Leading the Field: Alia Toran-Burrell
For our “Leading the Field” Q&A series, we’re speaking with leaders in the civic/gov tech space who are driving important change to make government work by the people, for the people, in the digital age.
This week, we spoke with Alia Toran-Burrell, the Associate Program Director of Clear My Record. At Code for America, we welcome a broad diversity of viewpoints—and we strive to let people speak in their own words about their own unique experiences. With that in mind, the following has received only minor edits for length and clarity, and the views expressed here reflect those of the author.
Tell us a little about your path in the criminal legal space. How did you know this was the field you wanted to work in?
My first job after graduating college was working in a public defender’s office in the Bronx. Our office, made up of social workers, lawyers, and paralegals like me, represented kids involved in the so-called “juvenile delinquency” system. I use the word “kids” intentionally because they were—often 11-, 12-, and 13-years-old being charged for a school fight, or shoplifting, or something else equally trivial in the scheme of things. As a young person, I had done a fair bit of thinking about the world through a critical lens, though I strangely hadn’t thought very much about the legal system. I was also privileged enough for it to not have seriously impacted my own personal sphere (despite the fact that one in three people in this country have a criminal record, and my own Black, queer identity made it more likely that I would interact with the system). It was such a smack in the face to witness the inhumanity of the criminal legal system up close and to try, often futilely, to support these young people and their families in navigating and surviving a system that was set up to destroy them.
I was outraged about it all— the tension between the system that existed and the dream of a system that was reparative, empathic, and rooted in shared humanity. At that time, I didn’t know exactly what the solution was, and indeed I’m still learning and dreaming and building along with many others, but that possibility of a fundamentally different world was and continues to be motivating.
What is so unique about this moment in criminal legal reform? Why is there such potential for change right now?
People have been ready and working for change for as long as change has been needed. What people often mean when they say “there’s such potential for change right now” is that people who haven’t had to or wanted to think of this before are now paying attention. And while those in power need to have this reckoning, and indeed a restructuring and redistribution of power is fundamental to changing the criminal legal system (and all systems), the idea that change is dependent on appealing to those in power does us all a disservice. I think of the many experiments in transformative justice that have been tested in communities across the country, long before we witnessed the murder of George Floyd and the many other recent police and state killings. These new ways of interacting and healing have been creating change and setting precedent, and they highlight our ongoing potential for everyday power.
To be sure, the anger at recent public horrors perpetrated by the legal system has been powerfully leveraged by activists and communities to highlight systemic injustice and fight for change, and this has been incredible to see and be part of. To hear people talk openly and clearly about the damages of white supremacy and patriarchy is amazing. There is clear momentum that we can’t take for granted. Our task is to make sure our work on Clear My Record is appropriately reflective, critical, inclusive, and brave, such that we too can leverage this moment and all moments.
How do you think about the themes of decriminalizing, de-carcerating, and removing barriers in your work with Clear My Record?
Within Clear My Record, our goal is to shrink the legal system. That “de” prefix in those words, meaning removal, is key. We’re not talking about improving the system, we’re talking about making it less prevalent in people’s lives. And that’s because we believe that it is actively harming people and communities, most predominantly Black people and people of color, both in the short term and for the long haul. A criminal record, which is just one harmful effect of the legal system, causes thousands of legally instituted barriers for people—making it harder for them to get a job, education, and housing, form strong community bonds, provide for families, and more. We see the themes of decriminalization, decarceration, and removing barriers both as guiding values and as paths to action—ultimately, it forces us to be held accountable.
What does it look like to bring your full self to work in this field?
I had a brief stint as a youth community organizer about a decade ago. It was hard work and is a field for which I have massive respect. One of the things that stuck with me most was this idea of the importance and necessity of personal storytelling—the need to tell an authentic story of self and why you’ve been called to do the work. In other words, what values move you to act? What’s been your journey to get here? How do you articulate your story in a way that moves others? This is more than an icebreaker question. So, when I think about bringing my full self to this work, I think about trying to be clear about my values and how I came to them—the belief that everyone deserves to live authentically full lives, to be listened to and seen as worthy, to have power both individually and collectively, to be treated with dignity, to be accountable to and responsible for others, to create beautiful things…all of these values contradict with the current criminal legal system and how it works. They are not compatible. So my work, in collaboration with amazing colleagues and communities, is to try and get to a place where the definition and enactment of “justice” aligns with these values.
What do you think it would take to create a government that equitably serves all people?
The purpose, though perhaps not always explicitly, of the United States government has been to uphold power for some and deny power to many. I also don’t think that we as a country are aligned about what it means for government “to serve people,” let alone equitably; there are a lot of folks out there, including those in government, for whom government “services” are synonymous with unjust handouts and useless spending. So our work is not only to change the concrete actions and systems of government but also to change how people view the purpose of government itself. Both feed into each other.
While government is by no means the only institution that has the power to improve and stabilize people’s lives, it is undeniably far-reaching and has the potential to reach so many. Before working at Code for America, I had never worked at an organization that thought so heavily about scale. Because we are looking for and prioritizing solutions for government that are based on equity—that is, solutions that actively dismantle existing inequity, repair past harm, empower people accessing services, and are reflectively humble—we gain the power to influence a better government. Of course our work at Clear My Record and Code for America alone can’t create a government that equitably serves all people; that requires a widespread commitment to revolutionary thinking and actions. But I’m hopeful.