stalked by a confirmed ‘man-eating’ tiger, to crossing the highway on foot and eating mysterious street food, and I don’t think I’ve ever had so many “maybe this wasn’t such a great idea” moments so close together. In the end, it was hands down the most exhilarating and exhausting trip of my life — and I can’t wait to go back.
What’s your biggest failure, and what did you learn from it?
I’m constantly failing, and constantly reminding myself that it’s not a bad thing.