By Sharon Pendana 

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.



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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.”

Photo: Garlia C. Jones-Ly

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