Organizing is hard work. It comes with long hours and high stress and, in many cases, leads to burnout. For women of color, these factors are placed on top of other state-imposed hardships, including mass incarceration, which disproportionately affects Black and brown people. While men make up the majority of the 6.7 million people under some form of criminal justice control, since the 1980s, the number of incarcerated women has increased by 700 percent. Nearly two million women exit prisons and jails each year with a record that often follows them a lifetime. There are over 45,000 laws restricting more than seventy million people with records from full participation in society. These policies harm communities, including the communities where women of color live and organize.

Given the legacy of women of color as the backbone for racial justice movements, it is no surprise they are leading the movement to abolish our carceral society and to collectively heal from centuries of oppression. Yet the interwoven forces of racism, sexism, and colonialism that organizers fight against each day often leave women of color, especially Black women, under-appreciated and under-supported even within the most progressive movements. 

Although there exist models of organizing and leadership development that intentionally support the unique experiences of women of color — by welcoming children and promoting healing, for instance — spaces like these must be the rule not the exception. Jessica Barba Brown wrote in a recent essay for The Forge about a social justice leadership development initiative for BIPOC organizers: “a consistent theme we the need for healing spaces to name, understand, and skillfully process trauma — the trauma of living as a Black or brown person in America, the trauma of working to dismantle systems that simultaneously oppress us, and the trauma of going into organizations and spaces where we think we’ll find like-minded values, and then quickly becoming disappointed and disillusioned.”  

For the last two years, Community Change has been piloting a trauma-informed leadership development space for women of color organizers involved in campaigns across the country. The women’s fellowship program is led by and for women of color (Black, Latina, immigrant, and Indigenous) who have experienced incarceration or detention themselves or through a loved one. Women in the fellowship have been shackled while pregnant. They have traveled six hours to visit an incarcerated sibling only to be turned away at the door. They have struggled to put food on the table because their rap sheet overshadows their talents in the eyes of employers, and they have witnessed their native lands destroyed and their culture disrespected. “Beat up, broken, helpless, and feeling defeated. That’s where we started the [fellowship] process,” recounted Pamela Winn, the founder of RestoreHER in Georgia, during a reflection session marking the end of the 12-month cohort-based program. 

Co-led by Aida Cuadrado Bozzo and Trish Tchume, as well as alumni of the fellowship, Tammy Alsaada and Jonel Beauvais, the women’s fellowship (lower case to honor bell hooks) is an example of how we can support and invest in the leadership of women of color who have been directly impacted by systems of punishment and social control. The fellowship curriculum adapts innovative approaches that blend power-building tactics and political education with spiritual healing. Fellows participate in at least three retreats, peer-coaching, and holistic somatic coaching. They learn the foundations of transformative organizing and healing justice, and engage in political education around racial and gendered systemic oppression.

One of the tools the women’s fellowship practices is the creation of “liberated zones.” Through guided exercises that intentionally draw from race, gender, immigration experience, and other intersecting identities, fellows set the conditions they need to thrive and lead grassroots movements. First, fellows adapt practices from healing and reconciliation work. They make commitments to hold each other accountable through long-standing relationship-building, practicing safety, validation, trust, affirmation, and transparency. Then, fellows name and discuss the factors that aim to disorganize and repress their power, including capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy. The women tell stories about how their ancestors contested marginalization and they connect these stories to their own contributions and leadership to create change. 

Fellows have achieved important personal and policy wins. Pamela Winn helped to launch a successful campaign to end the shackling of incarcerated pregnant women in Georgia. Tayna Fogle, a fellow affiliated with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, helped to restore the voting rights of over 100,000 people in Kentucky. At the same time, fellows continue to take steps towards healing themselves and their families from generations of trauma. “I’m a better grandmother than I was a mother,” reflects Tayna, who incorporates the organizing skills she learned through the fellowship with her children, grandchildren, and community. Dolfinette Martin, a fellow from Operation Restoration in Louisiana, explains how the program created a “space to be enough and to talk about the uncomfortable.” Dolfinette has spent over a decade organizing. She speaks of the need to heal divisions among “sisters and brothers in the same struggle” — including Black and Latinx people, who are often strategically pitted against each other as a distraction from liberation.

Many of our movements reproduce harm through confrontational tactics meant to humiliate our targets or through a blind focus on the win, with little regard for how the process may be hurting participants. Instead, we must move towards movements that heal and create genuine human connection instead of simply instrumentalizing relationships to achieve a policy goal. If we want to build a powerful movement to transform the world, we can’t brush aside the deep-seeded personal and community trauma and pain of movement participants. 

Let's imagine a new way for people to engage in organizing spaces that prioritize healing just as much as policy change. Social movements must create spaces of support and validation while also changing the economic, criminal justice, and immigration policies and practices that continue to keep our Black and brown families from thriving. We owe it to ourselves, our communities, and the future generations that will inherit our world and our unresolved pain, unless we take action to collectively heal.


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