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In 2019, the UCLA Center for the Study of Women (CSW) collected Policy Briefs on the theme “Confronting the Carceral State, Reimagining Justice.” The call for submissions was developed by CSW Director Grace Hong and the Black Feminism Initiative Director Sarah Haley. The review committee included Erwin Chemerinsky (Dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law), Amy Ritterbusch (UCLA Department of Social Welfare, Luskin School of Public Affairs), Stephanie Davidson (UCLA School of Law), and Dylan Rodríguez (UC Riverside Department of Media and Cultural Studies).

Six briefs were collected from UC graduate students and system-impacted individuals:

Editor: Katja Antoine, Program and Research Developer, CSW

To download the complete set of policy briefs, click HERE.

To learn more about CSW’s policy briefs, click HERE.

Congratulations to UCLA Associate Professor, Bryonn Bain, for his recently published article in the UCLA Women’s Law Journal titled, “Women Beyond Bars: A Post-Prison Interview with Jennifer Claypool and Wendy Staggs.” This article focuses on these two amazing women, Jennifer Claypool and Wendy Staggs who Professor Bain met while teaching at the California Institution for Women (CIW). These women openly and honestly share their lived experiences before CIW, during CIW, and presently as returning citizens.

In addition, released this week is the Women Beyond Bars: Reentry and Human Rights report which was developed with the CIW Think Tank and the UCLA Law School International Human Rights Clinic of which Professor Bain serves as Project Co-Director with Professor E. Tendayi Achiume. A brief description of the report shared on the UCLA Law website states that the purpose of this report is to focus on “the needs of formerly incarcerated women reentering Los Angeles communities” as well as serve as “a guide and set of recommendations for ensuring that reentering women have access to housing and employment.” The report’s executive summary is available HERE.

Please come out to support the launch of the Women Beyond Bars: Reentry and Human Rights report at “Creating Liberation from Incarceration: Women Beyond Bars” on FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 30 from 4:30pm to 6:00pm at UCLA’s Kerckhoff Art Gallery. For more details about the event and to RSVP, click HERE.

By Lara Drasin

Read Part 1 of this interview HERE.

Bryonn Bain is a UCLA professor jointly appointed in the African American Studies and World Arts and Cultures/Dance departments, as well as a prison activist, spoken word poet, hip-hop artist, actor and author. He is the founder and director of UCLA’s Prison Education Program, which was launched in 2016 to create innovative courses that enable UCLA faculty and students to learn from, and alongside, participants incarcerated at the California Institute for Women (CIW) and Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall (BJN). 

Rosie Rios is the administrative director of UCLA’s Prison Education Program. 

LD:     Many of the concepts behind Theater of the Oppressed sound a lot like improv.

BB:     Absolutely. The culture of “yes, and” is really about being solution oriented [by saying] “here we are, how are we going to make this work?” Being flexible and able to adapt in the correctional facilities is an essential skill. You cannot survive if you can’t figure out a way to deal with constant change.

I taught courses at Rikers Island over a 10-year period. The city jail in LA has more people than any other city jail in the country – or the world – but Rikers Island is the largest penal colony. It’s 10 jails on one island and there were between 14 and 15 thousand people incarcerated there when I first started teaching classes. I developed relationships with a lot of the folks inside and over that time, enough trust built up that I was able to work with them to do poetry, theater, and film classes.

They actually let me film Lyrics From Lockdown there. It was the last December of the Obama administration. Rikers Island rarely lets anyone film there, but we had been planning the shoot for nine months, and two weeks before we were going in to film, we got a call from the White House. The Obama administration invited Academy Award winner Tim Robbins and my crew to go there and bring the production. We were like, “That’s great! That’s amazing!! When?”

And they said December 17. That was the day we’d been planning to go to Rikers Island. So we turned down President Obama and the White House to go perform at Rikers Island. Of course, we showed up at Rikers and it was raining cats and dogs. We had a 20-person film crew covering their equipment with garbage bags so that it didn’t get destroyed. And as we get to the wing where we were supposed to shoot, the correctional officers come out and tell us that they actually had a lockdown. They tear-gassed the wing where we were supposed to perform and weren’t sure if we were going to be able to go through with the shoot.

In that moment, you can imagine the kinds of things I’m thinking to myself. But what are you going to do? “Yes and,” right? So we figured out how to adapt to the situation to make it work. After seven hours, we were able to go in and do the show and bring a little bit of hope and, hopefully, a little bit of joy to our brothers who were there and could use some of that at that time.

“Some of those people behind bars are our most talented folks and brilliant minds. We cannot forget they locked up Mandela and Martin and Malcolm and Socrates.” — Professor Bain

LD:     How did the incarcerated students you were working with respond to being asked to write poetry?

BB:     It’s overwhelmingly positive. There is sometimes some initial hesitation, especially the younger you go, for a range of reasons. But two experiences crystallize what I find most valuable about those experiences.

One was the first time I taught in a juvenile facility that was not predominantly black and brown, which most of the facilities in New York and LA are. I was in the Clark County Detention Center in Ohio doing a residency with Wittenberg University. I asked if we could do something at the juvenile hall since it’s right down the street and they let me bring in professors and students.

On a Monday, I performed there and hosted a workshop for mostly 15-year-old white boys. I’d never had a class like that, but I did my thing. They got really into it, so I decided to go back on Wednesday and do a poetry slam. There was this one student – named James, who was sentenced to 98 days at the facility and was scheduled to be released that Tuesday.

LD:     He stayed for the slam?!

BB:     He requested a 99th day so he could be in the slam on Wednesday — and then he won! So he left the next day a champion of language; of education; of poetry. He had a new relationship to literacy and his own sense of agency with the wind at his back.

Another situation that stayed with me is when we launched the NYU Prison Education program, the first for-credit program at NYU in 2013. We created an application process for all of our courses so they are taken very seriously. We asked every student, “Why do you want to participate in higher education while you’re in prison?”

One young brother looked at me and said, “I need to pursue college in prison because prison is like Medusa. If you focus on it too much, it will turn you to stone. I need to focus my attention somewhere else.” And that just gave me chills. All I could say was, “Please take my class!” That stays with me.

I think people in prison are some of the easiest folks to forget about. Part of the Prison Education Program’s mission is to make sure we realize that we have folks who are valuable members of our families, our communities, our city and country who are incarcerated. And some of our greatest minds — our greatest geniuses — are incarcerated. Look at the statistics, and it’s not even just 1 in 10, but as much as 1 in 3 or 4 of the folks in our communities are incarcerated, depending on which demographic you consider.

Some of those people behind bars are our most talented folks and brilliant minds. We cannot forget they locked up Mandela and Martin and Malcolm and Socrates.

Many in prison simply could not stay on the conveyor belt and do what everybody else did. Some folks made mistakes they should be able to learn from by being introduced to more humane interaction with others than prisons make possible. Others rebelled in a certain way, or just didn’t fit into the mold or the system, or simply made bad choices.

We have countless folks locked up for the use or sale of substances state governments have either since legalized, or should decriminalize since the Center for Disease Control determined addiction is a disease. It should be treated as a public health and wellness issue — not a matter for criminal prosecution or punishment. You can’t lock away addiction and the economies it generates and expect them to disappear. Prisons are an ineffective solution to this problem as they are most others. They only make it worse.  There is a trillion-dollar, global pharmaceutical industry turning profits by engaging in the practice of medicating to treat trauma, illness, and addiction that we are locked up for every day in this country — and the U.S. is the number one importer of pharmaceutical drugs in the world.

Countless others still are wrongfully charged and awaiting trial for stretches of time so long they are undeniably cruel. And others, like my friend Nanon Williams in Texas, are convicted of a crime they did not commit. He was thrown on Death Row at 17 for a crime even a federal judge says he didn’t commit, and has been behind bars surviving in cages for over 26 years.

So I think about the work we do not as for charity, but for change and transformation. It’s for creating opportunities not just to teach folks who are incarcerated, but also to learn from folks who are incarcerated and ensure more voices are heard and involved in shaping the direction in which the nation and the world are moving. If we forget about these folks, we are losing out on the invaluable opportunity to actually participate in learning with and from them.

LD:     I know that you work in facilities for both men and women, as well as boys and girls. What are the similarities and differences have you found in introducing your curricula in both male- and female-serving facilities?

BB:     We should ask Rosie — she just came directly from teaching the girls inside today.

RR [Rosie Rios, UCLA’s Prison Education Program Administrative Director]:     At the juvenile hall, a lot of the girls are coming from very, very traumatic experiences. Today, we asked about their neighborhoods. We were talking about how our neighborhoods are at night. You hear the helicopters and hear gunshots and you’re coming from this place of almost war, right? War between neighborhoods, and you have to survive.

The girls even wrote a letter to UCLA professors and students who are going to come into the facility saying, “Please understand where we’re coming from. It’s like we never got a chance to be kids. We never had a chance to really live. The only thing we know is how to survive.”

And that applies to both boys and girls. But I think the girls just need a lot of care and more therapy. Their focus is also very different, because they’re thinking about back home. A lot of them are mothers at a young age. So a lot of them are figuring out who they are, but also thinking about how they’re going to care for their kids.

LD:     When did you know you wanted to focus on prison education? When did you get involved with the arts, and how did that factor into your decision to go to law school?

BB:     I was always a student activist and involved in organizing, but I actually went into a prison for the first time not as an activist, but as an artist. I was a teenager when I was invited to perform inside by a sister named Paula Medina (Black Paris Productions, Middletown, New York). My brothers, cousins and I had a crew — a hip-hop, spoken word poetry crew. We sang blues songs and performed all over New York. Paula was the head sister in charge who helped young artists to get a platform — and we wanted a platform. She said to us, “If you come perform in the prison with me for the holiday show, then I’ll put you on!”

We didn’t want to act nervous, but in 1989, we were like, “Are we going to be okay?” We had all the assumptions of everybody who’s been fed misconceptions of what’s in prisons through television and movies. But the experience was so amazing for us — it was transformative. We performed; we sang; we rapped; I spit poetry; we banged on the tables. Then we broke bread, and the brothers in there looked like our uncles, cousins and fathers. They were us. And once we saw that they were us, it changed how we understood and thought about the experience of incarceration.

We went back every year for the next decade or so and performed during the holidays. The brothers inside were so grateful that we didn’t forget about them. A decade later in 1999, I had my own experience of being behind bars. And when it was NOT on a voluntary basis, I felt very differently about the situation. It makes a big difference when you have the privilege of going in and leaving at the end of the day.

So the shift in bringing activism into the prison space happened when I had my own experience with the NYPD and was locked up for a brief amount of time, but in several correctional facilities in New York City. My days inside can’t compare to decades of trauma experienced behind bars — or the 44 years in solitary one of our elders from the Angola 3 survived, but it was enough to change my relationship to prisons forever.

I finished law school and suddenly had a different kind of access to these institutions because I had this very elite, very privileged education. And so my thinking was, “How can I be of service to the movement we need to end this prison crisis? How can I leverage my skills and talents, the media, and my access to educational institutions to be an agent of change? To share resources up on the hills that universities gather them on to folks who have been denied access, but would do so much good with them? How can I bring together those in these vastly different spaces who have so much to learn from each other? I felt that would transform not only the lives of incarcerated people, but also the lives of folks in the university space, and the communities most of us ultimately return to after our experiences in either (or in my case, both). Building bridges between these spaces of extreme privilege and extreme marginalization I have been thrown into is a direct result of my life experiences.

But I also had a professor, Kellis Parker, who came and got folks out of jail when we were politically active in college. He was a law professor, and as an undergrad, I would sneak into his lectures. After graduating top of his class at Howard Law, he was the first black law professor at an Ivy League school. Tenured at 26, Dr. Parker — or “Doc” as we called him — taught classes at Columbia Law School with his trombone, using jazz principles, and it blew my mind. He taught law using slave narratives to talk about how when the American legal system did not protect the rights of enslaved Africans, the Indigenous, or immigrant communities of people of color, we had to find ways to create a sense of right and wrong for ourselves. Black folks actually used our stories and storytelling as a powerful tool to understand how should we treat each other.

The infamously dehumanizing Dred Scott case told us that you cannot go into court and expect your rights to be respected over any white person’s rights. So it was powerful for law students to get exposed to that. It was life changing for me to get exposed to that and his whole thinking about jazz as a metaphor for democracy and every voice being heard. At the same time, he helped me understand that improvisation is not just chaos. It’s not “anything goes.” It’s learning how to adapt to an ever-changing environment and develop that muscle.

I think this is a core piece of education that is missing in so many spaces today. We do not know what jobs, what world we’re preparing students for 10 years from now — even five years from now. The world is changing way too fast. You used to make a five-year plan and follow through. Now you have to change your five-year plan from week to week. Well, we do know that whatever the challenges are that we’re preparing students for down the road. They’re going to need creativity. They’re going to need adaptability. They’re going to need those improv muscles to be in shape.

LD:     Right. In order to create change, we have to first be able to imagine it. And we can’t do that without encouraging everyone to be creative.

BB:     We all have to find the artist within. Rosie and I just spent time in two prisons in the UK with two other UCLA students and several from Cal Poly Pomona. We spent days in workshops and building with staff, educators, and men incarcerated in the Brixton prison and the Whitemoor prison, where Cambridge University and the University of London just began offering courses. We are working to develop relationships with them like the ongoing exchange we have with the Center for the Theater of the Oppressed in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

One of the English educators who we brought here last year is Ken Robinson. He came here as part of Professor Pedro Noguera’s conference on transforming schools. Robinson tells this revealing story about a young girl in England who was punished because she was misbehaving. She was seen as “badly behaved,” so the teacher said, “Get out of my class!” and told her mother to take her to a doctor to get her checked out for a mental disorder of some kind.  So her mother took her to a doctor who spoke with her for a while and then at a certain point said, “I’m going to sit outside and speak with your mother. We’ll be right back.” As he walks out of the room, he turns the radio on and as soon as the mother and the doctor walk out, the little girl stands up and starts dancing and moving to the music. She’s in the zone. The doctor peeks through the blinds, sees her, and shows her mother.

When they go back in the room, of course the little girl sits down because she’s like, “I got to be still now; there are adults in the room.” The doctor says to the mother, “Your daughter is not sick. She’s a dancer. She doesn’t need a hospital. She needs a dance school! Take her to this dance school and come back in a couple of weeks.” So they go to the dance school and a couple of weeks pass. They come back and the doctor says, “So how was it?” The girl says, “It was the most amazing place! It was filled with people just like me. People who had to move to think.

The little girl grew up and later became part of the Royal Ballet. She had a brilliant career as a dancer and then left to be one of the leading choreographers on Broadway for blockbuster hit shows like Cats. Had this little girl never been introduced to a doctor who could see her untapped potential — who believed in her capacity for genius — possibilities in her to do something beyond just “be a problem” (which is how she was written off initially) — she might have been seen as having ADHD. She might have been injected with psychotropic drugs, or given Ritalin, or otherwise misdiagnosed, just as I was when they didn’t believe that I could actually be who I said I was when I was unjustly arrested.

She went on to make millions of dollars, bring joy to millions of people’s lives, and by all measures, had a very successful career as an artist. And it was because of somebody who was not an artist, but still saw the value of her creativity and the value of imagining possibilities beyond those that had been imagined previously as within reach. I think that’s the role of artists: the artists in each of us, and of the arts in the social sciences and law. My mentor’s mentor, Paul Robeson, said “Artists are the gatekeepers of Truth.” I believe challenging folks to use imagination — to see a world that’s better than the one that we’re living in, one in which we find the common humanity in all of us, that is the greater vision of the work we do.

LD:     How do you decide to focus on systemic change versus focusing on maybe just making someone’s day better? Do you even decide, or do you focus on both?

RR:     It goes hand in hand, right? You can’t just choose one over the other. But even our going into a class once a week or once a day is going to turn into a long-term change. We never know which of these (incarcerated) girls are future senators. She will be making systemic change. I think there’s no one right place to start. Just start somewhere. It’s hard to see it, but especially with such personal work, eventually you will see the change.

That’s what keeps me going, too.  I see it and I have so much hope for these girls. Knowing that they’re not going to be in there for the rest of their lives. They’re going to be changemakers. They already are.

###

This interview has been edited for clarity.

By Lara Drasin

Bryonn Bain is a UCLA professor jointly appointed in the African American Studies and World Arts and Cultures/Dance departments, as well as a prison activist, spoken word poet, hip-hop artist, actor and author. He is the founder and director of UCLA’s Prison Education Program, which was launched in 2016 to create innovative courses that enable UCLA faculty and students to learn from, and alongside, participants incarcerated at the California Institute for Women (CIW) and Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall (BJN). 

Rosie Rios is the administrative director of UCLA’s Prison Education Program. 

Part 1 of the series will first focus on the interview with Professor Bain

LD:     What do you [Professor Bain] tell people you do when you first meet them?

BB:     It depends on the context. On this campus, I think students identify me first and foremost as a professor, and as the director of the Prison Education Program. But before I was any of those things, I was an artist; I was an activist; I was an educator. I really am excited about the intersection of those identities, where they come together and create sparks and possibilities for transformation.

I’m inspired by people who consider themselves to be change makers. I’m inspired by people like Robin Kelley, who recruited me to come [to UCLA]. Cheryl Harris. I’m inspired by folks who see that when you bring together ways of understanding the world that aren’t often put together, all these amazing possibilities exist.

I’m also the son of immigrants, from a little island in the Caribbean called Trinidad and Tobago. My father was a storyteller — he was a calypsonian — and so I have some of that in me. I’m a storyteller. It’s part of my artistry as a poet; as an actor; as a theater maker. That’s part of my identity.

My mother is a healer. She’s been a nurse for 40 years. I think from her as a healer, and having all these aunts who are healers, I was definitely inspired to be an activist and to use whatever skills and talents and time I have on this planet — between womb and tomb — to try to impact the lives of those around me. So I think that’s where my desire to try to make change happen through activism comes from. I think there’s an intersection between arts activism and education that is at the heart of who I am.

LD:     Tell me about your work within the different contexts, [Professor Bain].

BB:     We do a lot of work in correctional facilities. We have offered courses at two correctional facilities in California, and we’ve taught five courses between the women’s prison and the juvenile hall. At the end of this year, we will have taught seven more. In those spaces, we’re here to represent students and faculty, to create opportunities for incarcerated students and students at the university to engage in higher learning and education together. So, they see me as a professor.

When I’m in a performance space I’m an actor, I’m looking at scripts, and I’m just one of the folks in the room who’s trying to tell the story together. We’re storytellers.

We all have these different layers, right? It’s not just me, or just [Rosie Rios, Administrative Director of the Prison Education Program], or just you.

Kimberlé Crenshaw and W.E.B. Du Bois before her were onto something when they talked about a double or triple or multiple consciousnesses. It’s dealing with, for example, the NYPD who didn’t believe me when I told [the officer] that I was a law student; didn’t believe me when I told them that the Sony VAIO laptop I had in my bag was mine — not that I stole it — or the public defender who told me that rather than believing my resume, she was more inclined to believe that I had a lengthy rap sheet. I think if we look at each other as full human beings, we’re multidimensional. People are not like those old school TV sets, where you could change from one channel to the next. Our identities all flow into each other, right? And so we have to get comfortable understanding that people have these multiple parts to themselves.

Members of the UCLA Prison Education Program team. Front row: Dianna Williams, Daniel Ocampo, Lyric “Day-Day” Green-Brown, Rosie Rios, Joanna Navarro. Back row: Gabrielle Sheerer, Dominique Rocker, Bryonn Bain, Derrick Kemp.

 

“…I think we’ve become numb and desensitized to a lot of the suffering that’s around us, and I think art is one way to say ‘No, wake up.'”

— Professor Bain

LD:     How are the arts initiatives you bring to prisons received — not only by the students — but by everyone that you’ve had to go through in order to make this happen? Do you present it as a healing modality? How do you justify it to them when so many institutions still don’t take the arts seriously?

BB:     This is one of the few countries where the arts are not taken as seriously as the rest of the world takes it. And at the same time, we wouldn’t think about Los Angeles or California as being the same without Hollywood, right? So there is a certain amount of respect for the power of storytelling at some level. I think it’s also important for us to understand that there are other ways for the arts to live and to feed us. Prisons are a public health crisis for many reasons, one of them being that we have more people in prisons with mental health issues than we have in mental health institutions. So prisons are being used as a way to deal with mental health and public health issues that they are not effective at dealing with. Drug addiction is a disease — it’s a public health issue according to the Center for Disease Control — and we’re treating it like it’s a criminal justice issue by locking people up and denying access to what they need. And a lot of people still have access to many banned substances that are available in prisons. So I think we have to really expand our thinking about that. But I think the arts are a way to open people up to see things in different ways. There are many metaphors for art: art as medicine, art as healing, art as a weapon, a tool for resistance to fight oppression. There is no movement for justice that did not have the arts as a part of it.

Anne Bogart talked about art as dealing with the world of aesthetics. And so when you think about what it means to be aesthetic, you think about what “anesthetic” or “anesthesia” is, right? Malcolm X talked about how when you go to the doctor what they do is put Novocaine in your mouth right so you could suffer peacefully, that you can actually bleed all over your mouth and they’ll tell you you’re just fine. So an anesthetic, or “anesthesia,” is actually about numbing your senses: making it so that you don’t see smell, taste, or touch with the same level of intensity. It puts your senses to sleep. So aesthetics should be the opposite of that. An aesthetic should wake up the senses. I think about art as being an alarm clock, waking up the senses to things that we may have become numb to. I’m from a city where 20 million people can walk down the street — and there’s lots of love in the boroughs — but there are certain parts of Manhattan that are not like the block I’m from in Brooklyn. Somebody can be dead on the street and 50 people could walk over the body before anybody even asks if you’re okay. So I think we’ve become numb and desensitized to a lot of the suffering that’s around us, and I think art is one way to say “No, wake up. Human beings who share your experiences, and your oxygen, and your water supply, and in many ways are part of the same organism, are going through and experiencing things that we need to be awakened to.” I think art has the power to do that, to wake us up to realize that we actually have work to do. The social sciences are a direct connection to the arts, because it’s one place you can go to actually dig into the reality of the world: to actually figure out what change has to happen based on the research that many of my colleagues here are doing.

LD:     That’s a good segue into my question about the arts and science. They’ve been separated for so long, even though we know that they’re not actually separate. I know that recently you received a joint appointment to the World Arts and Cultures/Dance department. Do you know if there are a lot of professors on campus that have appointments in both a social or life science department and an arts department?

BB:     I heard of one other before me who was in Chicana/o Studies and also in World Arts and Cultures/Dance. But beyond that, I don’t know of any others. I know that Robin Kelley and Scot Brown are both African American Studies and History, and they also have an affiliation with the Global Jazz Studies program. Robin Kelley wrote the brilliant biography of jazz musician and legend Thelonius Monk, and Scot Brown does a lot of work around funk. So they have this connection between history, the arts and music that I think is really powerful.

Tricia Rose wrote one of the first scholarly books around hip-hop in 1994, Black Noise, and I had a chance to study with her at NYU as a grad student. I think my own experience was a little different because I identified as an artist. So while I wanted to study art to understand it, I also am a practitioner — I am a culture maker, a culture worker. It’s equally important to me to study the history, the culture, and the politics of the artistic media that I engage, and to develop my own craft.

I think there’s room for all kinds of art at all levels. But if we only have art that is about justice that is of a very low quality, we’re not helping the movement — we’re actually hurting the movement. So I try to challenge my students to explore terrain that they may have not experienced before, to think critically about the artistic practice and to think about the relationship between their art, the work they’re making and the world they want to build. I do that because I had amazing teachers and mentors who did the same thing with me. If you had to pay royalty checks for everything you take from your professor’s syllabus I would owe Lani Guinier a check every week. She is a brilliant, brilliant teacher who encouraged me to use collaboration in classrooms, to use creativity in the classroom, and to think critically in the classroom. So, those are things that are at the heart of how I connect to the arts and the social sciences.

 

“It’s a different time now and there is a whole lot that has not changed and needs to change. But I think our consciousness is expanding. I think the voices of people who were formerly incarcerated and are currently incarcerated are moving toward the center of the movement where they should be.” — Professor Bain

LD:     It seems like more people are accepting the fact that the stories we tell, including the media and entertainment we consume and create, are impactful in how they represent our lives and shaping who we are. Obviously, whenever there are these big shifts, we see it at different levels, and we sometimes see it commoditized or hijacked. What’s been your experience in observing this shift?

BB:     We’re in a time where there’s more of a movement to do many of the things that some folks realized need[ed] to happen 20 years ago, but there was no movement in place. Without a mass social movement, it’s very difficult to make change that is lasting, systemic and happens at an institutional level. So that is the biggest difference. I finished law school and I had a really unbelievable media platform: I had access to people who wanted to tell my story to 20 million people. And so because of The Village Voice and 60 Minutes, it was the strangest thing to really call out the NYPD and have, like, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley call me and offer me investment banking jobs. It was such an odd thing. I walked away from a lot of really lucrative opportunities — it just didn’t make any sense with my soul, you know? But I also realized that I could use some of that attention and energy to shine a light in other spaces that needed it more. So the show that I’ve created [“Lyrics from Lockdown”] just came out of touring in prisons around the country, and it emerged from me having a relationship with somebody who was put on death row at 17 — a man named Nanon Williams. “Lyrics From Lockdown,” the show, came from “Lyrics On Lockdown,” the tour, which hit 25 states around the country and ended up as a course in several states. The one I saw was first at Columbia, then NYU, The New School and Rikers Island. So seeing this sort of growth in attention to these issues over the last decade or two decades has challenged me to think about how to find ways to make sure that we’re shining the light in the right place.

I was able to actually bring some attention to Nanon’s case a year after we had the first public performances of the show. A federal judge looked at his case again and decided he should be released. Now the state of Texas appealed. He’s still locked up over 25 years for crime he didn’t commit, but we are closer than ever to getting some movement on his case. Folks like Bryan Stevenson went before the Supreme Court and argued in a case called Sullivan v. Florida that young folks we have locked up all over the country doing life sentences without parole, their brains weren’t even fully developed when they were charged for these crimes and marked for the rest of their lives. They should have the opportunity to actually have redemption. It’s not even second chances: in many cases, it’s first chances. Folks live in communities where the choices are not the choices folks have in Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Bel Air and even Westwood, so that’s a big part of seeing this movement develop.

I feel like the folks that I’ve been blessed to work with have been a small part of building this larger movement because there weren’t editorials in The New York Times or the L.A. Times every week about mass incarceration. People weren’t even calling it “mass incarceration” or “hyper incarceration” or “racialized mass incarceration.” There was a network of folks — Critical Resistance through Angela Davis, a group called the Prison Moratorium Project, a group called the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights — who were talking about the prison industrial complex, connecting the dots and realizing that our communities are being devastated by the drug war, by aggressive paramilitary policing, and by the human caging that is still impacting us. But there’s at least a conversation and a movement. Black Lives Matter is in part to thank for the more recent wave of that. So I think that’s the biggest difference: we’re having this conversation in a larger context.

It’s a different time now and there is a whole lot that has not changed and needs to change. But I think our consciousness is expanding. I think the voices of people who were formerly incarcerated and are currently incarcerated are moving toward the center of the movement where they should be. Whereas 20 years ago, most of the policy that was being generated around prisons and policing was being driven by folks who had no experience in our communities, or any of these correctional facilities where our communities have been put in unprecedented numbers.

A larger movement requires a holistic approach to the problem. A larger movement is not about just folks changing policy, or changing legislation even. One of the things I learned in law school is that if you don’t change the hearts and minds of people, then you’ve got to send the National Guard to make sure that little black girls can go to school in the South.

LD:     I noticed that on the website for the Center for Justice, you say you’re “reshaping narratives through education, policy, research, advocacy, arts and culture.” Do you think that these are the channels through which we produce change?

BB:     I think those are our essential areas. I think it’s hard to make systemic change without those areas being considered. I also think, at this location, at this time and place, those are areas that you cannot leave out of the equation because we’re in a city that has an impact on global culture: you have to think about the arts and culture. Because we’re in a Tier One research institution, you have to think about research and education policy. You have to think about those things because of where we are in the world, this time and place. So we’ve been able to think about and begin forging collaborations across the campus that actually do that. Last year we offered a course called Legislative Theatre For Racial Justice, about using the arts to shape policy. We have collaborations with the folks in World Arts and Cultures/Dance, the team at the Art & Global Health Center, the Law School, and African American Studies.

We brought a Brazilian visiting scholar, artist, and theatre-maker, Alessandro Conceição, from Brazil to work with us at the juvenile hall and to develop theater scenes – Theater of the Oppressed. I was introduced to this in law school, because I had a brilliant legal professor [Lani Guinier] who knew that the law is full of theatrics. She knew that the drama’s in every courtroom. But she also knew, practically speaking, that if you were to actually challenge young law students to think outside the box to say, “Okay, well, how are they creating legislation in Brazil?” and to get folks to act out the social problems they’re experiencing, and to actually propose solutions — not just to talk about or write about the solutions, but to act them out and have a dialogue around them — that might be something we could really use. And when I saw that, a light bulb went on, and I said, “this is what I’m supposed to be using.”

So to go to Brazil with our colleagues in World Arts and Cultures/Dance in December and actually begin a relationship between L.A. and Rio, which we hope to build over time and eventually send students and faculty back and forth — it was powerful. We had students at the juvenile hall tell their stories; do poetry; do theater. At the end of the course, in collaboration with UCLA students, they presented those scenes to legal scholars, judges, law clerks, a legislative brain trust, the UN Special Rapporteur against racism, in order to share those ideas, have a conversation, and then voted on legislative proposals that, through a training we just completed here at the [UCLA] Bunche Center, we’re now going to actually take to Sacramento and City Hall and work to have their voices be heard when usually their voices are never part of the process. So there’s a larger movement that made that possible. It’s also an opportunity to think outside the box, and to think about how we use the arts, theater, poetry, policy, research, and education and link those so they’re not siloed off in ways that there are seen to be irrelevant to each other.

 

Read Part 2 HERE

This interview has been edited for clarity.

May 15, 2018

Professor Kelly Lytle Hernandez and Million Dollar Hoods will be honored by the Los Angeles Community Action Network with a Freedom Now Award for their groundbreaking digital mapping project that uses police data to monitor incarceration costs in Los Angeles. The 8th Annual “Freedom Now” Awards and Celebration will take place on June 16, 2018 from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at 838 E. 6th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90021.

For more details, click HERE