Liza Jessie Peterson by Yoshinori Hashimoto
By Sharon Pendana 

Liza Jessie Peterson is an "artivist," her art and her activism conjoined. With a deep sense of justice, it is her Libran calling to balance its scales. "I’m an artist, but my advocacy is channeled through my art," she says. "Everything I write about, everything I perform is through that lens." Her decades-long entrenchment in the carceral system spans from making the trek upstate from her Brooklyn home to visit her jailed former lover to teaching incarcerated youths at New York City's notorious Rikers Island Correctional Facility.

Continue

These experiences inform her profound one-woman show, The Peculiar Patriot,exploring the human impact of mass incarceration, not just on inmates, but their intimates who brave the cramped, hours-long bus rides to prison visits in revolutionary acts of loyalty and commitment, "navigating love between barbed wire." She toured the show to over 30 prisons across the country to standing ovations and black power salutes before premiering it to the general public in a sold-out run at Harlem’s National Black Theatre.


In All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island, Liza mines her old journals and indelible memories to deftly chronicle her experience of being the classroom teacher, all day from 7:50 am - 2:30 pm to adolescent boys locked in a system more punitive than rehabilitative. With humor and pathos, she gives voice to these young men swept into the penal maelstrom and exposes the glaring disparity in corrections approaches between kids of color and white.

She started working at Rikers Island in 1998 to conduct a poetry workshop and was surprised to discover "the overwhelmingly disproportionate amount of Black and Latino adolescents" incarcerated there. She says, 
"It was astounding! I wasn't aware of the prison industrial complex— it was not in the zeitgeist— this was 1998. Mass incarceration was not even a phrase that people used back then. I was going in without any context. I had no idea about the cash bail system; I had no idea about the privatization of prisons. A corrections officer pointed to the boys and referred to them as the ‘new cotton’– that I was working on the plantation and the boys were the crops."
She would learn that Black and Latino children are targeted for arrest and criminalized for typical adolescent behavior. 
"Adolescents are always going to buck up against the system; they are still going to challenge authority. They are going through a stage of psychological differentiation separation, where they are exerting their independence, moving away from family toward friends and testing boundaries. It's a natural phase of adolescent development."
While working with incarcerated adolescent girls, she learned that most had histories of sexual abuse. "A lot of their acting-out comes from the unhealed wounds and unaddressed trauma in their lives," she says. As rampant revelations of sexual assault surface in this country, Liza hopes that "this heightened national dialogue will give young girls the courage to come forward and speak out about what has happened to them and know that it isn't their fault; their cries are valid, and they have support." She says that although women who have spoken out about it have been "dismissed, ignored, denied, chastised, threatened and attacked, now we’re seeing the tide turning, and men are being called to task and being held accountable for their reprehensible behavior."

She remains hopeful that the social justice pendulum will swing toward what is right and just—that the normalization of sexual misconduct will reverse, and prison reforms put an end to race-based arrests and draconian sentencing. She shares how others can effect change: "first people need to get educated on what white supremacy is — what it looks like and how it works. And vote, not just in the big elections, but the smaller local elections, too." She adds that many community-based organizations rely on donations to keep their doors open. "There are organizations already on the ground doing the work. If you have money, find out who they are and support them. Of philanthropist Agnes Gund's recent endowment she adds, "Be like Agnes; write a check."


An "interrupter of recidivism," Liza stays in contact with several of the kids and works to help them once they are released. "I’m always going to have that connection to the youth–helping them to stay alive and free and out of the grip of the criminal justice system. But I’m an artist first. I’m creating; I’m writing plays, I’m writing books, I’m writing content for television that will encapsulate my advocacy."

Photo: Garlia C. Jones-Ly


***********

Sharon Pendana is the creator of THE TROVE, author of Secret Washington DC and on a relentless quest to discover treasures, human and otherwise. Find her on Instagram, Medium, Twitter or binging on Netflix and Trader Joe's Triple Ginger Snaps.
Tamika D. Mallory speaking at the Women's March on Washington
There is nothing sexier than impacting positive change. And when we say sexy, we're talking about fearlessly walking in your purpose in such a way that everyone can't help but take notice of and appreciate how truly badass you are. We're talking #humanitygoals, #growuptobelikeyou, #pleaseupdatehistorybooks sexy. And for this reason, it's important to pay homage to women currently living and working among us who are taking social activism to the next level, inspiring the rest of us to ask ourselves,  'What am I doing to bring about change?' While there are countless powerful sistah's out there leading in communities across the country, we decided to highlight seven women giving us #activismgoals!

Continue
Tamika D. Mallory

Chances are, you've seen Tamika D. Mallory, the outspoken champion for social justice who helped organize the Women's March on Washington, attended by over 300,000 here, and sparked duplicate marches across the globe. The 36 yr old New York native has been applauded as an advocate for civil rights issues, equal rights for women, health care, gun violence, and police misconduct. Valerie B. Jarrett, Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama called her “a leader of tomorrow” and she was selected to serve on the transition committee of New York City Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio. 


 
Johnetta Elzie Image via Getty/Jason LaVeris
Moved to action by the death of Michael Brown, Johnetta Elzie made a splash among Ferguson protesters by aiding with volunteer coordination and live tweeting surrounding events effectively becoming a leading citizen journalist on the protests. Later, she went on to co-create the website and database MappingPoliceViolence.org which tracks all people killed by police. Elzie currently leads We The Protesters, an organization which supports nationwide protest groups in combatting police violence and systemic racism through policy change.




Dr. Moya Bailey
If you’ve ever used the word “misogynoir,” you can thank Dr. Moya Bailey for its existence. Her devotion to examining the way Black women are represented in pop culture led her to coin the term as well as pursue Women’s Studies and activism. An assistant professor at Northeastern University, Dr. Bailey co-created Quirky Black Girls (a network that celebrates Black girls who exist outside of social norms) and the Crunk Feminist Collective (a supportive space for queer and straight hip hop gen feminists of color). She also is the digital alchemist for the Octavia E. Butler Legacy Network.





Monica Raye Simpson

Before Monica Raye Simpson relocated to Georgia to work with and eventually lead the Atlanta-based SisterSong, the queer Black North Carolina native rallied against racism, human rights abuses, prison industry and violence against Black women and LGBTQ people. The facilitator/speaker/organizer/singer is also a certified doula. Now the executive director of SisterSong, Simpson created the organization’s Artists United for Reproductive Justice project which supports artistic collaborations on replicable artwork to further SisterSong’s cause of women’s reproductive health rights.




Patrice Cullors
In the wake of Trayvon Martin's tragic death, Los Angeleno organizer, artist and freedom fighter Patrisse Cullors' co-founded hashtag #BlackLivesMatter jumpstarted the civil rights fight of our time. Her activism, however didn't begin or end with the multi-issue global, Black queer femme-led intersectional movement. Before that, Cullors led a crusade against inmate abuse as the executive director of End Sheriff Violence in L.A. Jails and has since confounded prison activist organization Dignity and Power Now. She also serves as board member of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights





Ciara Taylor 
Having built a reputation for taking on the causes of living wages for Florida A&M campus workers and combatting K-20 budgets cuts, Ciara Taylor was in prime activist form to take to the streets following Trayvon Martin's shooting. Her response to the tragic killing was co-founding Dream Defenders which works on human rights issues, ending police brutality and shutting down the school-to-prison pipeline. She currently serves the organization as the director of political consciousness and develops and executes statewide political, educational and leadership development programming.




Tanya Fields
Having experienced the challenges of gaining access to healthy and affordable food in the Bronx, Tanya became active with South Bronx-Mothers on the Move, the Majora Carter Group and Sustainable South Bronx.  The community activist and public speaker founded the BLK ProjeK in 2009 to further combat wealth inequality, the cycle of poverty and institutionalized sexism. The BLK ProjeK creates economic growth opportunities for women and youth of color through education, urban gardening, public space beautification, and community programming. She also created and stars in a web-based cooking and lifestyle show Mama Tanya’s Kitchen where she teaches how to prepare affordable gourmet meals.


Who are your favorite activists right now?

Nikki Igbo is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and political junkie. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Political Science from California State University at Fullerton and a Masters in Fine Arts of Writing at Savannah College of Art and Design. When not staring in disbelief at the antics unfolding on CSPAN, she enjoys philosophical arguments with her husband, 70's era music and any excuse to craft with glitter. Feel free to check out her freelance services at nikigbo.com and stalk her on twitter @nikigbo or Instagram at @nikigbo.