Works of Justice is an online series that features content connected to the PEN America Prison and Justice Writing Program, reflecting on the relationship between writing and incarceration and presenting challenging conversations about criminal justice in the United States.

Raquel Almazan

Raquel Almazán. Photo by Dorothy Shi

On Wednesday, November 20, at 8:00 p.m., Poetic Theatre Productions, Judson Arts Wednesdays, and The La Paloma Prisoner Project in association with La Lucha Arts will present Ascención: Celebrating the Movement Toward Liberation, directed by Estefania Fadul. A full, free potluck-style meal will be served at 7:15 p.m. at Judson Memorial Church.

Raquel Almazán is one of several women artists of color who will be honored for their work around decarceration, liberation, and reclamation. With a particular focus on those who have been targeted or imprisoned for protecting and defending themselves, their rights, and those of other women or their families, Ascención will create a space for activism, healing, and embracing a destiny of liberation.

This fall, I had the opportunity to attend an early reading of Almazán’s play La Paloma Prisoner. Rooted in Almazán’s longstanding work with incarcerated and impacted communities, and specifically her time with the women of Buen Pastor, the play follows seven women incarcerated in a Colombian maximum-security prison, centering their complex, strained, and deeply tender relationships with one another and the outside world. Understanding the women’s prison as a social world, rather than simply a site of institutional dehumanization, the play explores the implications of mass incarceration for how we think about queerness, bodily autonomy, and alternate forms of justice.

La Paloma Prisoner is the center of a broader project aimed at uplifting the voices of currently and formerly incarcerated women of color.

La Paloma Prisoner is the center of a broader project aimed at uplifting the voices of currently and formerly incarcerated women of color. Panel discussions, conversation circles, a mini symposium, and workshops in prisons will lead up to the play’s run with New York Theater Workshop in April 2020. The play is the recipient of the Arthur J. Harris Memorial Prize in social justice, an LGBTQ Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation Playwriting Prize, and the NALAC National Association of Latino Arts and Culture Arts Grant for prison and community center performances.

Paloma character in Raquel Almazán’s La Paloma Prisoner

La Paloma Prisoner is one installation in the play cycle Latin is America, a collection of bi-lingual works dedicated to each Latin American country. Almazán also works as a community educator, public speaker, and performer. She is the artistic director of La Lucha Arts, an organization dedicated to facilitating the creation of transformational artworks while building a platform for marginalized and abandoned artists.

A few weeks after the reading, I spoke with her about her writing and her fight against mass incarceration. We were joined by Nora Benavidez, the director of PEN America’s U.S. Free Expression program, where she guides PEN’s national advocacy around free expression and the first amendment. Drawing on her experience in both legal and activist circles, Nora spoke with Raquel on the intersections between literary and political work and the issue of free expression.

CLAIRE ADLER: I’m so excited to be sharing this space with you today! To start off, I was struck by how central the relationships between mothers and their children were to the play. I was interested in how strained those mother-child relationships were, and the important role that forgiveness ended up having in all of them. How were you thinking about motherhood within this script, and why did it become so central to the story that you were telling, or are telling?

RAQUEL ALMAZÁN: When I first started working in facilities, I was quite young. I was in my early 20s, and immediately the bond that I saw when I was in the facilities was that there was families. There’s an immediate mother-daughter bond that happened between the women. It wasn’t just about mentor-mentee, it was beyond the relationships that they had come to cultivate on the outside. Sometimes, with someone we would see on the exterior as a biological woman, I would say, “That’s a father, she is fathering, she is the father that we never had.” Many of us, I think, knew the feeling of a parent rejecting you or having violence associated with one of your parents, so there was a bond there, that someone would take care of you.

Immediately I realized that coming in and doing this work was about forming families very quickly, and realizing “I’m the mother” and other times “I’m the daughter, I’m receiving so much right now, and I’m being held.” So I think that was really the impetus to have so many mother-daughter relationships in the piece. And looking at the world outside of this structure of men to be quite honest, that this was a world in which masculine energy wasn’t penetrating, and so there was this extreme focus on feminine divine energy and feminine healing and for me I looked at that through the prism of mother-daughter relationships.

CLAIRE: Femininity is so central to the play. One of my favorite lines, which I brought up with you after the reading, was when Paloma says that she’s pretty femme to be a butch dyke. It felt to me like throughout the play, femininity had a very different charge within the prison, something that really takes center stage during the beauty pageant at the end of the play. How were you thinking about the very active and intentional performance of femininity in this work? How does femininity function as a survival tactic for incarcerated women?

“There was just this lack of consciousness of the things that women need.”

RAQUEL: When you say that, I think about my journey being a biological woman in this world and the way that my body was often a target but my body was also a tool, or I would say a weapon, in that I learned how to protect my body with weapons. Sometimes I had a weapon, I will be honest, whether a taser gun, a knife, or a gun, or my body was a weapon itself. So I think I’m going to start from that place because all these narratives are experienced through, I think, female-identifying bodies and that’s quite a different trajectory in the world. And I would love to have you say that question again.

CLAIRE: Yes, for sure. There was a lot of talk, between the women in the play, about shaving your legs and putting on makeup. I feel like those are things that are often in the background in the outside world, but they really took center stage here, it felt really vital and central and much more like an action. So I was curious if you felt like the setting of prison differently charges how women relate to those aspects of feminine presentation.

RAQUEL: Soap! Soap becomes so important for incarcerated women. When I was at Buen Pastor, there was so many conversations about fabric, about material—I snuck in some feather boas in a facility in South Florida, and I’ll tell you now cause I can tell you now, but I also snuck in the movie Chicago. That particular facility was maximum security so there was very strict boundaries on physical touch and access to hygiene. It was very clear that they didn’t have enough sanitary napkins, and one woman was like, “We’re women, what do they want me to do, bleed all over the floor?” She was like, “I am a woman. I am going to bleed.” There was just this lack of consciousness of the things that women need. Or Baby Jessica was like, “I always have to have my eyeliner.” Having eyeshadow, eyeliner on comforted her for some reason. She didn’t want to have anything else, but that was very important to her. I also think that that was something very linked to her identity.

And so when the women watched Chicago, it was really fascinating to be there with them and just have that experience, and ask them, “What did you think, what did you feel about this piece?” and they were like, “We thought it was trite, but it was somewhat funny and I really loved the ultra-femininity.” The color of the prison was this light green, and everything was just washed over with that color, and the women in the room were mostly people of color. I think color was such a large part, of course, of our cultural identity, which is bright colors, that expression, and so when they saw Chicago, everyone was saying, “Wow, the colors are so vibrant!” I started bringing in some fabrics, things that when I passed through the security I would say, “I’m going to put this on the table,” but we would turn it into a shawl, we would turn it into a skirt, we would turn it into something that somebody could wipe their tears with.

It was that one piece of fabric, going back to the essentials of theater, that one piece of colorful fabric that turned into all these other literal things, and also expressive things, where you could dance with it. They really were taking to these colors, and they said, “I would like to adorn myself with that, with this feather boa,” and then that became this portal. When we put it on and we did a dance, it was as if they were somewhere else, it was very transportive, and it was just like having that one piece of thing that connected them not only to femininity but to identity. There were a spectrum of women in the room, including queer women and regardless of how we identified, everyone was drawn into the fabric, just the touch of the material, brought us back to ourselves. There’s just something about having a choice, if I would like to paint my face, if I would like to shave, I would like to do that, to feel my own skin. I think it was more about agency. Just the act of shaving one’s leg, there’s a razor involved. In the prison, everything becomes weaponized. When I brought in the fabric one of the guards said, “Someone could choke you with that.” Everything that for me was connected to femininity, was something that transformed into a weapon. As women, how often has a high heel, or something that you carry in your bag as a woman, become a weapon against assault or for survival? That’s part of how characters in the play use objects and transform and or multiply the use of a common place object.

Scene from La Paloma Prisoner

When we staged the pieces, a common item, like the fabric could suddenly become a symbol for peace, linked to their identity, but in the next monologue it was transformed into something else, a way to wrap oneself up in a form of fierce protection.

The majority of the women that I was working with were survivors of assault, physical, sexual and emotional assault and abuse. I was physically assaulted so many times in Miami and throughout my life, that attributes that were linked to my femininity became weapons in response to being assaulted; so that’s an aspect of what our bodies remembered, a connection to our bodies that the women and I had, that was unique to those experiences.

CLAIRE: In terms of relationships in the play, along with mother-daughter relationships, there are really important queer relationships which I was thinking about when you were talking just now about women getting agency over themselves through femininity. That was really present in the play, and it seemed like part of that agency came in the form of queer sociality, for example, when Soliar dresses up and everyone’s complimenting her ass. Paloma and Oro’s relationship is this passionate and mutually supportive thing, but there’s also this queerness that I read even among the straight identified characters. How did that intersect with the political project of the play?

RAQUEL: I think it is necessary for women who are healing from what we now know is toxic masculinity to create a world that is separate. What I started to see at Buen Pastor was that although it was a forced incarceration and the women did not have agency to move freely from space space, there was something else that I started to understand about a self cultivated space. Somehow the character Paloma, sees this forced incarceration as a liberation, she says “You put me in a place full of women, you malparidos tontos!” Isolation becomes healing — in that isolation, there is an agency because previously you were living in this world where just walking down the street, to the grocery store, going to your car, it didn’t matter the context, you always felt that you were under assault.

How do we transform those places, into a place of spiritual agency, that you’re in a place where there’s actually agency, and when the male guard was in this other little section, the feminine divine would come into our main space because there was no men. The lack of presence of men created this other space where we could see each other, where you could see yourself, and then I remembered, “Ohh, that’s why it was so important that I finally left my father. Because it was going to end with either him killing me or me killing him, there was no other alternative, and so only separation allowed me to contemplate, what does a world look like where I’m not being assaulted? What does a world look like where I’m not being violated?” At times, incarceration becomes that safe space in a very strange way.

“I feel that there is a need for confrontation, and it doesn’t necessarily need to be violent but there does need to be accountability. I think that’s really what it comes down to is that now, for the first time, women are actually saying it’s not just about confronting my oppressor, it’s also about asking, how do I hold this person accountable for what they did to me and my community?

I was also very inspired this American artist named Carolyn Gage who I met when I performed an excerpt of this in Italy. She was a survivor of abuse who had a very similar narrative to Paloma and she spent 10 years not speaking to a man. She healed, she detoxed, and then she began to perform for only women. I was really inspired by Carolyn because she consciously took the time for her own healing, and then integrated herself back into working with men that had committed domestic violence, and then integrating them with survivors. She went into this journey and I realized that that was really the journey that Paloma takes. All of the men that she ended are psychically coming back into Paloma’s space, even though Paloma has physically created a space for yourself, they are coming back because there is also the psyche that needs to heal, the mind that needs to heal, the inner spirit that needs to heal, and that can only be done through confrontation. I know the word confrontation is difficult, and the word exchange makes us feel at ease, but no, it is a confrontation that is needed.

We are in a place where people are very afraid of that word but until I confronted every single one of my oppressors that oppressor was never going to leave my psyche. It was going to follow me, it was going to haunt me the way that they haunted Paloma. I feel that there is a need for confrontation, and it doesn’t necessarily need to be violent but there does need to be accountability. I think that’s really what it comes down to is that now, for the first time, women are actually saying it’s not just about confronting my oppressor, it’s also about asking, how do I hold this person accountable for what they did to me and my community? To hold someone accountable is not just to say, “I went off and I did my own healing and I’m doing my healing separately.” In addition to my healing, “I’m gonna bring the oppressor into the room now. Finally, that’s justice. One thing is healing, and another thing is justice. So I think that there’s two different spaces for that. People will be like, “I’m doing a lot of healing.” I’m always like, “Honey, I’m done healing. I want justice!” I think that’s very different.

Photo by Giselle Robledo

CLAIRE: On the topic of justice, and specifically restorative or transformative justice, in the discussion after the reading, there was a really powerful comment from someone who had been formerly incarcerated who noted how most of the discussions around prison justice sideline or ignore “violent offenders.” That’s a dynamic the play challenges by depicting all the women, who are those so-called violent offenders, in this humanizing way.

At the same time, Paloma strikes back against the violence of assault in a very much retributive fashion. How were you thinking about reconciling the need for forgiveness, but also the need for vengeance, when it comes to our response to acts of violence? Does part of the answer lie in unpacking the differing gendered and racial, economic and political motivations between various acts that the prison system uniformly designates as violence?

RAQUEL: I think there’s this historical image of the white male with the gun as the liberator or the bringer of freedom. When I look at a white male with a gun, I see the constitution, the forefathers, but when you see a woman of color with a weapon in her hand, the last thing you think about is freedom. The last thing you think about is creating a new world the way they created America.

How many times have I been bombarded with these images of armed white men as liberators? It’s never in the context of them being the colonializers or being the oppressors. Whenever I see women of color with a weapon in their hand I think back on all these amazing women of color in the continent of South America, of North America, that retaliated against colonializations with their bodies, with weapons. I still think we haven’t gotten out of that context. I’m still fighting, or responding to, my entire culture, my entire identity being appropriated.

When a white man commits violence, there is this entire SWAT team dedicated to psychologically deescalating the situation…the fucking second you have a woman, especially a woman of color with a weapon in their hand, it’s like, “how many times can I shoot her, how many times can I violate her before I silence her?” Where’s my SWAT team? Where’s the years of training and inclusive thinking in order to take care of that person in that moment?

I’m supposed to be acclimated to the oppression. Every time somebody in the street says go back to where you came from, or a white male steps up to me that way, I’m supposed to take the higher ground. For me, I think instead about how my female ancestors survived in Costa Rica. It was not just with a shovel. I cannot be judged for defending my own life. No just system can judge me for defending my own life because I am not going to be taken care of, because the system and the society doesn’t have that support system for me, that’s the way the whole system is set up. This is how we have survived, this is how women have survived. Women have these instincts, as mothers, that we are going to protect, that we are going to protect ourselves and our communities, yet we’ve normalized seeing that as masculine trait.

CLAIRE: I’m wondering how you might elaborate, but thinking about Paloma, where it still has that same feeling for me, that this is life or death, this is me defending myself. But at the same time, it’s her killing for others as well, it’s her defending Oro, it’s her defending a stranger. How is it different when you’re defending the people you love, or is it different?

RAQUEL: I think that as a survivor once you’ve advocated for yourself, you realize that there’s thousands of women standing next to you. And that only happens once you take that first step. Brigitte Harris, who was part of our process in building the play for years and our movement during several events—Brigitte has taken that evolution of advocating for herself, advocating for her nieces. Clearly that same cycle of abuse was going to happen, and now working with other young girls and family cultivating a way of speaking about violence or abuse before it happens, while it’s happening, and after. How do you take that journey? I think that advocating takes many different forms, and I think that Paloma becomes an advocate.

I think Paloma’s character is very linked also to my mother’s history. In Costa Rica, there were these story circles that used to happen with girls at the age of nine, because usually between the ages of nine and 10 is when the assault would happen, when the young girls were all sent away to work in these other people’s homes. If you didn’t know how to defend yourself, if you weren’t even consciously aware that you were going to be raped, how do you prepare yourself for that kind of moment? So all the girls would sit around at nine and talk about it, “You should put this by the desk, you should put this by the drawer,” and my mother was…ready.

When he came into the room, she didn’t have anything physically, so she started to say the names of his children, who were her age. That to me, that’s the agency of language. That’s the agency that doesn’t even have to be physical, I used my own spiritual being to protect and advocate for myself. You’re doing this to me but you could also be doing this to your own children. And my mother told me, “Then I broke the window and I grabbed the glass in my hand and I put it up against him and I climbed out the window and I ran all the way home,” which was in the dark, in the middle of the trees, in the middle of the Costa Rican jungle.

I think about those story circles, how narratives and stories also serve as a tool of protection, but also just as a way of acknowledging that this is gonna happen. What are you going to do, how can we protect each other, how can we continue to hold each other after this happens? When your own mother, biological mother, cannot protect you, who becomes your mother, your guide? That’s the big question for me, who becomes your mother, who is the person who is going to protect you? In oppressive societies, I look at it through the lens of women, who is going to become my mother, who is going to become my protector, and I think that Paloma takes that role.

Photo by Giselle Robledo

CLAIRE: Thank you so much, Raquel.

Nora, I thought I might pass this over to you for a little bit.

NORA BENAVIDEZ: This is great, it makes me want to scrap all of my other questions and ask you different questions.

I work in a different kind of space, I work on the law and policy and yet it seems like the way we frame stories is similar, in trying to put emphasis on voices that otherwise go unheard or less heard, and the issue that concerns me more and more is the voices that are not just not heard but are silenced, actively silenced. I’m curious, in a totally different context, what are the threats that you are seeing right now to certain kinds of people? I think I get some sense from your work and from the interview and what Robbie [Pollock, the prison writing program manager at PEN America] has told me about the issues that matter to you, and some of them I think are very universal, of what matters to all of us, or at least us, and I’m curious in the larger sense now, when you wake up, what are the threats that you see, whose voices are being silenced?

RAQUEL: I immediately think of Latinx people, the risk of deportation. How that implanted fear begins to suppress potential and drown out the voices of young Latinx people. I work with a lot of young people, and I work in a lot of public schools, detention centers and a lot of centers where young people are at, and I think for me the more and more I’ve been working and storytelling or building narratives, I see that there is a very specific kind of person who is able to navigate institution and distribution, whether it’s the media, or publishing, or theatrical presentations. You have to present a certain way in order for narratives to get massively distributed. I worked in a public school, and I’m in this room and there are 16-year-olds who desperately want to tell their story and the teacher’s like, “They can’t write, they can’t write, they don’t know how to write,” and I ask, “they can’t write in English or they can’t write in Spanish?” They have stories to tell, and to be honest at that time they didn’t have the language, the opportunity to cultivate their voice, so I was like, “How are they ever going to tell their story?”

The first time I saw some of them become interested in literacy was when I said, “Well, how are you gonna share your story? If you can’t write it, nobody can read it.” And then this light turned on. And the genius poetry that would come out of their mouths, is life force! I’m screaming, “He’s a genius, this boy from Honduras who worked in the theater there is a genius! Some were already incredible writers, they typed up their material and become invested in words in a different way. Some couldn’t write it down, but they are thinking in poetry,” or the young men at Rikers who can RHYME, the rhyme scheme that comes out of their beings is unique and their relationship to language is visceral. They were hesitant to write it on paper but the practice of oral history is present. The language is inside of them. The way that they’re telling their stories is an art form and a skill. That is the highest level of poetry in motion, to be able to land words on the beat, rhyme, and to discover all these analogies and metaphors, and they’re doing it in real time.

I see this resiliency in response to the failure of the education system, to say, “So you didn’t give me a paper and pen and the fucking alphabets, but I have all of these other ways I’m telling my stories.” They have given themselves the tools to say, “How am I gonna tell my stories?” But then you gotta go to college. I told one of my students that he had to go to college, and he said, “Well, how did you go to college?” and I said, “Do you want to beat them? Do you want to beat them? Do you want to win? Cause this is a battle we’re in.” And he’s like, “I want to win,” and I say, “Then you have to know what they know, and then you keep what you know.” I have that real conversation with them, because you have to know everything your oppressor knows, and then bring all of your culture with you as you grow.

“Initially, my obsession with mastering language was about revenge. I’m going to use your words against you, use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, but I also started to long for other words and to want other sounds.”

This is where the limitations are of how stories are being told live, and I think that that can be done through censorship and traditional publishing, but it can also happen through cultural erasure. I became interested in censorship because I was not allowed to speak Spanish with them, with my students. They would write from their natural instincts, and the next day I would see the words erased, and new words in broken English appeared on the page. I’m in this space and the teachers are like, “Just don’t let them speak Spanish, don’t let them speak in Arabic,” and I said, “But that’s the language they know.” So there’s also something there about assimilation into standard American English, and you’re going to sound like this, and you’re going to speak like that. It becomes a way to shut down their language, which becomes fragmented. It’s only part of them that starts to come through, and so I also think a lot about that. The censorship of potential voices.

Initially, my obsession with mastering language was about revenge. I’m going to use your words against you, use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, but I also started to long for other words and to want other sounds. So I speak a lot about that with my students, that the vitality of literacy is about doing something active with your language. The way that I’m seeing that the system is discarding those on the margins. This brilliant boy, his teacher says, “You should spend from 9 am to 12 p.m. in remedial classes, and then from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., you’ll do vocational school.” He’s done! The kid’s done! I see him becoming a great poet, I could see him writing novels, I can see him doing it, but everyone was already telling him he’s not a writer.

I’m very fascinated with those individuals that didn’t penetrate institution. There is some of us, just a few of us, that are gonna make it to those Ivy League institutions. I was very conscious of that when I went to Columbia, “I’m in this space for a reason and my activity here has to be very pointed. I know my relationship to this institution.” But that’s not everyone’s trajectory, so I’m very interested in how do these stories get told if you’re not coming through those traditional systems? Especially in the literary world, how do those voices get visibility, and how do they become lasting? In theater, there’s this conversation of the theatrical canon and who gets put in that canon. Who gets taught at Drama 101? So I’m in a battle with this value system that suppresses all these amazing literary works that are already in the world. But I see that young man and I know he still needs that experience of going to college, even if he gets into the CUNY system, he just needs the space to be told he’s a writer.

Photo by Giselle Robledo

In terms of suppression, that’s what I see. The system is built so that there’s only certain people who are going to be moving on to higher education, and the rest of them, all these beautiful talented young children of color are just going to go into these vocational positions. That’s how I see the system suppressing what’s happening, although I think that young people are using other tools, social media and other forms of demonstration to confront in other ways. That’s where my focus goes because I work with a lot of young people who know their potential or already contain the skills, but the community and the society, all of these placeholders are not there for their success the way it is for more privileged youth. That to me is a systemic form of censorship that’s not as overt.

This correlation between the suppression of my student’s work and my own professional playwriting work became more clear. When institutions don’t fund a particular dangerous piece of writing, the theater rejects your submission. And expectations from organizations to alter my work in order to get programmed manifested in a stealth death of artistic movement. Value systems are curated. To disregard what is clearly so worthy is to censor. Toni Morrison fought that battle.

NORA: I sometimes think, working on these issues, day in, day out, at a systemic level where you’re digesting, internalizing other people’s experience and living it, I think in many ways, especially if you’re doing creating work, it can be very draining. It sounds like you would never not do this, and I’m curious, how do you fill yourself up again sometimes, do you need that? Or is it a reflexive process, that actually you’re very invigorated by the work? I know often social movement and social change workers can be very exhausted by what they do, and finding moments to be able to take care of yourself are really important, and I’m curious how you do that.

RAQUEL: I absolutely gain so much energy to continue doing this work from the young people that I work with, in women like Brigitte Harris, who transformed her trauma into constant advocacy, in those moments is when I see the fruits of my labor. I was a performance coach for three siblings, the older brother, the younger brother, and the sister. The oldest told me the story of how his mother smuggled herself in the back of a truck three times, was deported twice, and the third time put herself into a truck and a young white couple said, “Get in the back,” it was a white BMW and they crossed people over, they had a store, so they were constantly going back and forth and they were so unsuspecting, because they looked like these hippie granola people. His mother got in the back of the car and thought, “Third time’s the charm, I’m gonna fucking do this.” He says, “My mother got here in the back of a truck.” That kid was 12, and now he’s working in immigration policy, he interned with Obama and then worked in the Obama administration. Now I look back, I see that’s who keeps me going forward. The thousands of young people that I created art with are now creating the movements that are challenging the current oppressive forces.

I see that with storytelling. It’s not only the inspiration or the spark of imagination that’s happening, but the question of power comes into play. Who has it, how do I claim my own power and take back power that was taken from me? I think speaking his own text, speaking his own monologues that he had written, it was like hidden power to him. I knew that for me it’s like planting seeds. I know this may be a problematic word to use, but to say that there’s an army, there’s a social justice army rising, I feel like it’s been building up for the last 20 years, and now for me to see all of this come to fruition, it’s like a blossoming.

I think the idea is never to see that you’re doing this work alone. Right after Trump was elected I was going in to do a gun violence workshop in a high school. I was a fucking wreck, the kids were a wreck, it was the last stop school in Manhattan, in Midtown, and all of the kids were people of color. That morning, my mother called me and said, “Raquel, all the guns are gone from Walmart, all the guns were off the shelf.” Telemundo and Univision were publicizing it, that all the guns had been bought off across the country, they were swept off, and then I asked the kids, “Where are the guns, who took the guns, who bought the guns?” And they’re like, “White people to shoot us.” And we just took a breath, and then this young girl was like, “I don’t want to shoot them back.”

“The young people, that’s really what keeps me invigorated and keeps me going. Just seeing that they’re also reshaping their own futures.”

And then it began. Like, how we gonna flip this? We know, she knew she was under attack, so how we gonna reframe this? We started to put our bodies into shapes as we read the statistics out loud and then we asked, how does that make you feel and we put our bodies in that shape and then we let it go. Let’s confront it, how does it feel? How does my body feel when I hear that all these guns are gone?

I think the young people also help me strategize. Because I’ve been part of that old school community organizing—don’t say anything back, don’t fight back, and non-violence—and I was like, so that happened, and now there’s these other forms of oppression that are coming at us, so then we also have to adjust our strategies. It can’t just be these classical tools of organizing. I have to be thinking about this with the young people in the room, and regrouping, and seeing that there’s a whole new way of doing social justice work. The young people, that’s really what keeps me invigorated and keeps me going. Just seeing that they’re also reshaping their own futures.

I had this conversation with young people who said, “Trump doesn’t want me to go to college.” I was like, “He doesn’t! So what are we gonna do?” Just speaking that out loud: this man doesn’t want me to get an education. I was like, he doesn’t, but we’re gonna do this. And we’re gonna go to this organization, and this community, and these groups of undocumented young people and demand our right to education. They’re not afraid of him, they’re coming together, organizing. The New York State Youth Leadership Council, an organization right here on the Lower East Side, they’re an amazing organization of young people. So that’s really what keeps me rejuvenated, is being here with them, alongside them, they keep me hungry.