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The People's Paper Co-op: Women Reclaiming the Narrative of Reentry

Winter 2018
Winter 2018
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In her work, Alisha Adams explores site-specific and community-engaged playwrit-ing methods. Her plays have been presented in unconventional spaces, including an urban community garden, desert feed store, and small-town fire station. Most recently, she worked with Girls Rock Philly to develop an improvisatory choir work-shop for womxn to generate soundscapes of resistance. She lives in Philadelphia, where she is a teaching artist and member of The Foundry Playwrights' Lab. The People's Paper Co-op sits sandwiched between a fish market and a dry cleaner on North Philadelphia's Germantown Avenue. Part activist meet-ing place, part community living room, and part papermaking studio, the Co-op fills a unique and welcome niche on the vibrant thoroughfare. Its storefront windows display female busts cast from the pulped pho-tocopies of letters written to women in solitary confinement. Inside, a handmade-paper quilt flecked with flower petals hangs alongside screen-printed posters demanding END CASH BAIL! And every Tuesday and Thursday, a group of formerly incarcerated women meet at the Co-op to help one another navigate the challenging journey of rejoining life outside prison walls.

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Founded in 2014 by activist artists Courtney Bowles and Mark  Strandquist, the Co-op is an initiative of the Village of Arts and  Humani-ties, fostered through its SPACES Artist-in-Residence  program. The Village has a rich legacy of artist-facilitated  placemaking, manifested in a nearby  web of vacant lots reclaimed  with bright murals, mosaic, and sculpture. The Co-op is one of the  Village's farthest-reaching collaborations, strategi-cally  connecting artists, civil rights lawyers, city officials, and  other com-munity partners to improve access to jobs, housing, and  education for re-turning citizens. Bowles and Strandquist previously co-founded the People's Li-brary  in Richmond, Virginia, an ongoing project that engages citi-zens  in making paper from deaccessioned library books. The paper is  rebound into books filled with participants' personal and commu- nity histories. Learning the craft from Arnold Grummer YouTube  videos, the pair developed an accessible, teachable papermaking  method that can be adapted to a variety of spaces. "For us, papermaking is a transformative process," says Bowles.  She explains that the practice of turning outmoded books contain- ing top-down histories into blank sheets of paper mirrors the per- sonal renewal that takes place when people tell their own stories. When they moved to North Philadelphia, Bowles says paper-making  became their "business card" to introduce themselves to their  neighbors. Working with a bicycle-powered blender, discarded  paper, window screens, and simple frames made from found wood,  they established a collaborative papermaking practice that eventu- ally found a home at the storefront. Having worked with incarcerated citizens in Richmond, Bowles and  Strandquist connected with criminal-justice reform groups while  crafting their application to the Village's SPACES program, and  attended a Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE) ex- pungement clinic. Pennsylvania is one of the few states where non- conviction criminal charges remain publicly available on your re- cord forever,2 unless you pay to have them expunged. For the one  in five Philadelphians with a criminal record,3 clearing even  minor charges can remove significant barriers to employment,  housing, and public benefits. On a snowy Saturday morning, Bowles and Strandquist watched as  over 80 people went through the expungement intake process, taking  the first step toward clearing their criminal records for free.  Soon after, they formed a collective of formerly incarcerated  women and men to make the clinics more welcoming and empowering.  Now working in partnership with Community Legal Services of  Philadelphia, the Co-op facilitates People's Expungement Clinics  across the city. Participants tear up their records, stuff them in  a blender, and turn them into fresh sheets of paper. They embed  Po-laroid portraits, called "reverse mugshots," in the paper and  write a new record across the bottom: short, powerful phrases such  as, "I'm a pillar in my community" and "I'm free!" "A criminal history is just a story that the state is telling  about you," says Strandquist. The expungement clinics offer a  cathartic way to transform that negative, one-sided story into a  blank sheet of paper and reclaim your narrative. In 2014, Bowles and Strandquist also started a holistic intern- ship where women and men in reentry could access the skills and  resources they need to move forward. Faith Bartley, a North Phila- delphia native, joined the co-ed pilot program and quickly emerged  as a natural leader and visionary. She pointed out the shortage of  reentry services aimed specifically at women, despite the fact  that the number of women in US prisons is growing over 50 percent  faster than men.4 "Once those handcuffs come off and the gates open and you're  thrust back into the community, it's been my experience I didn't  know which way to go," says Bartley. She spearheaded the Women in  Reentry fellowship, now in its third year, and was hired as the  Co-op's lead fellow. Bartley's story typifies the experiences of returning women,  especially poor, black, and Latina.5 After serving her sentence,  she spent five years working for six dollars an hour with no  chance of a raise. She was unable to access grief and trauma  counseling, legal assistance, and other crucial resources,  likening a criminal record to a "prison without walls." And it's  not just the formerly incarcerated who are held captive.  In the words of the Spring 2018 Women in Reentry fellows: Women are the queen bees,  So when you lock us up, you lock up the hope of a whole community. You lock up survivors,  Your mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives,  The hearts of our families,  A whole colony of bees.  You lock up the whole family. The fellowship serves as a platform for women like Bartley to  effect change on a policy level. Along with Bowles and  Strandquist, each cohort co-designs their experience, integrating  art as both a therapeutic tool and a megaphone to amplify their  voices. A typical meeting begins with a "Share and Tear" ritual, where the  women pose questions like, "If you could change your name, what  would it be?" They write down and share their responses, then tear  them up and blend them into the day's first sheet of paper.  Using old criminal records, detention slips, tax forms, and any- thing else they want to pulp, the women make greeting cards and  handbound journals to sell online and throughout Philadelphia.  Each journal contains poems and stories from community mem-bers  affected by the criminal justice system, and all proceeds go back  to the Co-op to expand its programs and employ women.6 Changing minds is seen as an essential first step to changing the policies that prevent these women and their communities from  thriving. By combining art, advocacy, and social entrepreneurship,  the fellows demonstrate to schools, employers, and lawmakers that  they are valuable civic leaders.  For Bartley, mastering hand papermaking has taught her to see  herself as an artist with much to offer her community. For others,  the practice is a tangible witness to their own unfolding story. Bowles and Strandquist see hand papermaking as a vehicle for  imagining new futures that yields fresh surfaces on which to in- scribe those visions. This may be best exemplified by the Co-op's   upcoming collaboration with the Philadelphia Reentry Coali-tion:  the first-ever Reentry Bill of Rights authored by over 1,200   returning citizens. The text will be written across giant sheets  of  pa-per made from criminal records and presented to a broad  network of influential stakeholders, including the Mayor's Office,  the Penn-sylvania Department of Corrections, and the US Attorney's  Office. What matters most, says Strandquist, is that "the Co-op  creates  space for hilarious, intense, beautiful, brutal, complex   conversations" among the women that nurture understanding,   healing, and strength. ___________  notes 1. Excerpt from We the Women, a collaborative poem by Women  in Reentry fellows, Spring 2018, produced during a weekly group  meeting in which each member contributed various lines.  2. "Understanding Criminal Records," Philadelphia Lawyers for  Social Equity, criminal-records/ (accessed April 22, 2018). 3. Molly Kenney, et al., "The Penn Law Criminal Record  Expungement Project," last modified July 31, 2014, on the American  Bar Association website, http://apps committeesaccess/articles/summer2014-0714-penn-law- criminal- record-expungement-project.html (accessed May 31, 2018). 4. "Incarcerated Women and Girls," a fact sheet, updated  November 2015, on The Sentencing Project website, https:// wp-content/uploads/2016/02/ Incarcerated-Women-and-Girls.pdf (accessed May 31, 2018). 5. Elizabeth Swavola, et al., Overlooked: Women and Jails in  an Era of Reform (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2016),  https://storage.googleapis .com/vera-web-assets/downloads/ Publications/overlooked-women-and-jails-report/ legacy_downloads/ overlooked-women-and-jails-report-updated.pdf (accessed May 31,  2018). 6. Learn more about the People's Paper Co-op and shop books  and paper made by the Women in Reentry at