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How We Move Forward Together: Essie Justice Group

Article published:
Four Black women sitting on a bench, one embracing one of the others, all looking joyful.

“The deep, slow work of base building—that which centers healing, leadership development, and expertise of those most impacted—offers a replicable, scalable model to build power and meet the multifaceted challenges facing our people.”

For the US Left, much of last year was marked by big shifts and big gatherings, taking stock and plotting paths. Convergence first conceived of this series before Hamas attacked Israel and Israel invaded Gaza, shattering lives and upending politics. But as the shadows of war and fascism deepen, so does our need for alignment, even as it becomes more difficult to buid.

To help envision how we move forward, we invited groups across the Left to contribute to this series in the spirit of building understanding across our movement ecosystems. Much of the work to block the MAGA Right over the next year will necessarily happen in electoral campaigns, but moving towards true multiracial democracy will take long-term work on many levels, from neighborhood to national, from community- and institution-building to winning races and ballot measures, as we contest for governing power.

We asked respondents to write about ways their strategy contributes to blocking MAGA in 2024, and how their short- and long-term plans inform each other; how their strategy contributes to building leaders, members, power and capacity; and how they fit into the movement ecosystem, and coordinate and collaborate with others in their niche. The order in which contributions appear reflects different organizations’ rhythms of work, rather than a political assessment by Convergence. This is the fourth article in the series; you can find previous installments through this link.

Everything about Darlene—from her clothing to her mannerisms—communicates that she is a woman who has got it all together. Darlene is a wife, mother, and grandmother. She is a beloved coworker at work, volunteers in her free time, and enjoys hair oils and good-smelling lotions. What many would not suspect is that Darlene married an incarcerated person. The stereotypes about who is impacted by mass incarceration do not depict the reality that as many as one  in four women has an incarcerated loved one. Across the country, millions of women like Darlene are taking on additional responsibilities to care for children, ensure that family members stay connected, and keep families financially afloat. Mass incarceration is well-known as a racial justice issue, but it’s rarely understood as a gender justice issue. The reverberating impacts of mass incarceration in the lives of millions of women like Darlene make it one of the most significant barriers we face to achieving gender justice in the United States.

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One day when Darlene’s husband Paul was cleaning prison cells in his job as a porter during his incarceration, he noticed a crumpled-up piece of paper in the corner of a cell. Opening it he found a compelling invitation: “Nominate a woman in your life to Essie Justice Group’s Healing to Advocacy program,” it said. He knew that his wife Darlene felt alone in her experience as a woman with an incarcerated loved one.

Like many women, Darlene would visit Paul in prison, put money on his prison commissary account so he could buy necessities like soap and deodorant, and write to him. The time and money that she spent on their relationship were hard for him to reciprocate from inside prison. With the stigma and fear of judgment of having a loved one inside prison, she couldn’t share her day-to-day reality with those closest to her and felt isolated. Paul often wished that he could do more. Seeing this as a chance to give back to Darlene, Paul filled out the form to nominate his wife.

Later, Darlene received a phone call. On the other end of the line was another woman with an incarcerated loved one from Essie Justice Group notifying Darlene of Paul’s nomination. Hearing her husband’s words about her read by a complete stranger with such reverence was transformative. Darlene felt compelled to join the program at Essie Justice Group. Today Darlene is happily living with her husband who recently came home. She continues to break the isolation of other women who were in her position by volunteering her time to make nominations phone calls and facilitating for Essie Justice Group’s Healing to Advocacy program. Because of the leadership of women like Darlene and nominators like Paul who’ve helped Essie Justice Group get in touch with them, the Healing to Advocacy Program has graduated over 50 cohorts and has program graduates in 32 states in the US.

I founded and named Essie Justice Group after my great-grandmother, whose own story of resilience and success in the midst of challenging circumstances provides the inspiration for our organizing strategy. Despite growing up on a sharecropping farm, with Jim Crow racism, sexism, and poverty, my great-grandmother Essie Bailey found strength to overcome because of the support she had from her sisters. Today, our programs are designed to address mass incarceration by breaking isolation of women with incarcerated loved ones. By building a base of women with incarcerated loved ones, we are cultivating a resilient community that can fight back against injustice and foster healing. 

Incarceration is uniquely harming women

Women are currently the fastest-growing group of incarcerated people. When examining the underlying causes of women’s incarceration, it becomes evident that women regularly end up incarcerated as a result of being victims of harm themselves. Up to 94% of some women’s prison populations are survivors of sexual assault or physical abuse. Moreover, once incarcerated, the conditions within women’s prisons and jails subject women to unique physical and psychological harm. Making matters worse, women inside prisons often receive little support from family and community. The full visiting rooms at men’s prisons and the corresponding empty visiting rooms at women’s prisons underscore the reality that in the US women care-take but are not reciprocally cared for.

The unseen work that women are doing to care for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people yields positive outcomes for safety within prisons, recidivism rates, mental health of children with incarcerated parents, economic stability of families, and public health. Just as women take on invisible work, women take on invisible harm. Essie Justice Group’s 2018 report Because She’s Powerful, forwhich we surveyed almost 3,000 women across the country, found that women with incarcerated loved ones endure weighty financial, mental health, physical health, and opportunity costs. 

Incarceration of a loved one quickly becomes a pathway to poverty. Women pay the costs of bail, court fees and phone calls, regularly purchase basic necessities for loved ones inside, and experience  reductions in household income due to the incarceration or barriers to work for incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people. One study found that there is a 64% decrease in household assets when a loved one is incarcerated. Eighty-six percent of women with incarcerated loved ones reported that having a loved one behind bars created significant to extreme mental health impacts. We also found that over 30% of women with incarcerated loved ones have turned down an educational opportunity as a result of a loved one’s incarceration.

Whether incarcerated or not, millions of women are harmed by our criminal justice system and are potentially powerful if unified and organized. This is why both morally and strategically the incarceration of women and incarceration more broadly should be a top concern for any woman with an incarcerated loved one. Only by holistically addressing women’s health and safety can we end the harm that incarceration is causing millions of women.

We are taking seriously the isolation incarceration causes

Mass incarceration socially isolates women in a manner that threatens lives and our potential as a movement for social justice. We first met Taryn in 2019, right before the pandemic. She graduated from an in-person cohort with other women who have loved ones behind bars, breaking her isolation. When the pandemic hit, we moved our programs to Zoom. The compounding impact of social distancing as a medically vulnerable person, economic strain, and loss of connection to her multiple incarcerated loved ones sent Taryn spiraling back into isolation. In one of her last communications with us, Taryn wrote “I’ve gone back into isolation. My depression and anxiety has worsened.” Weeks later, we received the news of her death by suicide. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about Taryn. At Essie Justice Group, we understand that isolation is dangerous.

When COVID-19 emerged as a pandemic, women with incarcerated loved ones were further cut off from loved ones — many went months to over a year without being allowed to visit family members, and many prisons and jails have since failed to resume normal visiting schedules. The United States Surgeon General released an advisory in 2023 calling attention to the “epidemic of loneliness and isolation.” It is encouraging to see more people taking isolation seriously and get curious about its root causes as a result.

Incarceration is one of the primary drivers of the high rates of social isolation we are experiencing. Therefore, to address the root causes of our isolation crisis, we must tackle the mass incarceration crisis. The criminal justice system’s sole tactic in meting out punishment is isolation, most obviously through physical incarceration. Through shame and stigma, distance, prison policies, and how prisons are constructed, incarceration methodically separates people from one another. Isolation is generated for people on both sides of prison walls. By dramatically increasing the rate of incarceration over the last 50 years through huge increases in prison spending, we not only created but invested in a new crisis of isolation.

Social isolation has been defined as the lack of relationships with others with little to no social support or contact. In 2018, we coined the term political isolation to capture the phenomenon of mass social isolation within marginalized communities. When a system socially isolates a significant number of historically and currently oppressed people and their social isolation reinforces a hierarchy that is based on race, gender, or class, the impact is political.

When tens of millions of disproportionately Black and Brown women are experiencing social isolation, it leads to political isolation and by extension loss of collective agency and power. Political isolation implicates the health of our social movements and our democracy.

Base building breaks societal isolation and is the means to end its root causes

Our movements need community-based organizations to break isolation, build resilient communities, and fight back. At Essie, we organize women with incarcerated loved ones into social justice movement work through a strategic process that centers base building. In 2017, we found it useful to define base building for ourselves and distinguish it from community organizing and movement building as follows:

  • Community Organizing: The highly interpersonal activities undertaken to develop class (i.e. group) consciousness among members of a community that inspires that community to take steps to improve their social and material condition.
  • Base building: The leadership development and retention activities undertaken to make cohesive, focused, and powerful the presence of the organized community.
  • Movement building: Creating infrastructure, facilitating strategic relationships, consolidating resources, and advancing a resonant observation of social conditions to cause multiple forces to shift those conditions on a large scale.

Our base building is specifically designed to reach and prioritize women who have not yet been politically active or politicized. Our recruitment vehicle is our nominations process, which in collaboration with loved ones who are incarcerated and outreach in visiting rooms helps us meet women like Darlene. Developing member leadership for our base begins with an isolation-breaking touch point followed by a focus on individual healing within the space of an eight to 15 person cohort. To make leadership development possible, we create a foundation of values and trust through enforcing a standard that no one may join our base without graduating from our Healing to Advocacy program first.

During the Healing to Advocacy program, cohort members learn the “Five Essie Essentials,” which are norms such as ‘I belong here and so does she/they’ and ‘I know what I carry.’ Upon graduation, members take part in a rite of passage into our membership, which is where their leadership and learning journeys at Essie Justice Group begin. Programs like our Campaign School and Facilitator’s Training Program hone skills, and participation in teams or elected membership positions provide praxis opportunities to put skills into practice. Our campaigns are run by members who embody the values, are trained, and support one another to reduce barriers to take courageous action.

The deep, longer-term work of building this kind of community and skilled leadership comes with downsides of occasionally having to pass on campaign opportunities and sometimes moving more slowly, which can be frustrating. Yet, it also helps avoid the pitfalls of more transactional organizing processes where members are often utilized for stories but not topical expertise. Healing, political development, and skill development takes time, skill, and structure to produce. When done well, base-building will break isolation and fuel powerful campaigns.

In March 2023 I got an important call from Raquel, a cohort graduate and member leader at Essie Justice Group, who told me that her daughter had been arrested hours ago. Raquel’s daughter Jada had also become a member of Essie, graduating from her Healing to Advocacy program cohort the year before. Jada was facing murder charges as the result of defending her life against an abuser, which led to the loss of his. Essie Justice Group members immediately mobilized. Our members and team arranged child care, organized legal support, and packed the courthouse with women who have incarcerated loved ones. In an outcome brought about by our organizing, the Black woman judge presiding determined there was no probable cause to keep Jada in jail and she was reunited with her family, declaring, “We have the right to stand our ground too.”

Many women are incarcerated today due to circumstances similar to Jada’s. And many women like Raquel end up caring for children and trying to hold together families torn apart by incarceration. What was different for Raquel and her daughter Jada was that they were members of a base-building organization. Through belonging to a community that is both political and healing, and where the expertise of directly impacted people leads the way, their freedom was made possible. 

In 2024, what seems to be top of mind is how close the US has come to a free fall into tyranny. The pillars of democracy, multiculturalism, and human rights are now regularly undermined. Communities are more susceptible to propaganda and misinformation than a decade ago. Ultimately, people trust people, not technology or even data. Therefore, the deeply personal work that base building requires, reconnecting people to one another, and the creation of places where our ability to speak out, listen, debate, and work together are honed, are all the more vital. Breaking isolation is the first step to bringing people into this type of community, and at scale, it is our ability to do so that will bring about an end to the harms created by mass incarceration.

Featured image: Essie Justice Group members at a strategy retreat. Photo © Drew Bird, used with permission.

Names of Essie Justice Group members in this story have been changed.


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