Reflections on Art for a New Future: JAC National Convening 2021

Saturday, June 26. 9:00 PM EST. A round of Zoom applause lit up the screen as we celebrated Jail Guitar Doors’ Go Getta Chris and Blaccson’s encore performance for their session: Songs and Beats, an original performance piece created by system-impacted youth. Despite being virtual, there was an electric feeling in the air that zipped through our screens, across states and countries as voices piped up asking questions about the performers’ music processes, studio space, and social media information. With that exhilarating session, Justice Arts Coalition’s 2021 National Convening: Art for a New Future, came to a close. 

Two weeks out from the event, we still feel the thrill and energy of the convening — the joy of coming together with the JAC community after months of visioning, planning, and organizing. A jam-packed three-day virtual event, the convening welcomed over 400 attendees from all over the country and abroad. Participants had the opportunity to learn from and engage with over 85 speakers across 28 sessions, harnessing the liberatory power of the arts to reimagine justice.

In the Fall of 2020, when the thought of a national convening was still a budding dream, we knew we wanted to take a generative, forward-looking, and unique path. During the planning process, we were guided by 4 core values. We also asked our panelists, speakers, and facilitators to consider them deeply in the construction of their sessions: 

  • Art as Abolition: the arts as a pathway for communities to imagine and build worlds beyond policing and incarceration; art as a tool for advocacy, nurturing community.
  • Art for All: increasing access to creative opportunities within carceral institutions; pedagogy; funding; trauma-informed arts education.
  • Solidarity and Community: building and nourishing connections and resilient relationships across our network.
  • Participatory learning: learning through and within community, through embodiment, through creative practice; artistic practice as a tool for healing, growth, connection, and fueling our radical imaginations.

It was essential to our values and mission that every effort was made for the convening to be as accessible and inclusive as possible. We are so grateful to HEARD DC, Pro Bono ASL, and Gloria Delgadillo, L. Miller, and Pao Lebron for helping us move toward full accessibility by providing ASL and Spanish language interpretation! 

If you couldn’t make it, don’t worry! We are sharing part of the convening with everyone, and we’ve linked this public access content below: 

Listen to featured interviews with JAC Network artists on Soundcloud here! On YouTube, we have also posted the Welcome Session from Day 1. If you want to participate in a community art project created by currently incarcerated artist Carla Joan Simmons, head here. Visit the convening page on our website for the full schedule, which contains descriptions of all events and facilitator biographies. 

For all those who found the convening meaningful, learned something new, or found something interesting from our work in general, or have enjoyed engaging with our community: if you have the capacity, we encourage you to make a donation to support JAC’s programming and commitment to economic justice. 

Read on for highlights from the convening and reflections from attendees and organizers! 

On the first day of the convening, featured plenary speakers included Nicole Fleetwood, Rachel Nelson, and Ndume Olatushani, moderated by Sabra Williams, in their session Art and Abolition. Attendees also had the opportunity to join the Art + Agency session, a groundbreaking discussion between currently and previously incarcerated artists who shared their experiences of exploitation and their thoughts around ethical considerations that should be taken by those seeking to promote and sell creative work produced in carceral settings. 

“I really enjoyed the session on creating a Code of Ethics for working with incarcerated artists. It was lovely to hear from such a diverse array of people about their experiences both in and out of prison.” – Attendee

“The Thursday morning sessions addressing colonialism, and inclusion of indigenous voices really touched me.” – Attendee

The convening’s second plenary, Abolition Is About Making Things, was moderated by Mariame Kaba, who invited artist co-conspirators Neta Bomani, Bianca Diaz, Naimah Thomas, Monica Trinidad, and Rachel Wallis to join her in conversation about the critical role of imagination, art, and creativity in abolitionist projects. They shared how they create art as abolitionists and organizers.

“I loved Abolition Is About Making Things. I can’t think of a panel that better embodied the intersection of art and justice.  It was extremely powerful to hear about the artists’ work directly from them, and then hear from their perspective how it connects to the broader movement and community.  And it was wonderful to see how much support they found in each other even just in the space of the panel.” – Attendee

“I especially loved learning about ‘Narradrama,’ the combination of people doing the work (incarcerated, formerly incarcerated and non-incarcerated), and the session with the Argentine activists.” – Attendee

The final plenary, Poverty Scholarship: Poor People-Led Theory, Art, Words, and Tears Across Mama Earth, with POOR Magazine/Prensa POBRE’s Lisa “Tiny” Gray-Garcia, Dee Allen, Leroy Moore, and Muteado Silencio included powerful performances from Po Poets, readings from the Poverty Scholarship book, teachings on poor and traumatized peoples theory, and how to hold each other through trauma into a true definition of interdependent relationships.

“A highlight for me was POOR Magazine/Prensa POBRE. They brought so much energy to a virtual space and were honest, funny, angry, hopeful and made me think about my own social position and what we can do together to create actual long term stability for poor people.” – Robin, convening organizer and JAC volunteer

“[I liked]the thoughtful inclusivity (ASL interpreters, Spanish translators, land acknowledgement, generous facilitators) and the wide variety of sessions, performances and discussions and safe spaces offered.” – Attendee

Each evening, the audience was treated to live performances and film screenings by organizations like TheatreWorkers Project, S.E.E.D. HOPE LLC, Judy Dworin Performance Project, and Jail Guitar Doors. There was also a screening of a film created by Shannon Lumpkin, Dawn Felicia Knox, and Anastasia Clarke called Swans Lakeless

Highlights for me included Art + Agency, in which incarcerated and previously incarcerated artists launched what will be an ongoing conversation about the ethical considerations that entities of JAC must take in order to prevent exploitation when promoting, selling, exhibiting, or publishing the creative work of artists in prison, and Spoon Jackson’s workshop, Write Reckless. Spoon’s unmistakable voice reciting his poems through a prison phone and reflecting on the legacy of Judith Tannenbaum, one of my mentors and the heart and mind behind the Prison Arts Coalition, which I managed for 8 years before expanding it to become JAC, was profoundly impactful for me.” – Wendy, JAC Founding Director

And now some reflections from the convening organizers and the JAC team: 

“I have never worked with a team as supportive as our convening planning team. Every member of the team united together over a shared passion for art and restorative justice. This was evident in the countless hours that everyone put in to ensure that the convening was accessible, inclusionary, and abolition-centered. I feel honored to have been a part of this revolutionary conference and cannot wait to see how it grows in the future.” – Alden, convening organizer and JAC Events Intern

“I have attended many of the Arts in Corrections and other related conferences in California, and I enjoyed those, but I was excited about the possibility of working on an event that would pull together a wider range of people working in all corners of the intersection of art and justice. In the end, our planning team consisted of people from all over the country, and we were very intentional about offering sessions with presenters that we hadn’t seen at a conference before which I think is one of the things that made the convening feel special for attendees.” – Robin, convening organizer and JAC volunteer

“I started to get excited when I saw everyone working together in the final days leading up to the convening! It held the type of energy that, if in person, would have been palpable. As stressful as it was, those were my favorite meetings and my favorite part of the entire experience.” – Hailey, JAC Intern

“I acted as Chat Monitor for the Art + Agency panel. Since it was the first scheduled session on Thursday, after the Welcome ceremony, I was admittedly a bit nervous. Even more so, Art + Agency was an ambitious panel, which sought to bring currently and formerly incarcerated artists together, to have a conversation about the ethical consideration that entities like JAC must take to prevent exploitation. I am proud of how that panel turned out with its insightful conversation that will hopefully continue.” – Jenan, JAC Intern 

“There were way too many amazing sessions to pick a favorite, but one session I really enjoyed was ‘Color Me Community.’ It was the first session I was a chat monitor for, so I was slightly nervous but Mary (Sister Sunshine), Andrew (Brother Tenacious Advocate), and their team had such amazing, welcoming energy that there was nothing but positive vibes in the room! It was great to see so many smiling faces as they created a really beautiful space for all the participants. It was a very fun session.” – Joslyn, JAC Intern 

“I’m so proud of our team for the ways in which we stayed true to our values and mission throughout the whole planning process and the entirety of the convening itself. We committed to ensuring that the convening would be fully accessible, would center the voices and experiences of those most directly impacted by the carceral state, and would feel like a warm, welcoming virtual space where everyone could experience a sense of belonging and connectedness. Through offering tickets on an equity scale, providing ASL interpreters for the vast majority of sessions and captioning and Spanish translation throughout, choosing a diverse array of workshops, panel discussions, and performances that were immersive and moving, setting the tone through our community agreements, the presence of supportive chat monitors, and our Open Space and Breathing Room, and offering numerous opportunities for participants to hear and learn from currently and previously incarcerated artists, I think it’s safe to say we achieved our goals.” – Wendy, JAC Founding Director 


Thank you to the Convening Planning Team: Wendy Jason, Robin McNulty, Katie Adams, Jessie Glover, Kate Stank, Kanyinsola Anifowoshe, Page Dukes, Katherine Frost, Melissa Wang, Alden Eckman, Hunter Isenstein, Richael Faithful, Elida Ledesma, and Jojo Donovan. Thank you to all the speakers, facilitators, and panelists for their incredible sessions. And thank you, of course, to all of the attendees and supporters who make this work possible!

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