In my first blog as executive director of the RFC I reflected on Michelle Alexander’s commitment to “getting out of [her] lane” and broadening her focus from mass incarceration to the systems (racism, classism, militarization, etc.) that support and sustain the growth of the prison industrial complex. I shared my interest about thinking in a similar way at the RFC, concluding that I'm curious about what stepping outside our lane might look like (you can read that blog post here).
I was gratified to receive a lot of feedback from numerous members of the RFC community, via both email and comments on the blog. Respondents focused on the importance of building consensus with like-minded organizations and individuals, while keeping the mission of the RFC front and center. This response reflects the general theme of most of the feedback:
“I think the idea of going out-of-lane is really important… But I would caution you against having RFC change or expand lanes too precipitously. What I have always loved about the RFC….is that it transcends particular left/progressive causes… As far as I can tell, the RFC supports activists who are anti-war, pro-labor, green, anti-racist, anti-sexist, pro-LGBT rights, pro civil rights. Out of lane? The RFC is like the I-95 New London/ Groton bridge with 8 lanes in each direction. You cover it all already, as far as I can see.”
While I mostly enjoy the image of the RFC as a superhighway, it does raise questions about the rules of the road. For us, this most frequently occurs when we receive a request that is outside our guidelines but within the spirit of the intent of the RFC. Then we have to decide whether to yield, merge or seek an alternate route. A few inquiries—one from a couple of months ago and another from more recently—illustrate the type of “stepping outside our lane” with which I’m wrestling.
The first request came from a young activist imprisoned for refusing to testify before a grand jury. This person had already spent months behind bars, some of it in solitary confinement, and wanted to know whether our Attica Prison Visit grant could be used to allow parents or siblings to visit instead of the reverse. While the spirit of Attica grants—maintaining family connections despite imprisonment for political targeting—certainly seems to fit this request, we don’t make grants to adults over age 24 (which the parents and siblings who would be visiting were). In this case we felt we had to say no, but we were able to fund a development grant (another recent step outside the lane for the RFC) for the imprisoned activist which helped cover the cost of books and correspondence while in prison.
A second, more difficult, situation involved the adult daughter of a political prisoner. Her son receives Attica grants to visit his grandfather, a COINTELPRO target who has spent decades in prison, most of it in solitary confinement. The parent and a sibling wanted to attend the funeral of another long-time political prisoner to pay their respects and read a letter from their father. Unfortunately, the airfare was prohibitively expensive and they asked if we could help cover any of the costs. Again, this request seems in keeping with the RFC’s core focus: to support the families of targeted activists, including political prisoners and to build community for activists and their families. But, it too, falls outside our guidelines since we do not provide grants to adults.
Ideally, there would be a sister organization which funded these types of needs and we could refer potential grantees to them, but we know of no such group. As the recession drags on, people continue to struggle, and both repression against activists and incarceration rates rise, it’s not surprising that we’re seeing increased demand for various types of support, including some requests that fall outside our scope.
Our commitment to focusing on the children of targeted activists will not change. But as our Board, which makes all granting decisions, weighs these and other similar questions, it would be valuable to add our supporters’ thoughts to the factors they are considering.
I value your feedback and, once again, I'm grateful to be able to have this conversation with the RFC community.
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