Black & Pink: Prison Abolition Now!

Art from "On the Inside" Prisoner Art Show by Larry S.

Art from “On the Inside” Prisoner Art Show by Larry S.

I spoke with Elizabeth Rucker, the current Program Coordinator for the Democracy Center — a community center in Cambridge — a broadly-engaged activist, and since 2013, a participant in the Boston chapter of the prison abolitionist organization Black & Pink. Black & Pink asserts that a critical factor in the success of the prison abolition movement is forming meaningful relationships with incarcerated individuals, and LGBTQ prisoners are among the most vulnerable of the incarcerated. B&P finds “free world” pen-pals for LGBTQ-identified and HIV+ prisoners, helps create and distribute newsletters and zines written by and for those prisoners, and has recently facilitated the largest ever survey of LGBTQ prisoners in the US, which is detailed in the report “Coming Out of Concrete Closets.” http://www.blackandpink.org/survey/

Due to her busy schedule (and my personal interest in getting involved), Elizabeth and I arranged to meet-up at a Black & Pink letter-writing session. From a content standpoint I thought this would be interesting, but from an audio-recording standpoint it did turn out to be a little challenging.

Some things that struck me from this interview:

When I asked Elizabeth about victories of the B&P project, she said, “its victory is in its growth,” noting that growing the movement incrementally has been a victory in itself.

“People who are doing criminal justice reform have to become abolitionists. Prison is a system of racial control and always will be.” This was Elizabeth’s response to the question about what needs to happen in order to realize her speculative NY Times headline, and I think it might be the single most powerful statement from the interview.

“Prison is where we put all the problems that we don’t want to deal with.” This is an interesting moment where Elizabeth briefly speaks on intersections of food justice, environmental justice, sexual assault and prison abolition. The failures of the criminal justice system are many and overlapping.

Listen to the interview on Soundcloud here.

NYT Remix here.

Clear Eyes, Warm Hearts, Can’t Lose: Interview with Zubyn D’Costa

  • Zubyn D’Costa is a Freshman at Wellesley College potentially majoring in Political Science. When Zubyn was in 6th grade, friends of the family, Michael Shafer and Evelind Schecter, traveled to Thailand and were struck by the sight of so many young girls whose poverty and circumstance left them with no other option than to go into sex trafficking. For many of these young girls their situation was the product of a vicious cycle of prostitution as young girls are often born to mothers who themselves are prostitutes and so are unable to support a child. Shafer and Schecter believed that education was the key to breaking this cycle, so they started an NGO called Warm Heart and poured their life savings into it to see if they could make a difference. They now live full time in Thailand at the headquarters of Warm Heart where they have homes for the children whom they send to school each morning, provide food, clothes, and educate outside of school. Their once small project has grown to be more than just focused on education as they have branched out into other projects that include providing healthcare to elderly and disabled in the surrounding hill tribes, and many projects focused on environmentalism and sustainability.

    Zubyn was only in middle school at the time of the NGO’s creation, but that didn’t stop her from joining in efforts to help. She organized fundraisers with her Interact Club where they gathered donations of kids books, movies, school supplies, stuffed animals, and old clothes that they would send to Thailand. Zubyn continued her efforts throughout middle school and the start of high school, but it wasn’t until the summer of 2014 that Zubyn was able to truly see the impact she made first hand when she was given the opportunity to go and volunteer directly in Thailand for an entire summer. This experience really changed her relationship to the cause because as she explained, it was no longer just sending boxes of old clothes to nameless children; a fact that became obvious the moment she arrived as many of the children running to to meet Zubyn wore clothes she herself had grown up in. At only 15, Zubyn was by far the youngest on the team as most of the other volunteers were college students getting college credits through Warm Heart’s volunteer program. However, Zubyn said her age didn’t stop her becoming an important part of the team as they taught English to the younger children at Warm Heart and ventured out into the surrounding villages to try to help the elderly and disabled residents get access to healthcare during the midst of a military coup that was happening at the time.

    Although Zubyn has not been back to Thailand since that summer, but when asked if she was planning on continuing her work with Warm Heart (or with NGOs in general) she responded “Hopefully. I really enjoy the work. I think it’s work that you can see your effect just instantly, you can see the effect you have on people, and i think it’s work that is really worth doing because people need help, and just making the effort counts for something, and I think that’s very significant.”

     

 

Introducing Rachel Alder, a friend, activist, and organizer.

Created a NYT front page that depicts one of Rachel's dreams of the future

Created a NYT front page that depicts one of Rachel’s dreams of the future

Rachel at WGH's

Rachel at WGH’s Take Action Tuesday

Rachel is currently pursuing a Masters in Public Health at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. She can be found in the Kresge atrium on any given Tuesday, around 12:30 encouraging faculty, students, and staff to contribute their time, money or phone calls to collective action challenging the current political environment. During these weekly events, which have been dubbed “Take Action Tuesdays” by the Women Gender and Health (WGH) concentration that endorses them, Rachel and others have handed out flyers with talking points, empowering colleagues to communicate with their representatives about the ACA repeal, cabinet appointments and more. They have made valentines and raised money for the Islamic Society of Boston. Thanks for your reminder that creating the world we envision begins when a few people begin to work collectively! Click here to see the scripts and log your own phone calls!

 

Rachel and I sat down to discuss her current and prior experiences with organized action as well as her vision for the future. A portion of our interview is transcribed below.

Organizing is inherently dependent on relationships and building those takes time and requires a level of commitment to the space and place that you are in.

S: Tell us about some of the work you’ve been a part of

R: Before coming to school here I was in Providence and I helped start up the White Noise Collective, which is trying to mobilize white folks around issues of racial justice. Around the same time, I was doing organizing work with a group called Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE). They will tell you they were before the drug DARE!

S: Ok, because I have some T-shirts!…

R: I know because I have some t-shirts too and I always say the one for equality, not the drug one!

R: But DARE has a couple things they do and one is Behind The Walls which works with formerly incarcerated folks and their family members around issues trying to abolish the prison industrial complex or at least trying to make it more humane while it does exist.  And so we were working on a campaign to increase access to public housing for people with criminal records and I was pretty intensely involved with that for about two years.

R: As an undergrad I was involved in the climate activism, the divestment movement, trying to get my university…Brown, to divest from coal and I’ve done some climate related work. Those are some of the big pushes I’ve ben involved in.

S: I can see some clear correlates between what you’ve done in Providence and what you are doing here in Boston. Can you talk more about that?

R: So since getting to Boston, I have not been regularly a part of groups in the way I was in Providence. And much of that is because of my organizing principles; I guess you could call them. I see organizing as different from activism because organizing is inherently dependent on relationships and building those takes time and requires a level of commitment to space and place that you are in. Since moving to Boston, I wasn’t sure if I could commit in the same way. But, I’ve been involved with the SURJ chapter here (Showing Up for Racial Justice). I go to their large meetings every month and try to do the actions they plug us into.

I tried to help out organize a group of students at the public health school to support the Harvard dining hall workers strike. So that was a brief but intense period of organizing. And more recently have been helping to organize the Take Action Tuesdays as places for folks to come make phone calls write letters to representatives and donate money to grass roots organizations that are protecting civil and human rights. Just that having a consistent space for students who are feeling overwhelmed and saying here is one phone call you can make today. We thought that might be helpful.

 

More of our conversation can be found on the audio linked, we talk about the 40,000 or so Massachusetts drug charges made based on falsified lab evidence; competing motivations and ego as a grad student and activist, JP ROX!/Keep it 100 for Egelston and MORE—-

 

The Future

You’re day-to-day shouldn’t make you feel as if you are complicit in all sorts of injustices you don’t want to be a part of.  

S: What does the future that you are working towards for 2040 look like.

R: Meaningful increasing in two things:

1. Meaningful participation of people who don’t actively see themselves as activists. And I think we are seeing that more and more of that now. Honestly, I just want it to look like the 60’s. I mean the numbers we get excited about for protest nowadays are nothing in comparison to the then, just to think of the sheer scale of people who were in motion is amazing. I would want just average everyday folks to feel like organizing, and activism is a regular part of their everyday life and is a large part of what how they gain meaning.

2. The other is an increase in the interconnectivity of people working on different movements. Kimberly Crenshaw said intersectionality how ever many years ago and now it’s almost mainstream! And whether any of us has a grip on the vast black feminist literature that discusses intersectionality is something else. But it says something that there is even a recognition of… The recent identity movements have been incredibly powerful and I think will be more powerful when they are all working together to organize. And that is what I want to see. Because activism is whre you feel committed to people. And if we can support each other’s actions and work together…that is what I am envisioning.

 

S. What are we working together towards?

R. We are working towards a world where you have guaranteed income, and borders don’t exist and prisons don’t exist. We’ll recognize that there are people who should be treated for mental illness and that the prisons don’t make us safe. They tear families apart. Guns don’t make us safe; police with guns don’t make us safe. Universal health care, getting rid of fossil fuels, free education. I mean, I guess my ideas are pretty radical but…I don’t want to just change the way we do things…You’re day-to-day shouldn’t make you feel as if you are complicit in all sorts of injustices you don’t want to be a part of.  

 

 

Interview with Izzy Aronson

Tell us about your activist work!

A lot of what I do is utilizing various platforms to spread awareness and my voice in order to educate others and promote positivity, these platforms varying from my social media accounts to my art and writing to protesting. I am also currently working to organize a youth rally to oppose the Trump Administration and their values and actions. I hope to include various forms of art such as poetry and general prose readings, musical performances, and visual art components.

Describe your biggest challenge in this work?

For four months at the beginning of this school year I attended a visual arts boarding semester school in Napa California where I really discovered who I was as a person and my passion for social activism and feminism in particular. In that community, my social consciousness was looked upon as a very positive thing and i was surrounded by like minded liberals. When I got back to Massachusetts all my friends were very supportive of how I had come into myself. However, California is quite the liberal bubble in some ways and I found it very difficult to acknowledge and respect all of the conservative viewpoints that were around me and the fact that a lot of these people were very undereducated about and unaware of many important issues.

Do you think the media does a good job of talking about the issue or community you are working with? Share some examples.

I primarily advocate for feminism and mental health stigmas, both of which the media largely fails in a lot of ways. Mental health stigmas are something I have had to deal with on a very personal level, as person who had ADHD, anxiety, and a mood disorder, and I feel that they way it is portrayed in both entertainment and the news only adds to the stigma. For example, the horror movie Split depicts Dissociative Identity Disorder in an extremely horrific way, and while entertaining it completely demonizes a very real mental illness that many good, genuine (non-murderer) people suffer from and takes away the illness’s credibility, making a person with Dissociative Identity Disorder seem like some sort of monster. As for feminism, the media portrays us as these bossy, power-hungry bitches who hate men or want women to “be the dominant gender,” which just is not true at all. The media really feeds into double standards concerning strength and opinions.

Can you describe a person, institution, or event that was important in your path into this work?

Planned Parenthood is an organization that I feel incredibly strongly about and I admire
everything they do for women and men who sometimes have nowhere else to turn. I’ve had friends who have been in rough situations in which they only place they felt that they could seek help was Planned Parenthood (not just for abortions!!). I think they’re work is amazing and so many people would be at loss for support if they didn’t exist.

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Interview w/ Caroline Mak

Caroline giving a speech in a meeting for Our Revolution -  Cambridge.

Caroline giving a speech in a meeting for Our Revolution – Cambridge.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Caroline Mak, a fellow MIT student of the class of 2018, and an eager student activist working in the MIT community and the greater Cambridge community. We started off talking about Caroline’s journey towards being more engaged in activism in the realm of local politics and voter registration. Previous to coming to college she considered herself generally disengaged from politics, found that her journey towards activism started by being inspired by Bernie’s sanders political campaign and integrating it within the MIT community. After registering to vote, she realized the process was super easy, and then was inspired to start helping others register in MIT. Over the course of several months she helped get students involved in Bernie’s campaign through mailing lists, restarted the MIT Democrats group (which had been dormant for 13 years), and worked on a app called VoteMate to facilitate the process of getting people engaged in politics through being registered to vote. Post-election, she also helped create an installation in MIT’s Lobby 7, allowing students to write their fears and thoughts about the election results on the lobby pillars. She also began to be involved in the greater Cambridge community – she worked with the group Our Revolution, which built off of Bernie’s Campaign in light of post-election results to continue momentum for action and organization on a community level. Many of the experiences she valued from being in this group deal with being able to meet such a diverse group of activists from all over, with assorted passions and backgrounds.

Caroline hopes to get people more involved politically – and in the interview mentioned that one of her biggest accomplishments was being able to narrow down what specific community she wants to see this change in. She hopes to be able to focus her energy on making the MIT community more socially active – with voter registration being one of the simplest, yet most impactful ways of getting individuals involved. Additionally, she hopes of implementing a pyramid-type structure of activists within MIT’s community among different departments that can help point people to relevant resources and opportunities to get involved, from very small actions such as registering to vote, to larger actions such as organizing events.

Caroline’s hope for the future is to see some of the passionate and committed young activists she’s met get recognition as leaders within governmental positions. She really hopes by 2030 that people taking office, both local and national, will reflect more diverse identities and experiences.

 

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You can listen to the interview here.

Wellesley Alum is the First Native Woman to Graduate Summa Cum Laude

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Kat and I sat down to talk about her experience as a leader in the Wellesley chapter of SAAFE (Sexual Assault Awareness for Everyone). Kat has taken on a variety of initiatives and been involved at Wellesley in various forms, through SAAFE. For example, she has organized protests, programs, and lectures to educate the community on how to recognize, prevent, and handle cases of sexual assault, but has also teamed up with the administration to help search for and hire Wellesley’s new Title IX coordinator. She has participated in and led workshops on topics such as bystander practice, consent, and relationship abuse. Her range of experience has allowed her to explore sexual assault awareness and education through one-on-one interactions, and through organizing and social media within the Wellesley community.

One of the key points of our discussion is the relationship between sexual assault awareness efforts and the media. Kat criticizes the mainstream media for being untrustworthy and stereotypical in its portrayal of sexual assault incidents and cases by playing into popular conceptions of what sexual assault is, and who the victims and perpetrators can or cannot be. Kat shows appreciation for smaller forms of social media, asserting that platforms like Facebook have helped SAAFE “get their name and their image out there” and to interact with a wider audience of people. Simultaneously, she recognizes some of the drawbacks of social media – firstly, she says, posting on social media sometimes requires abandoning discussion of the complexities of sexual assault issues; secondly, she describes the echo-chamber effect, in which many of the same stories or same kinds of stories circulate in any one person’s feed, and diversity of experiences and stories is so often neglected. Despite these drawbacks, SAAFE has run successful media campaigns – their most recent one drew attention to qualities and practices of healthy and safe relationships, and drew both attention and appreciation from the community.

One of SAAFE’s biggest challenges is establishing institutional memory, and combatting the disorganization that can come with high turnover rates in membership. “It’s a rebirthing process” she says when describing the changes that come whenever students graduate, but she is confident that they are doing a better job of educating and training younger members to carry on SAAFE’s work and legacies.

We talked a little bit about Kat’s involvement in other forms of activism as well, such as her more recent investment in connecting with the AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) community in Boston and attending events and workshops aimed at educating and training AAPI to combat anti-blackness in their own communities and families and uplifting our black siblings. Kat says that social media was vital in her ability to find these events and is still key for communicating with the Boston AAPI community and that people that she’s met through her experiences there. Through these connections, she learns about and attends a variety of protests, marches, and sit-ins as well.

After graduation, Kat will be teaching middle school and high school English on a Lakota reservation in South Dakota. She recognizes that she will be an outsider in a very small community, and says that while any efforts to take on social justice or activist could be perceived as an intrusion, she hopes to “inadvertently” do some work on sexual assault awareness through the education system. When I asked Kat about what she would want to see accomplished in 2030, she detailed a hope in which some of her students would go to college and come back to the reservation to give back to their community, as many people who leave reservations for opportunities in business or education rarely come back. She is unsure, though – “I don’t have a concept of success, because I don’t even know what’s going to happen in the next two years,” she says.

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(pictured above: Kat makes prints and sells them, all profits go towards the Standing Rock reservation!)

link to interview:  https://www.dropbox.com/s/ttmzj593yomszr1/kat%20SAAFE%20interview.wav?dl=0

Young professor creates VR toolkit to empower youth of color

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Two weeks ago, I was lucky to be able to interview Danielle Olson, a current EECS graduate student working with Dr. Fox Harrell in the Imagination, Computation, and Expression Laboratory (ICE Lab) at MIT. I worked with Danielle this past summer for the MOSTEC online and on-campus program of MIT’s Office of Engineering Outreach Programs (OEOP), but Danielle is also involved in the community in so many other ways.

Danielle founded Gique in 2013 while she was still an undergraduate studying EECS at MIT. Gique is a local 501(c)3 nonprofit that works to bring STEAM (Art + STEM) education to students through hands-on afterschool programs and workshops. One of Gique’s programs is called Science can Dance, and is co-taught by Danielle and Ashli Davis-Polanco, a Boston-based hip hop dancer and choreographer who is a current chemical engineering graduate student at UMass Lowell. They work to explain science concepts like electricity through dance and body movement to teach young kids that they don’t have to be just left-brained or just right-brained, but that both parts of their identity can co-exist and be better for it. Just this past summer of 2016, Nova created a short segment about Gique’s Science Can Dance program.

STEAM exists all around us, which is what Gique teaches to students through explorations of phenomena in daily life such as sneaker culture. By discussing everything from the shape design to the color engineering that goes into creating a shoe, Gique teaches students that scientists and engineers can do so much in addition to writing software or doing wet lab research. Whatever the students find personally cool undoubtedly includes aspects of STEAM that the students can choose to work on and explore in school and beyond.

Danielle puts so much of her passion into Gique because she cares about justice. “Education is the one thing no one can take away from you,” she explained. She does so much according to her belief that her personal success is tied to the success of the community, and that reaching to pull others up with her as important as reaching forward for her own goals.

Concerned about the current state of our society and the world, Danielle is motivated to shed light on injustices. “There’s always forces in human nature…that can bring out some of the uglier aspects of ourselves in terms of power and privilege,” she said. Her current personal and research interests deal with virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). Last semester, she was able to participate in a term project in Dr. Harrell’s ICE Studio Course (CMS.627/837) which provided the opportunity to contribute to Karim Ben Khelifa’s The Enemy project. It’s a VR experience in which an observer stands between two combatants from opposite sides and brings to the forefront our shared humanity. Her current dream for the future is to become a professor and release a VR educational toolkit to help young people realize their full potentials, which is at the core of Gique’s mission.

Even before high school, Danielle wanted to “travel the world and give voice to the voiceless.” Gique gives her the power to take her passions with her wherever she is and whatever she’s doing. She can continue to be authentic and give back to her communities even now as a graduate student and earlier over the past few years when she was working at Microsoft in Cambridge. Spending both her research time and her free time working on issues related to justice and education, Danielle embodies a spirit of dedication and caring, and there’s no doubt we’ll see a headline like that below pretty soon.

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Interview audio to be uploaded again soon

Interview with Narih Lee

Interview Link: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B8z_IUaQkr2tSnA5R0FpWk9yQmlfVGhheXR1anlYMXNUMm1N/view?usp=sharing

Narih Lee

Narih Lee is a Junior at Wellesley College, majoring in English and Mathematics. Narih is a counsellor at PBHA’s Chinatown Afterschool Program (she has been volunteering with the program for 3 years now), she also attended the Women’s March in NYC and did a photo-blog on the same. In my interview with Narih, we discussed her journey into volunteering and her views on volunteering. Narih emphasized the need for effective and unbiased media coverage, especially with regards to the rapid gentrification of Chinatown Boston.

Narih said that most of her students get their news through Facebook and other forms of social media. Very often, the headlines and summaries of the articles students read on social media are misleading or provocative in nature. Narih believes that the current rhetoric on “illegal” immigrants, combined with the media’s representation of illegal immigrants, pressures certain immigrant populations to visibly differentiate themselves from others. Narih claimed that amongst her students, many had developed a hatred towards “Mexicans” for ruining the way that all immigrants are perceived. Additionally, she highlighted many issues with gentrification –– parents are forced to move away from Chinatown and away from their communities, very often children are sent back to China to complete their education, gentrification in Chinatown is causing families to be torn apart and having a negative impact on the mental health of children who lose the homes they grew up in.

She emphasized the importance of ending the gentrification in Chinatown; she also stressed on the importance of unbiased and informative media coverage on the current situation. She identified the language barrier to be one of the biggest obstacles for folk living in Chinatown.

Talking to Narih Lee was an incredibly rewarding experience. Narih changes and drafts her curriculum based on the needs of the children from Chinatown Afterschool Program. She is especially proud of her class, who is invested enough in the program, to want to come back and volunteer PBHA and help other students like themselves.

 

End Gentrification in Chinatown

Interview with Julia Leslie: People of Maine Win Universal Healthcare

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Julia Leslie is a sophomore at Wellesley College potentially majoring in French and Political Science. In her first year, she joined the Wellesley SLAP (student labor action project) chapter. At the time, Wellesley was one of the last college campuses in the nation that still did not compensate student RAs and house presidents, and one of SLAP’s biggest goals was to fix this. After a few years of constant dialogue with administration, this school year, our RAs and HPs are paid – including Leslie herself, who is a RA this year. But, that doesn’t mean SLAP no longer has a purpose. SLAP’s wider goal is to address issues of financial accessibility, encouraging on-campus discussions of class and continuing to work with the administration for things like securing on-campus jobs for work-study students.

Leslie also works with a non-constituted (does not receive funding from the college) on-campus org that aims to provide leadership, communication, and community organization skills training under the model of Harvard professor, Marshall Ganz. Non-constituted orgs are usually not as well known as their college-endorsed counterparts, so this was my first time hearing about it. She is also seeking deeper involvement in Wellesley Raiz, a latinx org that has been a key on-campus presence post-election.

Leslie believes that most people become involved in activist work related to their personal, lived experiences. For her big victory in 2030, she wishes for universal healthcare for all people of Maine, including children and undocumented immigrants. She said she would have perhaps gone to law school before returning to Maine, her home state, which she describes as being very politically divided and currently led by an extremely conservative governor. She also expressed interested in public school education reform.

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