When You Reach the Edges of Your Imagination, What is it that You Want for Yourself and the People that You Love?
by Grace Gámez, #LwC2018
March 20, 2018
“My work speaks to people’s hearts and minds.”
I communicate a different way of thinking about how we deal with people who cause harm while still respecting and hearing the voices of people who have experienced harm. There’s a difference between accountability and punishment, and as currently organized, our justice system is a punishment system. This creates a host of problems that keeps people cycling in and out of the system. When I talk about a world without prisons, people think it’s pie in the sky. I know it will be a long road, but I believe we can do things better and differently. When you reach for the edges of your imagination, what is it that you want for yourself and the people that you love? We can hold people accountable and we can hold space for people who have experienced harm in a way that’s healing, and we can do that through a philosophy of transcendent love.
I work for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Tucson, Arizona where I created “Reframing Justice,” a multi-media storytelling project with incarcerated/formerly incarcerated/convicted people and their loved ones. I bring the voices of directly impacted people into the policy work the organization does around decarceration. Right now we are focusing on two videos we produced that will be introduced as testimony in the current legislative session. Through personal stories, they highlight the negative impact fines and fees have on a person’s ability to reintegrate back into society post-punishment. I am also conducting research on what constitutes “community safety.” A lot of what I do is I introduce a different lexicon into the discussion. When the state talks about “justice reinvestment,” it usually means more police on the ground and arming them with more lethal equipment. But when you ask people what it means to feel safe in their community, they do not say cops. They say knowing their neighbors makes them feel safe. They’re thinking about things like street lamps, libraries, access to good food, good schools, and zones of pleasure where the community can converge and have public events. My goal is to rename what we understand as “community safety” to be more about sustainability, wellness and resilience and less about reliance on a system of punishment.
I spent a long time trying to pass as a “civilian.” I didn’t want anyone to know about my conviction history. I devoted myself to the academy and my goal was to enter into the professoriate. I earned a Ph.D. in Justice Studies from Arizona State University, and a Master of Science degree in Mexican American Studies & Public Health from the University of Arizona. I was selected as the graduate student of the year when I completed my doctorate and was asked to deliver the commencement address. But five days before the ceremony, I received a call from the president’s office informing me the award was being revoked because of my conviction history. I was devastated. An offer I had received for a professorship was rescinded for the same reason—the legal department was afraid the public would find out that the university had hired a convicted felon. I was blessed when AFSC decided to hire me and to give me such broad latitude to bring the voices of directly impacted people into the organization’s work.
Leading with Conviction is a space where you don’t have to explain either the pain of shame and stigma or the passion for running back into that darkness in order to illuminate the way for others. That takes a certain kind of craziness, and I was in a room with a whole bunch of other crazy people and that felt really good. I feel incredibly blessed to be a part of the JLUSA network!