Ayana Aubourg is 20 years old and a member of Youth Against Mass Incarceration (YAMI) in Boston, MA. She talks with Cynthia Peters about her organizing work, her family’s experience with incarceration, and her hopes for the growing wave of youth organizing.
Tell me about YAMI.
We are a collective – a family – of young people working to raise awareness about the prison industrial complex and how it is destroying our families and communities. We do direct action protests, education, and base-building.
For example, we go into high schools, and we do workshops on mass incarceration. I love interacting with young people. They are so ready to share their stories. We set aside part of the workshop for what we call “truth-telling.”
After every workshop, the teachers are so surprised at how focused and cooperative the students are for us. They ask questions and they’re so engaged. You can see them connecting the dots of what they’ve experienced in their own lives and the analysis we’re giving them. This is different from what they usually get in school when they have to memorize facts and do well on tests. I wish I could have done some truth-telling when I was younger. I felt silenced my whole life.
How did you feel silenced?
My father was in and out of prison when I was little, and then he got a sentence of 10 years. I never talked about it openly with anyone except my closest friends. It would have been nice if I could have let my teachers know and if I didn’t feel like I had to lie about it. Apparently, 1 in 28 kids has a parent that has been locked up or is locked up. So probably there were a lot of kids in my life who were going through the same thing I was going through. It would have been helpful if we could have been open with each other.
What helped you start developing a political consciousness?
I met a mentor named Dara. She ran a support group for young women of color in my apartment building. It was the only safe space I had ever experienced where girls like me could speak freely about our experiences, climb out of our silences, and question EVERYTHING. Although my political consciousness has continued to grow over the years, it was this girls group that gave me my most important “aha” moments.
Dara took me to conferences and workshops where I started to unlearn what the system has taught us. I started questioning what I was learning in school. I remember at one workshop, someone gave me a text book and asked me to try to find something about my heritage, and I couldn’t find anything. So I was left with the question: “Why would this text book be only about white people?” Moments like that got me to think more. It was around the same time that Oscar Grant got shot and killed by police.
At one of these conferences, I met someone who invited me to come to a YAMI meeting. I was so nervous. But the meeting was so laid back. People were just kicking it and talking about everything. They gave me Michelle Alexander’s book and a YAMI t-shirt on the first day. I was so charged afterwards. I never felt that way before. I felt like I could learn something and I could offer something.
How has your experience with your dad’s incarceration affected your organizing?
One thing we’re trying do more of at YAMI is court solidarity. If a young person is facing charges, we go with him or her – just to be in solidarity. We want to show the judge that this person is not alone, that this person has a community of people around him. I struggled with this at first. I felt anxiety just going into the courtroom. It is a horrible and demeaning place. I’ve had to go court with my father, and they were so dehumanizing towards him and towards me, too, because I was with him. It’s like my dad is not even a person. He’s a “danger to society.” He’s not worthy to be considered a human being.
When I went to court with my dad, there was no court solidarity. It was just me and him. So we were more vulnerable to how bad they made us feel. But when you go with other people, you’re all sitting there together – sometimes snug because you’re squeezed into the court benches. And you feel connected and not alone. It’s like Fred Hampton [who was a leader of the Black Panther Party] says, “Power anywhere where there’s people!”
And I imagine court solidarity helps you build your base.
Yes, court solidarity communicates to the court system that we are watching and we will remain present and support those who are vulnerable and targeted by state violence such as poverty and mass incarceration. As people show up for court solidarity, we begin to recognize one another. We begin to strengthen relationships and stick together. We feed off those connections and build with one another in our communities. One of our newest YAMI members is someone we met while doing court solidarity. We hope that the more we do court solidarity, the more we can feel the strength in numbers and also bring more people into the movement.
We’re mobilizing youth in various ways – through our workshops on mass incarceration, the drug war, and “stop and frisk.” We’re inviting them to non-violent direct action trainings and we’re turning people out to protests – thanks to the new wave of organizing that is happening through groups like Black Lives Matter. The youth have always been smart about understanding the issues they face, and now they are getting more analysis and more connection to organizing and movement building.
How have you all in YAMI developed your analysis?
We do internal education. Our minds are expanding so much. We are pushing ourselves to grow more. We are reading Assata Shakur, bell hooks, and Audre Lorde as well as George Jackson’s Blood in My Eye, The Struggle Within by Dan Berger, and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.
We believe that capitalism and white supremacy have created a system where most people suffer in order for a few people at the top to benefit. Most crimes committed today occur are greatly a result of the system that we live in. Capitalism, racism, sexism, and homophobia drive people apart. They leave some people with more power than others and cause some people to behave oppressively towards others. In a better world, we wouldn’t need prisons. We would have structures in the community that would hold people accountable. We would develop approaches to justice that would be restorative and transformative and not punitive.
You’re doing a lot of hard work. What sustains you?
With organizing, people can get lost. But we take care of each other. We are asking ourselves: how can we be more supportive when someone is missing? We’re learning as we’re doing it. We’re taking action, reflecting on our actions, trying to add to our knowledge, and trying to grow together as well.
At YAMI we are pushing ourselves to create a different culture in our group. We sit together and work stuff out. We don’t avoid conflict with each other. We’re trying to build the relationships that we want to see in the world – with each other. There’s a lot of love in our group.
Also, I have to give a shout-out to my mother. She worked so hard trying to make our childhood as normal as she could. In our building, our apartment was the one that everyone would come to. It was always full of life. There’s been a lot of hate and pain thrown my mother’s way, but she could still project love and attract people to our home.
Even though there’s a lot of pain around me, I still want to project that kind of love. Because that’s what revolution is, right? Love!