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Interview with Erica R. Meiners, Ph.D. from Northeastern Illinois University on Education and Incarceration, Prison Abolition, and Educational Activism

About Erica R. Meiners, Ph.D.: Erica R. Meiners is Professor of Educational Inquiry and Curriculum Studies and Professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU). As a scholar and organizer, Dr. Meiners’s work centers on prison abolitionism and critically explores the articulation between educational systems and the prison-industrial complex. She has been active in a number of educational projects for currently and formerly incarcerated people, and presently serves as Director of University Curriculum for the Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project in Chicago, Illinois.

Dr. Meiners’ most recent book is Abolition. Feminism. Now., written with Angela Y. Davis, Gina Dent, and Beth Richie. Her other books include Right to Be Hostile: Schools, Prisons, and the Making of Public Enemies; For the Children?: Protecting Innocence in a Carceral State; and Teaching Toward Democracy: Educators as Agents of Change. She is co-editor of The Long Term: Resisting Life Sentences Working Toward Freedom, among other collected volumes, and her scholarly articles have appeared in journals such as Teachers College Record, QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, Women’s Studies Quarterly, and the Harvard Educational Review.

Along with her work with the Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project, Dr. Meiners has been involved in organizations and initiatives like the Education for Liberation Network, Critical Resistance, and the Illinois Deaths in Custody Project. Dr. Meiners earned her Ph.D. in Education from Simon Fraser University and her B.A. in Philosophy from the University of British Columbia.

Interview Questions

[] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become invested in understanding and resisting the links between education, incarceration, and abolition?

[Dr. Erica R. Meiners] Thank you for the invitation to be in conversation. I am thrilled to be here. I am originally from Canada. When I came to Chicago 25 years ago, I got recruited by some wonderful, smart, gin-drinking, sandal-wearing, chain-smoking, revolutionary Catholic Sisters into a project at Cook County Jail.

I had done some prison-related work when I lived in Canada, but I certainly was not an abolitionist. We started a library in the division of the jail that holds people that the state marks as women. At the time there were about ten or eleven thousand people at Cook County Jail. Cook County Jail, Rikers Island County Jail, and LA County Jail are the three largest jails in the United States.

We spent a couple of years there trying to support people inside, and it politicized me in different ways. I did not have a complex analysis of the U.S. prison-industrial complex, Black life in the United States, or resistance movements at that time. I realized I had to learn and unlearn histories and, really, change who I thought I was and what I knew! I found reading groups and study groups. I read books and put myself in places that would educate me. I knew that if I was going to continue to live in the U.S. and be of use, I needed to learn and unlearn a lot, get involved in organizing, and work alongside people to struggle for a world that was more beautiful and free for all.

That was the beginning of my work against the prison-industrial complex in the United States. We got kicked out of Cook County Jail but a bunch of us then worked collaboratively to start a radical and free high school education project for people coming out of prisons and jails. From there, I worked with others to develop a project inside maximum-security prisons. One strong plank of the work I have done for several decades is to work collaboratively to end what some people call mass incarceration — I prefer the term the prison-industrial complex — and to devise ways to interrupt, challenge, and dismantle this carceral system.

This movement is fertile and got me thinking about all kinds of questions. How do we create real forms of safety? If arresting people does not end gender and sexual harm what does? What do we need to change in ourselves about how we think, feel, and work in order to generate sustainable, flourishing communities for the long haul?

Almost twenty years ago I found an organization called Critical Resistance and I started to think about abolition and Angela Davis’s question: Are Prisons Obsolete? It certainly was not an immediate conversion. With others, I am still often experimenting with how to engage in abolition. As a part of this practice, I continue to be active in transformative justice processes and movements, with campaigns to stop the construction of new prisons or other carceral manifestations like registries, as a part of mobilizations to build authentic forms of safety, to defund police, and more. This work is always deeply ideological. White supremacist, capitalist, ableist, settler-colonial, cisheteropatriarchy fuels the prison-industrial complex.

That is not really an academic biography, which is not to say that academics have been unimportant to me. While I did not come from a family that had a commitment to higher education, books changed my life. At the same time, organizing and working with other people in struggle, in community and campaigns, has also been pivotal to me with respect to learning, unlearning, teaching, and remaking the world. Books are important, but the messy, on-the-ground work with other people continues to be profoundly transformative.

[] Would you introduce us to how you define equity in your own research and practice? In particular, could you discuss how your commitment to “abolition feminism” informs your critical perspective and helps challenge, nuance, or extend discourses around and initiatives for diversity, equity, and inclusion?

[Dr. Erica R. Meiners] In my organizing, thinking, and writing, I might use words like liberation, freedom, or even the “r” word, “revolution,” rather than equity. Equity is a word I see as part of institutional discourses. I am employed by a public university and we need to use all the tools we can, so, of course, I have deployed that term as a strategic tool in an institutional context when we are talking about the removal of funding for access programs that support undocumented or working poor students, for example. Equity has an institutional leverage-ability while language like revolution or the redistribution of resources does not.

At the same time, because the word equity is institutionally legible, it comes with all kinds of baggage. Universities habitually colonize and appropriate terms from radical social movements which demand the redistribution of power or the redefinition of value or knowledge. Nancy Fraser argued that social movements often ask for redistribution and what they get is recognition. This is not to diminish the importance of recognition. Yet, recognition in an institutional context rarely entails the redistribution of power, resources, and all the gateways that provide access to flourishing life pathways.

Equity at my workplace is malleable and slightly vacuous concept — it likely means different things to my board of trustees, the faculty in different departments, my union comrades, and the working poor students who have been denied access to the full offerings of the educational system. I am more excited and drawn to discussing concepts like the redistribution of resources, or ideas like freedom or liberation, and I want to think through with others and practice the strategies and tactics that might emerge from these concepts.

In my work at the university, I might use equity as a tool to try to advance these ideas. But I would not confuse it with the deeper and for me more central ideas of freedom, redistribution of power, or revolution. I also try to pay cautious attention to how the university is often taking what we ask for and feeding it back to us in ways that are not actually consistent with what we were asking for or really want. Consider the discourse of multiculturalism, which was a radical demand decades ago, and has now become institutionally banal.

This may seem like a contradiction, but while I am more than skeptical about the language of equity and distrustful of university contexts, the stakes are always high for these bodies and concepts on campuses. At this moment, scholars of Critical Race Theory; diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) staff; gender affirming policies; and trans lives are all under surveillance and attack in many states. Of course, we should push back on these hateful policies and initiatives. If the state says we cannot say that Black Lives Matter in our classrooms, we must push back collectively. The terrain of the public university is one site of struggle, which, for me, right now, still merits our shared labor. Critically, it cannot be the full scope of our struggle.

[] Your scholarship, for example your book Right to be Hostile: Schools, Prisons, and the Making of Public Enemies, and your recent book chapter, “More than a Pipeline: Growing Movements to Dismantle the Carceral State,” has critically explored what is often termed the school to prison pipeline both for the real disparities it names and the ways this discourse can obscure the racist, cis/heterosexism, and patriarchal structures that generate this pipeline. Could you tell us a bit about the school to prison pipeline, its limits, and how we might think beyond it?

[Dr. Erica R. Meiners] In 2007, I published my book Right to Be Hostile: Schools, Prisons, and the Makings of Public Enemies. I was living here in Chicago, and I was working in a public university, in part to prepare fabulous educators to work at Chicago Public Schools. I was also doing all the anti-prison work we have discussed. The book was my attempt to connect those sites and to raise and explore the questions that kept bubbling up in my practices. I am someone who writes, usually with others, to try to figure things out — to engage in forms of movement assessment. What is working? What is not? Why?

Chicago Public Schools are approximately 90% nonwhite. One of the demands of that time from young Black, Brown, and Asian American organizers was to end zero tolerance school policies and the presence of police in schools. The rhetoric and practices of prisons, whether that was lockdowns or police dog drug sweeps, were taking place in schools. Young people were pushing back against that culture, especially in urban public schools where they were experiencing an asymmetry: there was no money available for high quality arts, academic, or athletics programs but there was all the money in the world to pay for cops and metal detectors and to fund these carceral or punitive practices.

Young people were organizing and making fabulous demands. They were saying, “We don’t need more surveillance cameras and police in our schools, we need mental health programs.” They started a Counselors Not Cops campaign. This was 20 years ago. In my memory it was actually young folks on the West Coast who came up with the framework of the “school to prison pipeline,” observing how they were being set up for a future of incarceration in middle school. It, and other related phrases like “cradle to prison pipeline,” were extremely galvanizing metaphors. Young people and their parents organized around divesting policing of its oppressive power, reconceptualizing safety, and investing in restorative justice.

I always try to emphasize that the concept of the school to prison pipeline has roots in queer youth and youth of color organizing. Of course, during the Obama administration, we saw this phrase become incorporated into institutional politics and absorbed by mainstream/whitestream organizations. This was a huge loss for this movement. When the state and big, liberal, not-for-profit service organizations start to use your language and say they are going to fix this “problem,” you know they are not really going to fix it —- they will likely get paid to make it worse.

How the state or the school systems responded to these young people who demanded institutional change and deep ideological shifts — who demanded freedom, really — was so limited. It amounted to tinkering around the edges. Districts might add restorative justice to the already existing school discipline code. Then, if restorative justice did not “work,” they would suspend you. Or, they would add restorative justice to their policies but not train educators and administrators to do that work. It felt very much that they were responding to the power of the school to prison pipeline organizing with a tiny checklist. We can make the school cops wear a nicer uniform and give them mental health training; we can use tasers instead of guns; we can tweak these small policies.

These were also very school-based responses. Young people were organizing from neighborhoods and communities experiencing high levels of policing and state violence and engineered racial isolation. Frankly, changing school policy would not be enough! I wrote my first book both trying to lift up the important interventions young people made to draw attention to these systems and structures, and also to ask for a deeper and more robust framework that was able to historicize and name the root of the problem. I used the phrase “school to prison nexus” to remind myself and others that this is an old story. Public education, annexed to white supremacy, has always reproduced a violent racial script. The overlap between criminalization, dispossession, and public education is not new. Fixing tiny policies in the school system will not make the shifts we need. I was grappling with the ideas of abolition as I was working on that book project and also trying to map that onto my practices.

I still want to have the “both /and,” where I recognize the analysis and the language produced by young people who continue to organize. Also, so much brilliant work has emerged in the last almost twenty years since I published that project, like that of Damien Sojoyner [author of First Strike: Educational Enclosures in Black Los Angeles], Connie Wun [author of “Not Only a Pipeline: Schools as Carceral Sites” in Occasional Papers] and Monique Morris [author of Push Out: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools].

These scholars/organizers have deepened our understanding of how schools function as sites of anti-Black capture and criminalization. And of course, how people have always resisted these forms of enclosure. While a concept like the school to prison pipeline, particularly when absorbed by white liberals, is not an effective framework to ignite the radical changes we need, I want to make sure that intentions and the radical and expansive demands of the young Black and Brown organizers who did this early work are not diminished.

[] The intersections of incarceration, gender, sexuality, and race are at the heart of your work, including your recent publication, “Queer Students in the Carceral State.” Would you discuss your work on the criminalization of LGBTQ+ students and perhaps reflect on its importance in the context of anti-trans and anti-gay initiatives proliferating across the country?

[Dr. Erica R. Meiners] Thank you for this question. I did some of my early work trying to amplify the historic and ongoing ways queer folks are criminalized and resist these forms of state violence. This is another area that gets tricky, because often our discussion takes place in the language of “disparity.” When we talk about LGBTQ+ students, undocumented folks, or Black girls, for example, the scholarly lens that surfaces is too often the “disparity” in their rates of suspension or contact with school police. I want to push back on this word “disparity” because it implies there is an acceptable ratio for these forms of state violence.

When I began thinking and writing about the criminalization of LGBTQ+ folks in schools, the goal was not simply to notice that queer kids are also punished. In Chicago Public Schools (CPS), queer students are people of color. Many CPS students are working poor. An intersectional analysis is central. Race, gender, ability, and class are all co-constitutive. Young, queer, BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] kids in the city of Chicago were among my first teachers to educate me about the violence of policing.

I will always remember a young, gender nonconforming student who was harassed by the school security guards almost every day at school because of her clothes, her walk, how she held her body, and more. When she defended herself after months of verbal and physical harassment by screaming at the guard, she was melting down from this abuse. But she was the one who was punished. The school could not recognize how she had been harmed and put all their force into disciplining her instead.

One of the challenges with LGBTQ+ folks in the criminal legal system more broadly is that the state and most institutions and organizations do not collect that data. The state does not collect that data, and frankly I do not think we want them to. There are a couple of organizations, advocacy groups, and scholars who have been documenting the hyper-representation of LGBTQ+ folks in the prison system (with the same qualifier that the goal is not making our prison populations more equitably composed, but ending incarceration).

Again, this is an old story in the United States. LGBTQ + folks, particularly those who are poor and BIPOC, have historically been criminalized in the United States, and this continues today in many states where gender nonconforming and trans lives are explicitly being targeted for containment and elimination. It felt really important to me to draw attention to the power, analysis, and resistance of queer BIPOC young people in Chicago Public Schools, in part because they were the ones in the streets, organizing, naming the violence of policing, and also joyously experimenting with imagining and practicing safety outside of carcerality.

I tried to use an intersectional analysis to illustrate how queer young folks were being caught up in school pushout [exclusionary disciplinary practices that impact student persistence in schools] and criminalization, and why any response to the targeted criminalization of young people had to have a radical queer analysis. As the wonderful Audre Lorde wrote many years ago, “There’s no such thing as single-issue struggles because we don’t live single-issue lives.”

One of my responsibilities as somebody who teaches at a university is to try to amplify the grassroots work that real people do to propel the changes we need — to teach about young people’s organizing and leadership. I also felt, probably erroneously, that I had an obligation to try to intervene in policy, as one tool among many that can improve the lives of young people within these systems. I wanted to make sure that, in our efforts to address the criminalization of young people, our policy work had an intersectional lens. I wrote a lot of articles toward this end. I wanted to amplify the voices of students who were organizing and at the forefront of what we now call mutual aid work, supporting each other to survive in schools that were toxic. Their agency, analysis, and brilliance felt urgent and necessary to lift up.

There is no way to think about punishment without thinking about the criminalization of LGBTQ+ lives through an intersectional lens. I work in prisons, and compulsory heteronormativity is a central anchor of the prison system just like white supremacy. The first police registries were set up to track men who had sex with other men. That is an old story; it should not surprise anyone that people who look different or deviant trigger the violence of police and school security guards. Schools are predicated on compulsory heteronormativity and the gender binary.

[] Your most recent book, written with Angela Davis, Gina Dent, and Beth E. Richie, is Abolition. Feminism. Now., and you also recently published the article “Dismantle, Change, Build: Lessons for Growing Abolition in Teacher Education.” Reflecting on these pieces, could you distill some of the main lessons abolitionism has to offer to the struggle for educational equity?

[Dr. Erica R. Meiners] I will lead with a line from a comrade, Ruth Wilson Gilmore: “Abolition requires that we change one thing: everything.” I like that because it reminds me that, yes, abolition may appear to be a daunting goal, but there are so many on-roads. There is a place for everyone in this work. I try to hold both of those ideas at the same time.

Both of the publications you mentioned are collective projects. Abolition. Feminism. Now. came from shared work over many years — our labor to build a stronger and safer future without relying on endless policing and borders and cages. Abolition work must also be feminist work. It must be the work to end gender and sexual violence, which itself must be the work to end our reliance on policing, punishment, and endless borders.

We wrote that book to connect abolitionist movements and feminist movements: to show that they have a long history of being intertwined. We wanted to spotlight the grassroots practices that are building stronger and safer communities, creating real responses to gender and sexual violence, and trying to imagine and practice safety without endless policing. These are fragile but robust ecologies all over the planet. We wanted to amplify that work, point to some histories which inform the current landscape, and name why we must continue these experiments and practices, collectively.

Similarly, grassroots movements are the lifeblood of freedom work in K-12 contexts. The Teachers 4 Social Justice fairs, the New York Collective of Radical Educators, and the Chicago Teachers Union push forward conversations around working conditions for teachers. They are showcasing the work that everyday teachers are doing when they create curriculum on, for instance, the Flint Water Crisis. In another example, my comrades here at the Village Leadership Academy worked for years to change the name of a park in Chicago to honor Frederick Douglass and Anna Murray Douglass, when it was originally named after Stephen A. Douglas, a U.S. Senator who enslaved people. Those are examples of radical teachers working collectively and in community with young people and others toward a vision of freedom and justice. To paraphrase Dr. Wilson Gilmore’s point, they are starting somewhere and working to change everything.

In “Dismantle, Change, Build,” — also the product of years of overlapping collaborative practice — we wanted to flag the political moment we were in after the George Floyd Uprising. Many demands communities had been making for a long time — radical, nascent demands that had surfaced at the Free Minds Free People conferences, at the New York State Office of Mental Health’s CORE (Community Oriented Recovery and Empowerment) programs, and at Teachers 4 Social Justice Fairs, such as removing police from schools — became more widespread. Writing that piece with other educators was an opportunity to name that moment and try to push for the vision of the world we know we need. But today, the demand to remove police from schools has ricocheted and we are in the very predictable backlash, or whitelash. Still, rather than being cowed, we need to celebrate a little because the backlash is precisely because of the vibrancy and the power of our organizing and our demands!

Those of us working in post-secondary education must pay attention to grassroots organizing. People poured into the streets and created a new context for demands to defund police and rethink safety after the brutal murders of Black people by police in the summer of 2020. Yet these demands to defund police — for instance, to shrink the 40% of the city of Chicago’s operating budget that is spent on policing — were not new. They came from decades of previous organizing in response to systemic forms of state violence. “Dismantle, Change, Build” (the theme of a conference for the national organization Critical Resistance years ago) asks those in K-12 contexts to pay attention to what grassroots movements have been organizing around for decades, and to recognize the critical ways people, and especially BIPOC folks, have been and are rethinking safety, creating radical curriculum, and trying to build freedom.

[] You have been committed to social activism and community engagement throughout your career. Among other initiatives you have been involved in, you founded an alternative high school for formerly incarcerated people, and you currently serve as a Director of University Curriculum for the Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project, which brings arts education to a maximum-security prison in Illinois. Would you discuss a bit of your work in these contexts, and how they reflect your understanding of the political responsibilities of educators?

[Dr. Erica R. Meiners] The Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project (PNAP) is about 15 years old. It has been a great, collaborative project with many people from across the Chicagoland area. It has been joyous and chaotic, because that is the work of organizing.

We started by offering a lecture series and art workshops at Stateville Prison, which is a maximum-security prison about 45 minutes from Chicago. Now, we have three tracks. We do advocacy and organizing work. We do cultural production and art making to try to raise the visibility of people serving long term sentences. We provide access to college level education, including a degree program.

In our approach, these three things are intertwined. Cultural production, education, and organizing are inseparable. There is no parole in Illinois and people serve incredibly long sentences – death by incarceration. Many of the people in prison have done harmful things, but being locked up is not a situation in which a person can be productively held accountable and make amends for the harm that they have done.

We also provide education working in collaboration with Northeastern Illinois University’s University Without Walls program. We run classes at Stateville and Logan Prisons, we do exhibits. We had an abolitionist fair in fall 2022 at Haymarket House. We bring people together to share strategies and resources. We try to make sure people who are serving long-term sentences are not left out of discussions about the criminal legal system and the prison system. We try to push for people’s freedom. We try to push for everything from post-sentencing relief to clemency and commutation. And the “we” here is a broad group of people – incarcerated and not – artists, educators, journalists, plumbers, mothers, lovers.

We work toward the obsolescence of our programs. The goal here is not to have excellent education and art programs in prisons. The goal is for us not to be here in five years because we are no longer needed. The U.S. possesses the world’s largest prison population and it does not make our communities stronger or safer, or reduce violence, or create pathways for people to heal, become accountable, and transform.

I work at a public, relatively open access university, and the mission is to serve the people of Illinois. Part of the reason I was able to attend university is that it was nearly free in Canada. Education should be free and not privatized, hoarded, or only for the so-called “best of.” We are still an expensive public university. Our tuition is about 10,000 dollars a year, and grants like MAP [Illinois Monetary Award Program] and Federal Pell Grants cover maybe half of that for those who are eligible. That is incredibly expensive.

The public means everybody. Approximately 43,000 people are locked up in state prisons in Illinois. Those people are still the people of Illinois and should have access to the same kinds of educational opportunities. Working poor people, undocumented people, incarcerated people, and formerly incarcerated people should all have access to free education. Our motto for PNAP, which I love, is “Art and Education for Everyone Everywhere.” What is controversial about that? Working with PNAP is part of my work at a public university. This is our public.

[] Based on your research and experience, do you have advice you would give to scholars, educators, or administrators seeking to advance educational equity through their own work?

[Dr. Erica R. Meiners] Find your people. Join a collective. Join a community. Universities are rigid, isolating, hierarchical places with invented and punishing boundaries. The work is to read, learn, and unlearn promiscuously. If you are in sociology, read in justice studies, read in queer theory, follow people asking the uncomfortable and hard questions. Find a group of people, whether that is a graduate student union or a campus workers union. Find a community of people to learn with and to struggle with. Do not be afraid to try, to fail, and to assess and try again.

Get connected off campus. An important center of gravity for me are all the networks and communities who are working to make the world a more just, free, and beautiful place for the long haul. Those communities are everywhere. They are in mosque basements and bookstores. People are organizing in unions and cafeterias. Universities propel the fantasy that what is important are your individual accomplishments, but we never do anything alone.

When I write or do other academic projects, I always try to ask about the political value of this project. What is this project in service of? What is the intervention, who is the audience, what do we want to do? I also ask whether what I really ought to be doing is getting out of the way. Am I the person to do this work?

A comrade of mine talked many years ago about “research of convenience,” where a faculty member thinks, “This is a shiny object I want to pick up, pay attention to, and drop.” We live in a world of deep beauty and deep harm. I want to diminish that harm. Therefore, when I think about a research project, I need to ask these questions and try to be in conversation with movements working to build a more free and just world. Universities do not teach you that, but I would encourage people to find community and be accountable to a center of gravity that is not the university. Do this while you are reading deeply, widely, wildly, and promiscuously, and make joy with others along the way.

Thank you, Dr. Meiners, for sharing your insight on abolitionism, disciplinary practices in education and their links to the prison-industrial-complex, the unique impact of carceral practices on LGBTQ+ students and students of color, and more!