Sade Dumas is the Executive Director of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC), a diverse, grassroots coalition of individuals and organizations from across New Orleans who have come together to shrink the size of the jail and improve the conditions of confinement for those held in detention in Orleans Parish. VOTE help found OPPRC in 2004, and today the coalition’s members include formerly incarcerated people and their family members, community activists, organizers, lawyers and service providers.
In honor of International Women’s Day, VOTE sat down with Sade and got the story about how she is able to bring formidable leadership to local criminal justice reform work.
VOTE: What are you bringing to the table right now? How you feeling?
Sade Dumas (SD): Today I’m feeling hopeful. Although this city at times seems divided, and there are so many issues to fight, I see so many people activated like they’ve never been before, and all of those fights--all of those issues--are interconnected.
VOTE: And how is your heart?
SD: My heart is overwhelmed but in a good way. There’s so much being done but there is so much more to do. I also feel a lot of gratitude for those working on these fights with us, and for divine timing and alignment, because even when it looks like we’ve lost something--or on the verge of losing something--everything always aligns itself perfectly when people are working together.
VOTE: Can you share how you got started with OPPRC?
SD: My journey with OPPRC started before I knew it even existed. I’m a native New Orleanian from the Lower 9th Ward, which means seeing someone involved in the criminal justice system was normal, a way of life. I know many people like my brother, cousin and ex-husband who have been in OPPRC and suffered from being in there.
When I was younger, however, I thought they ended up there because of genuine mistakes they had made. It wasn’t until I went to Tulane University that I realized it’s not normal--other people don’t go through this. The way the system is set up is not by mistake, but by design. I learned about ALEC and other groups lobbying for the continued oppression of people. Seeing the oppression of people of color, of women, of any and all minorities compelled me to get involved.
After graduating college, I became involved with VOTE, WWAV, and LPEC. I worked on the micro level, running a tutoring program for formerly incarcerated women. Although there was joy in working with directly impacted people, I wasn’t pleased because I felt like I was working on something after the damage was done. Instead, I wanted to focus on preventing people from getting in the cycle and going down the hole.
I had also been working at Tulane’s medical school because I thought I wanted to be a psychologist. Once I realized that all families I was working with were impacted by the criminal justice system, I got really sad about being the one putting on a bandaid, so that also helped me switch to macro level, too.
VOTE: And how did you make that switch?
SD: I started traveling across Louisiana with Robert Goodman, who was VOTE’s Statewide Organizer at the time. We spoke with people about the challenges they face when they are released from prison. I also learned how to encourage local policymakers to divest from funds that build prison infrastructure to programs that truly keep communities safe. When I went to OPPRC’s steering committee meetings as a representative for VOTE, I realized they were doing the same thing--policy reform work that was truly changing the system.
VOTE: Who are your (s)heroes?
SD: There are a lot of women I respect for their contributions, but wouldn’t necessarily call them (s)heroes because I do think it’s important to look to other people for inspiration, advice, mentorship, but we all have to be our own heroes. For too long women, whether told by society or themselves, are made responsible for taking care of themselves and everyone else around them.
VOTE: How does moving away from that false sense of responsibility help movement work?
SD: You can’t save other people, but you can empower them to save themselves. You can give them the tools, but you can’t fight their fight alone, and you shouldn’t expect to. It also changes the people you’re working with from victims to people empowered to do the work. And we don’t need any more victims, we need fighters.
VOTE: Absolutely, we need those directly impacted to lead the fight. How do you make your work accessible to those most affected?
SD: It’s about making it meaningful to each person and working with their capacities. Sometimes that means not coming to a meeting but doing the work of reading an email, passing out a flyer, or talking to someone about different campaigns we have. Informing people in the community is a big part of the movement, whether you’re sitting at the meeting table or not. You have to build the systems and structures so directly impacted people can all be at the table eventually, even if that day is not today, but we can’t stop the movement until then. For example, my sister worked in the sheriff’s office hoping make a change, but only lasted a year because the culture was that bad. Will she come to every OPPRC meeting and share? No, because she’s a single mother and has a lot going on, but she’ll come out to an event. So accessibility has a lot to do with the format of the organization and the way that people can carry and share that info. We’re not asking people to join OPPRC, we’re asking people to join a movement.
VOTE: Yes, that’s why coalitions are so important! What would you say has been your most defining moment as an organizer so far?
SD: I have many defining moments each day, but those that matter the most to me are when other young women of color write me little notes telling me how I’m inspiring them or serving as a mentor to them, because I don’t think of myself that way. Knowing people feel that way is the best thing. The best thing we can do is create more fighters, and that’s been one of the most enjoyable moments thus far.
VOTE: So sweet and inspiring! As a leader who clearly does so much, how do you practice self-care?
SD: I just started yoga. I’ve always been into alternative routes of self-care that are not mainstream, so I enjoy making tinctures, blending oils, and now yoga. It’s been great for me because in doing movement work I often have trouble finding balance, and now I’m literally finding it. I’m constantly reminded that things I’m doing on the mat transcend into other parts of my life, like taking care of myself and my body.
VOTE: That’s so important. Ok, last question, what would a world of total liberation feel like, look like, taste like, smell like and sound like to you?
SD: We are so far from liberation that I can’t fully imagine what that would be like. But to me it’s clean air, clean food, clean water. It’s a life where everyone has equal access, where everyone’s future is determined by their will to do more as opposed to what identity they were born into. It feels like you don’t have to fight harder or compete with others just because you’re expected to be at the bottom of the chain. It feels like confidence because you don’t have to worry about being judged because of real or perceived identities that you carry. Liberation feels like health because the fear of all the burdens that I and many other women of color carry would not exist.
This coming Wednesday, March 13, from 5:30 to 7:30pm, OPPRC is hosting a teach-in about how to help stop the jail expansion in New Orleans. RSVP here. Then, on the 25th, they’ll be hosting a town hall with local elected leaders about. Follow them on Facebook to learn more and get involved!