[read more…] organizing

I was raised in the Philadelphia-based movements to end AIDS and prisons. At the local and national level, I have been able to contribute this on-the-ground training in leadership development, community mobilization, campaign strategy, and participatory research in service of formerly incarcerated people’s own visions for principled transformation. Please scroll down to read more about my history of grassroots organizing in Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans and beyond.


TEACH Outside Graduation, Winter 2003.
TEACH Outside Graduation, December 2003.

In 2000, John Horace Bell and I convened a committee of Philadelphia-based formerly incarcerated leaders and their allies to develop TEACH Outside, a community organizing program supporting people with HIV through the difficult transition out of prison and building their leadership in movements to end the AIDS epidemic and transform the criminal justice system. Our organizing vision was simple: (1) You can live a healthy life; (2) Services are there to support you; (3) Activist work has put all of this in place; and (4) You can be an activist for yourself and your community.

During our six years together at the helm of the program, we had the privilege of mentoring and collaborating with more than 400 TEACH Outside graduates, who have gone on to become leaders in Philadelphia and across the globe in struggles for HIV prevention justice, treatment access, and community care. One of our first collaborative projects was the creation of Prison Health News, a quarterly a print newsletter read by about 5,000 people who are locked up in prisons and jails across the United States, which remains the only health publication in the country written by and for people who are currently and formerly incarcerated.

As the heart and soul of the Philadelphia County Coalition for Prison Health Care (PCCPHC), we mobilized hundreds of people recently released from the Philadelphia Prison System to fight back against the deplorable health conditions they had lived through while confined. After years of street protests and accountability meetings with prison administrators, TEACH Outside graduates succeeded in establishing an official visitor program through which they (as parolees and probates!) could meet with prisoners to gather first hand accounts of medical issues, work with prison administrators to demand redress of grievances, and advocate for systemic changes where issues are consistently not addressed.


With the support of the diverse coalition of stakeholders who made up the PCCPHC, we launched the Beyond the Walls: Prison Health Care & Reentry Summit, a day-long Philadelphia-based grassroots strategy summit to address the health care needs of people in prison and bring a lasting reduction in the US dependence on incarceration, in 2003. In my four years coordinating Beyond the Walls, we grew the summit to a 600-person conference.

First SCPA Community Speak Out in North Philadelphia.
SCPA Speak Out in North Philadelphia, January 2009.

Concerned that this vibrant summit was still not reaching the people most impacted by incarceration in Philadelphia, we brought together a team of formerly incarcerated leaders, many of whom were graduates of TEACH Outside, to the launch of the Support Center for Prison Advocacy (SCPA). Together, we worked to bring the plethora of Beyond the Walls presenters to the neighborhoods with the highest incarceration rates to stimulate community engagement and provide immediate crisis intervention. I contributed an essay on building this “resource center without walls” to the Beyond Walls and Cages: Prisons, Borders, and Global Crisis anthology, released in late 2012.


In 2008, after completing my masters at Harvard Divinity School, I joined the Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project (CHAMP) to take our work nationwide through Project UNSHACKLE, a locally-rooted national network to challenge mass imprisonment as a structural driver of the AIDS epidemic. After traveling across the country to build the 1,000-member national network for resource sharing and skills building, I was privileged to be able to partner with activists in Philadelphia, Chicago and New Orleans to develop and implement policy campaigns on locally critical issues. The Support Center for Prison Advocacy in Philadelphia was our inaugural UNSHACKLE partnership.

Initially through the UNSHACKLE Chicago partnership and now as a board member, I have worked to support the transformative organizing of Men & Women In Prison Ministries‘ Harm Reduction in Prison Coalition, which builds formerly incarcerated people’s leadership in challenging the conditions of the correctional facilities in which they were confined and lending support to the brothers and sisters they left behind after being release. Through this inside/outside strategy, Men & Women has worked to open community-wide dialogue around the harm caused by prisons and to transform the structural environment of HIV vulnerability and prisoner stigma in Chicago.

WWAV’s Executive Director, Deon Haywood, and myself, facilitating the first NO Justice coalition meeting, July 2009.

First through the UNSHACKLE New Orleans partnership and now as a board member, I have been honored to be a partner in Women With A Vision, Inc.‘s work to bring justice and healing to Black women, their families, and their communities. Through the NO Justice Project, WWAV undertook a systematic challenge of the post-Katrina criminalization of sex work under Louisiana’s draconian ‘crime against nature by solicitation’ statute, winning a federal judicial ruling in March 2012 and securing the removal of nearly 900 people from the sex offender registry. Following the aggravated arson attack on WWAV’s offices in May 2012, I have been working with the WWAV team to document the lives and stories of the people who have guided WWAV over the last two decades through a dynamic oral history project, which is entitled “Born in Flames.”


This intimate engagement with organizers in Philadelphia, Chicago and New Orleans attuned me to the significant gap that exists between structural interventions to transform the social conditions that make communities more vulnerable to HIV and the menu of evidence-based, individualized risk-reduction best practices. In late 2009, I collaborated with a multidisciplinary research team to design a five-year National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)-funded study, which began on jail intake housing units and continued after release to support participants’ ongoing engagement in community activism.

Together, John Horace Bell and I co-founded the Institute for Community Justice (ICJ) in 2010 to be the organizing home for this new generation of formerly incarcerated activists in Philadelphia. Program graduates and staff have gone on to provide important leadership for the statewide Decarcerate PA coalition, which undertook a 113-mile march across the state of Pennsylvania for a people’s budget, not a prison budget in May 2013. I continue to serve as an advisory board member to Reconstruction, Inc., a Decarcerate PA partner, ICJ ally and twenty-year Philadelphia leader in community-inspired, community-led solutions for transforming and healing from racial terror in the United States.

Sitting on WWAV’s new front porch in New Orleans, December 2015. (L to R: Shaquita Borden, Mwende Katwiwa, Deon Haywood, Nakita Shavers, myself, Nia Weeks; Photo by: Desiree Evans)

I have also continued to collaborate closely with my New Orleans community at WWAV to build new grassroots research models to advance social change. Together, Shaquita Borden, Melinda Chateavert, and I incubated and launched Front Porch Research Strategy in 2016 under the co-leadership of Deon Haywood, Executive Director of WWAV, and Dr. Mary Frances Berry, Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. I have deepened the interdisciplinary and participatory research skills I contribute to this collaboration through my first book project, Fire Dreams, which I designed, researched, and analyzed in conversation with WWAV leaders, participants, and longtime allies.