amplifying our everyday resistance to the prison industrial complex
Everyday Abolition | Abolition Everyday Interview with Stephanie Gentry-Fernandez
Stephanie Gentry-Fernandez is a close comrade and someone I have learned so much from in terms of living my politics in relationships and my work with youth. She is a youth worker, a nurse, a poet, a performer, and an organizer born/raised/based in the southside of Chicago. On a recent trip to the bay area, she sat with me and we discussed her thoughts on everday abolition.
LMA: Okay, let’s start by talking about what comes to mind when you hear “everyday abolition”? What does it mean to you?
SGF: Capitalism like, at its root, comes to mind. Just the idea of caging people up for profit and it’s extremely based on race and class and gender and sexuality. I think it’s a really basic ways to deny people rights and make money off doing it.
I think, so, people want whatever is easiest right, and it’s easy to lock people up. It’s easier to do that than to get them to change or it’s easier to do that than to deal with their bullshit. It takes a lot of work to – I mean, I think there are definitely some mental illnesses out there that, y’know, need support and services, including safe places to be, especially in order to not be physically hurting people. But I think for the most part violence is a learned behavior, y’know. So in everyday life, people right away want whatever is easiest. And especially where I live and where I’m from, it’s a whole hell of a lot easier to call the police when there is shooting outside of your house then go out and talk to somebody you don’t know who has a gun and was just shooting at someone. I feel like it’s constantly coming up. Between school, and like, doing my clinical at the hospital, and of course at the Broadway Youth Center (BYC). With BYC, it would be so much easier to have our college school prep kids, little queer kids come in that are very well behaved and haven’t experienced all kinds of trauma, y’know. It would be easier to just kick them out and whatever, and not to say, like, that that never happens. We do kick people out sometimes. But, there is a lot of conversation and a lot of thought and a lot of planning that goes into it to ensure that the young person has other support and resources to support their healing.
In my personal life, what’s interesting is one of my best friends is an architect and her fiancé is an architect. And he just left a job building prisons. Y’know, being able to, like, really try to just engage with him as a future-almost relative. And knowing he hates his work, he hates it. He’s ashamed of it. But he also has a kid and wants his kid to have a comfortable life. And I would just try to never bring it up but he would be the one that obviously felt guilty in some way and like, bring up how they were really trying to make these places humane. And I’d be like, I’m not even going to get into this with you cuz we’re just not gonna agree and it’s not worth fucking up our families. So, y’know, it’s all the time it just comes up in all parts of my life all the time. It’s just the norm to lock someone away and not worry about it until later, and think outside of that. Most people are working 2-3 jobs right now if they can find a job. And no one has time to be healing…because that’s really what it’s about. Healing takes time and no one has the time to heal.
LMA: I wanna come back to that. But I know that you face violence almost everyday in your neighborhood and in all of the work you do in Chicago. How have your politics informed how you handle conflict and harm and violence?
I think in the personal, I really don’t automatically deflect to 9-11. I really try to think of that as a last resort. I think really the only time I do that now is if there is a gun involved. Which unfortunately feels like it is more and more closer to home. Did I tell you that there was a shooting, like, right in front of our house, like 2 weeks ago? Like, in front of the house. Like, not exaggerating. And a two year old got shot, like, a couple doors away last year. It’s been getting closer and closer to home. And it’s really scary and I’m really emotional about it. Sorry I know this is kinda off topic or whatever. There’s always been shooting around me or whatever, but it’s bad. It’s worse. I’m really interested in finding what other community responses to that type of violence are, because I’m at a loss. I hear about it in places where it’s safer than where I live. It’s just kind of game over when there is a gun involved. There is no healing, there is no transformation. Doesn’t matter how grounded I am. Some sick motherfucker can just shoot me and that’s that, y’know. Maybe I’ll live.
But other than that, like, for all the other bullshit I see or have to deal with…I really try to have conversations with people. It’s really made me reflect on how I approach people and the type of energy that I give out. Like, before any de-escalation I just try to make sure that my feet are planted, that I take some deep breaths, that my pulse isn’t racing, that I’m not screaming at them, or like somehow escalating the situation. So I think that that way that I go inwards right away and just try to exude peace and calm, as hippy as it sounds, it’s effective. And I don’t think a lot of people approach conflict that way. I think a lot of people are energized by conflict and just kinda wanna fan the flame. Or watch a fight. Or get money out of it somehow or whatever.
I think a lot of this same stuff just applies to work. Aracelli always gives this story from when she was volunteering at BYC. There was this youth at drop-in that had a knife and was stabbing the table over and over again and freaking out all the poor volunteers. And I just walked up to them and took the knife and was like, “Thanks. You can get it from me at the end of the day.” Shit like that, I am 5’4”, and like, 140 lbs. and could get flicked across the street. And I will walk up to thugs, to people I have no business walking up to. And yeah, maybe because I’m small. I think I’ve found a way to work it, make peace in a situation, because they know how ridiculous it would be to come at me.
I appreciate this way of thinking or whatever because it just really makes me model absolutely everything that I am talking about and live it all the time. And really this is about peace. I think there is a spiritual aspect to it that I don’t think a lot of people want to get into. It’s non-violent resistance, it’s the core of that.
LMA: Say more about that, about the spiritual side of it. What you said about people not wanting to “get into it” – meaning spirituality often gets de-politicized.
SGF: I was raised Catholic, familiar with like liberation theology and everything. Not necessarily from my family’s history, but definitely like from family friends. Who, for example, were from Chile and had survived a lot of awful, awful things.
And, at the same time, it was just always, since I was a kid, in my consciousness a growing understanding of political conflict. Like people in my family saying stuff like, “Noooo, people get disappeared there.”
So to me, being Catholic, being Christian or whatever, was all about how you treated people. I think that people don’t like talking about how Jesus would have been doing this work, he did this work. And I think that leaders of big faiths were doing the same things. I’m not currently practicing anything but there are reasons my gay mom is a minister. I think that to me it’s how I practice my spirituality now is by trying to not be a dick, basically. It’s pretty basic.
And I think just the idea that someone is so much less human than you that they deserve to be in a cage, or that they deserve to not be forgiven, or they don’t deserve another chance. I mean, I’ve been given so many second chances. I’ve screwed up so many times, I think we all have. It would be so nice to see some compassion still existing.
LMA: How do you keep your passion fired up? Who or what inspires you to resist punitive responses to harm and violence?
SGF: I mean, youth, y’know. When I lived in California in 2004, I was facilitating a weekly workshop for young women in a juvenile detention center. It was aimed at like violence prevention, but I learned so much, soooo much. I only did for about 10 months and I switched jobs and ended up doing another workshop in another detention center for a year and some change and ended up building relationships with these young folks. And even though they were cycling in and out all of the time I was still able to connect with them.
People were so humble and people were so forgiving. And people took care of eachother so much. And at BYC I see that all the time. People get that life is messy and sometimes we’re messy and sometimes we need some help. And I see people doing that who have so much less than I do. I’m incredibly blessed and it just pushes me to push myself to do more. That’s what inspires me.
LMA: How have your abolitionist politics informed how you build your relationships?
It’s funny, because I feel like if I grew up with someone they get like, a free pass. I know it’s fucked up, but it’s true. I don’t think it’s helpful either to totally isolate yourself from your community. I talked earlier for example of that one friend who’s fiancé used to build prisons. But he got a new job so it’s in the past. But things like that I’m like, it’s just not worth the trouble to point all the ways that – and I don’t even blame him personally. I get it. He has a shorty. You gotta do your shit, you know. Game over. I don’t have a kid, I don’t know what it’s like.
And two, I also realize a lot of privilege comes with this language. You need to be educated to some extent, even if it means being involved in some type of organization or whatever. But that’s an education. So I think I definitely look for people who are like minded. And I notice that I tend to keep conversations very very goofy and very very light for a very long time. Just cuz I feel like I gotta save my energy for where it matters and fighting with everybody I encounter hasn’t served me in the past. And it doesn’t serve the movement. And it certainly doesn’t serve anybody locked up. So, like, why do it, y’know?
Does that mean that I’m not gonna speak my mind when stuff comes up? No, absolutely not. I do it all the time. In school, an example that comes up pretty regularly is homeless people coming into hospitals when it’s cold out. “Faking” that they have chest pains. By law they need to get checked out and it’s usually a 3 days stay so a lot of people work that. And a lot of the nurses and the nursing instructors and clinical instructors roll their eyes and are really fucked up about it and are like, “These assholes just blah blah blah,” and I’m like, “Have you ever slept outside when it’s 12 degrees out? It sucks. You prolly woulda done it to.” And I’ll just say things like that and they’ll be like, “Okay, yeah.” I think nurses somewhere deep down inside believe in people having a nice warm bed to sleep in no matter where they’re at now. People get burned out, that’s where a lot of that comes from.
In class or in work I’m so opinionated, that when I’m in a small group with classmates or whatever I’ll just try to be really smiley and goofy or stupid or whatever because I don’t want to be that intense person all the time either. I don’t think it’s good to be that intense person all the time.
LMA: What supports/structures have you put in place to be able to resist the state and PIC in your life?
SGF: My family. It’s funny because 4 out of 5 of them are pretty radical in their own way. But I think that, it was funny too with that same fiancé of my friend, the whole family trying to change the subject. Because everybody was very uncomfortable with what he was talking about.
My mom comes from upper class Mexico so it was a huge culture shock coming here. Also the racism that went with everybody perceiving her, Mexican is Mexican no matter. Through her work doing medical interpreting, she’s really, literally gotten to walk in the shoes of other people. And it’s opened her eyes that not everybody has the silver spoon or whatever and no, it’s not anyone’s fault and yeah, it totally impacts the way your life comes out.
So I think with my family – wait, is this going to be anonymous? I don’t know what would be the point of getting into it. I think that with my family there has been a lot of work to um-
LMA: Maybe share the ways you have felt transformation in your family, I know that it’s something that has in the past been a difficult struggle for you.
SGF: I think this spiritual root is really what brought everybody to the same page y’know. Because I would call people out and be like, how can you call yourself a Christian or think that Jesus would have been as much of a dick as you’re being. You’re hating, y’know? And I think people really heard that. For example my parents found a church they like, and a pastor they really like. Who I think reflects like, would be sitting here with us. I think he’s down with all this. So, I think that was a really good point. And also as a family coming to the conclusion that we’re not going to tolerate violence. And none of us are going to put up with any of us being treated lesser than anybody else, does that make sense? Like people kinda stepped up to defend me which was nice. Was beautiful. Cuz I feel like, especially being the oldest and being a girl in a Mexican family, I definitely did that a lot. Like, all my life.
Yeah, so, it’s funny that we’re talking about spirituality so much because I think that really was what the bottom line was for everybody. And I think it’s something that activist communities don’t acknowledge enough, don’t talk about enough. And I think rightfully so. I think people have had some really horrible experiences with organized faith. And it took me a long time to be even, like, comfortable talking about it. But I can’t pretend that I don’t believe in God. That’s there. I was raised in that, y’know? It would be like me saying I’m not Mexican or not white or not a southsider. It’s just a part of my identity.
So, yeah. That’s all that I have to say.
Thank you, so much Stephanie – for your work and art and fierce brilliance.