Grantee Partner Spotlight: Liberation Library
Liberation Library book packing day
By Mark Hallett, Director of Grants Programs
Read Time 14 minutes
October 16, 2023
Founded in 2015, Liberation Library is a Chicago-based, volunteer-led, and democratically organized prison abolition organization. It provides books and self-published magazines for incarcerated youth in Illinois to support their education, personal growth, and healing. They received an Action Grant to support the publication of three magazine issues, significantly increase in-person programming related to the magazine, and the expansion of their Editorial Committee to include youth.
Read more about the organization in this Q&A.
A Q&A with Liberation Library
Featuring Bettina Johnson, steering committee member and co-founder, and Nikia Watkins, magazine coordinator
Q: How do you see the arts, culture, and the humanities as being essential?
Nikia Watkins: Humans are art. Also, nature and the world and the way we exist is art. So the way that we lean and walk in that – and also the fact that capitalism and other structures try to take us away from art, and from ourselves. In those ways, art and showing up as ourselves is important on a humane level. Also, in terms of the work – don’t know who said it, but art is resistance. So, for us showing up as ourselves and bringing in creativity is powerful and needed for the work that we do. Abolition can’t exist without art. We need to dream how we’d like to exist in the world. The work we do can’t exist without art.
Bettina Johnson: In Robin D.G. Kelley’s book Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, blues are talked about as poetic resistance. These are acts of resistance, and they look like acts of creation. So whenever a creative gesture means refusing our disposability, or refusing that we have nothing to contribute to the world or to each other, or to sink into ugliness and despair – that is where the human act helps us to cling to what makes us and how we want to be in understanding with each other. There is such a simple – the kernel of the project, books to prisoners, to young people in Illinois prisons and jails – we’re getting books inside. We want to be a conduit of the worlds that young people are choosing; we’re not evaluating the craft of the book, but the fact that we’re bringing in something colorful, that might help young folks be momentarily distracted or nourished as they do the time they have to do inside. And now when I close and finish a book, and am sad that that world, is ending for me I think about the meaning and time-bending reading affords to any reader. It is so important that we started out as a books-to-prisoner project, and how critical that is. I am told that any book that is sent in is not read just once, they are read many times and are passed around inside. When we see clusters of books being requested, we know that they’re talking with one another. There is little inside to stimulate the senses, souls and imagination of people who are incarcerated; providing resources to do this is critical in an environment that is so dry and colorless and unstimulating in many ways on purpose. So the arts and humanities mean being exposed to different sensorial experiences that deepen and expand our sense of being in this world. In this timeline together. That there is something there that makes you feel less alone.
Q: What is the most important thing that people should know about your work?
Nikia Watkins: The first thing that comes to mind is that this is a call to action. That we are doing this work talking to young people every single day or every time we go into the facilities. We have folks who build relationships with the young people and hear the stories and all the violent things that prisons and facilities have done or continue to do. And that the young people don’t have outlets of support. I want to uplift the young people and what they say, and the reasons why prisons and jails do not need to exist. I want one day for my job as magazine coordinator to not exist; to move into another form of mutual aid support work. The title of the magazine is “Free the Dream$,” and it is made by young people inside. That’s the biggest thing I’d like people to take away – that these are young people talking about censorship, and about jails and prisons as censorship. They don’t have access to reading materials that they want so that's why we do what we do. We are a resource that is reliable in addressing that. These institutions need to be shut down, expeditiously – all of them, not just the youth prisons, the adult facilities too honestly.
Bettina Johnson: That’s so well said, and in line with the creation of Liberation Library. We don’t want to exist. We see ourselves as being a bridge to many worlds of young peoples’ choosing and that we are on a path of co-creating this magazine, organization, and world together with each other as volunteers and with our readers inside and outside. We really believe that young people know what is needed in their lives to transform their situation and the lives of other young people like them. We want to build those connections and relationships with young folks as they’re on this journey – connecting with us and with each other. When we talk with those who have a national perspective, we hear that there is no one doing this at the scale or in the way that we do it. One thing that people should appreciate is that there is such a high demand for reading materials inside prisons and jails generally. All books-to-prisoner projects need support and the impact of their work is critical. We also want folks to understand that prison itself is censorship. So as we talk about access and book bans we mustn’t forget folks who are inside.
The other thing about our work that I think is important, is with respect to the Magazine. We have forged and relied on our strong existing partnerships with The Final 5 Campaign and with Circles & Ciphers. We are so lucky to be able to work together as organizations invested in supporting young people inside, court-involved, and their families. When we talk about being an abolitionist project – this means that when we mess up, and aren’t working toward our stated values, we are able to own those mistakes and actually move on from there with amends and repair and make sure we don’t do that mistake again. This applies to our magazine and our relationships with other orgs towards this work of ending youth incarceration.
Q: How did you arrive at doing what you do?
Nikia Watkins: At the start of the pandemic, I was a junior at UIC. I was taking a sociology class, and my professor at the time noted that all my papers were on abolition; I couldn’t stop talking about it! They said have you heard about restorative justice, and I hadn’t, so she recommended I look up different organizations. She mentioned Circles & Ciphers, a hip hop-infused organization on the north side of Chicago in Rogers Park. When I read their mission statement, I knew I wanted to get involved. A job opened up, and I worked there as their mutual aid coordinator. While there, Anne Marie Brown told me about Liberation Library, and in 2021 I started doing this work.
Now I know that any work I ever do will be part of liberation and abolition. I like that term care economy. And trying to ‘unoppress’ ourselves.
Bettina Johnson: I like that – “trying to ‘unoppress’ ourselves” I started doing activism at 17. When I was young, I had a strong sense of self, and that was an issue, especially with adults. I have a strong affinity towards young people being recognized for their own agency, their political will, their ability to make decisions for themselves. I had challenging times in school, and that sort of primed the pump. When I learned of bodily autonomy and adultism, I had thought of elements of those concepts but didn’t have the language for them. So, thanks to relationships forged doing activism and organizing I discovered that language. When I went to UIC, I became a student organizer on campus and was lucky to be in the orbit of adults who knew about different student conferences and who were willing to pay for me to go to say Michigan or Ohio to meet other student activists. And I saw INCITE Women of Color Against Violence talking about abolitionist thinking at these conferences. After school I worked in the domestic violence emergency shelter; working there a few years, I saw the limitations of what the State could do to prevent harm and of non-profits generally, and eventually got burned out of that job. When Project NIA, founded by Mariame Kaba, put out a call for a book to kids in prison project, I had a stable non-organizing or services job and wanted to get back to the community work I find really purposeful—so I showed up! We learned from Mariame how she sets up organizations, learning by actually doing it with her.
Project NIA’s whole thing was how to end youth incarceration, period. How do we show up in solidarity with young folks who are system-involved or are being pushed out of school and out of society?
It reintroduced PIC Abolition to me that helped articulate what was common sense for me based off of my experiences as a young person and as someone who worked in the Domestic Violence Sector.
Q: Who makes your work possible?
Nikia Watkins: I have to name first Alicia Brown and Sherrif Polk - without them and their leadership, support and guidance the magazine program wouldn't have been what it is today. Forever thankful to have them to walk with while doing this work. Everyone on the magazine committee has been so supportive, and helpful and been like family to me, and I would be nowhere without my family. For the first year, it was content creation, made by us. We would take the topics that young people said they liked, and we’d write. Now we have liberation interns, and they look over the magazine before it is put to print, and suggest moving things around etc.
We’re very grateful to the young people who are brave and share their stories of safety or of censorship. They are so kind and sweet and warm-hearted.
Bettina Johnson: Shoutout to ourselves and our volunteers. We meet people where they are, not everyone has heard of abolishing prisons. Most people don’t know about engaging with prisons and jails generally. So big shoutout to the volunteers for engaging with this work and being open to the experience and learning with us. This post-2020 moment is really different because in 2015, before people were in the streets demanding police and prison abolition, we did a book event at a bookstore.
I didn’t even use the word abolition, I just said that young people shouldn’t be incarcerated and I got shouted at for it. A volunteer and newer steering committee member a few years later brought up the fact that we should be more explicit that the organization is for the abolition of youth prisons especially as we do our packing days.
The argument was it will be quicker to find out if people see it the way we do, and challenge them to take the demand seriously even if it’s just for an afternoon. Lo and behold, they were right. Our book packing days attracted families—even before we became more explicit with our language and political education that happens at the top of every packing day I remember inviting a young person who came with her mom regularly to our book packing days to be interviewed by the media—and this young person, under 10 years old was able to say in their own words that no young person should ever be incarcerated. I learned that when we’re not shy about our values and are clear with our communication and when we have the time to do the slow, building work and discussing the idea of a world without prison – people will arrive to their own conclusions and many times it is in alignment with us!
Today, there are formerly incarcerated people doing programming with us, and transforming what we do. Our volunteers and our readers transform us and what we do. This magazine transforms what we do.
Now we are at a moment where young people who are currently incarcerated are able to serve (with a stipend) on an inside editorial board for the magazine! We hope that eventually, they will be able to direct and give feedback way beyond just the magazine but help provide input for the organization itself. So having seen the most oppressive conditions in Illinois, and how empowering this is, I can say that this is life-giving. And working with Nikia is amazing. We could be spinning wheels, checking boxes; but young people are dictating the rate and pacing of the work we are doing. We take youth input very seriously. Not just tokenized, but meaningfully incorporated.
Suggested Readings, Films, and Audio:
- The Proletarian's Pocketbook
- Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
- We Do This Til We Free Us by Mariame Kaba
- Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis
- "On Both Sides of the Gun" by Christian Farias
- "How do we prevent gun violence without police? Look to Abolitionists" by Christian Farias
- Dope is Death directed by Mia Donovan
About Liberation Library
Liberation Library was founded in February 2015 in response to a call to action from Mariame Kaba of Project NIA, who recognized that young people who are caged in Illinois’ prisons need access to education. Since its founding, Liberation Library has sent over 6,200 books and 2,000 self-published magazines to incarcerated young people, who have the autonomy to request the books and create the content they want to read without censorship. They believe that reading is essential for promoting literacy, critical thinking, creativity, and personal growth, and we are committed to providing incarcerated young people with the tools they need to develop these skills.
As work continues towards ending the youth incarceration system, Liberation Library acknowledges the current struggles faced by young people within it. To assist with these struggles, Liberation Library offers comprehensive support to young people inside through material aid, skills training, and leadership development, while simultaneously elevating the voices that will drive prison abolition.
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.