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.