At the 2021 Essence Festival of Culture Wealth & Power stage, prison reform advocate Tonesa Welch opened her remarks with a common theme during a panel on incarceration: “our past doesn’t have to dictate our futures.”

She was joined by panelist Syrita Steib-Martin, the Executive Direction of Operation Restoration and moderator Topeka K. Sam, founder of The Ladies of Hope Ministries in a conversation on their experiences being justice-involved and their fight to help women and girls who have also gone through the system.

Syrita Steib-Martin said she became a social entrepreneur and started her organization Operation Restoration out of necessity. “When I was released from prison, I didn’t realize that after my sentence and me coming home I would have multiple barriers that no one spoke to me about prior to. So not being able to secure safe housing, not be able to get a job, not even be able to go back to college because you have to check the box on the application in order to get into school, and that was a way that people were discriminated against…I got tired of not being able to get a career.” Steib-Martin’s Operation Restoration supports women and girls like her impacted by incarceration.

Tonesa Welch was incarcerated well into adulthood. She went to prison at 45. Upon her release, she started a show called Notorious Queens to change the narratives associated with formerly incarcerated women. “After prison, I wanted people to know that it’s such a stigma— they’re like ‘oh you were in prison, you’re a felon now.’ People look at us in a different way. I wanted them to see, no, once we are released, that’s our past. This is our future. We can become successful,” she said.

This prompted Topeka Sam to highlight the power of words and labels. “Even the word felon, so often when we’re thinking about supporting women, Black women in general have been marginalized and discredited, not given any support. And we start with labeling. God says that words are power, and when you call people felons and convicts and inmates, you take away from the power of who they are. This is how we continue to use the master’s tools, and we have to stop that as people of color.”

Steib-Martin added an anecdote about how she was reduced to being an inmate and not a full person in prison. “I was in prison and for 10 years I didn’t hear my first name, the name that my mom gave me. So when I was released from prison, and I got out and someone would say ‘Syrita’ I would not turn around because I didn’t know that they were talking to me.”

Calling people by labels like convicts and inmates she said, is done to “erase the humanity, because if you do not see us as people, it’s much easier for you to disseminate hatred and unjust punishment amongst a group of people..and you see them as something that is less than human.”

The whole conversation was an insightful and sobering reminder of the challenges Black women and girls face, whose encounters with the criminal legal system tend to fall under the radar but still greatly impacts their communities.

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