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Nadine Graves
Nadine Graves focuses on challenging barriers to jobs, housing and education facing those with criminal backgrounds. (Submitted photo)

Breaking the Ice: ‘We Are All Criminals’ advocate challenges barriers

Name: Nadine Graves

Title: Board chair, We Are All Criminals; court-appointed attorney in child protection matters

Education: BA, sociology and criminal justice, Delaware State University; J.D., Mitchell Hamline School of Law

Attorney Nadine Graves is serving her second term as board chair of the Minneapolis nonprofit We Are All Criminals.

Graves’ community advocacy and the nonprofit’s mission focus on challenging barriers to jobs, housing and education facing those with criminal backgrounds.

Graves, a court-appointed attorney in child-protection cases, was a law student when she joined the organization’s board at the invitation of the nonprofit’s founder and executive director, Emily Baxter.

We Are All Criminals shares the stories of people who committed or were accused of committing crimes and those who got away with them.

“We all have done things that some of us have had the luxury to forget,” Graves said.

Graves’ motivation for seeking racial equity and justice reform in part is personal.

“I have two boys,” Graves said. “I don’t want them to become a Daunte Wright. I don’t want them to become a George Floyd. I don’t want them to become a statistic of mass incarceration.”

Q: What’s the best way to start a conversation with you?

A: Talk to me about traveling or ask me what country has the best jollof rice and I’m going to say Liberia.

Q: Why did you go to law school?

A: I wanted to be an advocate. I worked in nonprofit organizations and oftentimes clients would tell me about instances with police. I had a very traumatic instance with the police and my mom. I also having had a criminal record and being barred from work, collateral consequences were a huge motivator to go to law school, so I can be an attorney so that clients would never have to say, “My attorney forced me to plead guilty” or “I didn’t know my rights.” I wanted to be empowered to help those people.

Q: What books are you reading?

A: “Caste,” by Isabel Wilkerson. It’s a must-read for first-generation immigrants who don’t understand the history of Black Americans here and anybody who wants to understand how we got to the place that we’re at with race relations.

Q: What’s your pet peeve?

A: I don’t like hypocrisy.

Q: Best part of your work?

A: Amplifying my clients’ stories, humanizing them.

Q: Least favorite?

A: Feeling like no matter how well I do, the most well-crafted arguments, that some people have their minds made up. You feel helpless because it seems like this is a well-oiled machine that’s going to keep doing what it’s been doing.

Q: Favorite activity away from work?

A: I’m a single mom, so spending time with my boys and with family.

Q: Where would you take someone visiting your hometown?

A: I might take them to brunch, to the Breakfast Bar of Minnesota. Really, really good.

Q: Who is the legal figure you most admire?

A: [Retired Hennepin County District] Judge Pamela Alexander. She’s a trailblazer. Fierce. She was courageous enough to tell the whole truth when she ruled in the early ’90s about the disparity in the sentencing for crack and cocaine. I feel like it’s accurate that it derailed her career where she could have been a federal judge. But she risked telling the truth. I think later, like 17 years later, the federal government finally got it right, changing the laws and the disparity, but it came at a cost to her. And she also wrote the foreword of “We Are All Criminals” [Baxter’s book about the project].

Q: Misconception that others have about your work as an attorney?

A: That I’m a criminal lover. But I’m compassionate. I hold people accountable. I’ve been held accountable. But there’s some point where the sentence has to end. And it should also be administered equally and fairly to all people.

Q: What’s a favorite novel, movie or TV show about lawyers?

A: “Just Mercy” is a phenomenal movie and book. Bryan Stevenson … reenergizes you to keep fighting the good fight because he is compassionate, he is merciful, because he cares about people and he cares about justice.


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