“The beloved community is not at the end. It's right now.”—Richard Edmond Vargas
“We don’t need an individual savior. The community is the savior.”—Patrisse Cullors
As a student at the University of Redlands, I have a lot of events to choose from. I went to see the recent talk by Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, and Richard Edmond Vargas, founder of Initiate Justice and of Success Stories (the subject of the documentary “The Feminist on Cellblock Y”), because of what I knew about their organizations.
I’ve been inspired by the work of Black Lives Matter and was interested to see what feminism in prison would look like. I expected to hear about the two speakers’ work. Maybe they would talk about voting, the current political climate, or Cullors’ book, “When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir” (St. Martin’s Press). I was pleasantly surprised when the evening ended up being less about promotion and more of a call to action.
The night began with Keith Osajima, University of Redlands professor and director of Race and Ethnic Studies, acknowledging that the ground we were on was originally that of the Serrano and Cahuilla people. He asked us to remember the pain and suffering the original inhabitants of this land were put through.
As Cullors and Vargas took the spotlight, speaking at first one at a time then in a conversation with each other, pain was a theme that echoed throughout the night. But so was community.
Vargas set the stage starting in his high school years. Cullors, 21 at the time, came into his science class to talk about the school-to-prison pipeline, the statistic that young black men have a higher chance of going to prison than of going to college. This message struck home with Vargas and inspired him to join Cullors and others to work for change, but didn’t prevent systemic issues from affecting his life.
By 16, he had joined a gang. By 19, he was convicted of seven counts of robbery, two counts of kidnapping, and one count of assault with a deadly weapon for helping friends rob two RiteAid stores. This adds up to a total of 150 years to life. How, you might ask, is he talking at a college after getting out of prison three months ago?
The answer: community. The community of organizers that Cullors had gotten Vargas involved with raised $10,000 dollars to hire a lawyer. That lawyer was able to have Vargas’s sentence reduced to 10 years.
At this point in the evening, the crowd was snapping. They were getting inspired. I was getting inspired. Vargas went on to talk about the other ways in which community helped him when he was in prison. One of his first projects, Success Stories, was only possible because of the community he was surrounded with. He dropped his first album in prison, again thanks to his community of support. Initiate Justice, a project in collaboration with his wife, Taina Vargas-Edumond, was a product of community in and outside of prison.
In his words, “Punishment did not change my heart. It was the love of my community that changed my heart.”
Cullors, who in addition to her role in the Black Lives Matter movement is the founder of Dignity and Power Now and a senior fellow at MomsRising, spoke more to the state of our greater community. It’s one characterized by 500 years of white supremacy, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, she said, and its defenders want to wear down, disorganize, and disorient opposition and activism. Her question to the group was this: How are we upending legacy of white supremacy?
The answer again was community. Just as Vargas had, Cullors put tremendous importance on the ways individual relationships are built, saying on the days she felt most exhausted by the constant opposition it was the love she had that kept her going.
During the dialog between Vargas and Cullors, Vargas noted when he was in prison he relied heavily on his community organizer training to start Success Stories and teach those around him about the effects of patriarchy by connecting with them through personal examples and stories. Safety was also a topic of discussion, with Cullors pointing out that Vargas didn’t present as the stereotypical man, and Vargas noting the vulnerability of often lacking of allies.
Questions from the audience expanded the conversation. The speakers emphasized how important it was that those with privilege, such as the college students in the audience, advance social justice by choosing to be allies (supporters) of marginalized individuals and groups; one resource for this Cullors recommended was an organization called SURJ.
After hearing this talk, I will definitely be more actively supportive of people around me, and I encourage you to do the same. The burden does not, and should not, rest on those who are the most oppressed.
We closed the night with a call and response, and I left feeling emotional, inspired, and empowered.