An Advocate’s Perspective: The Coalition for Women Prisoners’ 2008 Advocacy Day

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On March 4, the Women in Prison Project (WIPP) coordinated the Coalition for Women Prisoners’ 14th Annual Advocacy Day. In all, 275 formerly incarcerated women and other advocates educated over 180 legislators about pressing criminal justice issues facing women and their families. Nicole Cook, a graduate of ReConnect–WIPP’s advocacy and leadership training program for formerly incarcerated women–spoke with CA staff about working as Community Outreach Educator intern and her first Advocacy Day.

How have your experiences as a ReConnect graduate and intern with WIPP affected you as an advocate? When I started with ReConnect, I had no idea that it was going to be as gratifying as it was. When it was over I just wanted to keep doing more and more, so I got involved as an intern doing work preparing for the March 4 Advocacy Day. I am a formerly incarcerated woman, and just to think that someone, strangers, were out there advocating for me is amazing. I wanted to give back, and do what you guys were doing at the CA, for someone else in prison.

If there is one thing that you hope legislators have taken away from your meetings with them, what would it be? The number one thing I hope is that they were able to put a face to the number. I hope they saw that there are people that are formerly incarcerated, that we’re human beings, and that we have a voice and we want to be heard. What our experiences were like–the good and the bad–what we need to change, what we need help with, how we can help them help us–that was basically what I hope they were able to visualize.

What made the women in your community outreach workshops want to get involved in Advocacy Day? I think my passion for the work and my passion for advocating, period, was contagious. People saw it wasn’t just like a typical workshop. We explained about leadership, advocating, bills–but we broke it all down to layman’s terms. People were able to understand that just because you were incarcerated, it doesn’t mean you can’t participate and help someone else. It doesn’t matter where you come from–your background, your ethnicity, your religion–we all come together, on one accord, for the same cause.

Why do you think it is important for formerly incarcerated people to take a leading role in the criminal justice reform movement? When you come from prison, you want to be rehabilitated, and you want to show people that “I may have made this mistake in the past, but I moved on with my life, and I am a changed person.” I think it is really important for people to see formerly incarcerated individuals, like myself, [and understand] that everyone doesn’t go right back to jail. Even though we were incarcerated, we learned, and now is our time to speak out.

Why is it important for formerly incarcerated women in particular to be involved? A woman knows how another woman feels about being a mother, being a sister, being a daughter–we take on a lot of responsibilities; we wear a lot of hats. So, a woman who is formerly incarcerated can basically say to another woman, “I’ve been through all of this, and look at me now. I have changed for the better; and now I am here to help any other woman I can who looks around and sees total darkness, and no way out, to uplift them and tell them, it will be fine.”

In what ways do you think advocacy skills are particularly important in the everyday lives of formerly incarcerated women? One thing I recognize as an advocate: people respect you more when they see you are not afraid to stand up for what you believe in. It is very important for women to understand: you can be heard now. The silent treatment is over. Now you have a chance to prove to yourself and to everyone else, that “I made it–I was incarcerated, I felt worthless, hopeless, and all the other negative emotions you go through when in prison.” To transform into a person who speaks out and advocates for other women, that’s awesome. It is hard for people to come out of that, but during ReConnect, watching other advocates, it helped [me] to be able to say “Oh, well, she can do it!”