Introducing Kiana Calloway: the latest fellow in the Movement for Black Lives' Electoral Justice League
Kiana Calloway is experiencing a rebirth. When he was just 16 years old, he began a 17-year-long incarceration for a crime he didn’t commit. Today, he’s one of 12 fellows in the Movement for Black Lives’ Electoral Justice League. While a lot had to happen to get him to this point, Calloway has his eyes focused on the future, on the work that still needs to be done. With his new phoenix wings in tow, he’s teaming up with VOTE and others around the country to become a steadfast “voice for the voiceless.” For the next year, he and the other fellows will work together to advance the liberation of formerly incarcerated people through the restoration of voting rights and other key civil and human rights. Learn more about this budding leader below:
VOTE: What are you bringing to the table right now?
KC: I’m bringing excitement and experience--knowledge, insider knowledge. I’m bringing a sense of knowing how tragic being discriminated against is, especially with my current housing situation. I’m bringing a community push, passion, and a lot of dedication to the work that’s being done.
VOTE: Yes! Dedication is what we’re all about. So how did it feel to find out you got the fellowship?
KC: I’m grateful to accept this responsibility. We’re trying to change a lot of lives in the state of Louisiana, mainly New Orleans. So I’m anxious but ready to add more pressure nationally.
VOTE: So are we! What do you think is going to be your biggest learning curve in this fellowship?
I’m actually completely comfortable with the task at hand, about the issues that we’re attacking. I have a big team supporting me. My uncomfortable task is asking for help, but I’m breaking it now because I’ve been calling for help every day. I’m excited. I can’t wait to meet up with the other fellows.
VOTE: Awesome. So the project is about building political power through voting rights. What ideas do you have stewing for that?
KC: By seeing and being a part of the work that VOTE has accomplished over the years that I’ve been here, I know that the power actually lies in the hands of the people. And from being in a position to where I can’t vote to being in one where I can, it proves that laws can be changed.
VOTE: Absolutely they can.
KC: Yeah, so right now the short-term goal around changing laws and policies is definitely changing the way that housing is being seen as optional for people of my class. I’ve been home since 2011 and I’ve been working since my second day home, paying taxes, getting up like a normal citizen does, and I still can’t get housing. I’ve had more than 10 housing applications denied. That’s a very, very firm case of discrimination and it needs to be changed. Just last week I gave a person renting a 9-by-10 studio $30 cash for a background check and when it came back, I got denied because I’m on parole. That’s not right.
VOTE: No, it’s not. We’ve been working on housing justice with local partners for many years now and we’re not stopping anytime soon. Speaking of working tirelessly, what would you say has been your most defining moment as an organizer so far?
KC: Regaining voting rights for formerly incarcerated people! That is a major feat, a major victory, because it doesn’t affect only me, it affects 43,000 people right now. By 2021, it might affect another 43,000. Hopefully we can get to a point where we’re registering people inside of the prison!
We’ve accomplished a lot since I’ve been at VOTE. I’ve done OPPRC reform, I’ve campaigned for [Mayor LaToya] Cantrell, the Ban the Box initiative, a lot of things. I’ve canvassed, knocked on doors, done phone banking, and licked envelopes, thousands of envelopes. And not one time I ever thought that we would lose at anything. Because that was the energy that was coming through the building--like, man, we gonna win! Winners never quit, and quitters never win. .
The doors of criminal justice reform are busting open at this point. We have some real strong activists, and I commend everyone. And when people call me to do the work, I never come alone, I always bring three, four guys with me. The guys I’m mentoring see me walking the talk. We’re gracefully climbing the hill, one step at a time.
VOTE: Yeah we are! So you are a mentor to many guys--showing them how to avoid incarceration and pave a better path--but who are your mentors, your heroes?
KC: First and foremost, my mother is my Number One, being that she stood in my corner for all those years. She is a breast cancer survivor. She travels every two weeks to Chicago for treatment. She put so much strength inside of me while I was in prison while she was still battling her own illness. She was my rock, my seclusion, my comfort.
VOTE: She sounds amazing. Are there others, too?
KC: The Black Panther Party, with Huey P. Newton and all those guys. Knowing that they walked on the state capitol with rifles demanding change changed me. They were willing to die for the rights that are offered to me. Now we don’t have to go on the capitol with rifles. Our rifles are our voice, our camaraderie, our people.
Also, VOTE leaders like Norris Henderson, Checo Yancy, Ms. Dolfinette Martin, Robert [Goodman], and Bruce [Reilly]--I see how dedicated they are to their work and it really pumps more fuel in me. Norris is always saying he’s gotta pass it down to somebody, and it’s been like that since I knew him while I was in prison. He told me, “Find your case [in the prison law library] and then come back to talk to me.” That was the evolution of Kiana right there. I was only 17 years old, understanding that I gotta do it for myself because nobody’s gonna do it for me.
MLK’s assassination also had a big impact on me. Just seven days later the Fair Housing Act was passed, and it included seven crucial categories, but one of them isn’t formerly incarcerated people. So now in 2018 hopefully we can stamp people returning home from incarceration into that.
VOTE: We definitely believe that’s possible with the right leaders. What is your leadership style?
KC: I’d say ‘unconventional’ because I have a knack of meeting people where they are. My clock is not 24 hours, it’s maybe 36, 42. I’m a hard worker, I’m dedicated to the mission, and I really work well with others.
VOTE: We can vouch for that. And we know that requires respecting the dignity, morality and humanity of all beings, which is something the fellowship talks about. What do those words mean to you?
KC: I think of individuality--believing in yourself and respecting others. I think of having a universal range of respect and being true to yourself at the same time because can’t nobody tell a story like you can tell a story, especially if you’ve survived a story and are able to tell it. A lot of people run from the truth and I think that this [fair housing] campaign, by bringing together testimonies and real people’s stories, is bringing the truth. Like oil and water, something has to come to the top, and the truth is going to come to the top.
VOTE: Beautiful. So as you’re speaking these truths and fighting the good fight, what do you do to take care of yourself?
KC: I love the outdoors. I love the lake, I love City Park. It brings me to place of tranquility where I can do a personal inventory on myself and characterize the most important to the least important things I have to work on. I go to City Park two or three times a week and just pull up, put my headphones in, look out on the water, and reminiscence on where I came from to where I’m at and where I’m going. I really make time for that. Sometimes I turn my phone off and just sit and contemplate, self-reflect on what am I doing right, what am I doing wrong, and how to improve.
I also do a lot of journaling and keep my notebook with me at all times. And I place myself with positive people. The people I work with are young--18 to 24--and at-risk or formerly incarcerated, so I want to rub off of them, not have them rub off on me. Because once you see God working through somebody else, you got to step it up a little more. You see those smiles from ear-to-ear and say, “Ok, I gotta be like that every day.”
VOTE: You are so inspiring! So, speaking of taking a moment, let’s close our eyes and dream about a world of total liberation. What would that feel like, look like, taste like, smell like and sound like to you?
KC: The music I’m hearing is Happy Feelings by Frankie Beverly and Maze. The food I’m tasting--red beans, red beans and rice. Fried fish. The air is rich, the soil is soft, the people are mentally normal and breathing positive vibes. The atmosphere is loving. I don’t see color. I see smiles, I see liberation. I feel free. There’s education, life-altering education, rich education. There’s knowledge of self-worth.
VOTE: Wow, thank you. Anything else you want to add?
KC: As a Black man I was taught that you are either gonna die a hero or live long enough to be the villain. And I want to defy those odds, I want to live long enough to be a hero, to actually live the dream that I’m fighting for right now. I want to be the replica of Malcolm X, the MLK. I want to start the fight, live through the fight, and live after the fight. And my passion comes through my pores--it’s inevitable. This is my mission, this is definitely my mission.