Many politicians only visit Black and Brown communities during an election cycle. Perhaps they are there to “remind” themselves the value of votes from people of color. Yet every time, we are handed the same laundry list of promises recycled from the last election’s did-not-achieve-pile: affordable housing, access to better schools, and (oh, my favorite) safer communities.
Additionally, most of those making policies about prisons have never seen what the inside of a prison looks like. When they vote, they are voting on behalf of a people with whom they have had little to no contact or connection. Yes, New York state prisons are not outwardly considered Black and Brown communities, at least not within earshot of society.
The fact that these people don’t see me as vulnerable, as feminine, as prey, and as without power or protection is outrageous and infuriating.
It may surprise many, but incarcerated citizens quite frequently have conversations about the lack of political engagement from our state’s officials. Frankly, many politicians understand we are not allowed to vote while incarcerated and as such there is no incentive to represent our ideas, even if those ideas are meritorious.
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Some politicians don’t have the experience of discovering, on their own, that we incarcerated individuals have some answers for many of society’s complicated issues.
More politicians should be invested in coming into the prison system to look for solutions to many of the very problems some of us have caused in our communities. Our civic engagement begins right here and now, while we are incarcerated.
If those of us who are in prison are mandated to take anger management before leaving in hopes of becoming less reactive and more critically aware of our emotional triggers, how much more would our civic engagement be enhanced by our political leaders showing up and engaging with us? We are the nation’s most marginalized members, and we will be returning back to society. Politicians’ engagement would prepare us to be more socially educated and participatory in our democracy.
One such politician did show up: Shéár Avory. By having the moxie to walk into the carceral space, Avory is essentially saying that every New Yorker has a stake in democracy and a civic duty to help foster safer communities in New York state.
38 percent of Black people in the United States are incarcerated, which is disproportionate given that the Black population in the United States hovers around 13.5 percent. In New York, Black and Brown incarcerated individuals do make up more than the national average, but no incarcerated individual can vote. Avory could not have come to garner the vote; she came into prison to look for solutions.
Avory is running for incumbent Jonathan Jacobson’s seat in the Hudson Valley. She came to find solutions for how to create “safer communities” and also to discuss “criminal justice” initiatives. Because to her, the two are not mutually exclusive.
Avory leads with her background. Her mother had an overdose when she was young. Her father believed she could be “cured” through conversion therapy. She survived the foster care system, and when she aged out she found herself homeless. But, when she concluded her bio, I noticed that she did not look downtrodden, broken, or resolved. She looked like a fighter.
She identifies as Black and indigenous nonbinary trans/femm. Her vision is to turn vacant buildings into small business ventures and dilapidated houses and blighted neighborhoods into safe communities with affordable housing. She wants to bring resources into communities so that youth are not left to activities that will lead them into the carceral system.
Avory’s platform transcends gender, and it is why I believe she is the change maker the 104th District needs. “We may think differently, but I can imagine we usually feel hunger, homelessness, community violence, and the overdoses of loved ones the same,” she said during her visit, “As abandonment by our politicians.” For Avory, policies ought to lift people up, not keep them down. She articulates, substantively, on the how.
Gone are the days of believing that our politicians must be the person you would want to have a beer with. Deceptive campaign malarkey is watching how many politicians put on their best face while courting the voting constituency.
Avory, a hopeful politician, came into the “belly of the beast” to learn from some who have caused disastrous harm in their communities, but who may now be the cultivators on how to heal the same communities. It is said that “a man’s strength flows from the same well as his weaknesses.”
Being incarcerated does not relieve us of our civic duty as U.S. citizens, and the U.S. Constitution supports that sentiment. It reads, “No State shall make or enforce any law which abridges or immunities of citizens of the United States.”
Avory did not come to offer any promises or hand me the same laundry list of promises recycled from the last election’s did-not-achieve-pile. Over a shared bag of vending-machine chips, we talked about solutions, ones that politicians seldom, if ever, think incarcerated citizens have.