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GUEST COLUMN Supporting Black & Pink
by Tanya Nguyen
2017-07-19

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I have always taken more of an "academic" approach to the world, preferring to learn by keeping my nose in a book rather than striking up conversations. But part of my growing up has entailed realizing the importance of genuine human connection. While we shouldn't focus on interpersonal relations at the expense of rigorous structural analysis, the only way to get true context is to talk to other people.

Because there are things edited out of publications. There are things not made legible to research studies, things that can't be conveyed in statistics and theory. The long, hot wait to bail a friend out. The harsh, uncaring refusal from a prison counselor when calling about your friend's grievance. The smell and taste of solitary confinement, which I've only heard about.

But also the joys: stories told in longhand snail-mailed letters, welcome-home housewarmings, queer penpal beach picnics, hugs.

Black & Pink works to end the prison-industrial complex that systematically incentivizes people to cage others rather than to address the roots of harm. Penpal relationships with our LGBTQ and/or HIV+ inside members are at the core of Black & Pink's work because we must take direction from the experiences of currently and formerly incarcerated people. We must give immediate material and emotional support to people in prisons now while we do the long-term, slower work of abolition.

I joined Black & Pink three years ago. My first penpal's name is Jimmie, and he just had his 49th birthday. He was released a few months after I started writing him, and we became good friends. ( My three subsequent penpals are all out now too; a couple of other members joked that I'm a good-luck charm and that I should be penpals with everyone to get them released. If only! ) Through Jimmie, my opposition to incarceration deepened from an abstract ideal to a personal investment. I was motivated to do more.

In the Chicago chapter, volunteers are warmly welcomed and supported in taking on tasks and responsibilities. As a member of the penpal support team, I helped organize orientations to match new penpals, which felt so gratifying—I urge anyone with the time to sign up and start writing today. I attended bimonthly meetings, learning how to facilitate agendas and talk about difficult issues like oppression dynamics and effort/funding priorities.

After I moved away, I continued to support B&P's work at the national level as we redesigned our organizational structure around a national leadership body and formed new national working groups. I was humbled by the knowledge and commitment of everyone who collaborated to write Black & Pink's values statement and to codify our decision-making processes. I continue to be inspired by fellow abolitionists with whom I now conspire on the end solitary confinement and bail/court support national working groups. All throughout this work, we Black & Pink outside volunteers strive to keep our inside penpals' needs and desires at the forefront because we believe in the power of people placed behind walls.

About a year ago, Jimmie took a plea deal and, to our community's dismay, was put back inside at Pinckneyville Correctional Center. We're back to letters as our primary form of communication. I'm looking forward to talking to him on the phone soon, which we couldn't do for the last two months, as he was in segregation—85% of our inside members who responded to our 2014 survey have been in solitary confinement; about half have spent two or more years there. One reason is that LGBTQ prisoners are often placed into "protective custody," even if they would rather stay in general population. Ending solitary confinement is a pressing issue for Black & Pink—and really, anyone who is interested in creating a just and safe world.

Through Black & Pink, I've only sharpened my praxis and strengthened my stake in collective liberation for LGBTQ/HIV+ people, Black people, people of color, poor people, disabled people who are especially marginalized and criminalized. I've learned what it means to not just think but to really act in political and affective solidarity, and I will continue learning. So let's keep raging and building community and taking care of each other.

Because I want my friend to be home and free. I want all of us to be free.

Black and Pink's second National Gathering, to celebrate 12 years of LGBTQ prison abolition work, will bring Black and Pink members from across the country to Chicago Aug. 4-6. There will be a big celebration, award ceremony, and party the evening of Aug. 4 at CTU Hall, 1901 W. Carroll Ave, followed by workshops and planning for the next stage in Black and Pink's work.

For more information on the National Gathering, see www.blackandpink.org/BP12 . To become a penpal, contact blackandpinkchicago@gmail.com .


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