My Experience as a Research Assistant for MNJRC
By Tsiyhon Kika
I was first introduced to the Minnesota Justice Research Center (MNJRC) in a group meeting with the honors students in my Youth Crime and Punishment course with Professor Chris Uggen at the University of MN. He described the "Block to the Ballot" project, an initiative between researchers and community leaders working to increase voter turnout among the formerly incarcerated. To my luck, he also announced that they were looking for a Research Assistant to help with this project. I immediately expressed my interest. Professor Uggen sent the team an introductory email on my behalf and after a couple Zoom meetings with MNJRC Research Director, Dr. Katie Remington Cunningham and Assistant Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland, Dr. Robert Stewart, I officially joined the team.
The general election of November 2022 was one that was important for the future of the criminal justice system in Minnesota. The Attorney General and other congressional members were on the ballot, major decision-makers in the carceral system. Thus, the month of October - when I joined the team - was crucial for canvassing.
The Block to the Ballot Kickoff event was at All Square, a restaurant and community space in Minneapolis that hires people who come home from prison. An introduction to the project was given by various community leaders with a side of All Square’s delicious grilled cheese sandwiches. As individuals filed into the restaurant, I made sure they scanned the QR code for an attendance survey I had created - my first small but important task as an RA on the project. This survey was used at every phone banking event that followed. It tracked attendance and some demographic information on the volunteers. Throughout my time at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities I had always been eager to be a part of a community initiative like this project. That day, I found myself in a hub of inspiration. Community members and organizers exuded a dynamic energy, charged with a shared passion for social change. The atmosphere was buzzing with purposeful conversations and infused with the collective determination to make a difference. I was deeply privileged to find myself in such a distinguished gathering. For the rest of the evening, I joined the volunteers as we made calls through a canvassing software called CallHub. I also made sure to take ethnographic field notes on the event, tracked attendance and volunteer information through the surveys, and sent out an email at the end of the event to all those who signed in with a post-event survey.
During the month of October, thousands of phone calls were made. Three times a week volunteers gathered virtually or in-person to make calls through the list of formerly incarcerated community members. Antonio Williams and his team from T.O.N.E. U.P., a non-profit organization based in the Twin Cities that provides re-entry services to formerly incarcerated individuals, as well as The People’s Canvass (TPC), an organization dedicated to training community members in effective canvassing to increase voter turnout led volunteers in phone and text banking. I participated in the introductory activities and tracked the attendance, took notes on the atmosphere of the volunteer sessions and the conversations that unfolded, tracked the number of successful and unsuccessful calls made, and assisted volunteers. Every Saturday, we had our in-person volunteer events. Our volunteers were made up of community members, formerly incarcerated folks, system actors, and academics. Saturday mornings were spent at
TakeAction Minnesota where food was catered by local businesses owned by people of color. Saturdays were energizing with the same passion that was present at the first kickoff event.
Once a week, I met with the MNJRC team on the initiative to discuss upcoming events and reflect on the week prior. I took detailed notes at the meetings as academics and community leaders discussed the transcripts being used, how to gather more volunteers, and the data that was being gathered. Once a week I also met with Dr. Katie Remington Cunningham, to discuss my tasks outside from the phone banks and meetings such as research on programs created to increase civic participation and go over all the notes I had gathered throughout the week.
Outside of these meetings, I had the opportunity to join Dr. Katie Remington Cunningham in events that surrounded the social issue Block to the Ballot was about at its core: restoring the vote to millions of Americans. On November 16, 2022, I attended MNJRC's 2022 Re-imaging Justice Conference that featured civil rights activist and President of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, Desmond Meade as the opening keynote speaker. The yearly Re-Imagining Justice Conference organized by MNJRC assembles a diverse range of stakeholders to exchange ideas, learn, and collaborate on reshaping Minnesota's criminal legal system. This inclusive gathering brings together practitioners, experts, scholars, advocates, and individuals directly affected by the system for impactful discussions, workshops, and insights from leaders. The focus is on envisioning a justice system that operates with increased efficiency, compassion, and public confidence, achieved through research, education, and policy initiatives. I mingled with the youth that were present and was inspired to be a part of the efforts for social change. Once we all filed into the auditorium at the Riverview Theater in Minneapolis, the room was brimming with motivation following Mead’s inspiring message about his life that moved from homelessness to voting rights activist.
On February 21, 2023, I joined Dr. Katie Remington Cunningham and MNJRC Executive Director, Justin Terrell at the state capital for the Restore the Vote protest. We stood alongside people of all backgrounds who walked through the capital advocating for the restoration of the right to vote for all those not currently incarcerated. Following the conference, my weekly tasks shifted to tracking down volunteers who were willing to talk about their Block to the Ballot experience and interview them. I did outreach to nearly 100 volunteers who had been a part of the initiative. The rest of November and through the winter I scheduled and interviewed volunteers and then analyzed the data to help shape the pilot report we published in 2023.
The next task was to code the thousands of phone calls that had been made as part of the canvassing effort in the fall. Though we had volunteers categorize their calls after they were complete as “Answered” or “Not Home” for example, we found that volunteers didn’t uniformly assign categories and that CallHub also failed to categorize many calls. So, I, along with other MNJRC members worked to listen to and code close to 10,000 phone calls.
In the months that we coded phone calls, I also worked closely with Dr. Katie Remington Cunningham on the pilot report. I researched and read through countless academic journals and studies on voter restoration and civic participation. I kept track of these articles and worked them into the document. Through my research, notes, and data, I acted as a main contributor to the report that details our months spent on this community initiative. My time with the team concluded with the publication of this report.
Leaving my role as a Research Assistant has promoted a period of introspection. Over the course of my time with the Minnesota Justice Research Center, I had the privilege of diving into this important research project, which provided its unique challenges and opportunities for growth. I was able to collaborate with dedicated scholars and leaders that fostered an environment of continuous learning. From data collection and analysis to contributing insights during team meetings, every aspect of the role has enriched my skillset and deepened my passion for research - especially research that centers community. The camaraderie among colleagues and the shared pursuit of knowledge created a sense of community that I will genuinely miss. As I embark on my senior year at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities as a triple major in Political Science, Global Studies, and Sociology of Law, Criminology, and Justice, I continue to reflect on my time with MNJRC while I write my honors thesis. I’m in the process of writing my thesis on youth delinquency and its association with system avoidance. The chapter of my life as a Research Assistant was transformative, and I carry with me all the lessons I learned as I move forward as a researcher. I’m beyond grateful for the experiences that have shaped me and for the people who are part of this organization that gave me the opportunity to lead and grow.