Part 2: Growing Into Leadership
Written by: Carrie Pomeroy & Sabrina Nur
In Part 1 of this conversation with St. Paul community leader Russel Balenger, we talked about Russel’s childhood growing up in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood both before and after the construction of Interstate 94. We also learned about how his parents profoundly shaped the values he’s carried into his work fighting for criminal justice reform, advocating for incarcerated people, and building peace in St. Paul and beyond. In Part 2, we talk more about how Russel has put the lessons of his youth into action in his work as a community leader.
“I always have this voice in my ear, my mother’s voice, saying ‘You can do more.'”Russel Balenger
As a student at St. Paul’s Central High School, Russel was active on the swim team, student council, drama, and French club, and he showed an early interest in psychology. He was one of the first 50 students of color to attend Moorhead State College (now known as Minnesota State University-Moorhead). After graduation, Russel lived for a time in Chicago and Ann Arbor, but St. Paul eventually called him home. By the 1970s, he was running an outdoor vegetable and fruit market in St. Paul. He was later recruited into a management position at Sears through an Urban League program aimed at opening doors that had previously been closed to Black people.
The 1970s were a time of growth and opportunity for Russel, but they were also a time of loss, because both his parents died during that period. His father died after suffering for many years from the effects of his strokes. His mother died of an aneurysm on Thanksgiving 1977, right after she’d finished cooking the family’s holiday meal. She was 66 years old.
Losing her was a devastating blow for Russel and his family. But his mother’s example inspired him to keep persevering the way she had. “I always have this voice in my ear, my mother’s voice, saying, ‘You can do more,’” he said.
Over the years, people have often told Russel that his ideas and plans are too ambitious, but that hasn’t stopped him from trying.
“I always feel like, be careful who you tell your plans to, because they’ll poke holes in them and deflate them,” Russel said with a smile, “and so it’s easier for me to just go do it.”
Through his professional and community work, Russel found himself increasingly drawn to helping previously incarcerated people get off to a good start after they left prison.
“There were a lot of people that were negatively impacted by the criminal justice system,” he said. “I felt like if anybody needed help getting a job, they did.”
Russel was excited to learn about Amicus, an organization offering relationship-based reentry services for adults and juveniles coming out of incarceration. He was so inspired by Amicus’s mission and approach, he took a substantial pay cut to go to work for Amicus in the 1990s.
Russel’s first job at Amicus was as the group’s volunteer coordinator. His task was to find volunteers to provide one-to-one support for people in the process of leaving prison and reentering their communities. He thought lining up 200 volunteers sounded about right. It was a daunting number–but he succeeded in meeting his recruitment goals by tirelessly recruiting at local faith communities.
Russel learned that he had to move quickly when it came to orienting volunteers.
“Otherwise, the other people in their house would tell them, ‘you’re going to do this? Oh my God!’” Russel remembered. “So you had to get them placed and get them out of the house to the prison, where they would find out that this was just another human being.”
As part of his work, starting in 2003, Russel began holding peace circles for men incarcerated at Stillwater Correctional Facility the second Tuesday of every month. His way of holding circles was very much inspired by the way his mother had often held family conversations around the kitchen table when he was a boy, with everyone taking turns and given encouragement to take responsibility for any part they played in problems or conflicts.
By 2008, Russ was serving as Senior Vice President of Programming at Amicus, a role he continued for several years. After Russel retired from Amicus, he continued to hold monthly circles at Stillwater, though the COVID pandemic has disrupted his ability to hold in-person circles for the last few years. Russel said he is eager to return and hold a circle inside Stillwater as soon as possible.
While working to connect imprisoned adults to the outside world, Russel has also worked hard to fight racial inequities in the Minnesota juvenile justice system. It was through this work that Russel became close friends with Laura LaBlanc of InEquality and Oyate Hotanin. He recalled a memorable encounter with her at the first Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative meeting in 2005, which was part of a multi-year effort to reduce disproportionate minority contact with the juvenile justice system and reduce the number of young people being removed from their homes, and put in juvenile detention. One of the elected officials who has done the most to lead the way on that effort is Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter, the wife of Russel’s good friend Melvin Carter, Jr. and mother to St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter III.
Russel recalled his first interaction with Laura at that first JDAI meeting. He said, “I was a proponent for justice for these folks that have been incarcerated. Laura walks in and says, ‘Is this the justice for the criminals area?’ And I got mad. But then we talked and she was just kidding. We kind of became fast friends.”
He said that he and Laura bonded over their shared concern about racial inequities in the criminal justice system.
“Although Black people make up less than five percent of Minnesota’s population,” Russel said, “in every correctional facility, it’s at least half full of Black. There are also more American Indians per capita, but generally more Black bodies in women’s prisons.”
He continued, “So for the last twenty years, I’ve been paying attention to that, Minnesota is number one in disproportionate minority contact. So this has become my next thing. You can’t see that happen and not know that there’s some illness in our system. Number one, in the land of milk and honey.”
Those injustices have hit close to home for Russel and his family. Russel told the story of an experience one of his grandsons had when he was fourteen.
“He got in trouble on the playground. It was him and his friends playing around with one of the friend’s little brothers. There was a new woman at the playground, feeling like it was her job to come out and say ‘You guys stop horsing around.’ The children had gotten hold of some scotch tape so they stuck it on the little brother. They were basically playing boys being boys. They put that bag over his head that you put the basketballs in, that net bag. Then they held him over the swing and twirled it up so that he could get spun in the bag. The boy was telling them, ‘Don’t do that! I’ll get sick.’ And he did. They all ended up walking home together. But because they were at the playground all the time, and their telephone numbers were there, when they talked to this woman, she had asked them what their names were. And then she took it upon herself to call the police. The police called my grandson’s mother and told her to bring him down to the station. She did and they said we’re holding him for court tomorrow and you’ll see him then.”
The Saint Paul Police Department charged Russel’s fourteen-year-old grandson hanging out with friends in the park with “Kidnapping and terroristic threat.” Their justification for the charge was that the other boy involved had been taped up and put in a bag.
“If you can imagine,” Russel said, “my grandson had never been away from home. To then be taken and put in jail. Fourteen years old, didn’t weigh a hundred pounds. So I go up to the court the next day and I have my friend, a lawyer, with me.” Russel’s grandson was the president of his school’s Native American Club and had never missed a day of school or been late.
Russel explained how his lawyer friend didn’t know much about juvenile law. The judge said, “Accept the charges and you can go home. If not, he could be here for another thirty days.”
Eager to bring Russel’s grandson home quickly and unfamiliar with how the juvenile justice system worked, the family accepted the charges. Now Russel’s grandson had a record. At the sentencing, even though it all got explained that they were young boys playing around, it meant nothing to the judge. According to the law, Russel’s grandson was guilty of this crime and he had to stay in detention for seven days.
Russel reflects on that moment, “That really changed him. He and his brother started getting into more and more trouble. The police were constantly stopping them. It was always something. They got worse. They joined a gang. My oldest grandson has been shot twice.”
He remembered a moment that really drove home to him how the judge in his grandson’s case didn’t even really see him and his family as full human beings.
“I was dressed just like I was in court the day before for the first Juvenile Detention Alternatives initiative meeting,” Russel said. “That judge that sentenced him and had been there for the previous court thing, she walked in, walked up to me and introduced herself and put her hand out. She didn’t even recognize me. The same judge that sentenced my grandson the day before. And she was there at this JDAI meeting and felt like what she had done was right. I said how is this woman going to make a change? What she’s doing is the problem. She’s retired now. I never said her name again. I told her I’m Russel Balenger. Now the day before, she had been saying Mr. Balenger this, Mr. Balenger that. I watched her in that meeting sit, trying to figure out, and maybe she did that. I’m sure she did. After a point, she knew there was something. I could see it on her face. I could see her trying to figure it out.”
The work of the Juvenile Detentions Alternative Initiative was motivated by a deep concern for youth and families and a desire to create solutions that actually keep everyone safer. Research and the lived experiences of people impacted by the juvenile justice system show that in the vast majority of cases, keeping youth home and providing holistic, wraparound services is much more effective than locking youth up. Based on the findings and work of community members and officials involved in the Juvenile Detentions Alternative Initiative, Ramsey County officials began implementing Deep End Reform starting in 2014. Those reforms led to significant progress in reducing the number of out-of-home placements for court-involved youth and expanding access to alternative interventions.
Russel, Laura, and many other community advocates including Melvin Carter, Damon Drake, David Stark, Long Vang and Joanna Lowry have played an important role in shining a light on the ways that removing youth from their homes harms young people, families, and communities. They also have played a crucial role in pushing for long-overdue, systemic changes and making sure that the voices of the people continue to be centered in policy and decision-making. There’s always still more work to do, but advocates have not given up on pushing for a more equitable, effective system for all, one that serves families, youth, and victims of harm better than the system does now.
In Part 3, we’ll hear more about Russel’s work with the Circle of Peace Movement and his dreams for offering even more ways to grow peace and build community in St. Paul.