by Lizzie Shackney
“We’re in the same boat,” says Checo Yancy, a formerly incarcerated person and the Director of Voters Organized to Educate, the sister organization of VOTE. “If I put a hole in the boat, we’re all gonna sink. Doesn’t matter if you’re white [or] Black.”
This is the philosophy he shared with other prison activists like himself who were organizing inside of Angola State Penitentiary back in the 80s and 90s as the Angola Special Civics Project. “You got a life sentence, I got a life sentence, but we’re gonna work together.”
Today, the small group of prison organizers that Yancy, VOTE’s Executive Director Norris Henderson, and a few others founded has evolved into formal networks of thousands of directly impacted people who are leading the conversation on what must be done to end mass incarceration.
From September 13 through 15, this network will meet in Orlando, FL for the bi-annual Formerly Incarcerated Convicted People’s and Families Movement (FICPFM) gathering. Directly impacted families and communities will strategize democratically around dismantling a system of control predicated on racism and oppression and restoring their own human and civil rights. Together they’ll take on issues such as prosecutor accountability, voting rights restoration, bail reform, and Ban the Box initiatives.
I know of this gathering as someone who is not directly impacted by the criminal justice system, as someone who is an ally. This means I know that people with backgrounds like mine sometimes have a negative perception of currently and formerly incarcerated people, and therefore they discount or ignore their voices. It means that systems of oppression--from slavery, to segregation, to mass incarceration--are often upheld by people with privilege, who use these systems to dehumanize poor people and people of color. It means that directly impacted activists must work harder than I have to in order to be taken seriously, yet it also means that allies can help to boost the legitimacy of their demands and their access to different networks of people.
Our relationships and our places within movements are dynamic and shifting depending on our identities, experiences, and the needs of the organizers.
This may sound easy, but it can actually be hard, because there aren’t static answers as to “how.” Our relationships and our places within movements are dynamic and shifting depending on our identities, experiences, and the needs of the organizers.
One way to achieve an effective ally-leader partnership is through the maintenance of accountable relationships. As allies, we do this by continually listening and asking questions, both to ourselves and others. We may ask ourselves, what is my role in this work? How can I be as effective as possible? What brought me to this work in the first place, and what compels me to stay here?
We may ask our leaders what they need, and then follow through with what is asked for. We may provide input only when it is requested, all the while checking ourselves and accepting feedback when it is given. Sometimes we aren’t needed at all, and the time and energy it would take to correct us and train us to do things right detracts from directly impacted leaders being able to address the problems at hand.
I listen first, because that’s where accountable relationships begin.
Whether I am in a role as a writer, a teacher, a student government leader, a service provider, or an intern at VOTE, I listen first, because that’s where accountable relationships begin. I learn where to begin, take action, accept feedback, adjust my course, and then repeat. I have made mistakes. I have discounted the views of someone who has described their oppression, because if I were to accept what they were saying as true, it would mean that I was complicit. I have apologized and made amends. I continue to work at moving beyond the fear of making mistakes, because I know that would hold me back and keep me from knowing those directly impacted as capable of understanding and forgiveness. In other words, learning and growth are essential components of accountable relationships, too.
The last thing those of us in positions of privilege who care deeply about social and criminal justice issues want is to replicate the dynamics of disempowerment and silencing that constitute systems of oppression. We want to remain accountable to the impacted people we know personally, and we want to contribute what we can to building a more equitable world. So, it’s our responsibility to unpack our involvement regularly and evaluate whether we’re contributing in ethical and productive ways.
As Yancy said, we’re in the same boat. Our lives and our fates are intertwined, and the only way forward is to build accountable relationships, together.
Lizzie Shackney was a summer Communications intern with VOTE. She is now working on Beto O'Rourke's campaign in Texas. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @e_shackney.