Being an Activist in Prison

When I go to a meeting of some sort here, it is common for us to start the meeting with a check in. When the check in question happens to be “why are you here at this meeting?” most of the time my answer is, “I’m here because I believe to be an activist I have to be active.” Considering I am currently incarcerated, there’s a lot going on with that. What does it mean to be an activist when the few times I have done something in protest, like refusing to hide my pentacle necklace under my shirt, I’ve been given infractions and been told that I am not allowed to protest anything. I am constantly thinking about what does it mean to be an activist under constraints which make it impossible to do the kinds of things I am used to thinking of when I think of activists.

How do I meet people beyond the barricade when I can’t physically go to the barricade in the first place?

This has led me to realize that showing up, while vitally important, is the tiniest fraction of being an activist. It just happens to be the most visible thing activists do. Showing up at a meeting of Black Prisoner’s Caucus (BPC) or Concerned Lifers Organization (CLO) meeting is the most visible thing I do as an activist, but it feels like I am only ever going to the planning session but never the rally.

So what good is that? I can soak in the wisdom in the room and offer my own in return, but does that change anything? I say yes. My mere presence throws many narratives into question. I am a queer person in a primarily cisgender heterosexual space. I am a femme person in a primarily masculine space. I am Wiccan in a primarily Christian and Muslim space. I am a “white” person in a primarily POC space. The only dichotomies I seem to not be running into at the moment is settler-indigenous and (dis)abled simply because I have not been invited into those spaces. Yet I still do my best to do personal work around those issues along with all the others I’ve mentioned.

This is what I have come to understand the meaning of activism as an incarcerated person. I do the work so that I can then help others do the work. This is all I can reasonably expect from anyone, so I need to cut myself some slack and stop expecting more from myself than I would expect from people who have been doing this far longer than me and accomplished far more than I can ever picture myself pulling off.

I think it is important to recognize, to ourselves, the knots we tie ourselves in over not being able to do it all. A common trope of superhero coming-of-age stories is learning that we can’t be everywhere, can’t help everyone, can’t fix everything by ourselves. So why is that where we set the bar for ourselves while telling those around us to take care of themselves and cut themselves some slack?

Self care truly begins with self compassion.

I try. I fail. I try again. As far as I’m concerned as long as that third step always happens, then progress is being made. I strive to serve, listen, and support others in their work, whether that means doing scut work or lending insight.

This is what I have come to understand what it means to be an activist in prison.

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