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My Internship Experience with the Minnesota Justice Research Center

By Grace Foss, Research Intern


During winter break in 2022, I began the journey that every college student dreads during their academic career: applying for dozens and trying to secure a summer internship. I knew I had a passion for research but didn’t know where to start. After weeks of searching, I wasn’t finding any companies that fit my interests and where I foresaw my career going. I kept up the search during the spring semester and in early March, I had the honor of receiving a research internship position at the Minnesota Justice Research Center (MNJRC) for the spring and summer of 2023. The MNJRC is a non-profit organization that is dedicated to engaging in meaningful conversations, rigorous research, and diverse collaborations to transform the criminal legal system.


I’m Grace Foss, a 4th-year student at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Sociology of Law, Criminology, and Justice with an emphasis in policy analysis, as well as a minor in Biology. My special interests in the research & policy space include disability rights, prison reform, gender-based violence, and reimagining the bail & pretrial processes. Based on the areas of advocacy MNJRC specializes in, I felt there would be opportunities to assist on projects that suited my interests.


As I went through the first few weeks of my internship, I recognized that many of the things I was learning in my classes were also being researched at MNJRC, like bail & pretrial and gender-based violence. It was interesting to see the application of my academic materials visualized in real life.


In early June, I was awarded the UMN College of Liberal Arts 2023 Barbara Newsome Scholarship for Sociology as a student who is completing an unpaid internship over the summer. The general requirements were that I would complete an internship in sociology, complete one 7-week reflection course in the summer and one in the fall, work a minimum of 120 hours, and have my supervisor complete a final evaluation. I was asked to identify 3 core career competencies I would work on during the internship: (1) analytical & critical thinking, (2) oral & written communication, (3) active citizenship & community engagement.


Throughout my 5-month internship, I gained so much experience in the non-profit sector, from increasing my knowledge of criminology subjects to participating in community outreach to data collection, and so much more. Here are some of the many things I chose to highlight that I worked on and learned this summer.


From the Block to the Ballot data analysis

From the Block to the Ballot was a research project spearheaded by Research Assistant Tsiyhon Kika, MNJRC Research Steering Committee member Dr. Robert Stewart, and my supervisor Dr. Katie Remington Cunningham. I was brought on this project towards the middle of the end. Back in April when I began, the team was in urgent need of help to do the extremely tedious data analysis: coding phone calls. The purpose of the project was to be a pilot voter outreach initiative and research project that sought to explore the best practices to educate and mobilize formerly disenfranchised eligible voters in Minnesota. Making thousands of calls, the team and experienced volunteers reached out to voters in various ways to increase voter turnout.


One of the challenges with the pilot was getting consistent call categorization with the phone banking software. Once the calls were done and recorded, the team at MNJRC needed to ensure that every phone call (of just over 10,000!) was correctly coded. This meant we needed to re-code every call. I listened to the audio files and coded the “outcome” of the call in a spreadsheet. A call conversation could have one of six outcomes: (1) “0” = no answer, (2) “1” = voicemail/recording, (3) “2” = pickup, wrong number, (4) “3” = pickup, break off/hung up before getting past introduction, (5) “4” = pickup, conversation/got passed intro, and (6) “9” = disconnected number.


This assignment was very time-consuming and meticulous, however, it was an abrupt start to my internship. It threw me into a project I wasn’t really in tune with and caused me to have to adapt to the needs of the MNJRC quickly. As a result, I had to use a lot of critical thinking during this assignment because I had to discern what the outcome of a 1-on-1 human conversation was. There wasn’t a perfect formula. We all had to try to recognize if the volunteers got past their introduction (because not everyone had the same way they introduced themselves), whether the callers were interested, if the caller hung up or the call was disconnected, and so on. It was an interesting experience and a showcase of social science research I hadn’t seen before.


Greater Twin Cities United Way “Pathways Home” hiring and outreach

Another huge task for Dr. Remington this summer was to hire two research assistants and a youth advisor for a new project called Pathways Home, which is a landscape analysis of housing in the Twin Cities for youth transitioning from the foster and criminal legal systems. We were under a tight time crunch so we had to work fast. To begin the outreach effort, I researched the emails of people at social work organizations, local professors, behavioral health services, etc., I sent out a job description Dr. Remington wrote in a mass email to over 60 people for them to either apply themselves or forward the message on, and posted the job on job boards. Once applicants began emailing and applying, I was instructed to keep the applicant info and their resumes, cover letters, and writing samples organized. Once Dr. Remington started going through the hiring process, she let me know which candidates were a yes and which were a no, and what the next steps would be in that process. The whole hiring and outreach process took a little over a month and the research assistants began in late July. I thoroughly enjoyed this experience because it showed me what efforts are required from the administrative side of a small non-profit organization, and how important building those relationships and network connections is.


Webinars

Over the summer, I attended three webinars from different organizations for Dr. Remington Cunningham to get some better oversight into some criminal justice issues happening around the country and the current efforts organizations are putting forth. Below are summaries of the meetings.


At the Serving Youth and Families in Rural Communities: Learning from Two State Juvenile Justice Agencies webinar presented by the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University, they discussed the youth populations of Alaska and New Mexico's experiences with the Department of Juvenile Justice. I learned many things and was exposed to realities that I had never thought were an issue because of my own life experiences. This included an analysis of Alaska juveniles’ referrals to the DJJ and a discussion surrounding the lack of adequate mental health services; distance, technology, and resources being the three major challenges faced. Rural New Mexico juveniles experienced similar types of barriers as Alaskan youths, like limited transportation and resources, lack of skilled providers, stigma, etc. I learned about the “Continuum Care Model” that New Mexico uses to reduce the likelihood that youth in rural areas will receive fewer services, or have less access to such services, compared to those in urban areas because of their location in the state. Furthermore, through analysis, New Mexico found three main solutions for serving rural youth in rural jurisdictions: community investment, resource sharing, and linked services. There was a lot of useful information in this webinar that I think speaks to a larger issue of economic disparities experienced by all children in the rural United States; the data and real-life examples listed by the presenters emphasized the importance of ensuring that all children have equal access to resources that lead to positive outcomes.


The second webinar I attended to was the City of Minneapolis’ Policy & Government Oversight Committee where Canopy Roots LLC gave a presentation. I wasn’t very aware of who Canopy Roots was or what they did, so since they are a local organization, I appreciated getting a chance to see them speak. This specific presentation by Canopy Roots was to request to expand their contract amendment with the council for behavioral response services. Canopy Roots LLC is composed of the sister organizations Canopy Mental Health & Consulting and Canopy Roots, providing behavioral & mental health services to under-served and marginalized populations. The Office of Performance Management and Innovation (PMI) is an internal consultancy that works with residents, City departments, and elected officials to create a culture and practice of data-informed, community-centered service delivery in Minneapolis. It is organized into four divisions: performance management and evaluation, human-centered design, civic innovation, and resilience. During their presentation, they touched on community engagement insights, and a summary of their emergency response pilot program, why the council should continue to consider Canopy Roots, challenges of the contract amendment, and lastly their recommendations moving forward. Not only was it beneficial to report back to the MNJRC what Canopy Roots had presented, but it was also important for me to see how consultancy and non-profit organizations self-advocate for funding and support from the government.


The third webinar I attended was the Special Meeting of the City Council & Public Safety Commission for the City of West Hollywood, California (WeHo). Out of the three I attended, this webinar felt the data-heavy. The Center for Policing Equity (CPE) gave a presentation on its partnership with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD) for the examination of the use of force incidents, vehicle stops, pedestrian stops, calls for service, and officer-initiated activities in WeHo. The goals of their examination were to (1) examine whether some racial groups in WeHo experience more frequent or burdensome police contact than others, (2) Shed light on factors that may contribute to inequitable policing, (3) provide insights on the scope of community needs that should or could be addressed by non-police responders, and (4) provide areas for further investigation that LASD can use to address any identified disparities through policy, behavioral, or organizational change. They finished with their recommended next steps for LASD and CPE in reducing disparities. It was beneficial for me to see how government agencies collaborate to research issues and come up with solutions in the criminal justice space.


Justice For All Coalition Retreat

The last big event of my summer was attending the Justice For All coalition retreat. I wasn’t able to stay the entire time, but I learned a lot in my short time there. The JFAC includes over 40 organizations and community leaders who are invested and passionate about innovative solutions and changes to public safety in Minnesota. For more information on the Justice For All coalition, check out a past MNJRC blog post here.


The meeting was from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Hamline School of Law in Saint Paul, MN. it was attended by many people who represented universities, non-profit organizations, churches, the MNJRC, and more. It was very rewarding to listen to MNJRC staff present about the successes and failures of this past legislative session, as well as discuss with the other coalition members their thoughts on how it went.


Overall, it seemed as if there was a general disappointment in Minnesota’s legislature, no one felt their voices were heard. I was just a fly-on-the-wall but I observed and learned how people who are in positions to make real change engage in discourse. See below for an info-graphic summary of the topics of discussion and the 2023 Justice For All legislative priorities from the notes I took.





Conclusion and Acknowledgements

The opportunity to work for the MNJRC was quite a privilege. I got to meet some incredibly intelligent and successful people, not to mention overall genuine human beings who are just so passionate about their cause. I was nervous at first, anxious to see what tasks I’d be given, anxious to see if I even liked research.


With the guidance of Dr. Katie Remington-Cunningham, Justin Terrell, Cara Letofsky, and many others, I am much more confident as a person in the social science space. I was exposed to things I had never experienced outside of the bubbled regimen of class-study-sleep-class again. A challenge to broaden my horizon to the possibilities that are out there.


I’m thankful for this wonderful experience and hope I will make an impact as much as the MNJRC does. Thank you for letting me intern with you and can’t recommend getting involved with the MNJRC enough.


If you are interested in an internship with the MNJRC email us at info@mnjrc.org

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