Liza Jessie Peterson is an “artivist,” her art and her activism conjoined. With a deep sense of justice, it is her Libran calling to balance its scales. “I’m an artist, but my advocacy is channeled through my art,” she says. “Everything I write about, everything I perform is through that lens.” Her decades-long entrenchment in the carceral system spans from making the trek upstate from her Brooklyn home to visit her jailed former lover to teaching incarcerated youths at New York City’s notorious Rikers Island Correctional Facility.
These experiences inform her profound one-woman show, The Peculiar Patriot,exploring the human impact of mass incarceration, not just on inmates, but their intimates who brave the cramped, hours-long bus rides to prison visits in revolutionary acts of loyalty and commitment, “navigating love between barbed wire.” She toured the show to over 30 prisons across the country to standing ovations and black power salutes before premiering it to the general public in a sold-out run at Harlem’s National Black Theatre.
In All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island, Liza mines her old journals and indelible memories to deftly chronicle her experience of being the classroom teacher, all day from 7:50 am – 2:30 pm to adolescent boys locked in a system more punitive than rehabilitative. With humor and pathos, she gives voice to these young men swept into the penal maelstrom and exposes the glaring disparity in corrections approaches between kids of color and white.
She started working at Rikers Island in 1998 to conduct a poetry workshop and was surprised to discover “the overwhelmingly disproportionate amount of Black and Latino adolescents” incarcerated there. She says,
“It was astounding! I wasn’t aware of the prison industrial complex— it was not in the zeitgeist— this was 1998. Mass incarceration was not even a phrase that people used back then. I was going in without any context. I had no idea about the cash bail system; I had no idea about the privatization of prisons. A corrections officer pointed to the boys and referred to them as the ‘new cotton’– that I was working on the plantation and the boys were the crops.”
She would learn that Black and Latino children are targeted for arrest and criminalized for typical adolescent behavior.
“Adolescents are always going to buck up against the system; they are still going to challenge authority. They are going through a stage of psychological differentiation separation, where they are exerting their independence, moving away from family toward friends and testing boundaries. It’s a natural phase of adolescent development.”
While working with incarcerated adolescent girls, she learned that most had histories of sexual abuse. “A lot of their acting-out comes from the unhealed wounds and unaddressed trauma in their lives,” she says. As rampant revelations of sexual assault surface in this country, Liza hopes that “this heightened national dialogue will give young girls the courage to come forward and speak out about what has happened to them and know that it isn’t their fault; their cries are valid, and they have support.” She says that although women who have spoken out about it have been “dismissed, ignored, denied, chastised, threatened and attacked, now we’re seeing the tide turning, and men are being called to task and being held accountable for their reprehensible behavior.”
She remains hopeful that the social justice pendulum will swing toward what is right and just—that the normalization of sexual misconduct will reverse, and prison reforms put an end to race-based arrests and draconian sentencing. She shares how others can effect change: “first people need to get educated on what white supremacy is — what it looks like and how it works. And vote, not just in the big elections, but the smaller local elections, too.” She adds that many community-based organizations rely on donations to keep their doors open. “There are organizations already on the ground doing the work. If you have money, find out who they are and support them. Of philanthropist Agnes Gund’s recent endowment she adds, “Be like Agnes; write a check.”
An “interrupter of recidivism,” Liza stays in contact with several of the kids and works to help them once they are released. “I’m always going to have that connection to the youth–helping them to stay alive and free and out of the grip of the criminal justice system. But I’m an artist first. I’m creating; I’m writing plays, I’m writing books, I’m writing content for television that will encapsulate my advocacy.”