Gavels and black robes are left behind when several female Ramsey County judges, attorneys and law clerks arrive at the St. Paul Midway YMCA each Wednesday evening.
Stepping away from courtrooms to support women who have been on the opposite end of the justice system has become a passion, as organizers bear witness to the positive differences that the interactions foster.
"We're gathering as women in the community, not touting anybody's title or fancy letters after their name," Sara Grewing, assistant chief judge of Minnesota's Second Judicial District, said of the Women's Community Group.
"Our goal is helping people see they're worthy and that someone cares about them," said Judge Nicole Starr.
Starr, Grewing and Judge Maria Mitchell, along with Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Muteeat Lawal and several other judicial system professionals, dedicate a minimum of two hours weekly to creating a safe, sober and supportive space where attendees can eat, relax, learn and relate in a nonjudgmental environment.
Six years ago, Starr (a past public defender) and Grewing (a former St. Paul City attorney and chief of staff to the mayor of St. Paul) were two years into their tenure on the Ramsey County bench when a spark was lit.
"I missed the real connections I formerly made with folks [as a public defender]; you have a different relationship with the public as a judge," said Starr.
And Grewing's earlier professional experiences hadn't put her in direct contact with the type of constituents whose offenses she was adjudicating in her new role.
"We decided to go to the Ramsey County workhouse on Friday nights, starting with the idea we'd like to make the system more responsive to the women and families we serve," she said.
Sitting in discussion with incarcerated women in the workhouse's education room was surprisingly useful.
"We got some of the best ideas and feedback there," said Grewing.
For instance, they discovered that a lack of transportation was a common reason for missing court appearances.
Enter COVID-19. More women on electronic home monitoring meant fewer on-site. One participant asked Starr, "Have you ever thought of doing this on the outs?"
"We hadn't," said Starr, "but when we asked, 'Would you come?' they said 'Sure.' And sure enough, they do."
Joined by Judge Maria Mitchell, who logged 15 years as a public defender and five years as a Ramsey County prosecutor before her appointment to the Second Judicial District bench in June 2022, the Women's Community Group gained momentum after switching to Wednesday evening meetings at the St. Paul Midway YMCA.
A diverse crowd — roughly 50% white and 50% ethnic minorities — of 15 to 40 women assemble weekly.
"We provide a hot meal, a small Aldi or Walmart gift card and a bus token for transportation," said Mitchell, adding that the program is funded by Ramsey County and federal grant dollars.
Child care is provided (Grewing is often the kid-wrangler) so participants, all of whom are there voluntarily, can focus on enjoying the meal, conversation and any educational component that the coordinators plan for the night.
Discussions a highlight
In that safe, sober, all-female space, the discussion circle is the centerpiece of every meeting.
"We're all moms, sisters, daughters or aunts so we have those points of commonality," said Grewing.
Added Mitchell, "We provide each other support, try to come up with solutions and offer advice."
They relate to the attendees simply as other women. They're careful to avoid conflicts of interest, never discussing any pending cases or offering false assurances.
"In a conversation with some gals, one said, 'My judge doesn't like meth,'" said Starr. "We're honest with them, so I had to say, 'To be fair, no judge likes meth,' and without being mean or shaming we explained that meth isn't healthy, safe or legal.
"Community Women's Group is a place where we can have those conversations, and even if it's just for those couple of hours, attendees are in a sober, trauma-free place where people listen and encourage them to make healthy, smart choices."
Another priority is providing educational segments on topics pertinent to participants' lives.
"We've had a self-defense specialist teach basic self-defense moves — very useful because so many of them have been victims of or exposed to domestic violence," said Mitchell. Other evenings have included visits from WomenVentures, housing partnerships, MN TRIO and educational organizations.
Sharing their stories
Growing up in New York, Lawal was surrounded by an "atmosphere of domestic violence." She freely shares with women who are in the midst of their own struggles that she's a single mom who weathered much stress and hardship to emerge intact on the better side of life today.
"I can tell them, 'I went through this and look where I am now,'" said Lawal. "I know it can be hard to see the future, be positive and make smart choices when everything in your life is going wrong.
"We lift each other up every time we meet, which is really nice."
Because every attendee has been justice-involved in one way or another — some as victims, some as offenders, some with CHIPS (child in need of protection or services) cases — organizers strive to instill in them the confidence to keep trying for improvement.
"The folks we see are definitely working through hard stuff, yet they come with an incredible sense of hope," said Starr.
"We emphasize that 'this too shall pass,' and that we are all stronger than the obstacles placed in front of us," she said. "They've seen a lot, but they still show up with the idea that tomorrow could be better."
Starr is motivated to continue sacrificing her scant free time — she's also an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota Law School and is studying for a divinity degree — because of the gains several of the group's participants have achieved.
"At a recent meeting, a woman who lived in a shelter when she began attending has now held onto her job for a year, managing a gas station," said Starr. "Another woman who was homeless for eight years is finally housed and gets to see her son every week."
The Women's Community Group coordinators perform this service quietly and with no expectation of public kudos. Yet their work hasn't gone unnoticed; in late September, Mitchell, Grewing and Starr received the Minnesota District Judges Foundation's Community Service Award.
"Anytime judges can be in the community and show their humanity, it helps the system overall," said Grewing.
Lawal added, "Things happen in life, but we're there to support them in any way we can — because we're all human."
There are no easy answers, but Mitchell sees the Women's Community Group as a step in the right direction.
"If I felt that what I was doing in court was enough, I wouldn't be doing this," she said. "But it's not enough."
Jane Turpin Moore is a Northfield writer.