A biweekly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.
By Vina Kay and Kevin Reese
Vina: Kevin’s warm laugh reached me through our phone connection. “You’re reading my mind again!” he said. “How does that happen?”
It was one of our many exchanges over the phone, that line of communication that has kept us whole and alive in our partnership over the last four years. My friend and colleague Kevin Reese first reached out to me from prison after hearing me talk about prison phone justice on KMOJ’s show Urban Agenda.
These words come naturally to us: friend, colleague, partner. They are the language of building together. Kevin has helped me formulate a vision that we share of working to build prison justice and end mass incarceration. Kevin reminds me all the time that this is a language new to him, yet one that gives him purpose and a way to build towards his eventual release from prison after 14 years.
Kevin: I had a desire to contribute to my generation, and the fact that I am in prison didn’t stop me from believing that I could. In the spirit of that desire, I leaned on some of the most important lessons I had learned over the years.
In prison, one of the first things you learn is the importance of relationships. Oftentimes this lesson is learned and forged with fire. Just ask a lonely prisoner who checks their mailbox to find it empty yet again. In some cases this comes after it’s been empty for years at a time. Ask them how important relationships with family and friends who care about them is.
When I reached out to Vina, I was looking for more than just how our work could benefit us. I was looking for a relationship with my community. A way to allow my talents and energy to be used to benefit the community that I come from. A fact of life is that resources come and go, but beautiful relationships are worth more than gold.
Vina: Kevin has taught me about organizing. Although he had not had any formal training when we first connected, he naturally practiced a relational, organic kind of organizing that I have come to value at Voices for Racial Justice. Our work is grounded in relationships, and we hold that human connection sacred, above any campaign or policy win.
Kevin: Because of this work that we have done together, I have been welcomed back to the human family. I have been introduced to hundreds of other community members and I’ve spoken via phone at countless community events.
I often ask myself the same question that Vina referred to earlier: “How is it that two people with such different life experiences can work together and so many times come to the same conclusion to a problem?” After long consideration, I believe I know at least part of the answer.
Vina and I joined Lissa Jones on Urban Agenda on January 7, 2016 to discuss some of our work and to tell our story. I remember the entire correctional facility being tuned in and listening to their incarcerated brother on the radio. Upon its conclusion, Vina closed the show with these remarks that served as a paradigm shift in my life and in our work.
It has been the spirit of our work from day one and is still our guiding light to this day. Vina so eloquently stated this quote from an aboriginal activist: “If you have come to save me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then come… Let us work together.”
Vina: Lately, our team at Voices for Racial Justice has been reading the book Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown. This book describes a way of change-making that we have found inspiring in our work, focused on how complex systems are made up of many simple parts, aligning and changing and aligning again. Among the elements of emergent strategy are fractals — never-ending, repeating small acts that relate to the large scale.
I think of the way Kevin and I connect and build as emergent strategy. We had no idea what our initial connection would mean, but we knew it mattered — to us. Our small acts, including the phone calls and writing, the checking in and imagining together, relate to something larger.
Through each other we have connected to others, and that relational practice has impacted how they organize and move through the world, too.
Kevin: So although we come from different backgrounds, we are both in this work because we see the humanity in each other. We understand that neither of us can be free if the other is bound, and on this road to freedom our paths often cross.
That has transferred to the development of our theory of change, which is to never forget that while we fight for systematic change, that we always stop to invest in the people who are directly impacted by those systems.
This is my reflection on our work as of today. We may not have been able to change the entire system, but we have been able to change lives. I speak from personal experience from incarcerated, to disconnected, to connected to my community, respected for my talents, and valued for my humanity from inmate to colleague.
Vina Kay and Kevin Reese are participants in Voices for Racial Justice’s “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the organization’s work, visit www.voicesforracialjustice.org.