Our Voices

Two voices: Our liberation is bound together

Originally published in the Minnesota Spokesman Recorder 

By Vina Kay and Kevin Reese

Vina: Kevin’s warm laugh reached me through our phone connection. “You’re reading my mind again!” he said. “How does that happen?”

It was one of our many exchanges over the phone, that line of communication that has kept us whole and alive in our partnership over the last four years. My friend and colleague Kevin Reese first reached out to me from prison after hearing me talk about prison phone justice on KMOJ’s show Urban Agenda.

These words come naturally to us: friend, colleague, partner. They are the language of building together. Kevin has helped me formulate a vision that we share of working to build prison justice and end mass incarceration. Kevin reminds me all the time that this is a language new to him, yet one that gives him purpose and a way to build towards his eventual release from prison after 14 years.

Kevin: I had a desire to contribute to my generation, and the fact that I am in prison didn’t stop me from believing that I could. In the spirit of that desire, I leaned on some of the most important lessons I had learned over the years.
In prison, one of the first things you learn is the importance of relationships. Oftentimes this lesson is learned and forged with fire. Just ask a lonely prisoner who checks their mailbox to find it empty yet again. In some cases this comes after it’s been empty for years at a time. Ask them how important relationships with family and friends who care about them is.

When I reached out to Vina, I was looking for more than just how our work could benefit us. I was looking for a relationship with my community. A way to allow my talents and energy to be used to benefit the community that I come from. A fact of life is that resources come and go, but beautiful relationships are worth more than gold.

Vina: Kevin has taught me about organizing. Although he had not had any formal training when we first connected, he naturally practiced a relational, organic kind of organizing that I have come to value at Voices for Racial Justice. Our work is grounded in relationships, and we hold that human connection sacred, above any campaign or policy win.

Kevin: Because of this work that we have done together, I have been welcomed back to the human family. I have been introduced to hundreds of other community members and I’ve spoken via phone at countless community events.

I often ask myself the same question that Vina referred to earlier: “How is it that two people with such different life experiences can work together and so many times come to the same conclusion to a problem?” After long consideration, I believe I know at least part of the answer.

Vina and I joined Lissa Jones on Urban Agenda on January 7, 2016 to discuss some of our work and to tell our story. I remember the entire correctional facility being tuned in and listening to their incarcerated brother on the radio. Upon its conclusion, Vina closed the show with these remarks that served as a paradigm shift in my life and in our work.

It has been the spirit of our work from day one and is still our guiding light to this day. Vina so eloquently stated this quote from an aboriginal activist: “If you have come to save me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then come… Let us work together.”

Vina: Lately, our team at Voices for Racial Justice has been reading the book Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown. This book describes a way of change-making that we have found inspiring in our work, focused on how complex systems are made up of many simple parts, aligning and changing and aligning again. Among the elements of emergent strategy are fractals — never-ending, repeating small acts that relate to the large scale.

I think of the way Kevin and I connect and build as emergent strategy. We had no idea what our initial connection would mean, but we knew it mattered — to us. Our small acts, including the phone calls and writing, the checking in and imagining together, relate to something larger.

Through each other we have connected to others, and that relational practice has impacted how they organize and move through the world, too.

Kevin: So although we come from different backgrounds, we are both in this work because we see the humanity in each other. We understand that neither of us can be free if the other is bound, and on this road to freedom our paths often cross.

That has transferred to the development of our theory of change, which is to never forget that while we fight for systematic change, that we always stop to invest in the people who are directly impacted by those systems.

This is my reflection on our work as of today. We may not have been able to change the entire system, but we have been able to change lives. I speak from personal experience from incarcerated, to disconnected, to connected to my community, respected for my talents, and valued for my humanity from inmate to colleague.

 

Vina Kay and Kevin Reese are participants in Voices for Racial Justice’s “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to info@voicesforracialjustice.org. To learn more about the organization’s work, visit www.voicesforracialjustice.org.

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Youth Blog: Amir

My Name is Amir Khadar.

I’m a multidisciplinary activist artist, with an addiction to bubble tea and Shea butter.
And I work as a youth organizer at Voices for Racial Justice.

I got involved with Voices in summer 2015 as a participant in their Youth Cultural Organizing Institute and it was an epicenter for change in my life. The training is focused around giving youth of color the space to understand community organizing, and empower black & brown youth. At that point in my life I was very confused about my identity and unclear about my potential. As a queer black person, I felt disgustingly excluded by all communities. I was constantly struggling to navigate a white supremacist/heteronormative society while maintaining my individuality, and I felt lost. A close friend sent me the application for the training through Facebook and I did it because I needed a summer activity so my parents would stop nagging me.

This training was the first time I was in a space that was exclusively intended for radical youth of color. I initially expected to be tokenized or alienated because my past experiences in majorly of color spaces were toxic (because they were orchestrated by white people). I was almost taken aback when people in the space recognized me as my authentic self. Because of the space, I felt more connected and like I could really grow at Voices.

In the training I was exposed to intersectionality through a workshop session. I began to define my identity, and that was my first step in solidifying my self-image. I was also exposed to writing and poetry through more workshops. Since then poetry and spoken word have shaped how I see the world. My whole life I always had a passion for art and creation, but the way white supremacy is set up, I believed everything I made was inadequate. Through voices I really understood the nature of white supremacy, and I began to deconstruct it in my life to find my goals. I am currently going to attend the Maryland Institute College of Art, in Baltimore, MD for the 2017-2018 schoolyear, and the validation that Voices gifted me gave me the courage to identify as an artist, and pursue my passion.

Now I work with Voices as a youth organizer, with 2 other incredible youth of color, and Gabriella Deal-Marquez, the youth organizing director at Voices. We have a collective interest in healing justice, and work to create events and spaces for exchange centered on healing practice for and with youth of color. As a part of my role at Voices I will be sharing my perspective by blogging twice a month about something that I feel is meaningful.

I am excited to share my creations with you all!

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Sharing Our Immigration Stories

Together as a staff and with the support of our leadership, Voices for Racial Justice has decided to close our offices next Monday, May 1st, in solidarity with our brothers, sisters, friends and neighbors fighting for immigration justice.

Immigration is not an abstract issue in our office. Many of us are either immigrants, refugees or the children of them. Our stories are complicated and different, just like the stories of the immigrants and refugees in our community.

Every day this week we will be telling these stories, and sharing parts of ourselves and our work with you to help you understand that while we will be closed May 1st, we will still be working, as we always are, to fight for justice, reform and respect of the immigrants and refugees that make our communities great.


My first language was Thai, simply the result of absorbing what I heard at home as the first child of Thai immigrants in Omaha, Nebraska. The world I lived in then as a toddler was small and safe and full of language. But then school became necessary and the teacher let my parents know that I really did not speak English. So the world grew larger, but a little less secure. Although I have lost my first language, I have not forgotten it. Still, listening to my family talk, I understand. I have held on and kept at least an ear and maybe more of myself in both worlds. This being in both worlds is what so many immigrant families do, and as we call on our government to honor the dignity of all immigrants, I am reminded of the rich language and culture, along with grace and beauty that immigrants bring to our communities. This poem dwells on the realization of language and understanding that came to me when visiting my family in Chiang Mai.

– Vina Kay

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Salty Sweet

We squeezed around the table –

aunties, uncles, cousins, all –

perched on edges of chairs,

stools, some sharing, together

in the dining room above Aunty’s

shop and the busy market.

Food purchased from the market –

sticky rice, grilled pork, steamed

greens, sweet mangoes –

filled our plates. The talk blurred

by, Thai and English and laughter.

Words ran through my fingers

as I ate, but then, all at once,

something caught. Meaning

clung on, a word, and then another,

and whole phrases, and even

the back and forth. Language

washed over me and I remembered.

I remembered that I knew this

world, that I knew both. One

held me so firmly that I

thought and dreamt its

language. But the other

refused to let go, pulling

me under the currents of

language and smell and tastes –

salty sweet salty sweet –

so that I could not easily come

out. I was amphibious, able to

live in both air and water,

and needing both.

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