Throwback: Janae Bonsu
Interview by Britt Julious
Photos by Taylor Emrey
In 2016, an activist can and should be many things like writer, artist, teacher, or leader. Their work is not relegated to the literal sidelines. Instead, they maneuver through roles, adapting their goals, through practices and skills to better align with the needs of an increasingly fractured world.
Consider Janae Bonsu. In addition to serving as the National Public Policy Chair at Black Youth Project 100, Bonsu is also a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois Chicago in Social Work. Bonsu calls herself a prison abolitionist and in her work, she aims to investigate and eradicate the systemic causes of intergenerational incarceration, particularly in the black community, and the societal repercussions of that incarceration. “Incarceration is the 21st century version of slavery,” Bonsu said. “I feel like my role living in the 21st century is the same as those abolitionists who were alive during the slave era, like the Harriet Tubmans and the Frederick Douglasses.”
The prison system hinders active freedom (especially for women and queer people, the focus on Bonsu’s work) for many within and outside of its walls and Bonsu’s focused studies in social work looks to radically alter that cyclical environment. “I feel like in order to achieve freedom, whether you're talking about sociopolitical or economic freedom, the carceral system is a crucial institution to attack, because it withholds freedom in a very literal sense from a lot of people,” said Bonsu.
It seems like this is an ongoing, expansive problem.
Yeah, that's where my interest in incarceration comes from. I'm specifically focused on women and queer folks because, especially now, we're in a state in history where incarceration rates are, at best, leveling off. They're not rising in the way that they were during the war on drugs. There's this kind of shared notion that oh, maybe prisons aren't as effective as we thought they were, we've got to save money, right? Which is great, but some arguments are for the wrong reasons.
Even though that's good, there's still this hyperfocus on men in terms of numbers. Granted, they make up most of the criminal justice system, right? But even though women make up a small percentage of that, they're still there. They still exist, and their challenges, their needs, their whole profiles, are totally different from men and males. Men don't menstruate every month. Men can't get pregnant. Men aren't subjected to the same level of trauma that could come with a strip search as women.
Just being in that position and not having that kind of power.
Yeah, and prisons and jails being like these sites of—they can be hypersexual, in the sense that most correctional officers are males that work in female prisons. You know, COs have the license to do whatever the hell they want to do. You see a lot of instances of women having to acquiesce to whatever COs want to do in exchange for leniency, favors, things like that. There's so many dynamics that are true for women and females in prisons that aren't for males. I think there needs to be way more focus on that.
I think since my becoming a member of BYP100, I've been politicized in a lot of ways that I wasn't before, and one of those is this black queer feminist lens that we talk about so much. It's through that same lens in which I organize with BYP100 that I apply to my scholarship. I could easily propose a study about COs or just about females in general or women in general, but for me to intentionally talk about masculine identifying women, I want to look at queerness in the broadest sense of the term. I think that's super important because I think that's also relatively absent in academic spaces as well. Taken together, I think that's what brings me to where I am. I think my work in school would look totally different if I were not an activist and organizer outside of school.
Why do you say that?
Because my work in both spaces usually reinforce each other. Because I do not ever want to be an academic for just academics' sake. I never want to be a professor or just do research for the sake of doing research. I feel like it's my identity to leverage educational privilege and the power of research in a way that furthers my vision for the world I want to live in.
If the implications of what I find doesn't lead to a stronger case for why this prison should be closed or a stronger case for why this alternative to incarceration should be developed, then I don't need to do it. You know what I'm saying? It's a waste of my time. I see community organizing and transformative public policy work, which is what I do with BYP100, as complementary to social work research.
Growing up in Columbia, South Carolina, there were no activists or organizing happening that I could see, even though there was so much evidence of racism and white supremacy and all that fuckshit. And so I never really knew what to do to change things that were systemic.
I had a really good understanding of what individual-level helping looked like, so I was a psychology major. Yeah, so I had this master plan that once I graduated from undergrad I was going to go straight to a PhD program in clinical psych and live happily ever after. But I didn't get into the PhD program that I applied to. I was initially really, really devastated. I didn't have a plan B.
But I believe that everything happens for a reason, and I'm thankful today that I did not get in. I had moved back to New York to take a job in this social policy organization in New York. I learned more about policy and had a more nuanced understanding of the systems that I was really confused about changing.
I thought, ‘I don't know if psychology is it, because it has this really narrow view. It individualizes problems a lot and doesn't really look outside a person to see what is influencing the presenting problem.’ So I was looking into other options for continued study because I knew I didn't want to stop where I was at, and it was in this search that when I came across social work I was struck by the profession's commitment to social justice. Social justice is explicitly in the social work code of ethics, like it's a professional goal, and that is not the case for any other field of study. I thought that was dope.
Why do you think Chicago has been such a good place for you in terms of BYP 100 and yourself? Why do you think it's good in terms of your activist work?
Chicago has this history of making things happen. When you look at social movement history and the history of organizing, a lot has taken place in the city over the years. I mean, just recently we celebrated the 50th anniversary of when King was here in Chicago fighting for a lot of the same things we're fighting for now.
But you know, Chicago, of the people in it, it's just been this site of constant oppression-and-resistance, oppression-and-resistance. You look at folks like the Daleys, especially the first one, and how complicit he was in the racism of the Chicago police department. You look at the redlining and the housing segregation and all of the madness that is Chicago. People have constantly, consistently resisted against that.
But at the same time, there's so much beauty in this city, I think it goes under-noticed from the outside looking in. But being here, and being able to see the resistance and what collective power has and can achieve, it's just been really transformative for me and has made me really drawn to this city more so than the place where I grew up. There were just so many instances of complacency that I just got frustrated with and Chicago just blew my whole mind.
Do you think the work you're doing here can be applied to where you’re from or even just to other cities as well?
I don't know, I don't know. I think there are some lessons to be learned in the coming months and years, especially as BYP100 grows into the south. I think that I'll soon see what organizing looks like specifically through a black queer feminist lens in places that are pretty damn homophobic and more so white supremacist than more urban and metropolitan areas like Chicago and New York City, where we have chapters.
When you first joined BYP100, did you have goals in mind for what you wanted to accomplish or see for yourself?
Not concretely, no. I had very broad and vague ideals, but I didn't know enough about what it meant to organize at a grassroots level, or what it meant to run a campaign. I was just happy to find a space where other folks had goals that I could learn from. To this day, I learn from someone else in this community every day.
I just knew that broadly, I wanted to work toward less reliance, and this is still true. I want to work toward less reliance on systems of punishment and eventually obliterate those systems. More community resources and, like, black joy.
Along the way I've definitely seen personal transformations. Particularly in regards to my leadership—before coming into this work, I would not have considered myself to be a leader. And to this day, I'm only really comfortable with defining myself in that way or referring to myself in that way because I've heard it so much by other people.
Leader is a loaded word, it can have positive or negative connotations...
Yeah, but my perception of leadership is really fluid. There are times when I can see that leadership is needed and I will step up to the plate to fulfill the leadership that is needed in that moment, and there are other times that I will fall back, because I know that my skill set or knowledge base or whatever doesn't really fit the criteria of leadership needed for that moment.
I think leadership is something that's in everybody. That's one of the major conceits that I have with the Civil Rights Movement and all of the leadership deference that was given to MLK, and even like Huey Newton for the Black Panthers.
That push and challenge has moved me away from being that person who would have a tendency to make myself small in spaces. I was always that person who would sit back and let others talk because I might say something that didn’t make sense or sounds stupid or whatever. My confidence was really low when it came to putting myself out there and being seen.
I've definitely become more comfortable with it, but it's still something that I battle with because I'm that introverted person who you would have to say hi to first in order for me to talk to you. I'm definitely seeing my public versus private self, because who I am in front of a rally or on a panel is not, it can't be that same person that doesn't like to talk to people. Organizing definitely has developed my social skills, my leadership skills, all types of stuff. It's crazy how transformative social change work can be on a personal level.
This interview was originally published in Issue 05 of our print magazine. Read our sold-out issues online through Issuu!