Envisioning Justice Grantee Partner Spotlight: Leanne Trapedo Sims

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By Mark Hallett, Director of Grants Programs

Read Time 8 minutes
September 19, 2022

Founded in 1837 by a group of abolitionists, Knox College is a community of individuals from diverse backgrounds challenging each other to explore, understand, and improve ourselves, our society, and our world. The “Issues of Mass Incarceration” project, led by Leanne Trapedo Sims (the Daniel J. Logan Professor of Peace and Justice), will include three film screenings as well as a large-scale performance presentation, for the college and communities in Galesburg.


A Q&A with Leanne Trapedo Sims

Q: With regards to the criminal legal system, when you imagine a just future, what does it look like?

Leanne Trapedo Sims: I think abolition is the key. Our criminal legal system is an aperture to so many forms of violence that happen not only in the United States but also globally. Having done some work inside a women’s prison in Hawaii, where I taught creative writing for four years, I really got to see the injustice of the criminal legal system in full effect. Particularly looking at Hawaii, which is sort of a colonized space, I got to see that most of the people inside the prison were Native Hawaiians. That really mirrors what’s happening in the United States with Black and Brown folks, especially Black folks, being overrepresented in the criminal legal system.

I think the prison industrial complex needs to go. That is not going to happen tomorrow as we can see by the amount of misinformation and political struggle continuing to amplify the divides we have in this country. The prison industrial complex is an inherently unjust, corrupt system that needs to be abolished. So, if I could envision a just world, we wouldn’t have prisons.

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Leanne Trapedo Sims, Project Lead, “Issues of Mass Incarceration”
Daniel J. Logan Professor of Peace and Justice, Knox College

Q: How do you see harnessing the arts and humanities as important strategies in working toward that future?

Leanne Trapedo Sims: Storytelling is a process about humanity. In the work that I’ve done where I teach about American crime and punishment, I’ve noticed that some students gravitate towards quantitative data. The issue is those numbers don’t tell full stories. We love stories as a community and as culture. I noticed this especially in my work with indigenous communities in Hawaii where we’d always tell stories, where the genealogy of stories was prevalent in every meeting. I believe we’ve sort of forgotten that in the West within a capitalist system that is so individuated. We don’t think about community, but stories are all about community!

I think art can harness the power of storytelling and make it palpable. I also think stories help us to connect across divisiveness. When we meet different people and hear their stories, I think that really insists on empathy. The prison industrial complex continues to exist partly because there are less impacted communities who do not know anyone on the inside of a jail or prison. – or directly impacted by the carceral system. When we don’t know people who are impacted by injustices, it can be so easy to dehumanize an entire community. 

I think storytelling through the arts is one of the most powerful ways to speak about contemporary crises. The arts can do it in ways that text often fails. The whole sensorium of the arts is a very powerful way to combat violence, prejudice, racism, misogyny, etc.

Q: Backing up for a moment, how did you arrive at doing what you do?

Leanne Trapedo Sims: I grew up in apartheid South Africa. I think that was my early ferment in political and social justice activism. Growing up in South Africa as a non-black person and witnessing the devastation and destruction of apartheid propelled me into anti-apartheid activism. I also really got to see the power when communities come together to make changes happen. Despite this, I also saw the limitations of community-led restorative justice movements when power continues to be held in the hands of a few who are generally disconnected from experiences of oppressed groups. So, in my teaching, I tend to focus on both the limits and the power of restorative justice.

I received a graduate degree from New York University where I was really involved in performance studies. I got to see the power of the arts in that space. Then I decided to quit academia because I wanted to experience different learning methods outside of the NYU classroom. I went into a program called the New York City Teaching Fellows where I taught in Title I schools in Brooklyn and the Bronx. I quickly saw how both areas, particularly the Bronx, were quite similar to South Africa. I would see people dying in the streets of the Bronx during the HIV crisis but then go only 10 miles to the Upper East Side of New York and see the wealth. The disparity was so huge that I began to personally identify economic apartheid in the United States. That is something the United States doesn’t want to face — reparations —or giving back and making things more equal.

I also worked with some students on a school newspaper and in this hip hop poetry program they were doing at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. I got to see how the arts could really transform students who were traditionally considered “failing”, but really it was just a racialized system — or the school to prison pipeline. This is where I began to see the failures of the school system in the United States. This only continued when I began to work for a Teach for America program in Hawaii where they had white teachers coming into under-resourced schools and conducting what I considered “violence in the classroom”. The teachers knew nothing about Native Hawaiian culture, were lacking in critical pedagogy, and were displacing local teachers.

Then I went back to NYU and decided to finish my doctoral work in the American Studies program. I met a lot of activists and sovereigntists, one of which introduced me to the warden of the women’s prison in Honolulu. From there, I met a wonderful woman who was running a creative writing program at this women’s prison and became involved. That really was the subject of my doctoral work, but I was also asked to teach creative writing and do this performance lab in the women’s prison. That’s sort of my trajectory that’s led me to where I am now.

Q: Finally, what is the most important thing people should know about your work?

Leanne Trapedo Sims: I often consider my positionality as a non-Hawaiian woman who’s worked with primarily Native Hawaiian women. As I’m writing my book, this is something that has really haunted and tormented me. Even when we think about great organizations like IL-CHEP, you’ll see that many of the people involved are white women. We really need to look at the ethics and political ramifications of a lack of representation within groups who are doing work to support system-impacted individuals and communities. 

This is very complicated when we think about the “savior model” or the “savior industrial complex” that Teju Cole writes about. It’s very important to have folks doing this work who look like the people on the inside. We also don’t want to profit off other people’s stories and to do our best to allow incarcerated people to tell their own stories.

Prison education programs can also be seen as sustaining prisons if our goal is abolition. Meanwhile, there’s also thoughts that folks on the inside, particularly those serving life sentences, really deserve education and contact with the outside world. With that being said, I’ve witnessed first-hand how the prison infected what I considered a sacred community. It was impossible for me to forget that I was teaching inside of prison. I’ve seen and heard so many traumatic things within those walls, but I also recognize my privilege of being able to leave. I could leave but those women couldn’t. Overall, this work is very fraught, uneven, and complicated.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

Leanne Trapedo Sims: I just want to say a little bit about the Just Us Monologues and film screenings we’re going to do at Knox College. Knox is a place of privilege that often speaks about its abolitionist roots, but we need to reckon with what’s happening in the town itself. It’s problematic that the prison is five minutes away from Knox and there is not really a lot of dialogue about this. We also have a large population of people from Congo, yet they are almost invisible. When you walk down Main Street, all you’ll typically see is white people. There needs to be more honest dialogue and difficult conversations about topics like race in Galesburg.

About the Grantee Partner Spotlight Series

Illinois Humanities highlights the work of our Grants partners through our monthly Grantee Partner Spotlight. It shines a light on our grantee partners' work and allows readers to get to know them better through a Q&A with members of the organization. Read more by browsing the "Grantee Partner Spotlight" series here.