In this episode, Eden and William are joined by Bethany and Nasir from the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund to talk about the problems caused by the cash bail system and the advocacy of the Philly Bail Fund towards abolition of that system. They share some of the stories and lessons they have learned through their work, and we dig into the details of navigating the legal system while also disrupting it to draw attention to the inequity of the so-called US Justice System.
The Philly Bail Fund is currently running a #FreeBlackMamas Mother’s Day Bail Out campaign, and we urge everyone who can spare it to donate to this organization. You can find all of the information at the website linked above.
This week’s Solo Praxis segment focuses on identifying personal abilities and limitations with regards to organizing and direct action, and setting personal boundaries to avoid burnout.
Please subscribe, rate, and review Frontline Praxis wherever you listen to this podcast.
Follow the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund on Twitter @Phillybailout
Philly Bail Fund on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/PhillyBailOut/
Full transcript below.
Frontline Praxis Episode 2 – Philadelphia Community Bail Fund (Transcript)
(Radio static sounds scrolling through news clips. Intro music fades in as radio static ends.)
Eden: You’re listening to Frontline Praxis, a podcast focusing on Left organizing and direct action where we interview the organizers that you want to hear from to find out how they’re doing it. My name is Eden, and I use they/them pronouns.
William: And I’m William, I use he/him pronouns. Thanks so much for joining us. You can follow us on Twitter @FrontlinePraxis, or you can connect with us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, if you enjoy our show and you’d like to help us continue, please consider donating to our Patreon. The link will be in our show notes as well as in our Twitter bio.
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W: We also want this show to be accessible to as many people as possible. To help make the information contained in each episode more accessible, we provide a transcript which you can find in our show notes.
E: We like to be upfront about our limited perspectives. If we missed something, spoke out of our lanes, or marginalized a group in any way, please let us know. We’ll work hard to recognize that and improve in future episodes. We welcome your feedback. If you’d like to uplift a radical group through this platform, please let us know and we’ll reach out about an interview. With that all out of the way, let’s get to the show.
(Intro music fades out, quiet ambient background music fades in.)
E: All right, so we’re back here with another episode of Frontline Praxis. I’m really, really stoked about this episode with Philadelphia Community Bailout, but first how was your week William?
W: My week was pretty good. I mean it was hectic. My kid had surgery, he had his tonsils out just a couple of days ago, so he’s gonna be at home with me relaxing and recovering for the next couple couple days. So, that’ll be a nice little bonding time I guess. Sucks that it’s under those sort of circumstances, but I’ll take what I can get. How about you?
E: Pretty good. I got to spend a lot of time with friends and family of mine that have kids this week, which I’m not a parent at this point in my life, and so it was really nice because I really love kids. So it was really great to spend some time with some some youthful joy and curiosity which is a good time.
W: Awesome. How old are they?
E: Well, my partner’s nieces are 6, 4, and 2. And then I spent time with my comrades yesterday, and I think the older kid is 7, maybe, and then a 4 year old… I could be totally off.
W: So it’s kind of across the range there, but that’s a fun age. Those are all fun ages.
E: Yeah, you know running around, you can like kind of converse with them a little bit, like chase them around a park, you know.
W: Yep, they’re actually still real people, but they still have that that innocence that, you know, everything’s so delightful to them at all times, and everything is super super important, super huge, and it’s all epic, and… yeah it’s good, it’s good times.
E: Yeah, they’re really like like easy to teach important concepts to. I was teaching my partner’s niece about like “Oh, if you wanna hug someone you should ask them and then people won’t feel too overwhelmed by when you just grab them”. And she was like “Oh. Yeah, ok.”
W: That’s good. Awesome.
E: Yeah. So, we have Philly Bail Out today, and I am not gonna lie, I have a little bit of a fandom moment over being able to get these guys on air because I’ve followed them since they started and I was just really stoked because they’re doing such great work in Philadelphia. Before I go into the things that I liked about the interview, what were some of the things that you wanted to talk about.
W: Well, personally, I mean I loved hearing Bethany talk about this project. She’s so passionate about it, she was a literal overflowing well of information, and she was just a pleasure to talk with and to listen to. But, I think what really made a difference here was Nasir joining us for the conversation. I really think that says something about Bethany and about the Philly Bail Fund as a whole that they understand that it’s really going to be the voices of the people like Nasir who have been on the receiving end of the Carceral State, and have been in a position to need help from the bail fund, those voices are really going to be the ones that drive this movement forward. I loved his “insider’s perspective”, as he put it, that came to the conversation, and it also kind of shows how this effort, this organization, it’s not charity so to speak but it’s an organized grassroots effort to fight back against the cash bail system by disrupting it in a way, and by using that to advocate for the abolition of cash bail altogether. I mean, I don’t feel like we need to explain it to most of the people who would be listening to this show but for anybody who isn’t familiar with the topic, you know the cash bail system while it’s ostensibly put into place to ensure that people show up for court so that “justice can prevail”, the reality is that people are being held in jail pretrial for not being able to raise bail money, which harms families and communities, costs people their jobs, and it’s a regressive system that is inherently targeted at poor and disproportionately minority communities. I mean we could go into a whole three-hour long rant about the Carceral System, particularly in the US, but needless to say it’s obvious that we do have two legal systems in the US and neither of them are synonymous with justice.
E: Yeah, 100%. I really like how there was a lot of discussion around removing the shame of having to deal with the Carceral State because individualization and isolation and shame are just such a huge part of that process, and part of breaking up that process is removing the shame by sharing stories and building community and coming at it as taking responsibility for each other. And how just doing that for strangers is so radical., to be able to say “No one should have to go through this and we’re gonna we’re gonna help you out.” And I like how Bethany talked a lot about how their organization is really moving and growing and figuring things out on the fly. I think that’s really important because sometimes organizers can think that they need to get everything ironed out before they start vs jumping in and then trying to, with your coalition of people, iron down the details as you come up against challenges and things like that. So I think that’s really cool.
W: Absolutely, and to kind of touch on that a little bit more, I think the other thing that I really really liked about this interview was I really appreciated, like you said, the focus that’s being placed on building up a community around this issue and around the movement that’s pushing back on this issue, because, I mean, that’s what praxis is supposed to be, right? The Philly community bail fund, it’s not a particularly leftist organization. It doesn’t really have any sort of ideology, and, as Bethany described, it’s a very diverse group of organizers that have different ideas about the way things should be done and the ultimate goal of the organization itself. But just the stance of “bail is a bad system that harms the most vulnerable and marginalized communities, and it should be abolished” – just that stance in and of itself is a very left-wing radical idea. And to me that’s what praxis is supposed to be, you know. It takes theory and puts it into action, sure, and it meets the general public where their needs are. And it shows that there’s a better way to do things and we can show people that without having to drone on and on about “Marx said this” and “Mao said that” and “Let’s argue for three days on exactly what Lenin meant when he said blah blah blah”. Instead of that, you know, it’s forming theory based on action. It creates a community and a space where those sorts of ideas can flourish, and creates space for those sorts of discussions to be had, but it starts with that action. It starts with the connection of community and the bonds that are created by coming together to deal with the traumas and the brutality of the prison system. I dare say that the Philly bail fund is a better practitioner of real true praxis by not being particularly ideologically centered and instead focusing on the needs of struggling people and their families
E: Yeah… just… 100% to all of that (combined laughter) Like… I don’t have much more to add to that. But, in general, I re-listened to our interview and I didn’t find any places to particularly snip in a trigger warning for any stories or anything but we should be aware when listening to the episode that we are discussing issues around racism, incarceration, wrongful accusation, forced guilty pleas, sometimes loss of child custody. So that’s something to be aware of and if you need to take a break or come back to this another time, that’s totally fine. We’ve got great stuff coming out for you guys, and we’re really excited. Anything else, William?
W: I don’t think so. I guess we can get right on into it then.
E: Yeah, let’s get into it and you’ll get a Solo Praxis segment after the end of the interview.
Interview with Bethany and Nasir from the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund
Bethany: My name is Bethany Stewart, I use she/her/hers pronouns, and I started organizing with the Philadelphia community bail fund in the fall of 2017. I lead a team at my church called Circle Mobilizing Because Black Lives Matter. It works to connect the church’s broader theology to the broader Black Lives Matter movement, and we decided to host a festival called “Turn Up To Bail Out” to raise funds to bail out black mothers and fathers before the holiday season. So once we had that event, I then just fell in line and started organizing with the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund.
Nasir: Hi. My name is Nasir, I’m a volunteer with the bail fund. They helped me out with a situation. So, I’m a recipient of the services and I’m very big on what they’re trying to do, everything that they’re trying to do with regards to ending cash bail as well as trying to help reform the criminal justice center. So, I’ve been working with them for a few months now and I’m here on their behalf.
E: Can one of you speak about the objectives an origin story? I know you touched on it a little bit, Bethany, with how it grew out of the Bail Out Black Mama’s and the holiday season bail out.
B: Yeah, so the National Bail Out in conjunction with SONG – I am blanking on what that stands for right now, I know it’s Southern something, it’s an organization in the south that’s working against mass incarceration as well – had this vision in 2017 of really honoring all types of mothers and caretakers, and broadening the idea of what motherhood and caretaking is to include trans women, non-binary folks, that take care of people in their families in their communities, and really caring for them in the justice system. Because oftentimes black men are focused on the most in the justice system because there’s just more black men in the system. There’s just more men in the system overall. So they really saw a need to focus on women and black mothers and decided to get other cities in line with having a fundraiser to bail out black mothers for Mother’s Day in 2017. I believe Philadelphia’s goal was $25,000 in 2017, and within a few days we were able to raise $60,000 –
B: – and we saw the success of that, we realized that there was a huge need for folks who were simply being incarcerated because they were impoverished. We saw that there was a huge need for that. So we continued with the work of the Philadelphia community bail fund. We were initially just like “What are we going to call ourselves? We just want to bail people out.” and over a few months time, we came up with the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund to really meet the needs of the community and folks, typically black and brown impoverished communities, that couldn’t get out of prison, couldn’t accurately defend themselves, couldn’t defend themselves well simply because they were incarcerated because they don’t have money.
W: Wow, that’s just an amazing response. $60,000 in how long did you say? Just a few days?
B: I think it was like three or four days. I wasn’t a part of that initial bailout, but I remember seeing it on Facebook. It was maybe three or four days.
E: That’s amazing
W: That’s an incredible response, yeah. For any of our listeners in the South that are interested, the organization that Bethany was speaking about a moment ago, “SONG” stands for Southerners On New Ground – a regional queer liberation organization made up of black people, people of color, immigrants, undocumented people, people with disabilities, working class rural and small-town LGBTQ people in the south. So we’ll put that in our show notes as well for anybody that’s interested in that.
B: Thank you for looking that up.
W: Oh, absolutely.
E: Can you talk a little bit about the specific needs in Philadelphia? I mean, such a huge response definitely indicates that there is a community need there
B: Nasir, do you want to talk more about that?
N: Well, it’s a problem that predominately effects minority people who may not have as much money as you know other people. In the cities, we already struggling with with a number of things and we did a panel last night and one of the people were asking about people that may be falsely accused from – and this goes on a lot in our neighborhoods, you have an angry ex or it could be an angry neighbor just call the police and say you did something and you’re under arrest. And if you are already struggling paying bills, keeping food on the table, and now you have this this extra expense with trying to get bail to get out of prison, trying to get lawyer money up, so on and so forth. So, it has a drastic effect because when we have people going to jail, you have the children out here, they had to find caretakers for the children. If there’s no caretaker with the children, next thing you know they end up in foster care and that’s a whole other story in and of itself. So, it certainly affects the community in those ways, and then another thing we were touching base on how when people do get out or you know when they’re arrested or being held pretrial they lose their job, they lose their home, just like I said a minute ago, their children. So, you know when it’s happening at such a large rate then certainly voices are needed to be heard and people need to step up and help these people out.
E: Yeah, definitely, and it’s just such a massive difference with people who have to be held pretrial because of cash vs being able to get out and be able to fully defend yourself.
N: Yeah. I mean, it makes a major difference being on the outside as opposed to being on the inside because certainly it helps you prepare, you know, you may need access to your phone or anything that they may help you out and aid you. Even if you have to work to get money up to pay for a lawyer to better defend yourself, it makes a major difference when it comes to these things, being able to be out and free and get more done, and also not being a burden on your relatives and your friends. They have lives that they have to live their selves, go to work, taking care of their kids, you know, they may not have the ability to do everything that you need them to do in order to help you defend yourself. So, with circumstances like this, it makes a major difference and then, again, we’re speaking about pretrial. I mean a person hasn’t been convicted yet but they’re sitting in prison. So yes, it definitely makes a major difference.
B: And just to give you a little insight into the people that are being held pretrial, I think over the Christmas holiday, we had a pregnant woman being held on bail for $50.00. We’ve had trans women put into the men’s facility and be denied their medication, really a life-sustaining medication. I’m trying to think of other outrageous cases that we’ve had, but we have people that are in dire situations being housed in these prisons for very low bail amounts. I’ll never get over the pregnant woman for $50.
W: That’s ridiculous.
B: Like, that’s the effect that it’s having, that’s what it looks like in our community.
E: That’s atrocious. Thank you for talking about that. I think sometimes people want to think about bail as just something that they contextualized in the idea of having relatives that can help out or they think about it being something that it’s just an inconvenience. But really this can totally interrupt your life over such low amounts. I mean, when you when you can’t pay all your bills and you have to add one more thing to the pile and it’s like “Where is the money going to come from?” and you’re just making it worse. How do the values of your community with Philly Bail Out figure into the work that you do and what kind of values do they share as a community?
B: We’re actually still working out our values. We kind of – it’s interesting, we’re a really like-minded group of individuals – so we kind of have these unspoken yet understood values. But one of our main values is really centering the lives of trans black trans women, as well as women and caretakers, in the work that we’re doing. One of my colleagues said this really brilliant thing one time that if you ensure the freedom of those that are considered the lowest in society, you secure the freedom of everybody else, and I really, really believe in that in the work we’re doing. If we look at the people that society deems the most unworthy of the goodness that life brings, if we look at them and really focus on them, we’re able to secure the freedom of lots of other people as well.
W: Nobody’s free unless we’re all free.
B: That’s it. I complicated that.
E: It does, though, it needs to be pointed out more because I think sometimes we get mired down in these individual fights and we don’t realize the bigger picture and like when we do, our rising tide lifts all boats. We need to bring up the lowest, so that we can bring us all up. What is the conversation about your values and that “working out”? Like ,I feel like that’s something that we don’t talk enough about about, the nitty-gritty kind of chatting about finding that common ground and finding the values that really define yourselves together without like excluding your membership.
B: Yeah, I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re still working on our values right because we are a diverse group of people coming in with diverse backgrounds and agreeing upon something that is all inclusive has been difficult for us. And I think that’s why we’re still working it out, you know, two years later because we want everybody that comes into this work to feel comfortable, to feel honored, and to feel recognized, and we want to do that right, so we’re taking our time with it.
N: I guess, giving it a thought, you know, certainly, a core value and main value is really to see criminal justice reform. Like I try to mention the people, if you want to call it a criminal justice system you need justice. So, you know, we see some of the things that take place on the news with a New England guy, all charges dropped, free, and Jesse Smollett, all charges dropped and one of the things we can agree on is that the difference between the people is the wealth and the money.
N: So, you know certainly a core value is seeing equality, and seeing justice. You see the things that Meek Mill is trying to do, you see the things that the Eagles football player –
B: Malcolm Jenkins.
N: – yeah, Malcolm Jenkins. So everyone is trying to play a part, and the ultimate goal is definitely criminal justice and just seeing equal treatment.
B: Yeah, and that’s definitely our mission, right. Like, our mission is to advocate for the end of the cash bail system in Philadelphia, and I think that it’s possible. It’s been done in other cities, as you said yesterday during the panel, Nasir, Washington DC has had a system outside of cash bail for years now and it’s working.
N: About 20 years to be honest.
E: Yeah, it’s very much a Western American kind of system. There’s so many places around the world that just think it’s totally barbaric, which it is –
B: – and it’s unconstitutional. We’re named parties in a lawsuit with the ACLU that is basically asserting that the way judges assign cash bail is completely unconstitutional. And the goal of that lawsuit is to get the magistrate judges to do the right thing and really consider people’s incomes before assigning them bail. That lawsuit was just filed at the beginning of March.
E: So what are you guys doing for fighting cash bail? You had mentioned that as part of the mission as well. So, with this lawsuit, what else are you guys doing for ending cash bail?
B: Well, the fact that we exist is really our advocacy for ending cash bail. We have testified in front of City Council, we have worked with Malcolm Jenkins and have gotten his attention. But really the fact that we’re interrupting the system by bailing people out as community members, right? None of us do this as a job, none of us get paid for this, but we take the time because we love Philadelphia, to interrupt the system by paying folks’ bail for them. I think that’s really the work that we’re doing, right, that is – that is weird. It’s weird to have strangers pay your bail, so that’s our way of disrupting that system and working against it.
N: I think another keynote factor is we do have our district attorney that’s willing to listen, and aid, I guess as best as he can. He has taken a small step and he’s not seeking cash bail for misdemeanor charges, although it was stated the judge still if he wants to impose a bail, he can impose a bail. But at least the district attorney, for the most part, he’s not going to seek bail for lower level charges, you know, so I guess that’s a help and a start from that aspect and that end, but hopefully we could do more and just get it ended, period.
B: Right. The district attorney has asked the judges not to sign cash bail for certain charges and to consider a bunch of different things, but it’s really up to the judges’ discretion. They can still do what they want. We’re having a judge’s election coming up soon, I think in the spring in May or in the fall and we are really emphasizing that people talk to the candidates and get to know the judges that we’re going to be electing because it’s whatever the judge wants to do in their courtroom that goes.
N: And I certainly think that would be a key component if the judges were aware that they were being watched and the people want to take them to account for their actions and what they’re doing, and if you don’t believe that they’re doing right then, you know, they don’t need to be sitting in those seats and I think that’s something that they need to be aware of.
E: Judicial oversight is so rare in this country, but it’s so needed.
B: I don’t think people know that it’s needed. I didn’t even know was needed until like a year or two ago.
N: Yeah, to be honest with you, the judges honestly hold all the cards over here. That’s why you see some of the things taking place with regards to the Trump administration and trying to put certain judges up in the Supreme Court, because at the end of the day they’ll have the last say, and whatever they rule, that that pretty much becomes law.
E: Yeah, I mean the Republicans have had that on the track since the 70s, and that’s really showing in the policy and how it’s coming down now, and how it’s landing and yeah, judicial oversight is so important. In my state we we have like a board that like sends out voting recommendations on the judges behavior, but it doesn’t it doesn’t address anything that is about inequity. It’s all about “oh, did you do five hours of continuing education?” and “did you get in trouble with the bar”? And I’m like, “That’s not what I care about”. But I want to go back to what you said, Bethany ,about interrupting the system and how your advocacy is your work, because I think that’s something that a lot of people don’t realize is that when we, as a community, step up and take collective responsibility for our people, we don’t let them individualize and isolate through like the incarceration system. Because that’s so much of a part of it is it’s just isolating individuals. And so when we say “hey, we’re here for you, and we as a community say that this isn’t okay, and we’re strangers but we’re not gonna let you just be taken by the system like that”, it’s revolutionary.
B: Absolutely, it is. Absolutely it is. And there’s so much shame with being arrested and being incarcerated, there is this huge system of shame around it in which people don’t think they have a right to reach out for help or think that they’re undeserving of help, and I think the bail fund also functions as a way of taking away that shame. Tell us your story, let us know what your bail is. We’re going to try and get you out. You don’t have to be ashamed of that. And even when you do get out, we’ll refer you to an initiative that is called Participatory Defense in Philadelphia. It comes from San Jose, California, in which community members come together to support another community member as they navigate the criminal court system from the outside if they’re out, or their family members can come to these weekly community meetings and learn about the system and learn how to advocate for their loved one that is still incarcerated. We are really trying to tear down that barrier of shame.
E: That’s amazing.
N: You know what? Thinking about it, I don’t want another aspect of the bail fund go unheard of. On top of bailing people out they also render, you know, whatever services they possibly can with helping people get trans passes so they can get back and forth to court, or whatever else they may have to do in their daily lives. If people need help with rent, they’ll do what they can with that aspect as well. So, the Community Bail Fund does more than just bail people out. It’s really a community effort to try to help people with their with their court matters but they also extend their hand to matters beyond court as well, which is very helpful to a lot of people. People need help with their bills, they can reach out to the bail fund, and if they have money then they help people with their bills. So, the work that they’re doing is very important and it’s one of the reasons why I told them that they can always call on me, whatever they need a hand with.
B: Yeah, absolutely. We’re trying to create the community and the system that we want to see, so, as such, when people get out, we don’t just forget about them, as Nasir said. We provide them with trans passes for up to 90 days after being released, and we also provide them with monetary support up to a particular amount for a single person, and a family up to six months after they were released.
W: I love that idea. It’s not like charity, it’s like mutual aid. It’s not you know, “Let’s fix this problem for you”, it’s “Let’s empower you to help get this cleared up and get your life back on track” and that’s an amazing way to go about it. It’s the empowering thing. And that helps also, like you said touching back, to take away that shame aspect of it when you show people that they do have value and they do have worth and they do mean something, and to build them up instead of making them feel shame to take a handout, I guess, whatever you want to call it. But that’s an amazing way to go about that. I really like that.
E: Can we talk about what the what the process looks like from beginning to – I wouldn’t say “End” because you guys build community together – but from from hearing or finding out or getting an application or however it starts all the way up until the point the point where people are kind of like done unless they need they want to continue with building the community.
B: We’re still working through streamlining our process. It’s almost right there, but we still have some kinks that we need to work out because, again, all of us are volunteers. I recently got a new job, and the struggle of balancing this work and learning a new job has been really tough on me. But, we initially get a referral, we oftentimes get referrals from sometimes from attorneys that are defending their clients, sometimes from community members, and oftentimes from folks that we’ve previously bailed out that still know people on the inside that are that are sitting in prison pretrial. We get the referral, depending on what type of referral it is, it is processed in two different ways. If it’s just a general referral, we’ll send it to the group and at the next meeting that we have – we have a weekly call every Tuesday – we discuss their case and decide whether or not we have the capacity to move forward with their case. We do not make that decision based on the charges at all. We make the decision on whether or not their bail falls in our purview of what we have the capacity to handle. We can bail out anybody that has a $5,000 bail or below, and we take special consideration for folks that have between
$5,000-$7,500. From there, once we make the decision to proceed, we will do an in-person jail visit with the person to see any of their needs that they may have once they’re released – if they’ll need substance use help, if maybe they’re behind on rent or gas, if they’ll need help with their defense we’ll refer them to participatory defense. So, we just really get a handle of what’s going on for that person while they’re incarcerated. From there, once we interview them while they’re incarcerated, we also collect the people that they consider to be their support system. Once we get done with that prison interview, we will then interview their support system. Once we get a feel for everything that’s going on from all of those interviews, we vote on whether or not we can proceed, and from there we typically give it to go ahead. We decide who can get the check. The check is typically passed on to somebody that can actually go to the CJC, that’s our Criminal Justice Center, whoever can go to the CJC to post the bail will post the bail first thing in the morning and the person is released. Then we try to follow up with that person once they’ve been released within a week. It’s really long, sorry.
E: No, this is the type of stuff that I think – we really want to be able to give people the full picture so that people can replicate in their communities. So, that’s really important. What does pretrial support look like once they’ve been released? You talked about it a little bit, Nasir, but what what goes into that?
N: Well, one of the first things they did, like I mentioned, they gave me the trans pass in order for me to get around, get back and forth. They ask you if you need help with anything, and the Participatory Defense Hub as well, and they constantly reach out, you know, if they don’t hear from you for a while, they call you and they check on you, see if you need any help with anything. So it’s an ongoing process. I really think it’s helpful, like I said, I really love what they’re doing ,and I’m a big advocate for criminal justice reform. So, it’s an ongoing process, and it continues on and until everything is done and, usually when they do bail people out, people voluntarily come back and they want to lend a hand. Again, this is a community thing. Everybody wants to help
E: Yeah, that’s excellent. I think it’s really great. The focus on community, I think, often gets lost in discussions about this type of work. We think of the big events, but we don’t think about how we’re pulling people in, out of this isolation, and bringing them into a community that supports and is able to give them that and remove that shame that you mentioned earlier. I know you weren’t at the very beginning, Bethany, but do you know what the beginning of the organization looked like? How many people were involved, and what resources? Did it just spark from this big bailout day in 2017? How many people started doing that and was the biggest challenges at the beginning?
B: So, I don’t know the exact number of people, but I do know the organizations in the city that were involved in the first bailout. They consisted of Frontline Dads, Reuben Jones is an organizer with the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, and he also is the director of frontline dads that advocates for providing support to fathers that are formerly and currently incarcerated. Black Lives Matter Philly was involved in that. Believe Sankofa was involved in it, Decarcerate PA, No Jails 215, and I want to say CADBI, but I might be mistaken. But there were about 5-7 different organizations that are working to end mass incarceration in Philadelphia that came together to organize that bailout, to do the practical work that I just described, and to do all of the promotion for that first bailout.
E: So, this really grew out of the coalition
B: Absolutely. In fact, we considered ourselves a coalition for a really long time, and I think in the Fall we decided that we might just be an independent organization. We’re not necessarily representing our other organizations that we’re a part of, but for a really long time the spirit of that coalition sustained itself.
E: That’s beautiful. Do you know of any of the challenges that happened at the beginning that had to be kind of ironed out?
B: I think one of the main challenges was really coordinating with the prisons and coordinating the best practices for posting bail. Now, the Bail Office is used to us and knows us, and has given us the information for streamlining a system, but I think one of the most difficult aspects was the actual posting of the bail with the bail office. I could be making that up, so I’m gonna double check that with my colleague that was there at the beginning, but I think that was one of the issues.
E: I mean that’s pretty consistent with other stories that I’ve heard about community bail funds is there’s a lot of resistance. It’s like “Oh, you’re not related? You’re not their spouse?”
B: Right, like “What are you doing here? We don’t know you, why are you doing this thing?” Because again, it’s weird. It’s weird for strangers to post bail for strangers. I think it’s necessary, right? I think it’s beautiful. But I also recognize that it’s kind of weird.
W: Like you said, it’s disrupting the system, and so anything that is going to come up against the system and disrupt it, they view it as a threat, so of course it’s “Whoa, whoa, what are you people doing here? This is not how this is supposed to work, we’re supposed to be holding these people indefinitely until they can come off of $50”.
E: At which time they extract their labor, and possibly try to charge them other things.
B: That’s another thing that Philadelphia was doing. So no matter the outcome of your – Philadelphia has been making changes, right? There are just many more changes that need to come. The prison population in Philadelphia has gone down 32 percent since, I believe, 2017. And, also a practice that they ended, again, that no matter the outcome of your case – this gets me kind of worked up – the city would hold 30% of the bail that you put down. So, if you paid a thousand dollars to get out of prison, the city was like “Cool, got you. Imma hold that 300 though.”
E: Excuse me?
B: And they just ended that practice last year, that you get 100% of it back. But the city was holding on to 30% of what we would we would post for folks.
E: Well, props to your community for fighting that and winning that fight, because it just shows how much of it is really about –
B: It’s about the money.
E: It’s about the money, it’s about extracting that. Yeah, entirely.
B: If you’re innocent, you should – first, let me catch myself, not even you’re innocent, no matter the outcome, you should get 100% of your money back. But if it was just a fluke, they you know thought you were somebody else, you get penalized, and like we said earlier if you’re already struggling, stuff like that can be life-changing. It can turn your life upside down.
E: If you’re falsely accused and being held on a bail that you can’t pay and you’ve come out of it and it’s like, “Oh, it’s their bad”, you should be getting back pay for that.
E: Like, excuse me, you just interrupted this person’s entire life.
B: Yeah, that burns me up. It kind of makes my chest tight right now
E: Back to the nitty gritty of organizing – so, I actually have a friend who wants to organize a bail fund in their area, and I asked them some questions that they were thinking about. And one of the things that they brought up is, do you see very much loss of funds? And if so, how do you plan that into your model? And if not, how do you prevent it? Like, with possibly people not coming to court and then the forfeit of the bail.
B: We haven’t seen very much of that, that we’ve had bail forfeited very often at all, especially since we connect people to Participatory Defense. Participatory Defense, that community model, building community with folks and taking away that shame really makes showing up for court different. And we even go to court with those people. I have a defense hub in South Philadelphia that I host, and the volunteers that work with the folks that are navigating their court cases oftentimes show up to court with them and we’ll walk in with them.
E: Amazing. Court support’s so important.
B: It really is.
E: Like you said, it’s so much shame it makes you not want to go, and then you’ve got getting people passes on the transit, because that’s such a huge thing and, yeah, that’s amazing.
B: And you get treated bad when you go into court, right? I sat on a bench. I sat on a stool that was very obviously for the police that were doing security, but I wanted to sit down and they just like yelled at me barked at me to get up. Well, I’m tired. I want to sit down. I was in a courtroom and I turned around to talk to my friend, and somebody barked at me that I had to face forward. You just get treated really bad in court. That’s scary.
E: It definitely is, especially when you’re not familiar with it, and you’ve got all that shame, especially because so many things we just feel like “Oh, I should have I should have prevented this”. It just becomes so much about the individual and you don’t feel connected to community. Inside of the legal non-profit, the way that organizations are structured in this country, have you guys chosen to seek that recognition for like a non-profit or anything like that, or have you chosen not to, and what went into that decision?
B: We have not yet decided to be a non-profit. Again, we don’t have any paid staff, but we do have a fiscal sponsor, and their non-profit status helps us sustain our funds and other things, like grants and such.
E: And then, another question that my friend had is, do you have an attorney involved? If so, do you have a pro bono attorney that works part time with your org, or do you have a volunteer that works full-time, or do you put part of your fundraising towards a lawyer?
B: No, we don’t have any attorneys involved. I would love to have her email, because I’m interested in why she’s asking some of these questions.
E: Because she wants to start one.
B: But I wonder what makes her think that an attorney may need to be involved in it.
E: Hmm. I think there’s a stigma around posting bail and around these kind of things like you need to have power of attorney or be related, so I think that probably is factoring in. But, yeah, I could get you guys connected.
B: Yeah, I would love that. We don’t have attorneys involved, but sometimes we do seek the foresight of attorneys that we’re connected to for complicated cases. There is a system of detainers in Philadelphia that are really complicated, so if you were on probation and you get rearrested and incarcerated, you can’t be bailed out. Even if somebody posted the bail for you, you wouldn’t be released until you went to see your back judge that you were on probation with, and that was a system that was really, really hard for us to understand and we did have to seek the insight of an attorney for that. But just an attorney typically organizing with us, I believe it would be a conflict of interest for them, or like an ethics issue, and it’s also not necessary because we’re just fundraising and posting bail. There’s not too much of the legal aspect. We don’t need to have like a legal expertise to do that. Knowing the system is important, but that legal expertise is not really necessary for posting the bail.
E: That’s that’s really great to hear, because I think so many people are so scared to touch the legal system at all, and I think that it really shows that “Hey, you can do this with just a determined group of people”.
B: Yes. One thing that we did create though was a contract between our bail fund and the folks that are bailed out. It’s an assignment of bail, and it lets them know that if they don’t return to court that they will then be responsible for forfeiting their bail and having to pay that full amount. It doesn’t fall on us.
E: Can you go into the decision-making behind making that contract and how that became the standard?
B: Yeah, our funds would be depleted, probably, especially when we first started and there weren’t Participatory Defense Hubs, that’s when that happened and we recognized that this might not work for us and we need to kind of step back from that financial responsibility. Now, we’re not seeing a lot of forfeiting of bail because we’re better walking alongside folks, and tracking them and keeping up with them. But initially that was something that was necessary.
E: So that was something more in the beginning?
E: Can you talk about the roles that people play in your organization, and what kind of skills are helpful for the work?
B: Nasir, did you want to talk a little bit about the role that you play?
N: Well, me personally, I do a lot of speaking engagements. I kind of limit myself a little bit because I still have an ongoing matter, and it’s a little concerning for me that I feel like if I’m a little mainstream, I feel like I might get some backlash from the court. So, because of that I kind of limit myself a little bit. So I do speaking engagements and panels here and there. I try to avoid anything that’s being televised. I don’t really want my face to be out there. But I intend to get a little more heavily involved hopefully once this situation is over with. Then I don’t have to feel concern for any backlash or someone being angry with me for being part of a movement and trying to bring some change about to the criminal justice system. And I do a little consulting with the heads of the group. They give me ideas and I give some ideas to them, and that’s what I do for the most part right now. Like I said, once my situation is over, I think I’ll be able to be a little more vocal. I wouldn’t mind being in a TV interview or something, but for the most part I do the panels and lend my ideas, whatever I think might be helpful.
B: We try to have a system of lateral leadership. We believe that everybody brings value to our team and everybody should consider themselves a leader, and Nasir has functioned as such along with a lot of other folks that we’ve brought into our community that were bailed out. That’s only an option that we want to give people. Nobody has to feel obliged to volunteer and help out. But a lot of the folks that we bail out, out of the goodness of their heart bring their expertise of the system into the work that we’re doing, and bring insight in that a lot of us other organizers don’t have. Our roles, they kind of vary. Sometimes we need somebody that can keep track of all of the donations and log them into our system, and different people at different times will take that role on. We rotate spokespersons that talk to the media, dependent upon the campaign. For Mother’s Day this year, we’re going to have black women function as the spokespeople, myself included and a woman that was bailed, out a mother and grandmother, and great-grandmother now, I think her great-grandchild is about two months old. She was bailed out for our Black Love Bailout in February of 2018, two days before her son was murdered. And she’s going to be the spokesperson alongside me for this Mother’s Day campaign. We have folks that have expertise in writing grants and they really focus in on our grants. So, it’s kind of a “get in where you can fit in” system right now. We are looking to have paid staff soon, so that will probably shift the way our organization functions.
E: That’s awesome. I think we need to talk more about how you can bring any of your skills into organizing. There are so many varied positions and things that are needed, we can all contribute too.
B: Absolutely. I’ve been a legal assistant for the past five years, so my administrative insight is what I bring to this work – being able to respond to emails quickly and answer questions and research things and get documents put together, that is my thing. So, I just bring who I am to the work and a lot of my other colleagues bring who they are fully and their experience to the work as well.
E: I think especially people who are new to organizing will think “Oh, I need to have all these things, I need to fit the box that this organization might need”, but we all have skills, and they might not be valued by our system, or they may be, but we can all bring them together as a community.
B: Absolutely, I think when people think that they don’t have a skill or they don’t have the talent to be an organizer that just functions as a barrier. You can bring anything that you do to this work. I have a friend that has a coffee shop, and her she pays people above minimum wage, she builds real community with people, she finds out what’s going on at home. She’s an amazing employer. She works really hard not to fire people. She’ll come up with an improvement plan to try to support them so they can continue working at her coffee shop. She’s bringing her coffee shop entrepreneurial talent to making change in Philadelphia and effecting change. So, yeah, I don’t care if you can weave hair or braid hair, you can probably bring that talent into the work. Anything that you’re good at, you can affect change with it.
E: Yeah, and I mean, we’re talking about building community so much with your organization, and I somebody may be like “Oh, I’m not a good public speaker” or “I don’t know, I’m not very good at emails and stuff” but hey, if you can sit there and listen and help somebody process that shame and be able to give them an ear, that’s huge. And I think there’s a lot of skills that we don’t get value from in our current system under capitalism, and only certain skill sets are rewarded in job situations. But we have so many skills, I mean, we have people that can cook and people that can create art and all these things, and they all come together.
B: Yeah, I especially feel that way about black women. I feel that our talents are oftentimes downplayed or considered less valuable than skills that would come with attending college or a certificate program, and I really think that can hinder movements.
E: 100%. Is there like a specific way that you try to show people that they can bring their full self and they can bring those skills into your organization. Is there a way you foster that attitude?
B: That’s a really interesting question, because I don’t feel like it’s said but I feel like it’s understood and modeled. Like, I’m kind of an uncouth, silly person and I just like people to be comfortable around me. So, I try to fully embrace my imperfection in front of other people to model that, like “Yeah, we’re imperfect, but we’re trying to do something together”. And just even calling somebody as soon as they’re bailed out and letting them know that we want them to be a part of this, like, we’re not some charity service, we’re a community and you can be a part of this community. I think that just functions as modeling that.
E: Yeah, definitely. Do you think that that sense of community building and that bringing your full authentic self helps kind of mitigate some of the effects of burnout and drop out?
B: Yeah, I think it does. I’m not sure if we’ve been around long enough to see if people are going to get burnt out yet, but, yeah, that community model really makes a huge difference, because since I haven’t been able to do things as often as I would like, or even as much as I was doing it about a month ago, my colleagues have immediately stepped into that administrative aspect and handled things.
N: And I can definitely say that everyone involved, they’re very passionate. I guess I would believe that that passion is part of the main drive for them, because they really want to see change and they really want to help people.
E: I really like how much we’re talking about community, and passion, and bringing your full self, because it doesn’t get contextualized enough. And I like that we’ve talked a little bit about the messiness and the “still trying to figure things out”, because we don’t see that enough. We see these orgs from the news or we hear them in an interview and we think “Oh, they must be perfect” but we’re all humans and we’re all bringing that to the table and that messiness is part of life. And that’s that’s how we continue our growth as a community.
N: Yeah, I mean, and listen, man, everything starts with an idea, and people that are willing to put in the work. So, whoever has an idea that this is something they want to do, that’s where it starts.
E: And it’s so accessible if you just are willing to put your boots on the ground and just start working on it. I think people don’t realize you just got to get started and get going.
B: You just got to do it.
E: Yeah, definitely. With this sort of community model, it sounds like you guys have a very big tent you have a lot of people involved, and especially with your lateral leadership, which I just love so much, what does accountability look like inside of your organization?
B: That is a really tough question to answer, because we are also still working that out. Again, we are a diverse group of people bringing diverse experiences into this work and, yeah, that can lead to conflict. What we have done in the past is enlisted the assistance of an amazing community organizer and expert consultant with non-profits and for-profit companies, helping them understand trauma and help to better organize with each other. His name is Michael O’Brien, he is amazing, a God amongst men, and he’s really helped us work out conflict in the past and try to start creating our values in our mission statement and line with one another and all of those experiences. Again, Michael O’Brien is great in Philadelphia.
E: Can you contextualize a little bit – I really like hearing about what the pros and cons and the different approaches and ideas that come up in these discussions, because sometimes we just think it’s very monolithic but we know that with diverse people we have lots of different ideas, and especially with being an organization that’s around incarceration and how we need to de-center our ideas about punishment and incarceration inside of our interpersonal relationships – what were some of the discussion points that came into how you guys are ironing this out even today?
B: I think one of the biggest discussion points is how do we not recreate the system that we’re working against? How do we hold each other accountable without punishing each other, and really understanding the difference between accountability and lessening harm, and punishment that causes harm to both parties, so yeah, we’re working through that.
E: Where would you recommend somebody start if they wanted to start doing similar work in their area?
N: Find the people with the same interests that they have. Common interest, common goal, you know, the more heads, the more that can get done. A lot of people are getting in to activism these days. We see a lot that needs to be done out here, and it has to start somewhere, it has to start with somebody, and that’s the beginning of the framework, whoever has that drive, that passion to want to see something change, they have to find like-minded people and get started.
B: I would also suggest sitting in a courtroom, particularly bail hearings, and observing that, and also seeing who is in the courtroom and who stays all day, because that person is probably an organizer or has a vested interest in the proceedings for that day, and that might be a person that you want to tap and ask “Hey, I’ve seen that you’ve been here all day. Are you with an organization or do you do some work like this?”
E: That’s a really great tip. What do you wish you knew when you started this work?
B: …what do I wish I knew when I started this work… That’s a really tough question for me to answer, because I didn’t know anything, so I wish that I had known everything. I knew nothing about pretrial incarceration.
B: I think I wish I knew how load the bails were. I think I didn’t realize that people could get held on bail for $50.00, and I wish I had known that this situation was that dire, because I probably would have wanted to get involved years ago. I think if I could go back in time, I would try to do more research about trauma and better understand trauma and how it affects interpersonal relationships in general with the folks that we organize with and with the folks that we bail out and the folks that we work with at the participatory defense hubs. That’s something that I wish I could go back in time and study more.
E: Nasir, did you have anything that you wish you knew before you started?
N: Well, listen, I’m an insider. Like I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been dealing with this system for a long time. When I was 17, I was arrested for a robbery that I didn’t do, and it’s like I was telling the people, when it when it first took place, I admitted that I should have been to school that day, I was 17, but it still doesn’t give them the right to do what they did to me. I had a bunch of police cars around me, they had a guy in the backseat of one of the cars, and they asked this man three times was I the person that did it, and he said “no” three times. And on the fourth time, one of the officers stood in front of his face, then he moved and asked him again and he shook his head “yes”, and I sat in prison for 11 months fighting that case until I went to trial and was found “Not Guilty”. I’ve been arrested for things that I didn’t do before, and police take the stand and lie. So, I’ve seen over the years growing up. Like I said, that happened when I was 17, I’m 41 now, so I’ve seen a lot. This is one of the reasons why I wanted to get involved, to see some change with the criminal justice system. The current matter that I’m dealing with now is from an angry ex. Like I said, one of the people asked the other day, what about people that get arrested that didn’t do anything, that may have not done anything, this is what we have to deal with. One of the designs of the system, one of the things that the system benefits off of keeping people and pretrial detention is because they hold people so long that people just want to get out. So, sometimes it makes people plead guilty to things that they didn’t even do just because they want to get on probation and just get home and get out of prison. And this is one of the schemes and designs of the system. It’s just not good. This movement is starting with pretrial detention, but there’s a lot more beyond pretrial detention that needs to be done with this criminal justice system. Again, like I said, we have to start somewhere and it’s good that they started this and brought attention to these pretrial detention issues, and we see some movement just like you said, with them stop keeping people money for bail, they’re no longer keeping that 30%. With the new district attorney, him not seeking bail for certain charges, and not wanting to see people held in prison. So, that question is a little difficult for me because of how long I’ve been dealing with the system. And something has to be done. Something has to change. I mentioned Meek Mills earlier, he got in trouble for something 10 years ago, and got two years probation. Ten years later, he has to go he has to do a state prison sentence. It’s ridiculous, and it’s just part of the design of the system. Once they get you in there, they want to keep you in there, someway, somehow, whether it be on probation, whether it be paying fines, something. And, it’s just a lot that needs to be done, but this is certainly a good start where they started at. So, that question in particular is a little difficult for me because of what I have dealt with so far.
E: Thank you for sharing that.
B: I just thought of the biggest thing. I wish I knew how much time this would take. This work takes a lot of time. And I don’t think I would take back being in this work, I think I would better prepare myself for the time commitment that it is.
E: Eyes wide open.
E: On an organizational level, what tools have been most helpful for you?
B: I think Facebook has functioned as one of our most efficient and effective tools, because our social media working is the way that we fundraise. Most of our money for Mother’s Day comes from people getting social media awareness, particularly Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram notifications, or seeing the advertisement pop up on their feed. Social media has been one of the most effective tools for us. When it comes to communicating with each other, we have a good old Google group and that’s just how we get everything out there.
E: Very accessible. I think one of the really cool things about social media is that it can be so lateral and people can put their voice out there, and I think it’s really helpful for activists and organizers to be able to do all that stuff in the public eye. With your organization, if we have any listeners that are in Philadelphia that want to get involved, how can they get involved you guys?
B: There are a few ways that you can get involved. I think it starts with understanding your capacity, you may not have the time commitment to attend every meeting or every bailout, but you may have five or ten dollars to donate or you may have a network of people that would want to fundraise for the Mother’s Day campaign. And that campaign is starting this Monday, I’m not sure when this podcast will come out, but it will begin this Monday, April 15th, and go until May 9th when we post bail for the mothers a few days before Mother’s Day. If you can come up with a team of people and fundraise for us, and donate that on phillybailout.com, we’d really appreciate that. And if you just want to get involved to help us, if you have the capacity to keep track of donations, maybe to read emails, maybe to go and do prison visits, you can also go to phillybailout.com and click on the “Volunteer” or “Get Involved” link.
E: Perfect. And then, what are your hashtags, handles, everything for people to follow updates about your group online.
B: One of the hashtags for this Mother’s Day is going to be #FreeBlackMothers. In the past, we had a bail out for juveniles that were being held in adult prisons, and you can hear about their stories by clicking on the hashtag #PresentsNotPrisons, and that’s “presents” like Christmas presents and “Not Prisons” like places where people are jailed. Yeah, you can just check us out on Phillybailout on Instagram, Twitter, and the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund on Facebook
E: Perfect. As we wrap up, do you have any resources that you’d like to recommend for people learning more about incarceration in general or cash bail? Books, articles, resources…
B: Yeah, I would suggest reading Brian Stevenson’s “Just Mercy”. It is an absolutely wonderful book, he is a community organizer and activist actually, now, but in the late 80s and 90s, he was an attorney that worked for a nonprofit that specifically worked with defendants that were on death row and trying to fight their death row sentence, and he talks about his journey in that system and getting to know people that were really on the brink of death and fighting for their lives. And I would also suggest Michelle Alexander’s – I am blanking on the book, it is the holy grail of understanding mass – “New Jim Crow”, Michelle Alexander’s “New Jim Crow”, also a really amazing book that really helps you understand, like it is the intro to understanding America’s mass incarceration problem now. And the last book I would suggest is “Rethinking Incarceration” by Dominique Gilliard, it is a Christian perspective on understanding mass incarceration and where churches can unite to fight against it. So, if you’re looking for a faith perspective on addressing mass incarceration, that book is really wonderful as well.
E: Excellent. Was there anything that we didn’t talk about today that you guys wanted to talk about?
B: I just want to talk more about the Mother’s Day campaign. We’re having our 3rd Annual Mama’s Day Bail Out this May 9th. In years past we have raised, I believe, about almost $200,000 to bail out upwards of a little over 35 women. The first year we bailed out 13, and raised $60,000, and the second year we bailed out 22 women, I believe, and raised a little bit less than $100,000. So, this year we want to do more, we want to touch more lives. We believe that caring for and bailing out black mothers in the community is really an act of saving our community. And we take that really serious and we hope that you’ll take that serious with us and donate to phillybailout.com.
E: Perfect. All right, well, I think that’s all the questions I had today. Thank you so much for your wonderful perspectives.
W: Yeah, both of you. Thank you so much. You guys are doing amazing work.
B: Thank you for chatting with us. I appreciate you supporting the work that we’re doing. It’s really, yeah, I can’t put words to how much it means to us and keeping this movement moving forward. I want to add one more suggestion. There is an amazing podcast that I listen to. It is made by prisoners in San Quentin –
E: I know this one!
B: “Ear Hustle”.
E: “Ear Hustle”, I love “Ear Hustle”!
B: It is an amazing podcast that really gives insight to what it is to be in prison. I don’t think anybody can listen to that podcast and not change the way they think about people that are incarcerated. It is amazing. So, that’s my last suggestion if you guys want to add that in
W: Absolutely, shout out to “Ear Hustle” podcast.
E: They’re so great. And so is “Beyond Prisons”. I really love that podcast, too
B: I’ll have to check that out.
E: Yeah, it’s from an abolitionist point of view.
B: Oh, I’ll definitely have to check that out.
E: Yeah, it’s real good. All right. Well-
B: Great talking to you.
E: Yeah, great talking to you. You have a great night.
W: Thanks so much for your time.
N: Thank you.
(Background music changes as the Solo Praxis segment begins. Eden is speaking alone in this segment.)
Solo Praxis – Evaluating Personal Boundaries
Hey, everyone. Welcome to Solo Praxis, the part of our show where we talk directly to leftists who haven’t found their community yet and who may be feeling isolated and not knowing where to start organizing for themselves and applying their theory and practice in the real world before they found other people. We’re going to talk about building up skills, self-awareness, influencing people in your life, small actions of mutual aid or fighting oppression, and finding other radicals.
Today, I want to talk to you about evaluating your own boundaries. Last time, we talked about evaluating your own skills, and I think these two segments really fit hand in hand, because if we don’t know our skills and we don’t know our boundaries, then things that we sign up for, are we fully consenting to? Because I do believe in the model of informed consent that you have to fully be able to know what you’re signing up for, have boundaries and be able to say “no” in order to be able to give that full consent, and it’s a much better experience for everyone involved when you have done that introspection on knowing where your boundaries are and where your skills are so that when you do sign up for things and you do take on projects, you can do that to the best of your ability without doing it out of a sense of obligation which can build resentful feelings.
So, our culture likes to valorize self-sacrifice, and productivity at all costs, which you all know comes directly out of our capitalistic system and our model of exploitation, because if we can get the individual to see self-sacrifice and over-productivity as a virtue, then they’re more easily exploited. But the problem comes in often that this doesn’t get removed from the way that we construct our images of working in community organizing and it often leads to burnout in our circles, and I don’t think that’s talked about enough on the left, about how so many people go in really hard and feel really excited at the very beginning and push themselves past their own boundaries and can end up leaving organizing altogether or taking really really long breaks that lead to dropping out eventually because they overworked themselves, and I think we really need to deconstruct our viewpoints around this virtue of self-sacrifice and really put it into context of valuing individuals as members of community and not seeing each individual as responsible for the whole community. Because when we work together, and we evenly spread out the workload, we’re at our most productive as a society, but the problem comes in when a few individuals end up taking on all of the burden and other people don’t, and we end up with people who are burned-out and are tired and need rest. Obviously everyone needs rest, but when we’re not giving ourselves enough incremental rest we end up getting really discouraged and disappointed in our community work and that can lead to a lot of people leaving.
So, first of all, I want us to think about – can you think of a time when you’ve pushed yourself too hard working on a project or at your job or volunteering and you could just tell that you burned out. What did that feel like? Were there warning signs in advance? Could you tell at the beginning that it was gonna be too much? That you knew the expectations were too high? Once you started to burnout, did you feel resentful? How did that feel in your body to know that you were not feeling good about the work anymore, or maybe didn’t from the beginning?
How do we learn where our boundaries are? I’ve found over the years that it’s a lot of trial and error, and it comes a lot from listening to ourselves and valuing ourselves, listening to our bodies and feeling comfortable and safe saying “no”, which comes in part from being in a community where that is a safe thing, as well as trusting ourselves and trusting others to be able to say “no” to things that are beyond our boundaries.
So, what kind of boundaries are there? There’s many different types. There is physical boundaries, such as whether or not you want to be in close proximity with people. There’s boundaries relating to ability, about whether or not you can do something physically, emotionally, mentally. There’s boundaries of time and commitment. There’s emotional boundaries of whether or not you want to be emotionally intimate with people. There’s boundaries of whether or not you can hold space for other people’s feelings. And I think it’s really good to evaluate where you sit on that. What makes you feel emotionally and physically safe? What do you need in order to work in a way that makes you feel emotionally and physically safe?
For example, I need to know that the people I’m working with in my local community are going to regard consent as a very important thing. This comes in all different forms, including physical touch consent, but as well as emotional consent. Most of my close relationships have gotten into a really safe place where we have learned to engage in communication consent, where if a person wants to talk about a really heavy topic we ask first. We’ll say “Hey, can I talk about something that was triggering related to this topic?” and we’ll honestly give each other the feedback of “Yeah, I can hold space for you for that, what’s going on?” or “You know, I am not in a good space for that right now, can we check back in tomorrow?” or “That’s a really triggering topic for me. I don’t think I’m the right person, but can I help you find somebody else who might be able to talk to you about that?”
Being able to sit back and evaluate, especially when you’re a person with disabilities. If you have a disability, you’re gonna have certain limitations that society doesn’t value and society doesn’t respect, but it’s important that when we’re in your community we establish those boundaries for ourselves and we have other community members that respect those boundaries and are able to appreciate our contributions while still staying inside the boundaries of what allows us to be safe emotionally and physically.
Pushing too hard is not healthy for anyone involved. It can build resentment. It can shatter relationships. It can hurt yourself. It can hurt others. And being the first boundary point of keeping yourself safe instead of assuming other people won’t push you too far I think is really healthy to do. Of course, we want our communities to be aware and be willing to take “no’s” and be able to evaluate what they’re asking you, if that’s gonna be too much. But at the end of the day, it’s really our own responsibilities to say “yes” or “no” in an honest way and to not feel a sense of obligation that goes past the point of keeping yourself emotionally and physically safe.
So, I think it’s really good just to sit down and just think over how many hours can you really commit without it really impacting you in a negative way. How do your interpersonal relationships need to look like with the people that you’re working with to be able to feel emotionally and physically safe? How does your ability level in skills and disability factor in? How does the oppression dynamics and power in your group need to factor in? Are you going to feel emotionally and physically safe when you’re in a space if the values of your community are not being listened to and appreciated by the privileged members of the community? What does that look like and how are you going to be able to recognize warning signs of when you’re going to need to say “no”?
I think saying “no” is one of the hardest things that I’ve had to learn that has made the biggest difference in my life as a full human being but also as an organizer. Being able to say “no” has allowed me to say “yes” in much more authentic ways. Because instead of saying “yes” just because somebody asked and I knew I could theoretically do the thing, I now fully evaluate whether or not it’s something that I can do without harming myself. Putting the value on myself that I do deserve to be able to work within the constraints of my ability and my safety has allowed me to more enthusiastically engage with the work that I do organize in and has allowed me to take breaks and to allocate my time in ways that are more meaningful. And I think that’s really important for everybody to kind of look at and have those introspective moments. Because if we pair that together with the skills we talked about last week, when you can put those two and two together and say “I have this list of skills and I have this list of boundaries”, that means that you can find the overlap of where your skills and boundaries overlap with the needs of your organizing. And when you can hit that sweet spot, it’s really amazing because you can really fully embrace your work, and you can fully embrace the people around you without boundaries and discomfort around your skill level becoming a point of resentment. And it helps you open up more communication because when you can take responsibility for your own boundaries and your own skills, that means that other people can give you feedback easier, that means you can communicate better with others, you can really fully engage in the work that you want to do. And at the end of the day you’re going to be a better comrade for being able to say “no” when you need to, because if we have everyone going full tilt for two, three weeks, two months, a year, and then totally dropping off, then we’re just starting at the wheel again with each new organizer, instead of building a solid foundation of community members that can mentor each other and build up a movement that has long-term stability.
Because I’ve seen this over and over in different organizations that I’ve worked in that a lot of people will end up taking on a lot and pushing themselves too far, getting burned out, getting resentful, and people will walk away, And, I mean, that’s that’s their choice, but it also leaves the organization really hurt because they’re not fortified by members who have more experience. As somebody who has walked into organizations where there hasn’t been a lot of long term membership, it’s really hard to just start from scratch all over again and then have this cycle of burnout continue with all the members, and it’s just a really nasty cycle. But, if we can really engage with taking ownership over our boundaries and our skills, then we can get fully engaged and we can stay in long-term and we can pass on those skills and we can help build a movement that has long-term stability.
So that’s it for my section on boundaries. I encourage you to have that look at yourself and your boundaries and kind of formally take some time to evaluate that. Because opportunity is gonna knock for you at some point, even though you’re isolated, and you’re gonna need to know what you can and can’t commit to in advance. That way you can do it safely
(Closing segment music begins. William is speaking alone in this segment.)
Well that does it for Episode Two of Frontline Praxis. We were joined by Bethany and Nasir from the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, and we hope you enjoyed this episode, and if you can please consider donating to their Black Mama’s Bail Out Mother’s Day fundraiser. You can find all the information on their website, http://www.phillybailout.com, and you can get updates by following them on Twitter @PhillyBailOut or on facebook at facebook.com/PhillyBailOut.
As always, we thank you for listening, and if you enjoy Frontline Praxis, don’t forget to subscribe, rate, and review the show on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to your podcasts. And, if you want to support us, we’re still working out exactly how we want to handle any Patreon, so please stay tuned for that.
Love and solidarity to you all, and we’ll see you next time.
(Closing music – Dead Prez “Police State”)