Black women activists focus on prison pipeline, joining the fight for social justice

Black Women Social Justice Panel
From left to right, Charity Tolliver, Prudence Browne and Deana Lewis speak to students at UIC about fighting for social justice and the foster care-to-prison pipeline.

By Branden Hampton

Eighty percent of prison inmates report that they were in foster care as youth, and the foster care-to-prison pipeline must be dismantled, according to social justice activist Charity Tolliver.

“When we look at the boom of the prison system in the ’80s, one of the systems that also exploded at the same time was the foster care system,” said Tolliver. “It went from being 20,000 [children] overnight to up to a quarter of a million. Today there are half a million [foster] children.”

Tolliver has been an activist and organizer for over 10 years and focuses on reproductive justice for black women and dismantling the foster care-to-prison pipeline. Tolliver is currently in the urban education and leadership graduate program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, or UIC, and is also founder and director of Black on Both Sides, a project that is working to build a new generation of black organizers in Chicago.

The foster care-to-prison pipeline is just one of the topics students at UIC learned about during a panel discussion about black women in social justice movements and how to get involved in activism.

UIC’s African American Academic Network and the Campus Advocacy Network presented the panel, which featured three local  black women social justice activists. The event was part of UIC’s Black History Month events.

According to Tolliver, 95 percent of all new foster cases involve black children. To dismantle the foster care-to-prison pipeline, Charity said that she is raising awareness of the issue by “calling it out for what it is and linking it to a historical narrative, a narrative that places blame and fault on black women and on poverty rather than on an actual fixed system.”

One audience member expressed her approval of Tolliver’s speech about the foster care-to-prison pipeline.

“Charity really enlightened me with the numbers,”  said LaQueal Anderson, a junior at UIC. “Eighty percent of prisoners coming from the foster care system is insane. The fact that it’s something that’s not talked about and something that’s behind the scenes just boggles me.”

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University of Illinois at Chicago panelist and social justice activist Deana Lewis explains the Black Lives Matter movement. Footage contributed by Kierra Gray. (Branden Hampton/MEDILL)

Other topics at the panel included how social justice activists got their start and how students can become activists as well.

Prudence Browne, an education activist and one of the most vocal participants in last year’s Dyett High School hunger strike, spoke about how she was introduced into organizing and activism during a worker’s strike in New York City.

“My mom took us to her job at Presbyterian Hospital, the same hospital that refused Malcolm X when he was bleeding out, and we walked the picket line,” Browne said. “She introduced us to all her coworkers and my brothers and I walked the picket line with her.”

“Seeing her and all of her coworkers from all over the Caribbean, from South Asia to the Philippines, was a moment that I didn’t realize until I was in my 30s that helped to get me to where I am today,” Browne added.

Browne said she was part of an action to help reopen Dyett, in Bronzeville on the South Side, during summer 2015.  She and others went on a 34-day hunger strike that received national and international attention and also put pressure on Chicago Public Schools to reopen the school.

Deana Lewis, an activist for incarcerated girls, said that she came into activism and organizing very slowly. The spark was lit when she was in college studying English and dove into black women’s literature.

“Not only are black men and boys being murdered and killed by police, but black women and girls are being killed. We need to understand that because we are all under attack,” Lewis said. “In order for us to be free, we have to fight for all black people.”

How to get your feet wet in activism

Camille Bundy, a senior psychology and gender women studies major at UIC, expressed how the panelists’ stories had a big impact on her.

“A lot of the challenge that young people face is how to get their feet wet in the organizations. A lot of what they talked about, as far as having the burning desire to do some kind of work, is really all you need to do it,” Bundy said.

Lewis noted that students should take advantage of professors on UIC’s campus who can mentor them about getting involved in activism and organizing.

“Professor Barbara Ransby is a powerhouse. She is a great professor and an amazing organizer and activist. I was lucky to work with her and she introduced me to the Chicago activist and organizer community,” Lewis said. Ransby is a professor of gender and women’s studies and also of African American studies and history at UIC.

Lewis also noted that students should reach out to Beth Richie, who is a professor of criminal justice and women’s studies at UIC. “These are nice people that you can talk with about moving into an activist role and claiming that label,” Lewis said.

Browne gave advice to students aspiring to become involved in activism and said, “You are already doing the work and we are so thankful for you.”

Photo at top: From left to right: Charity Tolliver, Prudence Browne and Deana Lewis speak to students at UIC about fighting for social justice and the foster care-to-prison pipeline. (Branden Hampton/MEDILL)