Out of the Lane, part 2: What are the Rules of the Road?

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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Dear Jenn:
I have two thoughts, neither of them fully formed, but I did want to pass them on.
1. In keeping with the great work by Michelle Alexander we (you, the board) might want to expand the definition of what is a political prisoner. For example, because racism plays such a great role in who is in prison (and who is not) we might want to look at helping children of "racist justice" even if the incarcerated parent is not himself or herself involved in political struggle.

2. We might also want to look at the lives of incarcerated children. In particular I am thinking about minors charged as adults and then put in prison as adults. There is a myth that Miller v. Alabama did away with Juvenile LWOP. It did not.

Best wishes and will I see you at the NLG convention?

Dan Mayfield
San Jose, CA

I agree with the spirit of the comment by "anonymous" but wary of the implications. The more an organization like the RFC broadens its focus and spreads its (finite) funds, the more it is in danger of losing its raison d'etre, its identity and, ultimately and most importantly, its efficacy. Stay focused and maximize effectiveness.
Phillip Deery

It seems that much has to do with how much money you have to fund current requests. Would the primary group suffer by getting less than needed?
Do you currently have much unspent monies needing to be used?

As a small donor, "bending the rules" on occasion seems sensible, unless it attracts a mountain of requests that will take much time to process,

I am very appreciative of your transparency and obvious commitment to doing the right thing. Your family taught you well.

Judith, Los Angeles

This is a tough decision. Choosing one's battles is part of being victorious. I fear that If RFC starts fighting every battle there is to fight it will soon disappear. At the same time, as an African-American, it is clear to me that racism is always political! Then there is the question of what defines a child. I am 70 and my mother is 94 and I am and will always be her child. So you have some difficult choices to make and it is wise to seek the collective consciousness on the issues before final decisions are made. I salute you for your courage and initiative.

I think it's important to keep the eye on the "Prize", that is to saly maintain the focus on helping out the children of activists (or child activists themselves). That being said, I think that if there, at some point, would be extra money available, I think it would be o.k. to fund the travel expenses of an accompanying adult. But, once again, only if availability of funds permits this. Main thing: that would have to be done on a very strict "case-by-case" basis, and it should be limited to very few times per year.

How nice to be part of a community as thoughtful, caring and committed as the above commenters. They have all made good points about the merits of expanded scope, the merits of focus, the danger of dilution and the question of available funds. My two cents: set aside some percentage (3%?) of funds for the next fiscal year and choose some specific expansion criteria (that you publish of course). Do that for a year and then evaluate its effect.

I appreciate your raising the question, Jenn, but I think that until you can say either that: 1) you are raising enough money to meet the needs of the children that RFC historically serves, or 2) other organizations have stepped in to fill the gap between cases that meet RFC's eligibility criteria and your ability to serve them, that you stay with the historic mission.
Marc Levin

Thanks for soliciting input on this, Jenn, but I think until 1) RFC has raised enough money to serve all the children that meet the current eligibility criteria, or 2) other organizations are filling the gap between the needs of these children and RFC's ability to serve them, that you stay the current course.
Marc Levin

I have been involved in prison reform-abolition for 20 years, tho' not always very actively. Lately, since Jan 2012, I have been involved in a local action to keep our county from building yet a third county jail building. I was very much moved by the request you wrote of the young activist who requested an Attica Prison Visit grant so that his/her parents & siblings could visit. It seems to me, that if the activist is him or herself young enough to qualify for a grant, that that grant could be used to enable family visits, as ultimately, that will benefit the activist. Really, anything that benefits family connections benefits all family members, regardless of age. To me, it seems that if one of the beneficiaries is under 24, it ought to be OK. A point of view to consider.


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