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A Black Nationalist Upbringing Fueled A Criminal Justice Reformer: Meet Dawn Blagrove

Dawn Blagrove identified her life's work at an early age. As a young girl growing up in 1970s segregated Milwaukee, she read Sam Greenlee's novel "The Spook Who Sat By The Door." It tells the story of a Black CIA operative who goes undercover within the system and takes what he learned back to his Chicago neighborhood to help young people start a revolution. 


The book was one of many Black nationalist texts she read that informed her early awareness that structural racism is baked into American society. Her parents also laid a strong foundation for her activism. They both had ties to the Black Panther party and worked hard to teach her about the parts of American history she would not learn about in school. Blagrove’s mother built a home environment that instilled Black pride in her children: the walls were adorned with images of Black icons like Huey Newton and Angela Davis; the kids only played with Black dolls; and all Santa Claus figurines were colored in with a Sharpie. Blagrove continued to build upon that foundation through degrees in political science and law.

Today, as theexecutive director of Emancipate NC, she educates communities in North Carolina about the power they have to change the criminal justice system. Host Frank Stasio talks to Blagrove about what that work looks like in the midst of a national movement for racial justice and how the seeds planted in her childhood have come to fruition in her career.

Interview Highlights

Blagrove on "The Spook Who Sat By The Door":

It made me understand and appreciate that in order to create the change that I wanted to see in the world, and the change that was necessary for my people to thrive in America, we had to — at least some of us had to — be able to successfully infiltrate the system, understand it, learn it and then demolish it from the inside.

On the urgency she feels to confront oppression:

It was easier to dedicate my life to fighting against the system, fighting against systemic and institutional racism, fighting against oppression, than it was to imagine a life where I left a world and lived a life for my children and grandchildren that was the same as the one that I came into.

If we are not allowed as Black people, as oppressed people, to stand in the anger and the rage that is caused by dehumanization, by marginalization, then we never really get to be heard. And so I think it's really, really important to make people uncomfortable. … Change only comes from uncomfortable conversations. Change only comes when you are demanding and you are standing in your power and you are demanding to be treated with equality. No one gives you anything ever. Power doesn't cede to anything but power — and truth. So if I whitewash the truth, if I water down the truth in a way that feels more palatable to the person who is oppressing me, then I am being complicit in my own oppression.


An award of honor for storytelling
Credit Courtesy of Dawn Blagrove
One of the many awards Blagrove earned as a student at gifted and talented schools in Milwaukee.

Why she chose to attend an HBCU for college:

I was the best kind of Black girl. I was the Dan Freeman [of "The Spook Who Sat By The Door"] before he turned into a revolutionary. I did everything right on paper: I was bright. I was articulate. I was attractive. I was smart. I spoke well. I did all of those things that should make for a good, respectable Black person. I was all of those things. But I wanted to use that in a way that did not make white folks think that I was appeasing them, or I was assimilating in some way to be like them. … Florida A&M gave me a place where I wasn't just smart for Black girl, but I was smart. I wasn't just — I didn't just have strong critical thinking and strong writing skills for a Black girl, I was just a strong writer, and I was just a strong speaker. And that is an invaluable experience when you live in America.

Why Emancipate NC focuses on community education:

The problem is not the people. The problem is the system itself. And that is the essence of institutional racism.

What I realized from my work inside of the criminal justice system when I was working as an attorney with Prisoner Legal Services was that most people have no idea the powers and roles and who are the most important players in the criminal justice system. … Not only did people not know who those folks were, they didn't know what they did, and they didn't know the power that they had. One of the tools of ... the oppressive carceral system is to obfuscate where the power lies from the people. So what I realized was that it was necessary for me to go into the community — or people like me to go into the community — and tell folks what the district attorney did, what judges do, what sheriffs do, that you have the power to vote for these people. And what power just these three entities have for completely changing the way the criminal justice system looks and the equity in the criminal justice system within your community.


Amanda Magnus is the executive producer of Embodied, a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships and health. She has also worked on other WUNC shows including Tested and CREEP.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.