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Sep 20, 2022

The following talk was delivered by Dr. Kim Wilson at the DecARcerate Arkansas 2022 conference in Little Rock. The conference was an opportunity for abolitionist and other organizers to come together to listen as speakers from around the state and the country talked about their work.

Kim interviewed organizers about their experience with boundary setting in movement spaces, and what they said illuminates a deeper problem that we seldom hear addressed, but that is nonetheless, important for liberation movements. As the mother of two sons currently sentenced to LWOP; as an organizer that provides education, direct support, and mobilizes resources for people in and out of prison; and as a Black disabled woman that is struggling with multiple health issues, she is emotionally, physically, and financially exhausted.

The talk was a collaborative effort that included the voices of women and femmes in the movement who felt that these things need to be said, and Kim had the opportunity to use her platform to say them. We invite you to listen and to act upon what she shares, and to use this talk as an entry point to engage people in your community and movement spaces about what all of the women and femmes said.

You can support Kim directly via Venmo (@Kim-Wilson-16) and CashApp ($BeyondPrisons)


To borrow a phrase from the inimitable Fannie Lou Hamer, “I’ve been tired so long, now I am sick and tired of being sick and tired, and I want a change.”

Y’all I’m tired. I’m tired of arguing, of fighting, of feeling like we’re constantly having to remind people of our humanity. I’m tired of the suffering, of the trauma, and of watching people die. I’m tired of oppressive systems, of prisons, of poverty, homelessness, and hyper-individualism. I’m tired of watching my friends suffer. I’m tired of people treating incarcerated people as if they don’t matter. I’m tired of ableism. I’m tired of living in a white supremacist capitalist patriarchal society. I’m tired!!!! I’m tired of crisis management. I’m tired of sacrificing my physical and emotional well-being. I’m tired of people’s discomfort being the standard by which we decide on really important things. I’m tired of cynicism. I’m tired of the thinking that says that women, and particularly Black Women, femmes and other folks should be willing to do this work without question or limits. I’m tired of fighting for people that expect me to have their backs, when I know that they don’t have mine. Not really, really!

I’m tired of toxic masculinity. I’m tired of men acting like they’re doing women a favor when they are asked to do the absolute least necessary for us to survive. I’m tired of having to fear violence, anger, and passive aggression from men in general, but especially from men in movement spaces. I’m tired of the unspoken expectations that are placed on women in movement spaces that shift the burden onto women and femmes to do most of the work of organizing.

While we’re ALL suffering under these oppressive systems, women, femmes, trans, non-binary, gender non-confirming folks, and disabled people are disproportionately affected by these systems and we are still showing up and doing all of the things. This is not sustainable!

To be clear, this is NOT a call out or a call in. This is our reality. I’m not the only one that’s tired. Many of us are exhausted, physically, emotionally, mentally, and financially. I am bringing this forward so that we can set about the task of collectively changing things.

There is no healing in isolation. Part of the liberatory project is to heal our collective trauma, and HOW we work together is part of that work.

This work has to happen alongside the tearing down and building up. It’s not work that can be deferred until some magical date in the future when we have the time, OR conditions are perfect. When folks make that argument recognize that they are gaslighting and attempting to derail the conversation to escape accountability.

Audre Lorde wrote, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”

The conditions in which we organize are not separate issue buckets, but the literal material conditions through which we have to survive and help others.

Women, femmes, trans, non-binary, gender non conforming and disabled people are treated as disposable. We live in a society that doesn’t care about us, but how are we demonstrating that we care for each other?

We are still in the middle of a global pandemic that has killed 6.52 MILLION people worldwide, and 11,961 people in Arkansas alone, yet there are still people arguing that wearing a piece of cloth on their face infringes on their freedom.

Imani Barbarin, a Black disabled woman, and one of the baddest communications strategists and disability rights advocates around, has rightly called Covid “a mass disabling event.” This refers to the fact that many able bodied folks will find themselves disabled as a result of catching Covid. These newly disabled folks are now finding that they have to fight for things that we shouldn’t have to fight for. Now that They’re affected they’re outraged and want change.

Here’s my thing, You don’t have to learn the things the hard way. You could just trust what people are saying about their experience. Full stop. We’ve been saying for a long time that ableism is NOT the flex that people think it is.

Let’s consider how these things intersect, Black disabled women experience higher rates of houselessness and incarceration. There hasn’t been a federal minimum wage increase since 2009, and raising the federal minimum wage would have a positive impact on Women’s lives. We live in a country with no real social safety net, where people that work full time in minimum wage jobs cannot afford a two bedroom apartment in any state in the country.

An honest accounting of the houseless problem in this country has to include policies that criminalize houselessness. For example, we know that Black people are disproportionately impacted by homelessness and incarceration. A 2021 study by the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness found that “Most people with a history of incarceration and homelessness were homeless before going to prison. Suggesting that the criminalization of homelessness is a driver of incarceration.” (Prison Policy.Org) But the problem doesn’t end there, we also know that domestic violence is the leading cause of houselessness for women. We also know that trans people and gender non-conforming people experience houselessness at higher rates than their cis gender peers, and seventy percent of trans people using shelters report discrimination or violence by shelter staff.

Prison abolition isn’t just about working on prison issues. We need to consider what other institutions and systems are implicated. The many tentacles of the PIC means that our daily lives are lived being aware of its looming presence and power to destroy us. The PIC derives its power in part, from being simultaneously hyper-visible AND obscure because it is embedded into so many things.

Many of us recognize the hyper-visible expressions of the carceral state in their physical form such as prison buildings, police, etc., and in their more abstracted forms such as policies and practices. But there’s a cognitive dissonance that makes it difficult for some people to see that transphobia, ableism, sexism, toxic masculinity, and patriarchy are part and parcel of the same dehumanizing structure that includes prisons and policing.

All of these things are rooted in white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy, which is the logic that underpins the carceral state.

To get rid of prisons, to get rid of ALL systems of oppression, the liberatory project has to address these problems. That is our work. But the work is NOT evenly distributed.

The more women, femmes, trans, and other people that I talk with the more I hear that many of us are tired of doing this work.

We do this work because if we don’t we suffer. There are so many ways that we suffer that I won’t even try to list them. Suffice it to say that we suffer when we take on too much, when we do or are expected to do more than any one person reasonably can or should. We suffer and shorten our lives because we’re unable to rest without repercussions.

Prentis Hemphill wrote, “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.” “Boundaries give us the space to do the work of loving ourselves. They might be, actually, the first and fundamental expression of self-love.”

I interviewed a handful of women organizers from around the country and here’s what they said in response to being asked to reflect on setting boundaries as women in movement spaces.


Boundaries are really important especially in organizing-and especially in a kind of organizing that problematically glorifies when women ‘give their all’ to the movement, despite how they are affected or how it affects their relationships with their loved ones. We have a tendency in social justice movements to romanticize the ‘woman’ organizer. This mythic creature is fearless, boundless in energy, absolute in her devotion to the movement. She educates, she nurtures, she resources, she leads from the shadows. She never suffers, not from indecision or fatigue or loneliness or oppression. Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Safiya Bukhari, Kathy Boudin. Women we asked everything of, took all we could from, and what did we leave them with? What if instead of glorifying their sacrifices we shared the work? And not just the sexy parts of organizing, but the monotony too.


I would just say two things: One is that I often find that women in organizing spaces are just quicker / more likely to take on the labor of figuring out logistics, even when doing so is burdensome or requires navigating complex systems, whereas men will give up or just not even try to figure something out if it isn’t immediately clear. Often, I find that men need to be explicitly asked to do smaller logistical tasks, and are sometimes resistant to doing them, whereas women take on that work automatically. Often, when there are unsexy tasks like phone banking, it is women who show up much more so than men.


While men in the movement are often quick to make big statements and big decisions about how things SHOULD be done, it’s women and trans people and nonbinary folks who are OVERWHELMINGLY doing the actual work of keeping people alive. And that’s what the most fundamental work is in this movement: keeping people alive. It’s the mutual aid work, the financial support (including commissary, phones, housing support for people getting out), the emotional support, the caregiving for kids who’ve been left behind... It’s the person bringing over groceries when someone’s confined to their home on electronic monitoring. It’s the person coming to visit week after week so someone inside doesn’t lose hope, doesn’t lose their will to live. On a personal level — when my niece was incarcerated, I was so frustrated by the fact that her boyfriends, even her fiancé, would not do ANY of this work/support. Instead they complained that she wasn’t out here to be there for THEM. What does this mean for boundary-setting? For me, it has often meant that setting boundaries is way harder than it should be because some people (i.e. most men) are not pulling any weight, when it comes to this low-profile, behind-the-scenes, hard every day work of supporting our loved ones’ survival. So as we try (sometimes in vain) to help keep people alive, we end up letting our boundaries slip again and again...


In every movement formation that I’ve been in, especially the abolitionist ones that have a spectrum of gender represented, it's 99 percent the femmes that start the google.doc, even that kind of infrastructural work is relegated to invisible care work. I don’t want to call it soft violence, because I don’t think it’s soft. It's part of the quiet, but violent extraction that happens when people don’t recognize people’s labor and people’s gendered labor. Regardless of what their gender is.

In terms of boundaries, we tend to think about boundaries as I’m not going to work on a Saturday or I’m not going to meet after ten o’clock at night, but people don’t think of a boundary as demanding that we all take turns doing the same amount of work. But I also feel like we are living in a time where there aren't a lot of other ways that people are allowed to take up space in movement work without violating those boundaries or without being affirmed for doing that work. By affirmed I don’t mean respected–it’s like thank you sis for doing this or like the snacks were provided by these people, how nice. That’s not respected as much as the people who are chaining themselves to the prison.

It’s not lost on me either that the venn diagram of movement space is often run by a certain masculanized organizer model, and for as much as people pretend they’re not for the Alinsky Model, they sure are. The venn diagram between certain organizing styles and the way that they devalue the google doc making, snacks bringing and setting up chairs work, and the type of abuser that emerges in movement spaces, and the kind of permission that’s given to a lot of –especially masculine rock star organizers who are also systematically abusive.

The venn diagram shows no respect for labor and boundaries and no respect for sharing work. Why is it that we think that so many of the letter writing spaces and the letter writing organizations and the relationship building organizations are run by femmes. Even when we’re doing coalitional relational work in abolition, relationship building, the nurturing, the crisis intervention work, the people who are fielding calls from jail, the people who are making sure that the commissary goes through are often feminized people. And the people who get to hold the megaphone are not often those people. And the people who are there to be on the front line of receiving the frustration of incarcerated people are the same people who are there to write the letters, to receive the phone calls, and who are there to make sure the commissary goes through on time are often the same people who bear the brunt of somebody’s frustration, who are there to pick up the pieces of the trauma that prison causes other people, the people who have to organize and mobilize and like themselves get traumatized by traumatized people because that emotional lash out is often reserved for the people on the front lines which are femmes and women, and those are the same people who show up with the snacks.


Ok. So. Boundary setting. I think one of my biggest struggles in organizing spaces is the difference between people’s expressed values of self-determination, consent, muddling through, and care for one another, ON THE ONE HAND, and the way that people's struggle practices do not align with these values, ON THE OTHER. The work of having to point this out and make space for the inevitable conflicts it brings is exhausting. And it is not seen as work—it is seen as complaining, being trouble, or not getting it. There is no boundary that can be set ahead of time that will prevent the need for people to work through conflict together. So we need many of us to skill up and grow our capacities for conflict. But the work is often put on those seen as the ones who are supposed to nurture and take care of the feelings.

I’ll leave you with a few suggestions for how to proceed. This is NOT an exhaustive list, but a place to start. AND please note that there is no one size fits all for how to address these problems, but we need to address them.

One of the people that I interviewed suggested that, Men need to talk to their friends. That is, men have to get better at checking other men on their problematic behavior.

Second, Political Education: engage in a political education process where you study and discuss materials that address these issues. Read the work of women, femmes, trans, disabled people, etc.

Third, Do the work: actually begin doing the work. Abolition work is not constrained as a future project. It’s how we move today. It’s how we care for each other TODAY. It’s how we act in the world, and the communities and power we build TODAY!!! It’s a blueprint for today as much as it is a future society.

Finally, focus on relationship building beyond performative and surface level solidarity. Ruth Wilson Gilmore said that abolition is presence. I agree!!!

Engage in letter writing with incarcerated people. Visit people if you are able to gain access to prisons, go see folks inside on a regular basis. I’m in prison visiting rooms all the time and women are the majority of visitors.

I don’t have a pithy closing to offer you because I was too exhausted to write one. I’ll just say this, We are all working with limited capacity and resources, and those of us that are showing up in all the ways and doing all the things even when our bodies are

signaling that they need a break are giving more than there fair share. We don’t want to be mythologized for our sacrifices; instead we not only want, but need change. How we work together matters just as much as the work itself.

Thank you!