How to Start Something: Looking for Buy-In on Criminal Justice Reform

by Shellee O’Brien

Five challenges a Texas activist encountered once a wrongful conviction happened in her own family.

The State of Texas convicted Lucy’s niece and sentenced her to life in prison. Lucy had watched Hannah endure the proceedings, and kept thinking about that one phrase we’ve all mumbled by heart, “And justice for all.” One injustice came after another, and no one else seemed to notice or care.

With each hearing, Hannah’s odds kept getting worse and worse. Lucy had watched the courtroom proceedings convinced that this story was an anomaly. Something had gone wrong. There was a misfire somewhere so she watched quietly believing the tragic circumstances would crumble when someone rushed in with undeniable proof or when the jury finally issued a verdict. But that’s not what happened.

Hannah was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole (short video recap from ABC’s 20/20 available here).

Jail cells by my_southborough,

Jail cells by my_southborough,

Lucy recalled hearing the verdict and thinking, “This can’t happen. This is America.” It had been difficult enough to get people to listen to her when Hannah was standing trial and was presumably innocent until proven guilty. That, of course, was another principle of American democracy that now seemed out of reach. Lucy knew it wouldn’t be easy, but she decided she had to do something.

I recently asked my friend to share her experience with me. We had met knocking on doors for Obama in 2008 when the country learned the intricate primary caucus maneuvers dubbed “The Texas Two Step.” We stayed connected online and shared our support for local music, but it was her niece’s case that had brought us back to talking “politics” again. More than a decade before we first met, I had assisted a family with limited resources and little education who needed to navigate an imposing system. A disgruntled friend’s teenage daughter made a terrible accusation and set a whole series of events in motion that her mother had never anticipated. I understood the frustration Lucy shared when her pleas for help were met by chorus after chorus of the ideas we repeat from memory but that actually had little influence over the proceedings she witnessed.

Hannah has now been released. She returned home to her family who all continue to make frequent trips to the prison facility where she was once held. Staying connected to the women there is now Hannah’s chosen ministry. The story, the proceedings, and the persistent absence of accountability or anything that looked like justice has been well-told by Pamela Colloff with Texas Monthly. The entire series is worth reading,but the last update marks the decision of the Texas Supreme Court of Criminal Appeals:

“Today marked a turning point in the case of Hannah Overton, the Corpus Christi mother of five who has fought for eight years to prove her innocence. This morning, in a decisive 7–2 ruling, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned her capital murder conviction. The court stopped short of declaring Hannah actually innocent, but cited “the fundamental unfairness of her trial,” pointing to the ineffective counsel she received when she was prosecuted in 2007.”

—Pamela Collof, writing for Texas Monthly

Organizing a Cause: You can’t start anything until you’ve made it possible for others to see the problem.

Lucy had turned to social media to share Hanna’s case. Her posts often included an ask that people consider the system doesn’t work anything like they think it does. I asked Lucy to meet me at a local coffee shop to look back on her experience. I wanted to help her unpack alls she had learned once she decided she had to get involved and do something. She eventually founded the National Coalition for Criminal Justice reform, so we also talked about the struggle to sustain that organization.

Lucy had learned so many troubling details about how the criminal justice system worked. Her experience challenged what she believed to be true about justice in the United States. I suggested we could all learn from her example—what does it take to start something and organize a cause?

Lucy jumped right in and wrote her own recap that I hope she will share here soon. There’s this brilliant BuzzFeed-like quality to the list of five challenges she encountered. It boils down to one harsh truth about trying to start something.

It is damn hard to get people’s attention. It’s even harder to convince them that a cause they never noticed before is worth their time or money.

If this difficulty shows up in our discussions of organizing around a cause, we bury it under our frustrations, complaining about apathetic and uncaring citizens. Starting something requires a certain skill for connecting to what concerns the people you meet, and using what you learn to engage them in the issue that concerns you.

Success in starting something requires more than simply informing others. We need to connect to one another through our shared concerns.

Lesson 1: Awareness starts with sharing your story, but only happens through a shared problem.

Lucy freely admits that she thought little about criminal justice before her family member was in trouble. She assumed the system worked and had little reason to think that it didn’t. She emphatically agreed when I said, “it’s a comfortable place to be, thinking that the justice system works.” To get anyone to tune into her message about the many points of failure she had witnessed, she had to convince them to give up that comfortable place.

Showing up: Anti-Union, Anti-Walker protest in Wisconsin by Emily Mills,

Showing up: Anti-Union, Anti-Walker protest in Wisconsin by Emily Mills,

That’s the first lesson for would-be activists. You aren’t just asking people to give a damn. You’re asking them to give up their comfortable place. They have to be willing to show up. It’s not an easy ask, and it’s never as simple as telling them the facts. Our digital days overflow with easy facts.

Lesson 2: Convincing Someone to Pick Up a Cause is Asking Them to Get Uncomfortable.

This is where Lucy had the benefit of expertise and luck. Her marketing background had embedded the stages of the “Customer Buying Cycle” into how she thought. She knew that getting something started would first require increasing awareness about the problem. She had to convince people that the problems bothering her were problems that extended beyond her niece’s case and were problems that everyone shared an interest in addressing. She wanted Hannah to be free, of course, but she now understood that the justice system would not live up to our idealistic notions without the vigilance of a concerned community.

Lucy’s effort also had some luck in regular headlines supporting this awareness campaign. 336 DNA exonerations since 1989 across 27 states have pointed to the same systemic problems that Lucy’s family confronted. The success of true-crime journalism like Netflix’s “Making a Murderer” and the record-breaking podcast “Serial” are evidence that more and more people know the stories of those claiming their innocence while serving their sentences. The more difficult trick is transforming those large audiences into a crowd with a shared purpose.

Starting something begins with taking two questions seriously and recognizing how much they each rely on the other:

How will you increase awareness that your cause is a “real thing?”


With this new realization in mind, how will you convince others to support the effort with their time, money and talents?

Awareness matters but it isn’t enough if it fails to bridge the next gap by convincing someone that this new understanding makes them so uncomfortable that they have to do something.

How often is the question “Did you hear the latest about Adnan’s case?” followed by “What are we going to do about prosecutorial misconduct?” A sea of pink ribbons or a neighborhood of blue porch lights can be a power-up for those already committed to the cause but still do little to solicit new contributions of time, money or talent.

This gap between a too easy show of support and a substantive effort toward change underlies the criticism of Slacktivism and the ever expanding list of ribbons for a cause. A successful awareness campaign still suffers a limited reach if it fails to create a clear channel for new supporters to pick up the cause as their own and to take the next step.

Lesson 3: Ask Questions While Seeking to Understand How Your Case Connects to Others.

Lucy had discovered a large and fragmented collection of organizations operating under the umbrella of criminal justice reform. Some revolved around one individual’s story and sought to raise funds for their appeals. Others focused on death penalty cases alone or the availability of DNA evidence. She recalled the she hadn’t seen the connection between her niece’s case and broader issues until Sam Milsap, a San Antonio attorney and former prosecutor, asked her, “you see how this is connected to the death penalty, don’t you?” That simple question will turn your ideas about the justice system upside down and backwards with innocent people on death row as well as behind bars.

Having once thought there was nowhere to turn, Lucy now needed to navigate lists of organizations working separately across a spectrum of criminal justice reforms. She imagined building a coalition so these groups could reach out to one another, broaden their information sharing and coordinate their work for maximum impact. The next person in her position would have one place to go to access a network of know-how and reliable resources.

Lesson 4: Build Strategies to Sustain Participation and Anticipate Activist Fatigue.

But those rosy pictures of “next time” never happened either. The crew that came together to create and support the National Coalition for Criminal Justice Reform had difficulty sustaining the organization over time. They celebrated success like the first annual Freedom March for the Wrongfully Convicted and helped one another continue their own fights believing justice could still be won. In telling her story, Lucy refers to her own “activist fatigue” and the way commitment to the organization would ebb and flow depending on how well one’s own case was doing. In retrospect, Lucy can see how the coalition never quite coalesced like she had hoped.

Their reach hadn’t extended far beyond the original collaborators and their direct interest in promoting awareness for their own cases. When their appeals met a resolution, for better or worse, it affected their commitment to the coalition. They had not successfully recruited new activists willing to take their place. The network of know-how and resources that would continue after any one case ran its course never quite took root.

While our conversation bounced from terrifying statistics (1 in every 110 American adults is incarcerated) to honoring the hard work of leaders in this movement, we kept returning to the advice Lucy would offer the next person who encountered a “system error” in any category and decided they had to do something.

Lesson 5: Have Ways for the People Who Join Your Cause to Become the Ones Who Carry It.

Looking back at the Buying Cycle, she said that what you really needed was to walk people through this cycle until they became the advocate themselves and took the lead in learning more about the problem. To get there, Lucy recommended organizers talk frankly about the time they would need to commit to building the organization and the time they were asking others to give. There is no easy way to move beyond awareness to taking action. It requires a strategy and a strategy takes time.

The strategy has to carve out this channel for newly persuaded supporters to pick up the cause as their own. Success requires focus. The result of that focus is a clear message with a call to action connecting that message to the interests, skills or resources of the individual who has given you their attention. It’s that connection that grows your audience, extends your reach and recruits new resources in the time, money and hard work you’ve made possible. This creates an opportunity for supporters to give what they have to offer while knowing how they are contributing to the larger effort.

There’s an important distinction between inviting someone to support your cause and enlisting them in an ongoing campaign for change. It may not make much of a difference to activists counting “likes,” ribbons or Meet Up attendees but it will make all the difference in who shows up the next time. Carrying a cause over time and across any individual’s experience requires buy-in and muscle. Awareness is required but it’s not enough.

Looking to get something started? You’ll need a plan to help a newly uncomfortable person buy in, take the next step and carry the cause.

Looking to Get Something Started?

There’s no denying that your story matters. You have every reason to think that your story has all the reasons anyone needs to get invovled. You have to do more than tell your story. You’ll need a plan to connect to others, their stories, and their problems. You have to convince others to get uncomfortable and carry the cause.