Maggie Luna on the JustUs Speaks Podcast

February 9, 2023

She thought she was going to die in prison, because of the poor conditions. Today, Maggie Luna is fighting for the lives of her fellow Texans behind bars. She joins the #JustUs Speaks Podcast.



Read the full transcript:

Lester Young: Peace and blessings everyone, welcome to the new JustUs Speaks podcast from Just Leadership. I’m your co-host Lester Young.

Hakim Crampton: And I am your co-host Hakim Crampton. JustUs Speaks is being produced to amplify the voices of directly impacted people, particularly the voices of formerly incarcerated people.

Lester Young: Just Leadership was founded on the principles that those who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution but too often further from the resources and the power to affect positive change.

Hakim Crampton: So, here on our first season of the JustUs Speaks podcast, we are interviewing leaders from the most recent 2022 cohort of Just Leadership USA Leading With Conviction leadership training program.

Lester Young: Today we’re blessed to be speaking with Maggie Luna. Maggie is currently serving as Policy Analyst and Community Outreach Coordinator for the Texas Center for Justice and Equity.

Hakim Crampton: Her work also involves research such as coordinating activities and communicating issues related to decreasing the prison population and transforming policies within the context of the criminal justice system in the state of Texas.

Lester Young: Maggie also strives to cultivate relationships with policymakers and key stakeholders to effectively advocate and end harsh sentencing and racial inequalities within the context of the criminal justice system, while also researching legislation proposals that work to reform the criminal justice system to operate equitably and ensure humanity for all.

Hakim Crampton: And so Maggie is also organizing the statewide leadership council, a team of system-impacted leaders advocating for transformation in the Texas justice system. Maggie, we welcome [you] to JustUs podcast.

Maggie Luna: Hi Hakim and Lester, thank you so much for having me. This is exciting.

Lester Young: What’s going on over in Texas before we get into this podcast. What’s going on? How’s life? How’s the family? What’s going on?

Maggie Luna: Well, the family is great. We just finished out the midterms, and it did not go amazing, so we just continue our fight and keep working for people like us who are impacted by these policies that are put in place.

Lester Young: Tell us before we get into it, tell us a little more about you. We had an opportunity to read (me and Hakim) some of your bio, but who is the real Maggie? Who’s the real Maggie, right now, that [if] no one got a chance to read about you, who are you?

Maggie Luna: I am, like you said, the Policy Analyst and Community Outreach Coordinator, but I spent 20 years in and out of jail, prison, rehab, the streets–homelessness–and I just really truly believed that was the life that I was gonna subscribe to and end all until I lost everything. Everything. My children. My rights to my children. I was homeless. I was deep in addiction, and I just realized that one day my kids were going to come find me. And how did I want them to find me? And also the last time I was in prison I thought I was gonna die from the heat, the food, the treatment, and I would always think, is there somebody out there that knows that we are dying in here? In my mind, I thought somebody just has to know, you know? I figured somebody would come fix it, and I had to realize that nobody’s coming to fix it. We have to do it, you know? We have to get out and show that there are real people in there, no matter what the charge is, they’re still human. And so that’s what I do every day is try to break down that stigma and show them that we come back to your communities, how do you want us to come back?

Hakim Crampton: So, now Maggie that you’ve come back to your community tell us about your work, and how you got into your work, and tell us about some of the various activities– some of the things you’re doing in your work right now to ultimately change the conditions that you found yourself in.

Maggie Luna: When I got out of prison, I knew I didn’t want to go back, but I was released in the same way I was released before–with nothing. And so I was blessed to find, it’s called the Women’s Home in Houston, Texas, and they gave me 14 months of working on myself. And throughout that 14 months, I was able to grow up. There were things that I did not know that I did not know, you know? I didn’t know that normal people had bank accounts. I didn’t know that normal people had homes and they were building credit. None of that was ever exposed to me. I just knew how to run the game on the streets, you know? These women, basically I believe they saved my life because they showed me that I could use that same hustle that I used in the streets for good, and so I was introduced to Anthony Graves. Anthony Graves was exoneree number 138 here in Texas. He was on death row for 17 years for a crime he did not commit, and I met him in the community, and he was doing testimony at the Capitol and making meaningful change after the State did so much harm to him. And so it was really inspiring, and he kind of gave me my entrance into this political world, and showed me the people who were on my jury showed up because our people wouldn’t show up. And so that really resonated with me, and I was like we have to make the change because the people in power are making decisions for us and our family members, and it is harmful.

Lester Young: Yeah, it’s an unfortunate thing that we all who are formerly incarcerated went through some of the most challenging times in our lives, but in that we were able to rebuild our lives. It’s almost like in these challenges you found your purpose, you found a “why,” you found a purpose, a reason to exist, and to be a good parent to your children and to the community. And this is something a lot of people don’t see about our lives as formerly incarcerated people and why we’re so passionate about this work. This is just when I asked this question, we just coming out of the midterms, and we we’re getting prepared, getting amped up for the next next election cycle, and my question is: what what do you see, or what are your hopes for the next couple years in this in this fight around adding value, humanizing those with felony convictions, addressing some of these collateral consequences, what is your hope going into these next few years for election cycle again?

Maggie Luna: One of my major goals and focuses is to get more people who have experienced the injustices within the prison system in front of these people who are making our decisions for us. So, that’s what I do with the Statewide Leadership Council. I help cultivate this confidence. Because when I got out and I all of this legislative stuff, I didn’t know anything. I honestly had to watch: “I’m Just a Bill on Capitol Hill.” It’s a little cartoon, it confused me, and I almost cried. I was like, “am I really this out there? I can’t grasp this.” And so with the Statewide Leadership Council, I go to people who normally wouldn’t have these opportunities and who are intimidated by this process, and show them, “Look, I had to do the same thing.” I said Doug Smith was my mentor. I sat in rooms with him where I felt like a child. I had no idea what he was saying, but he was very instrumental in empowering me and showing me…cultivating that leader within me. And so, that I’m forever grateful for, and I also want to give that back to people in our community. So when we do come back next cycle, there’s a team of us who have created our own teams, and we’re all formerly incarcerated, and we are all showing that we deserve to have opportunities after we’ve paid our debt to society.

Hakim Crampton: Yeah, that’s powerful. You talk about Doug’s leadership, and Doug of course, as a fellow of mine from 2018 (him and I both graduated together), and so I’m sure that exposure to Doug ultimately led to your path to Just Leadership USA in which you were a recent graduate, so congratulations again. I want to ask you about your experience with Leading With Conviction. Tell us what that was like for you. How beneficial, [how] important was it in your life? In your leadership development for example? And more importantly though, was there something about Leading With Conviction that really stood out to you, was a favorite part to you, and tell us why.

Maggie Luna: Leading With Conviction started in my life with Doug. He went through the process and brought what he had learned back to Austin, Texas. When I met Doug I was looking for employment. I had been rejected so many times, and he looked at me and believed in me and that was all I needed. So Leading With Conviction in him sparked something in me. He was talking about Leading With Conviction, and I had no idea what it was, but also people in this community were like, “I’ve applied there, and I haven’t got in.” So it was also intimidating. And so, I didn’t know…I had no idea what to expect. I just knew that Doug was this amazing person in my mind, so he nominated me, and just the fact that I got in was amazing to me. I had just gotten out of prison in 2017. And now I’m in the Capitol. I got chosen for this cohort, and it was just so unreal to me. But the Leading With Conviction cohort that I was in, I met some amazing people across the nation, and I think that was the most valuable–is being able to see the work that’s being done in other cities, other states, and Texas is a very difficult political landscape, so it’s easy to get compassion fatigue where there’s so much that needs to be done, and I just don’t think I can do it. And then meeting these people across the nation who are doing amazing things it just constantly inspires me and shows me–we are who we need.

Lester Young: That’s the beauty of the cohort of Leading With Conviction is that you come into this cohort of people and you start seeing, “You know what? I’m not the only formerly incarcerated person. There’s a lot of badass people out in this world that are kicking doors down and changing s*#%, right?” That’s the beauty of this whole Just Leadership Leading With Conviction alums and cohorts. It’s everyone that we speak to in training and passing, whenever we get a chance, that’s the same thing that echoes is that Just Leadership felt like home. The training felt like home because it’s the first training where you don’t have to worry about judgment, your prison sentences, your resume; it amplifies your expertise.

Maggie Luna: Yeah, that’s like really a big thing for me because before I met Doug, my past was holding me down. I was going all the way up to the third interview and then getting denied because of my background. And so today, I get to see people all across the nation who have the same or worse challenges that I did, and they’re doing amazing things. They say that you surround yourself with people that you want to be like, and so I’m constantly feeding my soul with people who have been through the worst and are doing amazing. And it’s my resume now. What I went through was not in vain. I use that today, and it’s amazing to me. I never thought that that would be a virtue or something of value in my life and today it is.

Hakim Crampton: So now you have a solid foundation Maggie, where do you see yourself in your work, in your personal life, in five years for example or even up to 10 years?

Maggie Luna: Last year in Texas we passed a bill called the Family Reunification Bill, which is House Bill 2926 and like I mentioned earlier I lost custody and my parental rights to my children. So, I’m gaining them back now because of this law. Right now, I am preparing to be a mom again, after not being a mother for so long. I haven’t had a child in my home since I’ve been sober, and so that’s my immediate future, and I think within five years I would like to be doing some national organizing work. I feel like I’m making those connections and relationships. I know that I want to do something big for re-entry here in Texas because re-entry is so–it’s such a nuanced subject–they say they’re here for re-entry, but it’s really only for certain people. So yeah, working nationally and bringing those systems that are working into Texas is something that I hope to be working on in the next five years.

Lester Young: I think those are some realistic goals and some great goals that continue to inspire you especially knowing that you have an opportunity now to have your children come back into your home. You’ve always never lost the title “mother,” but now you have an opportunity now to really show that, what it means in that verb sense. Love is a verb.

[Music] Just Leadership USA amplifies the power of directly impacted people by investing, educating, empowering, and elevating their voices, so they have the tools and resources to self-organize and advocate for themselves, their families, and their communities. Together, we build an equitable, fair, and just U.S. To date, over 1400 leaders in 45 States and in Washington D.C. are hard at work transforming people and communities who are harmed by mass incarceration. Please partner with us to bend the arc of criminal legal reform by donating to our leadership programs today. Our network of leaders is strong and growing. Together, we’re building local power for national impact. Every donation supporting JLUSA and our leaders has a ripple effect across families, communities, and generations. With your support, we can continue working together towards our singular vision of a just, equitable future for all. To learn more, go to backslash give 2023, that’s backslash g-i-v-e 2023 [Music]

Lester Young: As you’re preparing in the goal preparing for motherhood again, to just have your children in your presence, and you’re thinking about the national work that you intend to do in the future (and I truly believe that it will happen), the thing is now as you doing these things, what are you doing to take care of Maggie in this self-preservation, this self-care model? What are you doing when you’re facing the rejection, when you’re facing the challenges, when your children are now in the home, and you know you had all of these fantasy thoughts of saying, “they’re going to be home,” and they come home and they’re going to be scratching you like, “ahhh mom!” What do you have in place around self-care and why does self-care matter to you?

Maggie Luna: One thing that I never had in my addiction was somebody to say, “I’m struggling right now.” So, that wasn’t really a thing for me, I couldn’t open that up to anybody. So today a part of my self-care is being able to say, “Look, I’m very frustrated. I don’t even know why I tried this.” You know? And being able to just voice that and realize like, I told my friend last week, “This is what I wanted, right? This is what I wanted.” You know? Just being able to speak to people in my community, and they encourage me, and I’ve never had that before. So it takes a village, right? To me self-care is being with my tribe and building each other up. My self-care is I spend a lot of time reading and just focused on what’s going to happen next.

Hakim Crampton: That leads us to our next question Maggie. You know a lot of people, especially black men for example, who have been ostracized from the education system to a great extent, when they go to prison, for the first time they open up a book, like myself. Very literate before I went to prison, but I had never opened up a book. So, what about you? Did you find yourself in prison seeking out knowledge and a thirst to feed yourself? Did you read any books? And if you read any books, how influential were those books in your life? Or, were they just booked just to pass time for example?

Maggie Luna: Yeah, that’s a great question. I had never actually really had a relationship with education, I mean with reading, just to read. If I had read it was because I needed something. But, the first time I was incarcerated I didn’t read anything. I ran the day room with other people and obviously got out and went back, you know? The second time I just was so beat down that I knew I needed something in me to change, and so one of the most influential books, it was, We’re All Doing Time.

Lester Young: I remember that! I need to see that cover. Oh man!

Maggie Luna: Anyway, that book like changed my everything, you know? Just realizing that we put things in motion that are going to catch up to us one day, and it just changed my thinking. I read a lot of spiritual books while I was in there because that was what I felt like I was lacking the most. I had no connection. Just realizing that everything is within me has been the biggest life-changing thing, and so now I read constantly because like I said in the beginning, I felt so ignorant when I got out. All of these big huge words, I was so intimidated.

Lester Young: I’m pretty sure you have heard–you and Hakim have heard–that readers make leaders. That’s really literally (it sounds cliché and all that), but it really is because when you look at leaders around the world, you look at their life, and you will see that reading was a part of that regimen. They would read a certain amount of books a month, a year, or whatever the case may have been, and that’s been a powerful tool that helps so many leaders who are formerly incarcerated now walking into this space around advocacy work, all of them tie a lot of their leadership back to one book, several books, you know? And to go to this next question, I’m curious to know: you said the book, We’re All Doing Time inspired you to see you differently. But who inspired your leadership? A person? Was it somebody inside of the system? Was it a volunteer that came in? Was it somebody in or out? You mentioned Doug, but you didn’t meet Doug until you got out of prison. Who was that person that you saw inside of that prison environment that really inspired you about leadership?

Maggie Luna: The moment that sticks out in my mind that made me realize, this is Texas, and I was in prison during August heat. I also was incarcerated during Harvey, and so I was incarcerated with some elderly people, who I knew I was suffering, and I would look in their faces and be like, “This is insane.” That always burns into my mind. I believed that if we just got out and told somebody that we could save these people who are suffering in here, and so that sparked something within, like this fire within me: we gotta do something about this. One of the ladies–I called her Nana–I can remember her looking dead in my face, and she called me Luna, because that’s my last name, and she was like, “Luna, am I gonna make it out of here?” And she only had a six-month sentence, so that could have been her death sentence. That created this fire within me. I don’t care what you have done, nobody deserves to feel like we felt in that prison. So I feel like that sparked the leadership within me.

Hakim Crampton: That’s deep, thank you for sharing that. That’s a powerful precious story actually. So let me ask you this too, Maggie: what is your hope coming up into the New Year, coming up into 2023? And tie that into your vision for the future.

Maggie Luna: So for 2023 right now, my focus is our legislative session. Texas only has it once every other year. We have three pieces of legislation that I’m hoping we can get either moved or get the conversation started, right? One of them is the emergency preparedness within TDCJ because of hHurricane Harvey and people like me who suffered in there. We’re also working on a parole common sense package, and then we’re also working to remove collateral consequences for people like me. That would help me and other people in the next five to ten years because it would give us a pathway to have our record sealed after we’ve paid our debt to society, after we’ve done what we’ve needed to do. I can’t even rent a place right now in my name, and so I’ve been paying rent on time for three and a half years, but it goes nothing towards my credit report. Nothing. And so that’s something that hopefully we can get that barrier removed, and then people like me, we can start generational wealth. I have nothing to invest because of my past. My children shouldn’t have to suffer for that.

Lester Young: I think that’s important that you highlight that because a lot of people–this is again, why we’re so passionate about this work, this is why it’s a natural [fit]. It’s not a hard thing for us. We naturally go out and speak. We naturally lead because we’re living these collateral consequences every day. We know how it impacts our lives, and it just sometimes just baffles me, and makes me wonder: who in the world created these collateral consequences? What were they thinking? Obviously, they were not thinking about us. Now it’s up to us to walk out of these environments and literally change something. We say that we support redemption, second chance opportunities, but then why a person is still being denied  access to living as parents, you’re a mother, I’m a father, Hakim’s a father, and they’re saying that you can’t rent a house, but that’s part of your condition as a citizen is to have a safe place to live. And I just want to say, continue to fight the fight, and this is what Just Leadership is all about. We’re using the voices of those who are impacted by something to be able to amplify the issues because if we don’t speak up, then guess what? These laws will continuously be barriers that hold so many of us back.

[Music] We are so excited to invite you to the Just Leadership USA Ninth Annual Benefit Gala, Monday, June 5th 2023 at PhD Rooftop Lounge at Dream downtown in New York City. We’re excited to bring JLUSA leaders, allies, and advocates together in person to unite around our shared values and propel our vision for the future. During the last year we’ve made significant strides in building our capacity and infrastructure to become the only National Systems Change Movement and Policy Table led by and for directly impacted people. This coming June, please join us for our first in-person celebration in over two years. Learn more at backslash Gala that’s backslash g-a-l-a [Music]

Lester Young: Maggie, we’re coming to the end of this interview and this great conversation, and I just have maybe one more question, and I’m pretty sure my co-host Hakim has something to ask you. But we want to talk about failure for a minute. I heard Will Smith says that “success is that you fail first.” Fail now and fail often which equals success. But I’m asking you what are some of the lessons you learned in your failures that have put you in a position where you’re at today?

Maggie Luna: That is such a great question because when I first got into Just Leadership and all of this world, failure was terrifying. Today, I’ve learned that it’s needed to get to that next level. Nobody just wakes up and is like, “Okay I know what I’m gonna do today, and it’s gonna work, you know?” And some of that was built into me just by my organizing. I failed a lot. I’ve done things that would have worked somewhere else, but just didn’t work here. I heard, “Well, what is failure? It’s just failure.” And that was mind-blowing to me. Nobody’s died from failing, right?

Lester Young: Nobody dies from that. It may hurt, but you ain’t gonna die from it, right?

Maggie Luna: Yeah! And also, failing in public gives me that courage to not really mind succeeding in public because sometimes it’s hard for me to differentiate criticism and all of that. So just being able to be okay with it, it’s changed everything.

Lester Young:…it says success is failure turned inside out. When you think about it, success is failure turned inside out. We all fail in life to get where we need to be, so thank you again for sharing that. Hakim, you have anything before we close?

Hakim Crampton: Yeah, I do want to ask you a question. A lot of people live by various models or philosophies to help really guide them. Sometimes we write these words down on vision boards and things like. We’ve interviewed people who have gotten special tattoos to remind them of something, you know a motto or something that keeps them focused. Do you have a motto in life? And if so, share it with us, please.

Maggie Luna: The one that has stuck with me since I got out of prison is, be a voice, not an echo. That has really driven me to be that voice. My son’s been in foster care for six years. He doesn’t know how to ask for the things that he needs, so I’ve been on their front door for the last five years telling them. So that kind of resonates with me, just like with the women in prison who can’t get into the legislator’s office. I want to be that voice instead of saying, “man, I wish I would have done more.”

Lester Young: Thank you, love that. We’ve been wrapping this up, just wanted to say again thank you for being a guest on the JustUs Speaks podcast. We really appreciate your energy. We appreciate your contribution to this discussion today, but most importantly the work you’re doing in Texas. Continue to walk in your purpose. Continue to use your gift to unlock the doors, and as you mentioned, continue to be that voice not an echo for those that you’re standing for. Do you have any departing words of wisdom that you want to share?

Maggie Luna: Well I do want to say, Lester, Hakim, it has been an honor to be able to know both of you and be part of the Just Leadership family. I’m really grateful, I’m excited to see where this podcast goes.

Lester Young: Thank you. Like you said this podcast is going to be the biggest and the baddest podcast in this criminal legal system conversation. That’s our intent. In Just Leadership we do it big. Again, thank you Maggie for being our guest, and we look forward to having you back again to talk about some of the new things coming up for you in the near future. Be blessed.

Maggie Luna: Thank you. [Music]

Your donation to JLUSA empowers directly impacted people.

Thank you so much for supporting our mission here at JLUSA! Your donation helps to support our network of leaders working to dismantle oppressive systems and uplift people and families impacted by mass incarceration across the country.

All charitable donations made to JLUSA are fully tax deductible, as allowable by the IRS.