Breaking Patterns and Meeting Needs: A Q&A on Community Safety

January 31, 2024 Perspective

Author

Carl Takei

Carl Takei

Program Manager and Senior Staff Attorney, Criminal Justice Reform

Carl Takei

Program Manager and Senior Staff Attorney, Criminal Justice Reform

Carl Takei is a Senior Staff Attorney and the Criminal Justice Reform Program Manager at the Asian Law Caucus. Previously, he was a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where he co-led the national organization’s shift toward divesting from police and reinvesting in communities, and fought abuses at the intersections of criminal legal and immigration enforcement systems. He led the ACLU’s successful advocacy work to terminate the U.S. Department of Justice’s “Criminal Alien Requirement” contracts with private prisons, culminating in that agency’s 2016 decision to phase out all of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ private prison contracts.

Carl is also a longtime co-chair of Tsuru for Solidarity, working with other Japanese American advocates and allies to end detention sites and support directly impacted communities. Carl is a graduate of Boston College Law School, and began his legal career as a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Paul Barbadoro in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire.

Lauren Nguyen

Lauren Nguyen

Communications Associate

Lauren Nguyen

Communications Associate

Lauren Nguyen is the communications associate at Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus. Prior to joining ALC, she led digital strategy at Restoring Justice, a criminal defense organization, and focused on social media and advocacy at the ACLU of Texas. Lauren has also served as an PIVOT Election Fellow for Rise AAPI and volunteered as an ESL teacher in her hometown of Houston. She loves cheering for the Astros and hanging with her dog Eddie.

Over the past year, Carl Takei has grown ALC’s criminal justice reform program to provide more legal and advocacy services to low-income, immigrant Asian, Pacific Islander, Arab, and Middle Eastern communities in San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa, and San Mateo counties. Today, the six member-team is helping people recover from harm, feel safer, and prevent the harm from happening again, including through a new free legal clinic that provides culturally-sensitive services for victims and survivors of violence in the languages they use.

Prior to joining ALC, Carl worked at the ACLU, and he served as a Tsuru for Solidarity co-chair in its first four years. We talked to Carl about how these experiences and his own family history have shaped his approach to community lawyering today.

Q: How did you come to focus your career on community safety and the criminal legal system?

CT: As a yonsei (fourth generation) Japanese American, I grew up steeped in the stories of my family’s experiences with World War II incarceration. On my dad’s side of the family, my great-grandfather Juro was an immigrant and successful business owner in Seattle until the FBI arrested him in January 1942. The Department of Justice kept him imprisoned until he could be released on parole supervision to a white person whom the federal government considered trustworthy. On my mom’s side, my grandfather Kuichi served in a racially-segregated U.S. Army artillery unit while his wife, my grandmother Bette, was imprisoned at a concentration camp.

[1] Children walking between fences at the Tule Lake Relocation Center, one of several prison camps that held Japanese Americans during World War II. | The National Japanese Historical Society, Inc. [2] Reconstructed barracks, guard and water towers stand at the Amache National Historic Site in Grenada, CO today. Bette Takei was incarcerated at this concentration camp, formerly called the Granada Relocation Center. | National Park Service [3] A man and child examine a barbed wire fence during a 1974 pilgrimage trip to the Tule Lake Relocation Center, now the Tule Lake National Monument, in Newell, CA. | "A man and a child examining a barbed wire fence at Tule Lake” (ddr-densho-294-55), Densho, courtesy of the Gerald Kajitani Collection Collection

My family’s history meant I grew up learning how governmental institutions can wield coercive power – especially the power to arrest and incarcerate people. In the months and years after 9/11, I watched with horror as the U.S. leaned into Islamophobia, violated due process, and surveilled Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities. When I began my legal career a few years later, abuses of power in the criminal legal system became impossible to ignore. From police violence and surveillance, to jails, to the fight for immigrant rights, I learned about people whose lives were irrevocably harmed by the criminal legal system. And I thought of how my own family suffered enormously at the hands of a cruel and xenophobic government.

The injustice suffered by elders still living is what drives me and many others to insist that our country learn from history. Outside of my job, I volunteer with Tsuru for Solidarity. We are a group of Japanese Americans who see parallels between wartime incarceration of our relatives and the anti-immigrant policies pursued by our elected officials today. We use our energies to fight against immigration detention, police abuse, and the incarceration of our neighbors and community members.

Q: Over the course of your career, who has shaped your advocacy? What did you learn from them?

CT:
In addition to my family, I’ve learned from so many courageous community members who have been subject to unimaginable pain and injustice - and still they have hope for a world where we can all walk down the streets, go to work, or relax with our kids without fear for our safety.

It’s an honor to advocate for that better future alongside them. When I was at the American Civil Liberties Union, my colleagues and I spent over a year traveling across the country and meeting with grassroots organizers, parents, faith leaders, and other community members who had direct experiences with police, jail wardens, and ICE officials.

Carl Takei wears a face mask and nametag as he gestures while looking to his left. Another person sits beside Carl and looks at him.

Carl Takei at a 2023 San Francisco convening on community safety.

Like many of our clients at ALC, they saw police descend on their neighborhoods in response to violence but not address the conditions that led to the violence in the first place. Many people, whether they were from New Orleans, Albuquerque, or Seattle, were also subject to cruelty and inhumanity by police. They bore witness to a heartbreaking pattern. Unconscionable police brutality and violence in their communities would spark mass protests for safety. Most elected officials would respond with small changes like more training or different internal policies, even more money in police budgets, and no accountability. Official violence persisted until community anger and despair boiled over once again.

The people I met on this listening tour helped me understand community safety in a deeper way. When those in power make decisions that deprive our communities of these essentials, like housing, mental and physical healthcare, and jobs that cover rent, we become vulnerable to instability and violence. More training and money for police can’t change that reality or meet those basic needs. With each conversation, I came away with even more resolve to break this pattern.

Q: Turning back to your work now, ALC is part of a growing network of Bay Area organizations who are working together to make our communities safer and more resilient. What does that look like?

CT:
It’s inspiring to see local groups across the Bay setting up programs to prevent violence and build cross-community solidarity. In the face of decades of disinvestment in communities of color and immigrant communities, we need more people working together and using strategies that are backed up by data and evidence to have healthier, safer places to live.

In a thriving community, there are a lot of resources that complement each other, like well-funded schools next to beautiful parks or affordable doctors and accessible pharmacies. That’s a good analogy for how we developed our new clinic.

In the months before our clinic launched, we started working with the Asian Health Services’ Community Healing Unit, which provides culturally-sensitive counseling and healthcare services to individuals and families impacted by hate, crime, and community violence, with a special focus on Alameda County’s Asian American communities. As they healed physically and mentally, AHS patients were also trying to navigate law enforcement processes. But these interactions often left them feeling re-traumatized, confused, or concerned that the issues that mattered most to them were not being resolved. Because of these experiences, some patients not only asked why the legal system was failing to meet their needs, but also wondered about other options for recovery and accountability outside of the legal system.

The Asian Law Caucus Criminal Justice Reform team gathered with attorneys from the Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Bay Area to introduce the legal clinic.

The Asian Law Caucus Criminal Justice Reform team gathered with attorneys from the Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Bay Area to introduce the legal clinic.

More and more patients expressed these same concerns and needs. So, late last year, we launched a new clinic to meet that demand. We focus on helping community members navigate the criminal legal system, define what they need to recover from harm and feel safer, and explore options in and beyond the legal system to achieve those goals. For some clients, that has included restorative justice, which holds the perpetrator of harm accountable based on terms set by the harmed person. Whether as ALC clients or AHS patients, these community members are able to get the help they need to pull through crisis and heal in the language they use.

Meanwhile, as attorneys, we know that many other lawyers want to help their fellow Bay Area neighbors. Our team isn’t large enough to do everything our clients need, and so we’re training volunteer attorneys from the Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Bay Area, and from law firms like Farella Braun + Martel to grow our capacity. By putting victims and survivors at the center of our work, all of our organizations have been able to do more for community safety.

Q: It’s only been a few months, but can you share a little bit about what you’re learning from the clinic? What do community members say they need to recover and heal?

CT:
A client last year told us that the District Attorney’s office dismissed their questions and didn’t understand how that unhelpful approach was adding to our client’s frustration and fear. Their experience really stuck with me because it captures how, in ways big and small, the criminal legal system presents community members with a process with little room for their needs. Instead the system typically offers a limited, English-only script that moves at the pace and discretion of prosecution.

We’ve also seen how survivors struggle in many different ways for months and months after an incident. Healing and recovery is a long process - and it’s harder when community members can’t get answers from police or local government offices. People aren’t just coming to terms with what they physically lost; they are also grappling with new emotional, financial, housing, and other concerns. We need systems that meet victims and survivors with care and attend to their full material, emotional, and physical wellbeing. That takes time, and it takes funding our communities in a way we’ve never experienced before.

We’re holding these clinics each month. As we help more people, I hope to share what we’re learning from our clients and their ideas for community safety.

Four people stand pose for a picture outside of a building with decorative molding on its exterior.

The Criminal Justice Reform Program team at a recent staff retreat.

For more information about the Criminal Justice Reform program, visit our issue page.