Friday, February 12, 2010

The Further Adventures in Education

So part of the program I am getting my BA from includes a semester's long internship at an organization of our choice (well, a non-profit organization that applies to our field/major). We got a list of such places that others had worked with in the past and had good experiences with at the end of last semester (or the beginning of this one but I went to the earlier meeting).

I've chosen a prison abolition organization that works out of the Bay Area. This means a bit of a commute for me (and of course being an internship this is unpaid so, really, I'm paying money to do it) but I want to gain some knowledge and experience in this field so, you know, it's an investment.

This org is a pretty small firm, founded by lawyers and run mostly by interns! I'm not going to be a lawyer so I'm going to be working with issues of legislation and public policy as well as possibly helping with human rights documentation. One interesting feature of the org structure is that it has adopted a corporate structure, with a board of directors who (I gather) everyone else answers to. 60% of that board of directors are either people in prison right now or who have been in the last 5 years, because the people who know best what people in prison need are people who have been or are there. This makes sense! It's one of the features I'm liking about the org.

I also like their "three-pronged approach" to achieving their ultimate goal: human rights documentation, direct services to people in prison, and media/policy/legislation work. They oppose reforms that strengthen the prison industrial complex, but support those that will make life safer and better for people on the inside if they will not strengthen the PIC as well.

Their primary work is direct service to people in prison, which is how they began, but they have good stuff going on with all three branches this semester, some of which I'm sure I'll end up telling you all about. They also organize with people on the outside for community based solutions instead of policing/imprisonment, to meet the needs that seem to lead eventually to crime: lack of housing, jobs and food.

Thus far I have also noticed that there are some communities not being served by them. For instance, this group primarily organizes in so-called women's prisons. Which means 1) working with people the STATE considers "women" i.e. trans men and cis women and 2) this work doesn't include immigrant detention facilities. Also, because they have made a conscious decision to be spread by word of mouth and not to be associated even slightly with the prisons they work in (a good idea, imo) there seems to be some question of how to reach out to more communities that are even within "women's prisons" (for instance, as far as I can tell they deal only with English or Spanish speakers, which leaves relatively small but still significant populations out).

I've been going back and forth for at least a week on whether I "accept" these chosen limitations, or about under what conditions I might accept them, and why.

We did a reading in another class not long ago that talked about the importance of coalitions, and that groups/movements who put up an all-encompassing umbrella tend to simply replicate the systems of oppression we're trying to fight against (I think the so-called LBGT movement is a good example, trans people, gender variant people and intersex folks all seem to get tacked on as an after thought and then almost entirely left out of meaningful work).

This author (Bernice Johnson Reagon) said it seems that what is more effective is groups who have a rather narrow focus, but then work in coalition with other groups with their own narrow focuses, to serve all the communities we want to bring from the margins to the center.

And, ok, this makes sense to me. Though it also seems to run the risk of leaving some communities entirely ignored; not just sort of token-ishly included but mostly ignored. And I'm not sure which is "better".

What worries me about this strategy, is how well do we actually do coalition work in practice?

How often is the "narrow focus" used as an excuse to ignore the communities we're choosing not to help directly?

Like, this org that I'm working with claims to work in coalition with other groups with a similar mission, for instance one which center trans women, trans men, gender variant and intersex people in prisons. And in looking at work they've done together I'll admit some of it is quite interesting, like a conference (the first of it's kind, reportedly) which centered the experience of trans people (the four letters from prisoners in the printed booklet were from trans women) in prison and conceptualized ways to end the criminalization/policing/abuse of trans people/communities. Which potentially sounds great! But was it, really? Because we all know how intent and impact can differ wildly.

And what is the process for deciding which groups we help and which we don't?

I tend to fall back on Barbara Smith on this one, which is that who we should help are those who are most exploited in our communities (a "bottom-up" approach). From my years in this "politics blogging" thing that I've done, those people seem to usually be: trans women of color, indigenous peoples and "illegal" immigrants (and as should be obvious there is a lot of overlap between these groups).

So, were I setting up my own organization, this is probably who I would want to work with.

But, thankfully, for the class portion of this experience, the whole point is to be thoughtful and critical about the org we place ourselves with. What do we like, what do we not like, who does what work etc etc. So I have every incentive to think critically about these things.

Having never done anything like this in any practical way I am also set to learn A LOT. And it's going to be incredibly intense, I can already tell. They get a ton of letters and phone calls from people all over the state, all over the country, and in both men's and women's prisons, and so one of the first things I'm going to be figuring out is exactly what services we can offer and which we can't. And they prepared us for the fact that there will be a lot of people we simply can't help (for instance apparently they get a lot of stuff about child custody, which isn't an area of expertise for any one in the org so it's not something they can handle). So these questions aren't going away, though they will probably get more specific (and numerous) as I do the work.

Over the next few months it seems a lot of the stuff that I have been thinking about, listening to, writing on and learning for the last few years will be tested. Can I apply what I know in a practical setting? How will my various privileges rear their ugly heads? Am I capable of doing this work effectively and keeping some semblance of emotional stability? And if I am capable of that, am I also capable of keeping what good work I see from infringing on my ability to think critically as well (because I have a tendency to get very invested in the work I do)?