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Featured Voice: An Interview with Mantell Stevens

Mantell Stevens is an activist, organizer, speaker, and lobbyist with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. We spoke with Stevens about his work, his life, and how they have come to influence each other.

  • Erin Kelley
April 21, 2017

Mantell Stevens is an activ­ist, organ­izer, speaker, and lobby­ist with Kentucki­ans for the Common­wealth, a grass­roots social justice organ­iz­a­tion work­ing on a number of issues, includ­ing ending Kentuck­y’s policy of life­time disen­fran­chise­ment.

Kentucky is one of only three states that continue to impose life­time disen­fran­chise­ment, perman­ently barring citizens from the ballot box as a consequence for any felony convic­tion.

We spoke with Stevens about his work, his life, and how they have come to influ­ence each other. Our conver­sa­tion appears below, edited to account for space constraints.

Could you tell us a bit about your­self, and how you became involved with efforts to restore voting rights?

I’m 38 and I was born and raised in Lexing­ton, Kentucky. Around the time that I was between 18 and 20 years old, I got involved with selling drugs and got my first felony. I didn’t really know the consequences at the time. Yes, I was an adult, and I knew right from wrong. But as far as long-term consequences, I wasn’t aware – and my public defender didn’t advise me of all of my options – so I pleaded to the felony charge. And, in a lot of ways, I was blind­sided by that felony.

In the last couple of years, it’s been a struggle look­ing for employ­ment, going to school, and getting grants and schol­ar­ships to go to school. Life is hard for convicted felons. I can name ten people off the top of my head who are in the same situ­ation. We have past felony convic­tions that are so old – these convic­tions happened when we were kids. Basic­ally, my current situ­ation is living in poverty because I don’t have same the resources avail­able to me as people who haven’t been convicted of a felony.

About twenty years after I was out of the system, I decided to parti­cip­ate in a reentry program because I needed to find a job. It was frus­trat­ing to have to go through that process, because I had all of the skills and know­ledge that I needed to get a job – I just needed that resource to help me actu­ally find one. Through that program, I met Tayna Fogle, who had a program with the prospect for a really good job, in exchange for people attend­ing a county coun­cil meet­ing about a resol­u­tion for the restor­a­tion of rights. And basic­ally, once I went to that meet­ing and they passed the resol­u­tion, that’s when the light­bulb went off. It just hit me that I needed to be some­how involved in this process, because there were a lot of people at that meet­ing who were stand­ing up and fight­ing for my right to vote. And imme­di­ately I just kind of felt oblig­ated to get involved. That’s how I linked up with Kentucki­ans for the Common­wealth.

Now, even though life is a little hectic, I take every oppor­tun­ity I can to share my story and bring aware­ness about the import­ance of the restor­a­tion of voting rights. It’s some­thing I’m really passion­ate about doing, because it’s so import­ant.

Why is the right to vote import­ant to you?

Right now, Kentuck­y’s process for voting rights restor­a­tion requires a lengthy applic­a­tion. As I said, life for a convicted felon can be hectic, and the current process is very discour­aging. On top of trying to make a decent living, and basic­ally just survive – people have to navig­ate this process that’s not clear. It’s a deterrent. There’s no cent­ral­ized repos­it­ory for inform­a­tion about the applic­a­tion process – there’s no number that you can call to get all of the inform­a­tion that you need.

Now, every­body has prob­lems – convicted felon or not – but it’s just so much harder for a convicted felon because you’re already at a disad­vant­age. And it can be almost a feel­ing of hope­less­ness, and through that it takes a certain type of person to be able to say ‘no matter what I’m going through in life right now – I need to parti­cip­ate in our demo­cracy.’

But parti­cip­at­ing in demo­cracy is so import­ant, because outside of the national elec­tion and the pres­id­ency, we’re talk­ing about things that happen in your neigh­bor­hood, things that you need to be a part of, things that you need to have a say about.

In Novem­ber 2015, then-Gov. Steve Beshear issued an exec­ut­ive order restor­ing voting rights to Kentucki­ans who had fully completed sentences for past crim­inal convic­tions. What was your reac­tion when you heard that news?

First and fore­most, that was awesome that he did that. It just re-ener­gized me and demon­strated that people really do care about voting rights restor­a­tion. And it wasn’t just about having the right to vote, but also the empower­ment that came along with that. It’s really hard to describe the feel­ing – but it was almost like accept­ance. People always say, ‘you do the crime; you do the time; you pay your dues to soci­ety.’ But that has never been true, in my exper­i­ence. But at least in that moment, it was a feel­ing of accept­ance – it was soci­ety saying ‘you made a mistake, you paid for it – and now you can be just like every­body else: you can parti­cip­ate.’

But less than a month later, in Decem­ber 2015, Gov. Matt Bevin took office and rescin­ded Beshear’s rights restor­a­tion exec­ut­ive order. What is your take on that?

Why would some­body not want to make the voting rights restor­a­tion process easier? It infuri­ated me. It’s basic­ally saying there’s a whole class of people who we want to prevent from parti­cip­at­ing. We need to progress, we need to move on – every­body needs the right to vote and to be able to parti­cip­ate in our elec­tions.

How do you see the issue of rights restor­a­tion fitting in with our soci­ety’s treat­ment of people with past convic­tions, gener­ally?

The resist­ance to restor­ing voting rights lets me know that we’re a threat. There have been recent reforms in Kentucky, includ­ing Bevin’s 'ban the box’ order and the Senate’s crim­inal justice reform legis­la­tion, but the voting rights issue is stag­nant. It lets me know that some people are in fear of the power that we could have once we have the right to vote.

While other aspects of crim­inal justice reform are taking a step in the right direc­tion, Bevin has moved back­wards on voting rights. I don’t under­stand it. It’s as if people who have past convic­tions – we’re finally being accep­ted, except for the main and most funda­mental part of being a citizen – which is the right to vote.

What strategies are most useful in advocacy efforts around voting rights restor­a­tion?

The most useful strategy is defin­itely getting eligible people registered and to the polls, as well as motiv­at­ing and push­ing former felons to at least get star­ted in the current rights restor­a­tion applic­a­tion process.

For me, after filing paper­work for restor­a­tion under Beshear’s rules, I still haven’t applied again under Bevin’s applic­a­tion. To be honest, I got discour­aged. Life star­ted happen­ing, and I have to take time out to actu­ally do that applic­a­tion. And when you do take the time out to do that – and you try to get the inform­a­tion you need, you get into a loop. One person won’t know what they’re talk­ing about – and so they direct you to another depart­ment, and on and on. There needs to be a push to get people educated about this process and to motiv­ate them to go ahead and apply. Because the first thing that the Governor does when rights restor­a­tion is brought up is claim that nobody is apply­ing, so nobody wants to vote. And I think that’s an argu­ment used by the major­ity of people who are opposed to the restor­a­tion of voting rights – they claim that there’s a current process, but nobody’s moving forward on it, so they must not want to vote that badly. But that is not the truth.

What do you see as the most chal­len­ging aspect of the advocacy efforts to change Kentuck­y’s disen­fran­chise­ment policy?

The most chal­len­ging aspect is actu­ally convin­cing current legis­lat­ors. At least from my exper­i­ence, when I go and talk to them person­ally, they already have a preset notion. Basic­ally, there’s that little story that ‘you knew what you were doing when you did the crime, so you got what you deserved.’ That’s what I hear from a lot of people who oppose voting rights restor­a­tion. So the work is to change that atti­tude, and convince them that people change – and people change for the better.

To do that, I make it rhet­or­ical and shoot it back at them. Every­one has screwed up in life – every­one has done some­thing they’re not supposed to do. That does­n’t make you a bad person. And so my attempt is to make people look in the mirror and real­ize that we’re all people and every­body makes mistakes. We have to move on, we have to progress. We’re just asking for the right to vote. How can that be danger­ous? It’s the right to vote and it’s the right thing to do. That’s what our coun­try is built on. I don’t under­stand why anybody would say, ‘you can be a citizen and you can pay taxes, but you can’t parti­cip­ate in demo­cracy.’

How do you keep your­self engaged, despite setbacks?

It’s hard – I mean, oh my God, it’s just so hard. Some­times I think, ‘wow, do I really have time to dedic­ate today?’ And I remem­ber that, yes, I do – because it’s import­ant. And I think about the younger gener­a­tion. We have to get the ball rolling, because even if reform is not going to happen anytime soon, it needs to happen at some point. Noth­ing will get accom­plished if I idly sit by, and don’t do anything to be a part of the push to make this change. I don’t have any kids, but I have nieces and neph­ews – and I want them to live in a world where they have the free­dom to choose their school offi­cials, their city coun­cil members, their police commis­sion­ers – the people who have the power to change things in their community. If there’s stuff going on in your community, in your neigh­bor­hood, that you don’t like, then you need to be able to choose the people that have the power to change that – to vote for those people and put them in office.

In what ways can people both in and out of the state support your work?

Defin­itely – for the people that live in Kentucky, exer­cise their right to vote. And my respons­ib­il­ity is to educate people on the import­ance of state and local elec­tions. There needs to be more educa­tion, because when I connect the dots for some­body as far as local and state govern­ment, they real­ize they really do care about this stuff – they say ‘my kid goes to school, so yeah, I do need to be voting for this person.’ And that’s what I see happen­ing a lot – that’s when a lot of people’s light­bulb goes off – is when they find that connec­tion and they see that voting is import­ant because it affects what’s around them.

For people who don’t live in Kentucky, their role is putting pres­sure on legis­lat­ors – to take a stand that this is the right thing to do. On a federal level, we should be saying ‘once you have done your time, you need to be redeemed.’ That’s what I would like to see on a national level – more aware­ness. Why anybody would want to suppress some­body’s right to vote, maybe it’s not meant for me to under­stand – but people just need to do the right thing.

Photo of Kentucky State Capitol:  Peter Alex­an­der, CC by 2.5