I had been looking forward to this great opportunity as the new community engagement specialist at Safe & Just Michigan. Then, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer put the state under shelter in place status the day after my first day on the job.  I couldn’t help but think about how exactly I could engage the community during a pandemic.

I began the onboarding process, learning all about SJM including past wins, current projects and future goals. I couldn’t shake the thought of, “how do I engage folks from home?” Technology is not my strong suit, considering I served 18.5 years at the Michigan Department of Corrections. I was learning. The organization was learning. The ideas were not flying off the shelves as fast as toilet paper was.

I did what I thought everyone did during times of great crisis: I called on my network of formerly incarcerated folks to brainstorm ideas. As it turns out, I would have to look no further than one of my old bunk mates from the MDOC, Nate Johnson, the co-founder and advocacy & engagement strategist of Fresh Coast Alliance. Nate is a social change innovator, history maker, game changer and my go-to guy to get the word out about criminal justice reforms.

Our conversation proved great minds think alike. Nate reached out to SJM’s Outreach Director Troy Rienstra and me to ask if he could interview us via Zoom. We of course said yes, and the Criminal Justice CAFE was born. The Criminal Justice CAFE is a weekly conversation about criminal justice reform issues hosted by formerly incarcerated people. After a few weeks, we expanded it to include a formerly incarcerated person as a guest expert. Lifting up the voices of impacted people is important to Safe & Just Michigan, as well as to Nate, Troy and I. We are grateful for all those in the struggle working to advance a safer and  more just Michigan.

Our topics have included Clean Slate efforts in Michigan, re-entry services and the state’s sex offender registry. We have featured guests including Jose Burgos from the State Appellate Defender’s Office and SJM’s Policy Analyst Josh Hoe.  It is a rewarding experience to share this information with my co-hosts Nate and Troy. Both are men I met on the inside and who I now have the honor and privilege of serving with on the outside. Together, we strive to effect a positive change.

Stay tuned 10 a.m. on Thursdays via Facebook Live at facebook.com/safeandjustmi. We look forward to welcoming Asia Johnson from The Bail Project as our featured guest this coming Thursday, July 9. In the coming weeks, we’ll be talking with Aaron Kinzel of the Youth Justice Fund and Cozine Welch of A Brighter Way.  

I hope you can join us! But if the time isn’t one that works for you, don’t worry — you can view the recorded Livestream on Safe & Just Michigan’s Facebook page anytime.




~Rick Speck
Community Engagement Specialist