We are a group of nine — eight women and one man — hailing from Texas and California. We are an impromptu collective of known friends and new who have come to the nation’s capital for the Women’s March on Washington. We represent different generations. We are a mix of ethnicities and faiths.
We are Americans.
We are staying in a townhouse not too far from the starting point of the march, so we make our way there on foot. As we traverse each block, people with banners and signs exit houses and file down front steps on both sides of the street. There are many nods and smiles among strangers. I am surprised to see so many men, entire families, clusters of teenage girls, elderly people being pushed in wheelchairs. Their signs tout a multitude of messages.
I am wearing a sandwich board sign that I made the night before. On the front side, I display a statistic from the Correctional Association of New York: 82% of women in prison suffered sexual/physical abuse as little girls. Underneath the stat, I drew 10 silhouettes of little girls, eight of them highlighted in pink. On my back, I display a quote from Nelson Mandela: Freedom cannot be achieved unless the women are emancipated from all forms of oppression.
As I walk with my sign, I’m eager for people to take notice of the hard truth I carry. Since 2010, as a volunteer, I have helped women in prison write their stories — specifically the story of what they believe led them to prison. It wasn’t long before I picked up on a narrative thread that runs through so many of their stories. A professional peer of mine, Germayne Tizzano, maps it out like this:
Childhood abuse > runs away from home > introduced to drugs > addiction fuels criminal activity > becomes involved in criminal justice system > Incarceration
I have met too many women whose path to prison can be summed up in this way. Now that I know this truth, I can’t unlearn it. I can’t forget about it. I am committed to using my skills as a writer, speaker and facilitator to raise awareness and effect change. On this particular day, I am using my feet and my sign.
We round the corner at Constitution Avenue and First Street and get our first glimpse of the Capitol dome. My friend squeezes my arm.
“Yep. We’re really here,” I tell her. “We’re doing this.”
We are a group of mostly rookie marchers. Over a quick breakfast of coffee and bagels, we talked about exit strategies if things got out of hand, but we didn’t talk about how to stick together. We now realize this was an oversight. We number off, 1 to 9. I’m 7. Every now and again, we sound off to make sure everyone is accounted for. It works well enough. We manage to stay together the entire day.
Deeper into the crowd, I realize no one can see the signs draped over my body, so I take them off and raise the boards high overhead.
Heads turn and look. Eyes register on 82 percent. A charge of adrenaline surges through me.
Mary is looking at me through her rectangular glasses. She’s wearing eye shadow, which is rare. I wonder if she got the makeup at commissary or borrowed it from her bunkie. She asks me if I have marched in Washington yet. I tell her no. It’s two weeks away. She asks me again why I’m marching, even though she already knows the answer. “I’m marching because you can't right now," I tell her.
As people read the statistic on my sign, I see a range of facial expressions — what I infer to be concern, shock, sympathy, compassion, curiosity and, sometimes, I think I see indifference. Or maybe what I perceive as indifference is actually: “I simply can’t process everything I’m seeing.”
Indeed, there is so much to take in among the masses of Americans who have shown up for this march. (I will see later on the evening news that I was walking among half a million people.) We are surrounded by a vast array of colorful signs and slogans. Banners waving. People chanting. So many people. All races, all shapes and sizes, all ages, all lifestyles.
“Tell me what a democracy looks like!” calls a young woman from atop a retaining wall.
“THIS is what a democracy looks like!” we holler back.
We try to make our way to the main stage to hear the speakers before the march begins, but it proves impossible. None of us seems too heartbroken about it, though. The important thing is that we are here.
We make our way to a small clearing in front of an office building to sit down and wait for the march to begin. However, I can’t stay seated for long. There are so many people here, and I have a truth to tell.
I pick up my sign and insert myself amidst the foot traffic on the sidewalk. Again, heads turn and look up. A woman nudges her friend and points. “Is that true?”
A man with a camera strapped around his neck aims his lens in my direction. He gets closer to me, squats low and takes several more shots of my sign. As he does this, a handful of others slow down to see what has gotten this photographer’s attention. They read my sign. They raise their phones and tap their screens. Click, click, click. Hard truth documented.
My sign amplifies more than a statistic. It makes the women I have met and their stories visible.
*April's father yanked her baby brother out of his high chair so fast, he broke the baby’s legs. She left home at age 11. The streets of Houston seemed safer.
Michelle’s stepdad began sexually abusing her when she was 5. She would throw fits every time her mother attempted to leave the house to run errands or go to work. She was labeled a “difficult child,” a reputation that followed her through school.
Dawn remembers her mother’s friend coming into the bathroom to help her when she got shampoo in her eyes. It was the first of many times he would touch her inappropriately. She was 6 when it started, 13 when she threatened to tell. The abuse stopped, but her pain and anger did not.
I carry the statistic high overhead, rotating it so everyone can see.
"That's a good one," a woman nods in my direction.
"That's so sad," another woman says.
"Look!" a young girl points toward my sign. Her friend raises her phone and taps the screen. Click.
And again, the women are visible.
When the march finally begins, we end up going down a parallel street with thousands of others because there’s no room for us on the official route. The entire 1.5-mile stretch is filled to capacity.
I don’t mind the detour, though. I know my time in Washington has been well spent.
Certainly, my primary reason for attending the Women’s March on Washington was to bring attention to a common narrative among incarcerated women in the United States. However, if you pan beyond the prison walls, I believe the statistic I carried suggests something more insidious at play in our country. What I’m talking about is a larger cycle of misogynistic behavior and violence against women that is keeping generations of mothers and daughters imprisoned emotionally, spiritually — and often, literally.
In working with nearly 300 incarcerated women over the past seven years, I have come to understand that real transformation — the kind that changes the trajectory of one’s life — happens when a person realizes her worth, her intrinsic value in the world.
If we truly want the correctional system to correct anything, we need to shift its focus from punitive to restorative. To be sure, there is movement in this direction, but it’s painstakingly slow-going, definitely not the industry standard or the norm. Not yet, anyway.
I’m fortunate to volunteer in a prison that more closely models the shift I’d like to see. The warden is big on programs, and he promotes a culture in which everybody on the unit — staff, correctional officers and inmates — must treat each other with dignity and respect. The hallways are lined with colorful murals and inspirational quotes that the women chose and painted.
Last week, we kicked off the spring semester of classes at the prison. I’m still learning the names of the women in my class, but I can already tell you what they will do in the coming months.
These women will find the courage to say out loud what they haven’t been able to admit to themselves. They will inspire one another to drop pretenses and speak with humility from the heart. They will encourage and uplift one another. They will listen with empathy and find healing within themselves. They will learn what it feels like to be part of a safe community — a person who can trust others and who is trustworthy.
They will own their stories and discover they have the power to write new chapters — better chapters.
What if experiences like these were the norm in prison? What effect would that have on the women sentenced to these facilities? Even more importantly, what impact would these women have on their families and in their communities upon returning to society?
I think these are good questions, and I'm willing to work toward some answers.
If you know of an organization who could use someone like me on their team, let me hear from you.
*Names have been changed, but the stories are true.