States of Incarceration: A Valley-Wide Conversation about Prisons and Criminal Justice in the United States
Long-time friends and visitors to Wistariahurst may be looking at our spring program calendar with some confusion. Although the format of the events looks familiar – a variety of cultural performances, lectures, workshops, and exhibits are featured – the topics and especially the locations may strike one as surprising.
This March, Wistariahurst has joined with organizations across the Pioneer Valley to contribute to a regional conversation about incarceration. Beginning in the fall of 2015 Wistariahurst teamed up with the Public History Program at UMass Amherst and the Feinberg Family Distinguished Lecture Series to develop a series of public programs and projects related to the topic of our justice system and issues of mass incarceration, including teaming up with our neighbors and colleagues at Forbes Library and Historic Northampton to host the national traveling exhibit States of Incarceration: A National Dialogue of Local Histories, a project developed by students, faculty and community partners at twenty universities across the country brought together by the Humanities Action Lab at the New School in New York. Now the States of Incarceration: Pioneer Valley project has grown from three organizations and an exhibit, to over 20 organizations presenting more than 35 programs on the topic. (You can find the full list of programs offered and entities involved at www.PV-SOI.org and a description of Hamptons and Holyoke Read community books events here.)
Over the past year as we have worked on this project, we have seen the conversation about mass incarceration and our criminal justice system take off on a national level across a broad spectrum of the population. With books like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson maintaining positions on The New York Times Bestseller lists for months and Ava Duvernay’s documentary 13th being nominated for an Oscar this past January, it is clear that this is a conversation that we collectively need to expand.
On a local level, this is a topic and conversation which our community has been tackling for a long time. In the state of Massachusetts, Holyoke is disproportionately affected by incarceration and we are home to many innovative organizations who are working to change the status of incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, and at risk individuals. Effective programs such as Holyoke Safe and Successful Youth Initiate, who have worked in collaboration with Wistariahurst, and the Prison Birth Project are based here in Holyoke. Pa’lante, a youth-led program which uses restorative justice practices to intervene in situations of conflict and who serve to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, is making change from within the Holyoke Public Schools. Just recently a video produced by students from Holyoke High School which used music and art to challenge stereotypes and promote a message of nonviolence independently went viral, taking the message beyond the walls of their school. The community in Holyoke is taking a lead on issues related to incarceration and as the City’s cultural and historical institution we want to support that work.
Still, you may be asking Why Wistariahurst? When a current issue begins to be so pervasive that we can find people discussing it in almost every corner of the City, we take that seriously as a cue and pose to ourselves the question of how can we be of use? While our organizational role is not to advocate or suggest solutions, we are here to educate. In this case we realized that we could use our expertise to support the work of others by providing historical context. We believe that any good debate requires a look back at the past and those events which brought us to our present.
Another distinction which marks our spring programs is that not all of them take place at Wistariahurst. Starting in 2016 with our pop-up exhibits at Celebrate Holyoke and Taste of South Holyoke, we set ourselves a new goal to leave our own walls behind more and more often. For this project, we decided to take our programs and exhibits on the road in Holyoke and were supported in doing so by partners across the city including The Wauregan Building, whose owners donated space to stage the large-scale exhibit, the Holyoke Council on Aging and Senior Center, the Holyoke War Memorial, and Nueva Esperanza. What you see reflected on our calendar is an effort to bring history to new city spaces, to bring more people to downtown Holyoke, and to bring our programming to more people in more parts of the City.
In 1959 Wistariahurst was donated to the City of Holyoke as an educational institution by the descendants of the Skinner Family. From that point on we have been supported by the residents of the city of Holyoke and have held as our charge and mission that we would preserve the history here, the history of all of Holyoke’s citizens, and to use history to educate and support the development of Holyoke’s present. The Skinner family will long be remembered for their devotion to helping others, and especially to supporting the residents of the City of Holyoke who were most at risk. It is a part of our legacy which crucially informs the work we do today.
For Wistariahurst, and I suspect most of the cultural institutions involved, we recognize that this will be a mere month out of our program time while the community organizations who have lent their time, expertise, and energies to States of Incarceration work in this realm every day and have been for years. Our hope is that this conversation will not begin and end in the spring of 2017 but will begin…and continue…and grow…until the history of our prison systems, and the humanity of the people within them, are well understood by all.