Stephanie D. Keene, 36, Activist and Owner of Incense, Trap & Yoga
There are so many stories like Cyntoia Brown’s. Her case is not an anomaly.
In 2013, I was doing domestic violence education and support. That led me to doing an education group inside of a carceral setting for women.
I just started asking questions, because I was so regularly in this setting. I started asking questions about, “What are the resources that you have?”, “Do you have access to therapy?”, “What are visitations like?” and all of these sorts of things. And I’ll never forget this woman asked me, “Why do you always ask questions like that?” And I said, “Well, because like I care beyond the specific thing that we are here to talk about. Like I care beyond my sort of established role here.” And the look on her face was just like it hadn’t even occurred to her that people care.
I understood in that moment that it’s not that there’s not an abundance of people who would care. It’s that we don’t know and that the system is designed for us not to know. And I believe that’s very intentional, because if the average person knew what happens behind those walls, we would be able to dismantle them faster. So, from there, my work became my vocational work and my activism became more specifically centered around decarceration.
It was there where I learned that so many of the women. Nine out of the 10 women that I encountered on a bi-weekly basis in this setting had had some sort of experience that involved intimate partner violence.
Even with the increased focus on racist criminalization and incarceration over the last 10 to 20 years, still so little of that is focused on Black women and girls.
While I think it’s great that people are becoming aware and are working to dismantle these systems, still even in that context Black women and girls are at the bottom of that focus, of that work.
That’s not to say that people aren’t doing work for Black women and girls, ‘cause they are, but we’re just still not as keyed into those stories.
Black women are almost always at the forefront of work to dismantle or oppress the systems and in spite of that, we are just not often prioritized.
Within the criminal legal system, there’s a lot of criminalization of Black women and girls, which includes Black trans women. That is often the direct result of having been abused. There’s a great organization, Survived and Punished, that focuses specifically on women who are criminalized as a direct result of having been abused. That’s an aspect that people don’t think about enough or talk about enough.
If you’re just comparing carceral settings for men verses carceral settings for women, women’s settings have less programming, less resources and less volunteers. As individuals, women have less visitors and home support than incarcerated men, because once again women in general, Black women in particular, are more stigmatized for being incarcerated even within our own communities than Black men are.
There are a lot of states where women are still shackled during labor. There are a lot of movements fighting for folks to get appropriate sanitary supplies for their periods. All of these things that are basic human rights that people have to fight and struggle for. I’m always hoping that those struggles are amplified and receive more awareness and support.
We are socialized to [protect Black men]. We are conditioned very early to support and uphold and protect and all things that on their own aren’t negative and could be positive, beautiful things. But when you look at it... in exchange for what? You see that reflected in the visitation rooms and in women’s prisons and jails. We’re just not supported in the same way.
It’s difficult because there’s an unlearning that we have to do. We have to examine why is that? How did we get there? I choose to believe that it’s not from a lack of love. I choose to believe it’s the result of conditioning, programming and structural racism that we have to unlearn.
We are tired from doing the fixing and the mending. We pull it together when we can and when we have the energy and the resources left to do it, for each other. But so often, we are so busy from otherdom. It’s difficult and it’s disheartening, but there are folks who are starting to pull it together. Even in history, there were always people who aren’t Black women who recognized this structure and this depletion, but there’s just never have been enough.
I think Black women and girls are supported now more than they were in my mother’s generation, so we’re getting there. I wish it was faster, but maybe the current pace is necessary for us to do it right.
I wanted to also bring awareness to different social justice issues with my clothing company, Incense, Trap and Yoga. A lot of the items have been conversation starters. Specifically, the ones that deal with prison and incarceration. People who wear them will make comments on social media like, “Oh, I was wearing my shirt that says All Prisons Are For Profit and somebody asked me about it. I was able to like have a conversation about prison and cash bail.”
I don’t have to walk into the room and be loud to tell you who I am, but my shirt is loud and tells you who I am. I wanted to make a comment about what clothing is considered appropriate and professional. It's been rewarding to see a lot of customers wear one of the t-shirts with a blazer at a speaking engagement.
One of the shirts reads, We Are Not a Monolith. Because we're not. Black folks, though we certainly have aspects of our cultures that are universal, are as beautiful in our differences as we are in our similarities, as a community and as individuals. There's often this false dichotomy of like... headwraps OR bootie shorts, when in reality a lot of us wear both. Together. And it's important for us to acknowledge that those kinds of assumptions come from a specific set of values that we're not obligated to subscribe to. I can be all of these things, none of these things, or somewhere in between. And there's nothing you can do about it. It's about deconstructing and decolonizing as much as possible in as many ways as possible. The goal is always liberation.