We Are All Criminals, a Minnesota-based nonprofit organization, is a catalyst for conversations about crime, privilege, punishment, and second chances. (Find Minnesota Women’s Press’ 2018 story on Emily Baxter and We Are All Criminals here.) Through stories, statutes, and statistics, WAAC examines the disparate impact of the criminal and juvenile legal systems on Black people, Indigenous people, people of color, and people living in poverty across the country. Using first-person narratives and compelling photography, WAAC looks at how each of us is more than our pasts and more than the labels used to define us. While one in four people in Minnesota (and across the nation) has a criminal record, four in four have a criminal history: that is, we are all criminals — and we are also so much more.
You can find stories, portraits, poems, and more on their website at weareallcriminals.org — or you can tour the Twin Cities. For the last two years, WAAC has been working with the Science Museum of Minnesota (SMM), the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop (MPWW), Silverwood Park, and the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota (WAM) to bring you the voices of people most impacted by the criminal legal system, and reflections on privilege by people who have not been perpetually punished by criminal records — indoors, outdoors, and online.
WAAC is honored to be a part of SMM’s revamped RACE: Are We So Different? exhibit. This permanent installation, expanded to include conversations around the racially disparate and dehumanizing impact of our criminal legal system, features two WAAC projects: The Luxury to Forget and SEEN. The Luxury to Forget exhibit is an interactive series of photographs that allows museum goers to reflect upon crimes they have committed for which they were not caught, were not labeled, were not forever defined — and the privileges that allowed them to exist outside of the criminal legal system’s crosshairs. Across from this exhibit, you’ll find the SEEN installation: a monitor playing incarcerated artists’ poetry, surrounded by statistics and queries about our country’s mass incarceration mass disaster.
For folks in the Cities looking for a walk in the woods, Silverwood Park’s Art on Foot, curated by Saint Paul-based poet Chavonn Williams Shen, features six pieces by MPWW poets collaborating on WAAC’s SEEN project who were, at the time of recording, incarcerated. It is a profound and intimate experience: using your phone to listen to these deeply talented, isolated poets amid the beauty of the surrounding park and sculptures.
WAAC been working with the Science Museum on their expansion of the RACE exhibit and Busted! online interactive experience. The museum hosted and filmed several circle dialogues about the criminal punishment system over the summer — including one with formerly incarcerated people, and one with family members of currently incarcerated people. WAAC’s photographs of the families of incarcerated people (below) will be stitched into the upcoming films, which will be available on SMM’s website soon.
In March 2023 through the summer, check out the SEEN @ WAM installation on the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus — where currently incarcerated artists are collaborating with artists, activists, and academics in the community to explore issues of incarceration, isolation, healing, and coming home:
JEFF AND KORINA BARRY: podcast, sculpture, and painting. Raw, poetic, and personal dialogue, a dissection of American life — past, present, future — behind and beyond bars, with a focus on Black and Indigenous experiences and voices. Within this lens, Jeff and Korina will explore the epigenetics of trauma and pathways to healing.
SARITH AND CARL FLINK: recorded memoir and choreographic response. Driven by the narratives of Sarith’s memories of life in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge as well as incarceration in the U.S., this will examine the restrictions of life in a cage — war, a genocidal labor camp, refugee camp, prison, pandemic, and the lifelong effects of trauma on the body, spirit, and mind.
FONG AND KEVIN YANG: poetry and film. Exploring themes of loss and longing, isolation and death, funerals and Hmong ritual, and what is needed to begin to heal — particularly when the space to do so has not been granted — and how culture and language can create both distance and dynamic connection.
B: recorded poetry and sculpture. Exploring the deleterious effects of prison’s cacophony on one’s physiology and psychology. Previous lettering and poetry project in collaboration with DANNY MCCARTHY CLIFFORD.
FRESH and ERIN SHARKEY: belonging and loss. Two replica prison property bins, one holding a tree, the other, belongings the artists were unable to take with them. Additional reflections on loved ones lost to mass incarceration and the criminalization of addiction, as well as the disconnect and isolation caused by prison and illness.