Women Transcending and the Beyond the Bars Conference

Via NoVo Foundation

By Kathy Boudin and Cheryl Wilkins
Center for Justice at Columbia University

Photo credit: Center for Justice at Columbia University

This piece is part of the NoVo Foundation’s Radical HopeBlog Series, a platform for social justice movement leaders from around the world to share learning and insights, hear what’s working and what’s not, build solidarity, and spark opportunities for collaboration. Amid daily headlines of division, this blog series is intended to serve as an active and dynamic beacon of hope, possibility, resistance, and resilience.

“Our work is part of a long commitment to build community and leadership among formerly incarcerated women and girls that began when we were in prison, and that commitment has continued in our lives and work since we came home. Whether it involves supporting individuals, being part of the Women’s Building or the Beyond Rosie’s Campaign, participating in international conferences and solidarity with women from other countries, supporting women going for parole and clemency, continuing the commitment to create higher education for women in prisons and jails…this work is a part of who we are as women and advocates.”  Kathy and Cheryl

Women Transcending (WT) is the Center for Justice at Columbia University’s newest initiative, made possible by the NoVo Foundation’s Radical Hope Fund. It is making a unique and necessary contribution that focuses on women and incarceration, and the growth of women’s leadership in the movement to end mass incarceration. Our focus is inclusive of transgender, cis, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people.

Women are the fastest growing group of incarcerated people in the U.S., and more women are behind bars today in this country than ever before.

In fact, the U.S. locks up women at 10 times the rate of other high-income countries — accounting for just 4% of the global female population, the U.S. houses 30% of the world’s incarcerated women. And with eight in 10 incarcerated women being mothers to children under 18, this mass incarceration causes family separation that is devastating for both moms and kids.

Women Transcending, developed by formerly incarcerated and directly impacted women, shines a light on the unique factors that bring women into the criminal justice system. It raises awareness of how the punishment paradigm impacts formerly incarcerated women, their families, and their communities. And it re-shapes the current narrative by empowering women to become leaders and agents of change in their own communities.

“I am proud and excited for the launch of the Women Transcending initiative because it serves such important needs: both the need for systemic transformation in our justice system, and for women with lived experience to be a part of that transformation.”  Latisha

Women Transcending seeks to accomplish these goals in the following ways:

1) The Women Transcending Collective Leadership Institute (CLI) offers leadership development that includes capacity building, legislative and advocacy tools, community organizing, and communication skills. It is our radical hope that these skills will strengthen the leadership of formerly incarcerated women, and expand their capacity to contribute to the women’s justice movement to end mass incarceration. The history of different women’s movements and working on trauma-related issues will flow throughout the year-long gatherings.

2) The Oral History Research Project documents the stories of successful organizing efforts by incarcerated women. This project has started with an oral history of the successful organizing by the women incarcerated in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility to bring back college to prison following the elimination of the federal and state grants in the 1990s. The project, led by a research collective comprised of formerly incarcerated women, university faculty, and students, will be a model that can be replicated to show the strength of women’s leadership in the struggle to end mass incarceration.

3) Comprehensive Public Programming focuses on increasing the platforms by which women with lived experiences who are working on justice reform can be seen and heard. Our 9th annual Beyond the Bars conference was devoted to women and girls as part of the public programming supported by Radical Hope, and was called “Until She’s Free.”

Beyond the Bars opening night, “A Night of Culture,” several hundred people crowded into the Harlem Mist theater. Emotions flowed from tears to anger to laughter, as women’s theater groups from New Orleans and New York embodied the power of the arts to make clear how poor women and particularly women of color are stripped of opportunities, as well as confronted by racism, poverty, and violence — all central to them ending up in prison. The audience participation continued when the Conquerors — three women who met in jail in Mississippi — sang gospel, and Queens of the Nation from New Orleans walked through the theater in full Mardi Gras costumes.

In the midst of theater and culture, 12 women walked onto the stage — each said her name and where she is from — Florida, New York, Louisiana, Georgia, California, Detroit, and Philadelphia. They are the first cohort of the Women Transcending Collective Leadership Institute. The evening ended as each woman telling her story of victory with her family called out, “When we fight, we win!” until the whole audience of several hundred people chanted “When we fight, we win! When we fight, we win!” This first night of our conference carried us in a spirit of compassion, unity, and knowledge about the specifics of gender and mass incarceration into the next three days of Beyond the Bars.

Friday night, International Women’s Day, over 500 people flowed into the large auditorium, greeting friends from around the country who they may not have seen since last year’s Beyond the Bars conference. Song, theater, and poetry surrounded conversations about the growing movement to end gender-based violence. Women’s voices rose up about criminalization and incarceration.

We welcomed home three women who spent a combined total of 89 years in prison.

The women stood, just months after returning home, trying to integrate decades of separation from society in prison with suddenly being in an audience of 500 people cheering and celebrating their freedom. Another highlight was the appearance on stage of women representing the global movement of women working to end mass incarceration from around the world — from Kenya, Australia, Colombia, Argentina, Palestine, and Canada.

Saturday, through plenaries, workshops, and movies, we explored the criminalization and incarceration of women and girls. We examined a growing movement with various strategies and differences. And global movement leaders talked about what women are facing in other countries and what they do to end incarceration. Afternoon sessions included philanthropy, women and violence, families, undoing patriarchy, decarceration, and an all- day young girls summit.

Sunday opened with spoken word, hip-hop, and singing as we celebrated the strengths of our movement through the arts. It then moved into more than 38 sessions proposed by grassroots organizers and university scholars from around the country. Sessions included advocacy efforts, campaigns, arts for justice, and research.


Our hope for Beyond the Bars was to allow for people to engage with the work of ending mass incarceration and mass criminalization in the many ways that humans engage with the world: intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and more.

We also wanted to create a space where everyone has a role to play in change, while pushing forward radical possibilities that can at times be difficult to imagine.

Weeks later, folks are still talking about what moved them: the networking experience. The depth of criminalization of women and girls. The resistance. The possibilities for change. The growing solidarity of women across borders that helps us all expand our analysis. Demonstrating how universities can contribute to ending mass incarceration. Imagining Beyond the Bars conferences in colleges and universities around the country. Being part of a movement where women can have a dialog that asks the “hard” questions when there are differences in strategy. And building connections and relationships.

We will take these reflections into our thinking as we begin to build towards the 10th anniversary of the Beyond the Bars conference, in March 2020.

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