And that has really been critical is to invest in the skills, invest in the leadership. Because impacted people, we’re already the experts of our own experiences. So that’s not what we need to be taught. But what we need really is just access and to develop the expertise for what it means to really be influential in the policy world. - Episode 11
Taina Angeli Vargas is a prison abolitionist and organizer. She is the Co-Founder & Executive Director of Initiate Justice, an organization that works to end mass incarceration by activating the political power of the people directly impacted by it. She is also a woman with a formerly incarcerated loved one and a member of the Essie Justice Group sisterhood.
Connect with Taina
Prop 17: WEB
- Initiate Justice
- Prop 17
- Democracy Needs Everyone Report
- Free The Vote Coalition
- Anti-Recidivism Coalition
- League of Women Voters
- Californians United for a Responsible Budget
Liz Wiltsie: Welcome to What's Leadership? I'm Liz Wiltsie. The more I learn about leadership, the more I'm convinced there's not a one size fits all solution. So I am on my own learning journey and I invite you to join me. EbonyJanice reminds me that being open about my journey is important. Each episode features someone I admire with actionable insight to share. So please join me as I ask what's leadership?
All right. I want to welcome Taina Vargas-Edmond she founded Initiate Justice with the intention of activating the political power of people directly impacted by mass incarceration. She serves as executive director of Initiate Justice with a staff of seven, 50 or more regular volunteers, and then 135 inside organizers working within California state prisons.
And that whole crew has been responsible for five pieces of legislation getting passed in California. And is now working on the important ballot measure, Prop 17. So Tiana, thank you so much for being with me.
Taina Vargas-Edmond: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me Liz.
Liz Wiltsie: So let's talk about Prop 17 and Initiate Justice. What is it? Why should people care?
Taina Vargas-Edmond: Yeah, absolutely. So, as you mentioned in your intro of what we do at Initiate Justice is we're trying to bring people home from prison and make our community safer by activating the political power of currently incarcerated people, formerly incarcerated people and people with incarcerated loved ones.
So, you know, we do that in various ways, mostly through our inside/outside organizing strategy. Where we engage people who are inside and their loved ones on the outside to help us push forward this legislation. And when we first started one of our original inside organizers, who's named Rahsaan Thomas, had called me one day and said, you know, if Initiate Justice is really passionate about impacted people having a political voice, the first thing that we need is to be able to have our right to vote.
So back in 2017, we had tried to collect signatures to qualify a measure for the ballot that would have restored voting rights for people in prison and, who are formerly incarcerated, who have completed their prison term.
But we weren't successful getting the signatures. Like we were brand new. For anyone who has done this, they know that it's very expensive. But the following year we were contacted by assembly member Kevin McCarty. He represents the Sacramento area and he had said, look, let's try and qualify this for the ballot through the legislature. It'll require a constitutional amendment and therefore will require a two thirds vote.
It's gonna be a heavy lift. So let's limit it to the folks who have completed their prison term. Let's try and get this on the ballot of 2020. So Initiate Justice, and other members of the Free The Vote Coalition, which include like the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, ACLU, League of Women Voters, Californians United for a Responsible Budget, among others, worked for the better part of two years to get those two thirds votes that we needed. And effective June 24th of this year, we qualified for the ballot. We made it out of the legislature. So that is now Prop 17, which will be on the ballot on November 3rd. And if passed, Prop 17 will restore voting rights to all Californians who have completed their prison term, which is over 50,000 people in the state.
Liz Wiltsie: And so everyone in California can vote on it. Right. Everyone should be looking for it on their ballot.
Taina Vargas-Edmond: Yeah. It will be on the California statewide ballot. So please vote. Yes. On Prop 17.
Liz Wiltsie: So what have you learned over the last two years working on this, that you think people should know about.
Taina Vargas-Edmond: I feel like I've learned many things, especially, you know, being in a new ED. You know, being a woman leader, being a woman of color, there's a lot of like hard lessons that you end up with learning in this world. But I think, you know, one of the primary things that I have taken away is like the importance of building power and investing in leadership.
So it's been critical to Initiate justice's success and the success of all of our legislation that we are training up directly impacted people to be advocates, to be policy experts. I don't want it to just be me or our staff who is, at the top and leading and directing the strategy.
We tap in with our almost 30,000 members who are currently incarcerated. We tap in with our organizers and volunteers on the outside. And we've created a program called the Institute of Impacted Leaders, which is a 12-week organizing and advocacy training program for formerly incarcerated people and people with incarcerated loved ones. And have graduated about 70 people to date.
And currently are about to graduate about 40 more people. We're doing two cohorts right now. And that has like really been critical is to invest in the skills, invest in the leadership. Because impacted people, like we're already the experts of our own experiences. So that's not what we need to be taught. But what we need really is just access and to develop the expertise for what it means to like really be influential in the policy world.
Liz Wiltsie: So you talk about your 30,000 members that are incarcerated. What does it look like to be an IJ member on the inside?
Taina Vargas-Edmond: Yeah. So members on the inside receive our quarterly newsletter that have policy updates and have action items that they can take so that they can influence legislation from the inside.
So every newsletter has updates on the different bills that we're working on, that we're co-sponsoring, other bills that were supporting that might impact people inside, whether or not we're a co-sponsor. We give them updates on legal cases that could potentially impact their lives and also just update them on the work that IJ is doing on the outside.
And then every newsletter also has an action item. So that might look like writing a letter of support for a bill. And to date we've collected about 8,000 or 9,000 legislative letters of support from inside prisons, to help us pass our various bills. We might also ask people to recruit new folks or, you know, to hold trainings in their buildings, but essentially to just continue to build power from the inside out.
Liz Wiltsie: So as people listening to this who are in California, or even outside of California, what are some of the most helpful things folks can do in terms of passing Prop 17, this November?
Taina Vargas-Edmond: Yeah, so definitely visit the Yes on 17 website. So that's yeson17.vote . And you can donate to our campaign, you can sign up to become a volunteer, you can also sign up to be a campaign ambassador. Which means that you will help us move the campaign forward in a volunteer capacity. We're all like adapting and learning, how to run a political campaign in the midst of a global pandemic. So, you know, we definitely need as many supporters, as volunteers and donors as possible to help us be successful.
So, yeah. Please visit, yeson17.vote.
Liz Wiltsie: And as you said, you know, the game changes a little bit in the pandemic. So I know there's a lot of people, at least in my world who don't live in LA, who don't live in California even, but are like, Hey, I'm here to support this...
Taina Vargas-Edmond: Right.
Liz Wiltsie: Money spends from outside of California also, right?
Taina Vargas-Edmond: Exactly. Anybody can donate. Anybody can donate.
Liz Wiltsie: Yeah. So the question I ask everyone is what are you grappling with just as a leader in your life?
Taina Vargas-Edmond: Yeah. I mean, there's a lot of things that I'm grappling with, but I think I'll keep it, specific to what I'm grappling with with Prop 17. So, you know, as I had mentioned, we initially wanted to pass a ballot measure that would have restored voting rights to everybody impacted by incarceration. So in California, right now, the law is, you can't vote if you're in state prison, you can't vote if you're in federal prison, and you can't vote while you're on state parole, like after you've completed your prison term.
But you can vote if you're in County jail. You can vote if you're on County probation. You can vote even if you're on federal probation. So it's just confusing. And ultimately I believe in a democracy that no one should have their right to vote taken away. So it's what we initially wanted to do, but given like the political climate that we're in, it was hard to just accept that we probably wouldn't be able to move that forward at this time.
So what I'm grappling with is how do we move forward, restoring voting rights for people who've completed their prison term, while at the same time, not limiting opportunities for people who are still incarcerated. So, you know, how do we talk about Prop 17 in ways where we're clear? Like, okay, this initiative would just impact people who are released from prison.
But at the same time, we still believe that people in prison should have the right to vote. So that's something that has been, you know, kind of like a challenging fence to straddle. And I think, you know, we often do this a lot. We saw it happen with Amendment Four in Florida. For folks who are not familiar, restored voting rights for about a million and a half formerly incarcerated Floridians, but excluded people who had served time for murder or certain sex offenses.
So, you know, how do we, take these steps forward, that are ultimately moving us towards progress, that are ultimately moving us towards abolition, and still like holding the complexity of the people who are left behind, for now. And then what are we doing to make sure that we're, you know, coming back and welcoming them into the progress in the future?
Liz Wiltsie: Yeah, I'm really glad you touched on that cause I know your campaign with Initiate Justice is Democracy Needs Everybody. Right? And if you go to tell you knows Instagram, you can see her in a beautiful Democracy Needs Everybody t-shirt. But, one of the things that I see you say a lot and see IJ say a lot is we can't be picking and choosing between who's worthy and who's not.
Taina Vargas-Edmond: Right.
Liz Wiltsie: And that position is not in the like mainstream of restoring rights. Can you talk a little bit about what that means when you say like actually yeah, we need everybody for real?
Taina Vargas-Edmond: Yeah. So I'll back up a little bit and talk about, you know, where we got that phrase, Democracy Needs Everyone.
When we put together our report last year, we surveyed over a thousand people in prison and on parole and asked them, you know, like if you could vote, would you? What would you vote for? There are a lot of myths about people impacted by incarceration. You know, a lot of incorrect beliefs that they don't care about the political process.
So we conducted the survey and wrote this report to amplify the truth, which is that impacted people care, not only just as much, but actually more than the average person, about having a political voice. So in one of our survey responses, we heard from a man named Juan Haines. Who's currently incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison.
And when I asked him, you know, why he wanted his voting rights restored, he said, because democracy needs everyone. So that became the title of our report. He wrote the intro for the report.I t's become our slogan. We've made tee shirts with it. Because fundamentally like that is what we believe. And I think, especially if we're talking about public safety, right? Who better to ask for the solution for public safety than people who the public safety system has failed. We also asked in that survey, like, look, what, social services did you need in place to avoid you doing what you did?
To end up in prison, you know, what community support do you need? What is it that's missing? What is it that, you know, your family and community would require to, you know, to be safe? Because I think that we forget people in prison, and formerly incarcerated people are also members of the community.
So yeah, when we say democracy needs everyone, we mean people who have made mistakes, people who are victims of a racist capitalist system. And it literally means everyone.
Liz Wiltsie: Yes. Yeah, I really appreciate you bringing that in to say also, I remember when you launched that report and the fact that you went to gather the data that you were like, let's not guess what people think.
And I think that's maybe, one of the lessons that I try to take from, from IJ is to say, ask the people what they want and listen to them when they tell you, rather than trying to guess, right.
Taina Vargas-Edmond: Right. And even more, you know, like, so, you know, I'm impacted my loved one was in prison for seven years.
So this, you know, has very much like become a part of my life. Literally everybody in my immediate family has been incarcerated at some point over the course of my life. But even like you know, my experience or my family's experience is not everybody's experience. So it's always been really important to us to reach out to as many impacted people as possible to collect a diversity and like a wealth of stories and experiences so that we can, you know, create the most effective proposals moving forward.
Liz Wiltsie: Taina thank you so much for giving me your time today. Thank you so much.
Taina Vargas-Edmond: Thank you so much, Liz.
Liz Wiltsie: Full show notes from this episode, and every episode are available at 4needs.work/podcast. If you're intrigued by this episode, please subscribe.