Former Women's Prison becomes a Feminist Community Space

Community, creation, collaboration. On the Laura Flanders Show we talk with Pamela Shifman and Iris Bowen about remaking a former women's prison in New York into a space for women's liberation and activism, and we hear from photographer and author Yoav Litvin who specializes in the art of collaboration

Laura Flanders:People, power and place-making. There is not an organizer we interview on this program who doesn't talk about the crisis of real estate. Groups need places to work and meet and come together, especially in an era like ours of isolation and virtual connections. But what does community building look like in a time of privatization and shrinking common space? What models exist for viable self-sustainable community property places? My guests today are giving all of this a lot of thought.

They're two of the people behind the women's building project in New York City. It is re-making and re-imagining a former women's prison and turning it into a new women's community for transformation and justice and impact. The project so far has involved a collective and complex process. Here to talk about that and what has been learned is Pamela Shifman, Executive Director of the Novo foundation and Iris Bowen, program coordinator for the Coming Home program at the Mount Sinai St. Luke's Institute for advanced medicine.

Welcome both. We should say at the start that the Novo foundation and Pamela are big supporters of this program so you're not going to get brutal, attacking, questions and I'll just be upfront about that. This process though, I thought was important enough that we should bring it to our audience 'cause it's complicated; Creating space, creating space in space that is so loaded in a time that's so fraught; Why a building, of all your possible priorities, Pamela?

Pamela Shifman:Well a women's building has been wanted, desired, worked for, hoped for in New York City for decades. Since I joined Novo 10 years ago I asked activists from all over the world what they most needed to be most impactful in their work, advocating for girls and women's rights, and what I kept hearing over and over again was the importance of space, the importance of being able to connect with peer organizations, to learn from each other, to organize together. So, when we had the opportunity to support the development of a building to do just that and it was a former women's prison, to be able to turn a place of pain and confinement into a place of justice and healing and liberation and possibility, we knew we absolutely had to make that happen.

Laura Flanders:Has New York ever had a women's building?

Pamela Shifman:There have been attempts to have a women's building. In the early 1970s, a group of women occupied a space in the East Village to create a women's building. So there have been starts and stops. There's a really fantastic women's building in San Francisco and the executive director of that building is very actively involved in the women's building in New York City. We're building a huge community of women who are helping Make this possible.

Laura Flanders:So Iris, tell us a little bit about this building. It's on West 20th Street, which now is Chelsea, right over on the West Side Highway. If you've ever been in a traffic jam right there you might've passed it. What's been its history? What is that building to you?

Iris bowen:Well, it was home for me for at least four years. So, when you say, "Chelsea," I used to look out the window and say, "Boy, I wish I was out there." But it was home for me, up and down the stairs for four years, so now that it's turning into something more meaningful and more powerful, I'm very excited.

Laura Flanders:Now, the building was having problems before the decision to close it and am I right in thinking the decision to close it that was made by the state was because of Hurricane Sandy, was that it?

Iris bowen:Yes, that it correct. When Hurricane Sandy came, the water flooded the building and they decided to close it. They shipped the women out to another facility and they then closed it.

Laura Flanders:So what complications present themselves as you think of taking over this building?

Pamela Shifman:One thing that's really important in taking over the building is making sure that we maintain the history of what happened in that place, and that we use this as an opportunity to educate people about the ongoing incarceration of women, and the fact that this is absolutely a nightmare for women in this country and that we are locking up the most marginalized women in our country, at rates that are the fastest growing prison population in this country are of women. So, we need to make sure that we maintain the history and also create a space that imagine something new, and that is actually going to be a building that serves the movements for social justice now and 99 years from now.

So we really need to put a lot of thought into this and a lot of creativity, and so we have been building a huge community of people, Iris has been on advisory circle for the women's building along with many other incarcerated women, formerly incarcerated women who are activists. As well as activists from across the world who are working to advance justice for girls and women everywhere, and really thinking about how we can create a space that's flexible and that is going to really allow us to do the best work possible.

Laura Flanders:I mean it's a; Well you tell me. When I heard that the prison was being closed, I was both happy and also conscious that this is a big hit for the families that need to visit their incarcerated members.

Iris bowen:Yes, absolutely.

Laura Flanders:What happens to them?

Iris bowen:So they have to travel perhaps on the Metro-North or take a bus. So it's a longer commute to get to see the family and probably the desire was to get to Bayview to be closer to your family. So they were shipped out to different places, and so a little hardship on the family to get to a visit. 



Laura Flanders:So it's not just good news when a correctional facility closes.

Iris bowen:Right, it's good news for some and bad news for others. So it was good news, basically we were happy that it closed, but for those that are inside and they had to move, pack up everything and move, it's like moving your whole life somewhere else, so.

Laura Flanders:Tell us about who you think of, who you knew there, is there someone who you'd be carrying in your heart as you do this work?

Iris bowen:Yeah there's a lot of women. I went back to visit, and when you go in to visit you can't speak to the women, so I saw a lot of women and I was like, "Oh my god." So when I left that day I was heartbroken, because some of the women are there doing 50 years, they were young when they came in.

Laura Flanders:I mean these are people that ripped off banks and the whole American population through mortgages. 

Iris bowen:No, no, to be honest, a lot of the women there have domestic violence issues. I would say more than half the population has issues with domestic violence or they were with men that taught them how to sell drugs, or stuff like that. 95% I would say of the population, the majority of the women, domestic violence over and over again, sexual abuse and just trauma from an early age. I used to sit in the groups there and I used to hear the women talk about their stories about their brother molested them and raped them, and their father and their uncle, and I used to say, "You know what, thank god I had a good brother." Just hearing the stories I used to be like, "Oh my god, it's traumatic."

Laura Flanders:So, I was lucky enough to be part of one circle, one kind of listening and talking circle that Novo convened around the building, and one of the questions we were prodded with was: If we were to imagine this building a hundred years from now and it would have been a women's building for a hundred years, and we had created a world without incarceration. What steps would we have taken and what role would this building have played to get us there? Or some version of that. I'm assuming you've done exercises like that, can you imagine a world without incarceration and how we get to it, and what role does a building play?

Iris bowen:Okay, I think; Pamela knows that I'm really stuck on women being punished for prostitution, I'm really against that because the woman that's prostituting is probably trying to find an income, that's number one, maybe trying to feed her children, and we punish her again as a society. So I would imagine she could come to the women's building and get some skills, get some education and try to empower her, so that's why I envision in the women's building, empowering women to get some skills, learn how to open up a bank account or invest your money.

Laura Flanders:And so what's your vision, what do you see happening in those holes and building rooms? Will it be rooms, what's it gonna look like?

Pamela Shifman:I don't know exactly what the women's building is gonna look like in a hundred years, but I know that in a hundred years people are going to look at the prison cell that is going to be saved and memorialized as part of the building, and say, "I can't believe that they used to lock people up like that." And, "I can't believe they used to lock people up who'd been victims of violence, who were poor, who were single mothers, who had everything stacked against them and were resisting with all their might to survive, and that we actually locked those people up." That will be shocking to the people who go and visit that building, I know that for sure.

Laura Flanders:And the activities that you do know about that you think will be happening in there are like what?

Pamela Shifman:Well after the consultation process that we embarked upon, we learned a lot about what the needs were for the community and so we know that some of the things that are gonna happen in that building for sure will be non-profit office space, conference rooms, the event space, the ability to be able to connect with organizations that are working in different sectors, so economic justice groups can connect with violence against women groups will be able to have impromptu political meetings at night. There's gonna be on-site childcare, there's gonna be a wellness center, meditative garden.

Laura Flanders:It's an amazing vision and I'm confident you're gonna realize it. There are some tricky spots along the way and one of those is about private property. What will be the status of the property, how will it be operated and how will you shift power around property ownership, how will you model doing that? 'Cause I know you will.

Pamela Shifman:So, first of all, the property is actually being leased. So we have entered into a 50 year lease with an opportunity to renew for 49 years with the state of New York. In terms of how the building will be run, I think one of the things we're very committed to at every step of the way is that it's going to be values aligned and mission aligned from beginning to end. So, we know for example that the construction of the building, we are working to increase the number of women in the trades who will be working on the project, we have a commitment for 35% women, which we know in the trades there's 3% women in the trades right now, less than 3%. So, 35% women will be working on this project and we're creating a pipeline of good jobs for women, union jobs in the construction trades.

We also know that how the building will be run, we're exploring different options now for what that's gonna look like, but to make sure that it's going to be sustainable and that it is going to be aligned with the values of a new economy, that we want to promote an economy that is not premised on racism and sexism, that is actually about community, that is about community accountability. And so we're thinking through all of those with the advisory circle and with this amazing group of activists that are helping to imagine this space together.

Laura Flanders:Will trans women be welcome at the women's building?

Iris bowen:Of course, of course.

Pamela Shifman:Exactly.

Iris bowen:Trans, gay, bisexual, whoever you are, come.

Pamela Shifman:Exactly.


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