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VIEWPOINT Black and Pink in Chicago on Aug. 4
by Nicole Erin Morse

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During the first weekend of August, Black and Pink Chicago will host our organization's second national gathering, bringing together LGBTQ prison abolitionists from around the country to build community and power, starting with a free and public celebration dinner Friday, Aug. 4, 6-10 p.m. at Chicago Teachers Union Center, 1901 W. Carroll St.

As an organizer with the Chicago chapter, I'm excited to celebrate the work of outgoing National Director Jason Lydon, who founded Black and Pink 12 years ago, and I'm looking forward to envisioning the next steps for Black and Pink as we welcome new leadership.

This is a particularly exciting time for Black and Pink Chicago, as both incoming National Director Tray Johns and incoming National Organizer Monica James hail from the Windy City. Last week, I got to sit down with Tray to talk about Tray's background in organizing, Chicago roots and vision for LGBTQ prison abolition.

A South Side native, Tray is getting ready to take over as Black and Pink's national director right after getting married and while preparing to apply to law school—while also continuing to organize with #FedFam4Life, a non-profit organization Tray founded that is dedicated to helping women navigate re-entry. When I asked how Tray will balance all of these projects at once, Tray reminded me that Tray earned a bachelors degree from Southern Illinois University while raising eight kids and working a full-time job. At that time, Tray dreamed of going to law school and becoming the first Black female Supreme Court Justice; yet shortly after graduating, Tray was incarcerated.

In prison, Tray immediately started working to support other prisoners, filing hundreds of legal petitions on behalf of women who were seeking clemency hearings, women who were trying to retain custody of their children, and women filing appeals. Soon, Tray was teaching classes on topics from knitting to calisthenics to re-entry.

As Tray tells it, "If a sister asked me to teach something I didn't know, I'd go learn so I could teach them."

In particular, the re-entry class Tray taught informs the direction that Tray wants to take Black and Pink's work, increasing attention to the challenges facing LGBTQ and HIV+ people as they leave prison and re-enter the free world. Called "How to Be Free and Stay that Way," the re-entry class Tray designed in prison helped participants plan for their release, including developing a 30-day plan, a 60-day plan and a five-year wish.

For Tray, wishing and visioning have been a critical part of activism. Tray describes sitting in prison in 2010 with a group of sisters and dreaming of how collective action could free Phyllis "Grandma" Hardy from prison. That moment lead to extensive efforts to free the incarcerated senior citizen, including a clemency petition Tray wrote, hundreds of letters in support, and the original FreeHer Rally.

Tray says that this work was just one part of figuring out "a way to end this system." As Tray continues describing organizing work inside and outside prison, Tray explains, "I don't need anyone to kick open the door. All I need is a crack, I'm skinny, I can slip through."

As Tray takes over as national director, Monica James is also guiding Black and Pink's work nationally as the national organizer, drawing on her experience with the Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois and a plethora of other local, national and international activism around trans equality and justice.

Both will be centrally involved in the Aug. 4 celebration, and we hope that you will join us for an evening of speakers, performances, awards, and delicious food. All speakers and performers are formerly incarcerated LGBTQ and/or HIV+ people. Come listen to the brilliance of Ricardo Jimenez, Laura Whitehorn, Chicago's Eisha Love and others. With food provided by Inspiration Kitchen, this event is free—but bring your dollars and checkbooks to help us raise money to keep Black and Pink's work going for years to come!

Nicole Erin Morse is an organizer with Black and Pink Chicago and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago.

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