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Robert Stewart

Emerson Collective Fellowship

Researching the civic identities of disenfranchised Americans.

Robert Stewart defended his doctoral dissertation almost 11 years to the day after he walked out of prison. He began his educational journey while incarcerated and, after his release, worked his way through his associate’s, bachelor's, and master's degrees and a doctorate in sociology. As a researcher and educator at the University of Maryland, he highlights the experiences of those who’ve been through the criminal legal system, for both academic and public audiences. His work asks important questions, not just about crime and punishment, but also about social membership, citizenship, and civic inclusion.

Stewart created the “Criminal Records and College Admissions” project, examining how criminal history is used in college admissions and the implications for social mobility. A longtime member of the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition, he has described the effects of criminal court costs, and has tested how a criminal-record restricts relationships and parenting. His newest work is his most ambitious: the first survey of system-affected persons.

More than 5.2 million Americans are barred from voting because of felony disenfranchisement laws. While this group is larger than the population of greater San Francisco, data on the lives of its members is scarce. Politicians, academics, and the public routinely reduce them to a single dimension—their criminal records—perpetuating their social and political invisibility.

Stewart’s project as an Emerson Collective Fellow will be to fill in the gaps, by engaging a nationally representative sample in surveys and focus groups. Modeled on the General Social Survey and American National Election Studies, this work will reveal their political beliefs, educational attainment, and attitudes on policy, religion, race, and family. This survey will give the first clear picture of those elements, while building a dataset for researchers and advocates.