Founder’s Blog

Sparking Justice from a Studio Backlot

January 31, 2020

Tough and important things happen at Raben all the time; we are organized to make a difference for the issues and communities we care about, and our clients take on complicated stuff. We help pass laws, change minds, and inspire; shifting power through supporting clients who want to make something happen.

Recently, however, was a standout. I was facilitating a session on a backlot of Warner Bros, a session meant to set strategy for the largest social justice campaign around a film in recent memory, if ever, and we were going around the table with introductions: the Catholic Mobilizing Network, prison abolition leaders, Van Jones, and studio executives.

And then this:  “I’m Herman Lindsey, I’m the 23rd person exonerated from Florida’s death row.”

A conversation stopper.

Each piece of it. That Florida is so blemished, and what that says about us. That Florida is not alone among the 50 United States. That for Mr. Linsday this has become the lede in his identity. That there’s an infrastructure in place to rail against this absurd system. Where are the first 22? How high is the number of exonerated now? And … how many of the innocent are already dead?

The group was there to help craft the strategy and tactics behind the REPRESENT JUSTICE campaign — an effort to tie a feature film, Just Mercy, to narrative, cultural, and public policy change. For the film’s release, REPRESENT JUSTICE drove conference appearances, special screenings of Just Mercy for elected officials, and impressive programs such as “Play for Justice” with the NBA to bring influencers and electeds inside facilities for pick up basketball games with residents on the inside. More than awareness of the tremendous damage that mass incarceration causes, it connects individuals to meaningful actions to catalyze long term change. 

Just Mercy is in theaters now, go see it.  

Our campaign came about because Scott Budnick, the brilliant mind behind the film, served with me on President Obama’s My Brothers’ Keeper Board, and we both saw the fusion of art and policy. He asked Raben to help him construct this campaign, and we did — more than either of us thought practical.  

Corporate and nonprofit colleagues have been supportive of REPRESENT JUSTICE’s goals, and they’ve put their money and relationships behind its mission. Our teams led a year of convenings and cultivation of leaders, organizations, and media to leverage the cultural moment of the release of this film to criminal justice reform. And more importantly, to harness the attention of it to increase capacity among the courageous organizations leading reform work day in and day out.

REPRESENT JUSTICE has also been on the ground working with other organizations to advocate for system-impacted individuals. It has also focused on events — an exhibit showcasing art from formerly incarcerated and a concert by Common at the California Rehabilitation Center — that seek to give voice and dignity to those who aren’t generally afforded much of either. 

It’s been exciting to see leaders from Hollywood come together with activists to help drive such a powerful force for change. It’s been humbling.

Stories that rest on transformative narrative — building empathy and encouraging you to do something — must be supported. In an age where the assault on facts is relentless, those of us who care about public policy must invest in storytelling, in any medium, to connect with and move people.  

We are far from done but know we are at the forefront of a new vision in how others will view the fusion of art and policy. Ideally, this campaign will inspire other content creators to look more seriously at how art can drive policy.

It’s not just interesting. It’s imperative.

December 5, 2019

During the recent Intelligence Committee hearings, you may have seen a ubiquitous, intense, top staffer, sitting to the right and behind Chairman Adam Schiff’s shoulder, holding down the fort.

It’s the kind of job where you sit all day absorbing and monitoring and supporting, and spend all night preparing for the next day. Some years ago this top staffer was an excellent intern at The Raben Group, who went on to the National Security Council and now the Intelligence Committee. I’m proud of him — his career, his values, and what he’s doing. 

Twenty years ago at the last impeachment, I was one of those staffers. 

Counsel to the House Judiciary Committee, with a team of similarly intense men and women, the political nation’s fate at our fingertips, we labored then to defend, not prosecute, a president whose behavior was out of line. Way out of line. I was on the opposite side of Chairman Henry Hyde and Lindsey Graham’s prosecutorial fury, and we fought. Hyde later testified favorably at my Senate confirmation hearing to become Assistant Attorney General. But boy did we fight.   

I’ve seen, and learned, a lot in 20 years.

One, while it’s harder, no doubt because comity is less and less rewarded and sometimes even punished, I continue to operate under the fact that you can disagree, even vehemently, with people, and still see and act on their humanity. It’s an important goal, if not for your own sanity, then for the reciprocity, it sometimes generates. Fight your fight, make your case, even impugn their motives if you must, but do so without demonizing the other side. It’s unhealthy, and separately it’s lousy strategy. Ultimately you have to not just impassion your base, but persuade people who think they don’t agree with you. In order to do that, you have to speak to them in ways they will hear.

Two, step away from your echo chamber. We have many packed districts and identified base voters. That’s a key, but not whole, part of your story. Impeachment is a national effort, a national responsibility. Whether you think it’s a witch-hunt or a just reward for a nationalist, try to take the longer view. How a member votes on this is likely to make her/his obituary. Think ahead; make sure you’re certain how you’d like your grandchildren to read about you.

Three, facts matter, to the people to whom they still matter.  But to everyone else, not so much.

My sense is that facts have already run their course here; those who rely on them are sold one way or the other. The rest of Americans are dealing in impressions and totems and feelings; I don’t quibble with that, I spend time trying to figure out how to connect with people on their terms.

The last two nights Tucker Carlson on FOX has run a piece about an investment company that apparently orchestrated the takeover of a profitable Nebraska sports manufacturing company, pushed a merger, which resulted in the closing of the factory, for yet more profits. 2,000 jobs lost in a town of slightly more than 6,000 people. Turn down the volume and read the words and it is Senator Warren and Sanders’ script, about a rigged system where the very wealthy profit off the misery of the working class.  

We have different policy prescriptions to deal with the problems, but the right and left agree on so much. I’m committed to focusing on that and figuring out ways to make policy reflect this fact.  


With liberty and justice for all …

(October 17, 2019, by Katharine Huffman)

We’ve heard a lot lately about bipartisan support for criminal justice reform. But criminal justice reform isn’t a static movement, and it can no longer be confined to shortened sentences or new rehabilitation programs; it’s evolving constantly, and it’s time for our political leaders and candidates to catch up with the times. 

Real and lasting progress toward justice requires us to address equity, power, and historical wrongs. The personal experiences of people affected by the current system, our understanding of what neighborhoods and cities really want to be safe, and a growing body of research, are all pointing us in a creative and vibrant new direction.

For most of the last 50 years, justice reform was on the defensive, trying to stem the tide as incarceration rose to unprecedented levels, resources poured into militarized and intrusive enforcement mechanisms, and millions of lives were damaged — many even destroyed — under the brutal weight of a broken and unjust “justice” system.

In more recent years, however, we’ve seen that start to change. There’s a growing consensus that our criminal justice system is too large, too costly in dollars and lives, and too far away from anything remotely approaching the values that should guide it. Voices of all political stripes are now part of this mainstream reform conversation. Political analysis used to consider justice reform too risky to even talk about, much less act upon; but now the same analysis increasingly requires us to question the status quo, recognize its dangers, and look for new solutions.

Many efforts to transform justice are underway. These efforts are often led by the people most directly impacted by the current system. And increasingly, they engage not only police officers and judges, but also emergency room physicians, librarians, artists, teachers, local chambers of commerce, and community organizers.

Building on all of this, we can start to reimagine the possibilities. Realizing we can’t create public safety and thriving neighborhoods without going far outside the justice system. Asking who else needs to be at the table. And understanding that taking on our nation’s history of racial and economic inequity is the only hope for a nation in which “liberty and justice for all” rings true. 

Raben is proud to support the work of one of these efforts to reimagine justice in an entirely new way. The Square One Project, based at the Columbia University Justice Lab, is a multi-year reexamination of the foundations of justice policy in this country. Designed to generate new ideas, the Project seeks to identify ways of expanding opportunity, improving true public safety in local communities, and reducing reliance on punishment as a response to social problems that are so often rooted in poverty, violence, and racial discrimination. 

I’m honored to serve as the executive director for Square One, and other Raben team members support the Project’s communications work. In fact, this project is emblematic of a core mission of Raben — to make lasting change through clear strategy, creative tactics, and innovation in policy and communications. We are proud to help lead organizations such as Square One.

As Square One explores new ideas and possibilities together, we invite you to consider what you imagine for the achievement of justice and safety in this country. Join us in our efforts to push the nation’s leaders (including candidates!) on issues critical to achieving equality and justice for all. 

Katharine Huffman is a founding principal at Raben, with extensive experience on criminal justice and civil rights issues. Her current and past clients include Voters Organized To Educate, The Innocence Project, The Marshall Project, Vera Institute of Justice, and others.

The Square One Project is supported by the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, Arnold Ventures, the Joyce Foundation, Galaxy Gives, and other contributors.

Corporate America as a moral compass?

(September 17, 2019)

How does your organization show, not just tell, what it really values? What are the ways, large and small, that you truly lead?

Walmart, reeling in the aftermath of two deadly shootings in their stores this summer that massacred colleagues, customers, and friends, joined cause with advocates to determine changes to the retailer’s gun policies. Walmart announced it would stop selling all handguns and several types of ammunition, and it was now “respectfully requesting” that its customers not openly carry firearms in its stores. The nation’s largest retailer was followed within hours by Kroger, the country’s largest grocery chain, as well as CVS, Walgreens, and Wegmans, in asking customers to refrain from openly carrying on their premises. 

In a viral video this past weekend, a customer shopping in a Walmart openly carried a firearm. After he refused requests to conceal his weapon, the store called the police to remove the man and banned him from their stores nationwide for failing to comply. The man requested to purchase his items before leaving. The store said no. Walmart showed it was serious about its open-carry ban and that it would prioritize safety over profit.

And it’s not just on guns. At a time when the administration has sought to impose harsh restrictions on millions of low-income families receiving federal housing assistance, private businesses are stepping up here, too. Prudential has become a big backer of affordable housing in “low-opportunity communities,” committing $5.6 billion so far in more than 30 cities through its impact investing programs. Its investments have sparked positive social change in communities through transformative infrastructure, organizational partnerships and talent development.

There’s more. The nation’s largest businesses coming out in support of “Dreamers” … large banking institutions divesting from private prisons … investors speaking out in support of the Paris Agreement …

The business community has historically hidden behind margins and shareholder value to avoid taking a stand on the most difficult social and policy issues we’ve grappled with as a nation. 

But clearly, not taking a stand is its own values statement. 

Something is changing, and we are a part of it—social media, increasing employee engagement and voice, and more and more interest, if not vulnerability, to brand value—are all coming together to give the Left more and more tools to work with corporate America for change.   

I have long believed in the enormous power of the private sector to be a force for good in this country. It may not always happen as linearly as advocates might want to see. But I thank God it’s happening. We should welcome the policy engagement of corporate executives — who whether by their own morality, shareholder accountability, employee action, or social pressure — now feel compelled to act, and we should be prepared to push them further in the name of progress.


Wondering why Republicans continually win the battle to control the nation’s courts? It’s because Republicans play politics on judges, Democrats don’t.

The tell comes from an unexpected source, Republican Governor Kay Ivey of Alabama. Explaining in 2017 why she could both believe the women who accused Senate candidate Roy Moore of  child sexual predation, and still vote for Moore, she put it simply: “I believe in the Republican Party, and what we stand for, and most important, we need to have a Republican in the United States Senate to vote on things like Supreme Court Justices.”

Republican leaders are in on the political plan with policy effects: play to win on judges. Democrats have no such plan.

And to be precise, “political” means money and votes; candidate contributions and investments in organizations that mobilize voters. Politics is about winning and losing, and fighting to win. With respect to judges, Republicans play to win, while Democrats play along.

Relying on political muscle, President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are saturating federal courts with right-wing justices and judges. They have delivered on a promise to a Republican base that has been primed through decades to demand conservative judges in exchange for their money and their votes. Pretty straightforward. And fair game in hardball politics.

Well-funded political organizations — the Judicial Crisis Network, the Chamber of Commerce, and others — in just one cycle spent $7 million to prevent Merrick Garland from having even a hearing, and then another $10 million to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the same seat. This spending from just two organizations exceeds the total resources of all progressive organizations working on judicial nominations. Add the Heritage Foundation, myriad conservative foundations, and rank and file donors, and you see what success looks like.

Judicial nominations are not a high priority of the Senate Democratic Caucus because voters and donors have not made it one. We don’t approach the process with the collective action necessary to support a political movement. Instead of rallying constituents with a vibrant strategy, we focus on tactics, treating each judicial nomination ad hoc, this judge ok, this judge bad, this judge terrible. The whole is less than the sum of its parts.

I have worked on judges for 25 years. I was responsible for confirming them in the Clinton Justice Department, I have represented NGOs supporting and opposing them, I created a 501c4 and PAC to support Democratic Senators, and launched Hispanics for a Fair Judiciary to fight for progressive judges. From every angle the view is the same; there is a clear asymmetry between Republicans and Democrats on how we invest in and promote judges.

Senators are rational actors. They respond to what they see and hear in their constituencies; if voters or donors behaved differently, Senators would too. If our donors put together political platforms to push and reward our Senators, we’d see different behavior.

The results of this asymmetry are clear and disheartening. According to Demand Justice, an organization founded in 2017 to fight for progressive courts, “a majority of Democratic senators have voted for at least 60% of Trump’s judges.” This includes nominees on Trump’s Supreme Court shortlist and nominees who have immediately rolled back abortion rights.

Demand Justice recently released a scorecard with grades of Cs, Ds, and Fs to half of the Democratic Senators. It’s a start toward a new ethos of building better political muscle on the Left. It sets the bar higher for Senators, rewarding them for the fight, punishing them when they fall short.

We need two things for a better outcome, and to protect the hard-won fights on health care, reproductive rights, marriage equality, what’s coming someday on climate change, etc. First, an emotional commitment that the composition of the Federal judiciary is a political question, and then a well-funded infrastructure to execute the politics.

An emotional commitment means to cease thinking that complaining about how ruthless the conservatives are is a strategy, cease lamenting the loss of the days when a nice guy at a good law firm was prima facie acceptable, to cease engaging in the problem of the commons, in which as a Democratic Senator you fight hard for your candidate, but don’t engage on nomination fights for the other 49 States.

The infrastructure requires loading up on the nutrients of politics: votes, money, and accountability.

Raise and give money, lots of it, to organizations and candidates that fight for or against judges. We need more resources for those in the game, and we need new players. Organizations can disagree, squabble, even be at cross-purposes: that’s how you know it’s a movement. We need to be Demanding Justice and Packing the Courts, and so many more new organizations, all of which are insisting on a politics around judges on the left that would actually mean something. Support them. You can disagree with tactics, but support the strategy of accepting that politics are at the root of judicial selection.

Democrats have to hold Senators and Presidents accountable for their efforts to nominate and confirm judges with a center-left philosophy. Accountable means put it in our party platforms, include it in debates, score candidates on it, and tie money to it.

Accountable means going negative on our friends when necessary. When a progressive Senator doesn’t fight hard, or fills a seat quickly, or cuts a deal over a lousy judge, or returns a “blue slip” of a terrible nominee, or only fights for her nominee but not her neighbors, they have to be called out. Like any other political battle — minimum wage, climate, labor, reproductive rights — you don’t win political battles fighting with carrots.

Connecting strategy and resources with a moral vision for the equality and opportunity of all people is not dirty, or lacking in integrity. It is the opposite. Voters on the Left are inspired when we demand respect from our institutions and give a sense of hope that they can work for good. The judiciary will be no different.

In order to succeed at what we say we want, we need to be more aggressive, and more political, around judges.


I love oversight. Constitutionally compelled, it’s the fascia of separation of powers. Done well, it makes the republic stronger. Done well, it’s fun. Done well, it drives your opponents mad. Regrettably, it’s mostly done poorly.

I’ve been on all sides of the oversight function: committee counsel constructing dozens of inquiries from the majority and minority; Department of Justice division head responding to oversight across party lines; as a witness many times; and as someone now in the private sector prepping witnesses and helping Committees do their work. 

Here are brief lessons learned, dos and don’ts, that I ask Committees to keep in mind in the 116th Congress.

Tell your story. Know before you start the process the story you are trying to communicate, and to whom. Follow the facts, and be open to where they lead, but as a framing matter, you should be able to say from before Day 1 what the story is we are trying to press. Keep it crisp, keep it short. If you can’t agree among Committee Members and staff what the storyline will be, pause until you can.

Your opponent will do their part to distort and distract your narrative. Make sure you do your part to tell it and tell it well. The less you define and explain the story on your terms, and explain why it matters, the more your opponents will do it on their terms, which will make you miserable. It’s a pain in the neck to have to spend time defending your oversight, rather than making your case.

Identify in your minds’ eyes’ specific audiences, and before you invite a single witness or send any questions or announcement, answer the related questions: who are these audiences, and what do I want them to know or do? Know before you start, and work backwards—what’s your assessment of what will likely move those audience/s. Pick your narrative, tactics and of course witnesses accordingly.

Know why we are doing this, and be clear. Oversight has many functions and motivations, and they differ. Make sure you are honest, at least internally, about why we are doing this. How you spend time, how you talk about it, what tactics you deploy are all a function of what type of oversight this is, and what success looks like.

We have coordinate branches of government with checks and balances. This is core to oversight, in that it’s the epicenter of representative democracy. Be straight about it, and proud. Name this, claim this, and deal with the most mainstream media, editorial boards, think tanks, etc, to amplify your work.

The Partisan Flinch. Unpretty. Exciting. Messy. Built into our system. The goal here is to undermine the person or policy you oppose. I won’t comment on etiquette, that’s between you and your Lord, but be clear among yourselves and the media you care about why you are doing this. There is no longer, regrettably, any shame in this motivation. But don’t confuse otherwise nonpartisan witnesses or citizens about what this is; be transparent about it.

The Opportunity Cost. A subset of the Partisan Flinch, this type of oversight can be the most effective of all. This is the oversight that recognizes the cold fact that political leaders of agencies can’t actually do two things at once, and if I tie up their time responding to me, they are less effective at promoting programs and policies I don’t like.

Regulation and Investigation of Private Behavior. Here, the vast majority of work can be done not in public. If the goal is factfinding and data to inform public policy, the “gotcha” of the hearing can be a distraction. Lay out a case-plan in private among yourselves, about what you’re trying to determine, who has the information, and the best, fastest method of getting that information. Take your time, get it right. Build a case.

The hearing is not THE thing. It is certainly a thing, but look at the hearing as one public splash of a much longer arc. There should be a thought through ramp up and ramp down before and after the hearing, and coordinated tactics that build, establish, then explain the case. Do not rely on others to make the connection, do that work for the intended audience.


A record-breaking 116th Congress rooted in history…

I was emotional watching the gavel handed back to Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week, hopeful for better policy and excited to see this strong talented woman take charge, steering this nation to our better selves.

It brought back a flood of memories. Sitting late one night with her in 1993 helping her draft a note to George Stephanopoulos and President Bill Clinton laying out how she would push back against the effort by conservatives to ban “homosexuals” in the military. Another late night, sitting on the floor of the Lindy Boggs room off the Floor, with other women members, doing a whip count against a ban on “partial birth abortion”. She always took on the hard issues fearlessly, and with grace and intelligence.

Nancy is a fighter. And she fights for terrific progressive policy. In the face of extraordinary harassment and intolerance. 

And when the camera panned to capture the Democratic Caucus, my tears really formed. Hijab and Native dress. A spectrum of skin tones. Nearly half the Democratic Caucus of color. We’ve come a long way from the lonely days of Charles Diggs and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. 

This summer I discovered something extraordinary, hiding in plain sight but like most of our history concerning people of color, never taught and invisible. 

I learned that after feeling defeated in the 1964 Convention in Atlantic City, Fannie Lou Hamer, Victoria Gray, and Annie Devine took a monumental leap of courage: they each ran for Congress in three districts in Mississippi, even though the Democratic Party refused to put them on the ballot. Mrs. Hamer got 30,000 votes in an informal primary. 

Then, in January of 1965, on a swearing-in day 54 years prior to last week’s, a New York Congressman, William Fitts Ryan, rose to his feet on the floor of the House and moved to challenge the seating of the Mississippi delegation. One hundred and forty Members voted to deny seating to the five all-white all-male delegation. The matter was kicked to the House Administration Committee for seven subsequent months of deliberation.

Years before Shirley Chisolm’s triumph, these three Black women from Mississippi tried to crack a 300-year long exclusion, and they came close.  

I thought about them when Mrs. Pelosi took the gavel last week and presided over a House and a Democratic Caucus that looks closer than ever before to the real United States.