In June, over 70 women from across the country who have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system gathered in New Orleans for a celebration of sisterhood. The women are former or current participants in our Women Transcending Collective Leadership Institute (CLI) and each do work in their own state to support currently and formerly incarcerated women and their families. Since the start of the program in 2019, two of our cohorts met entirely virtually for the duration of their cohort. While we were able to pull off meaningful virtual graduations for them, we really missed the community that is built in person. To make up for the lost in-person time, we decided to travel to New Orleans to join our celebration of the CLI members with the first annual “Freedom for All” Ball hosted by one of the first CLI members, Fox Rich and her family. Fox and her family are featured in the Oscar-nominated film Time about their advocacy to bring people home from prison which led to the creation of the organization Participatory Defense Movement NOLA (PDM NOLA).
We arrived in New Orleans on Friday morning and hosted a big graduation that evening honoring the two cohorts that did not get to graduate in person, while welcoming our newest cohort to the family. We dedicated the night to the person who is the reason so many of us do the work we do–our beloved sister Kathy Boudin. We also heard from Mama Glo, who recently came home from prison due to the incredible advocacy of Fox and PDM NOLA.
Each woman was honored with a certification of program completion and the most recent cohort passed the baton on to the next cohort through our Tree of Life ceremony that we do at every graduation.
We ended the graduation singing “We Are Family” which led us into a second line down Bourbon Street.
A women bystander who joined the second line asked me ‘hey what are we celebrating?’ I turned and said ‘We are celebrating you, me, she, her, him, and them--- this is the POWER of real Women!’ She grabbed my hand and lifted it high as she said ‘the Power of Women!’ Singing to the spirit of the NOLA bands beat as we repeated it together –'the Power of Women' again and again!
On Saturday, we joined Fox and her family for a celebration of Participatory Defense Movement NOLA where our own Cheryl Wilkins and Kathy Boudin were honored for their work supporting women and education in prison. Our presence at the event provided a substantial donation to PDM NOLA’s work, and we were proud to be able to support our sister in this way.
After two years of virtual meetings, the feeling of being together in celebration with all of the Collective Leadership Institute participants was indescribable. The power of the Friday night graduation, where over 70 women who have been harmed and traumatized by the criminal justice sytem were able to dance, sing, hug, love each other, and connect over our common struggles, is an experience we will never forget. As one of our CLI members Aisha Elliott said, “It was so meaningful to me to see everyone up close and off the screen. Learning little things about them, their families, what they drink, what they eat, laughing, shopping, dancing, made me feel full and a part of something really amazing. They were the perfect bunch of sisters to be with to celebrate Kathy and it'll be a real long time before I forget that weekend and all the beauty in everyone who was there.”
The weekend in New Orleans reenergized us as we look forward to what this next year holds for the upcoming cohort. The impact of the Collective Leadership Institute was deeply felt in that graduation room on Friday night and all throughout the weekend. We will carry that spirit and the spirit of Kathy Boudin with us as we continue to support the work these amazing women are doing around the country.
I remember Cheryl asking what was the ‘wow’ moment for me, I had two. To be in a room with such Powerful women who are FREE, who have given their lives to continue helping the people who are still suffering, gave me chills. So much love. The second one was the Second Line, WOW. I must thank Kathy, Cheryl, Greer, Latisha and the Center for Justice for showing me that I can live a productive life and be whatever I choose. This is what Women Transcending Collective Leadership Institute gave me.
Special thanks to Gabriel Hatuey Quinones Reinat for the photos!