So You Want to Change the World

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Episode 2: Restorative Justice Outside & Inside the Criminal Legal System

“It forced me to share something personal that is not always easy or comfortable to share. And that's what they've been doing all along.” Anthony Marqusee started volunteering in a Philadelphia prison during college. His collaborative work with incarcerated men in restorative justice practice is part of his broader effort to reform the criminal legal system. It’s also become part of his exploration of his own identity as a trans person.

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Interview Transcript

Robin: 00:00 I first came to know Anthony Marquesee in 2011 when he participated in the Global Gap Year with Thinking Beyond Borders. Since that time, Anthony has graduated from Haverford College with an undergrad degree in Religion and a minor in Astronomy, and today he's working in criminal justice. I want to welcome Anthony to the podcast.

Anthony: 00:00 Thanks for having me.

Robin: 00:28 We appreciate you taking the time. So so tell me what did you do? What is it? What does it mean that you work in criminal justice? What is your day to day look like that?

Anthony: 00:38 Well I don't work in criminal justice in the sense of having a job but my involvement takes two main forms at the moment. One is the volunteer work that I do in a prison near Philadelphia, which is where I live. And the other is my involvement with activism in the city. So in terms of working inside of the prison I guess it was the end of my freshman year at Haverford that I started volunteering through the school with a restorative justice program inside a prison about an hour outside of Philadelphia. What we do there is it's run and led by men from the inside who are incarcerated there and with support from Haverford students and other outside volunteers, they run some workshops around the philosophy of restorative justice which we'll probably get into later. Separately from that since I moved to Philadelphia I have been getting involved with efforts on a local level around reform. So for example I am a member of a group called the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration which is trying to change the law in Pennsylvania to give people serving life sentences in prison, or what we would call death by incarceration, the opportunity for parole, which currently does not exist in this state. So those are the two main ways that I am involved at the moment.

Robin: 02:16 So maybe you can define "restorative justice" for us and tell us a little bit about why that's the framework you're using for building relationships with incarcerated people.

Anthony: 02:25 Sure. So restorative justice is a philosophy that tries to address harm by healing and by bringing together all the people involved to decide how to set things right as opposed to the criminal legal system which is more about punishment and retribution. So restorative justice tries to acknowledge the relationships between the different people and asks you know "how can we make things better?" instead of "what does this person deserve who did something who did something wrong?" So I think it's a very powerful tool which is not just for situations of crime, but for all types of harm, which is why it's been really important to me personally as well as being you know an alternative for the criminal legal system.  

Robin: 03:13 What is your relationship with the incarcerated men that you're working with like? Has it been hard to build relationships? What have been the factors that have that have played into that process for you?

Anthony: 03:23 Well I think what I appreciate is that the men on the inside -- and I when I used the term inside outside I mean like in prison versus out of prison -- the men on the inside put a lot of conscious thought into how he could have healthy and empowering relationships as sort of trying to collaborate across that difference. So I appreciate it a lot how they are welcoming and I think when I first started going there I was very afraid that the people on the inside would see me as just this privileged White kid coming into their space not really knowing anything about what's going on. But I was actually very welcomed, and I'm just very grateful for that trust and openness that the people that I work with in there have shown me. So I've gotten to know some people quite well. The leaders of this project who form the steering committee and then there are other people who are just sort of participants in our workshops who I might meet and interact with but who I don't know as well or on a consistent basis.

Robin: 04:36 What's been the hardest part of building that relationship for you? You describe you describe the process of entering the prison and being concerned that you'd be seen as young and White and privileged, and yet all of those things remained true. So what challenges have you found in overcoming those barriers in your relationship building with the men that you're working with?

Anthony: 05:01 I mean yes those things remain true. But I think the key is to not view people as only those things right. Like I don't view the men that I work with on the inside as only incarcerated people even if they are, rather trying to see the different skills and things that each person can contribute. And it's changed a lot over time because when I first started going in you know the initial impetus is kind of these groups and workshops are not allowed to meet inside the prison unless outside the volunteer or staff member is present. So, on the most basic level I kind of saw myself as like a warm body in the room that was going to allow that group to meet. But, one of the things that I appreciated a lot was that the the leaders on the inside who I worked with did not want that kind of relationship because it doesn't really lead to real solidarity. And they said to me and to the other volunteers, no, we actually want your input and we want you to take ownership of this project with us. And so it kind of took me a long time to go from seeing myself as a fly on the wall to taking on more responsibility. But it was very positive to do that because I think if you really do want to make a change to the way our system works it involves figuring out how to navigate those kinds of relationships.

Robin: 06:30 Yeah. Listening to that it sounds as though you really are working hard to build humanizing relationships across those boundaries of privilege. And it also sounds like the men you're working with her are doing the same from their side. Have there been experiences in your life that you feel are helpful for you in doing that and have been instructive in building those humanizing relationships?

Anthony: 06:52 I just I I think just seeing people lead by example is very powerful. You know in a lot of social justice spaces today there can be very judgmental attitude and creating spaces that are both really dedicated to progressive social justice values and are welcoming and humanizing for everyone is very important. So it's kind of a similar dynamic becoming involved with CADBI, which again is the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration, and doing activism on the outside because we're attempting to similarly create these coalitions between people who are directly affected by the problem who may have loved ones incarcerated who may have been incarcerated themselves, and people "like me" who are dedicated to helping, but who will never understand those experiences. And the role of compassion as a foundation for activism has been really clear there, because I have just seen how people have created a very welcoming community where we are willing to sort of forgive each other our ignorances and teach each other instead of pushing out somebody who doesn't know as much or who doesn't come from the same place, while at the same time always being accountable for acknowledging what it is that we don't know and that we still have to learn.

Robin: 08:19 In building humanizing relationships, I think one of the things that I found in my experience is that one of the core principles of them is that they're reciprocal. And you stepped into this work, I assume with a desire to contribute to a more just society. What do you feel you're contributing to these relationships, and what do you think you're receiving in return?

Anthony: 08:43 Well at this point, now that I've been involved with the restorative justice work for about four years, I can sort of attribute some perspectives on that. I mean when you spend enough time thinking about it and then also I am able to bring what I learned from my colleagues and mentors in the prison to the outside and help that influence our activism that we do out there. Because for the most part you know the people that I'm doing this with are very grounded in restorative justice already, which I appreciate a lot. But what I can contribute is that I've spent a lot of time thinking about well how do you actually facilitate conversations about restorative justice and what are the explicit ways that you can phrase those values because I have gained that from the work that I've done on the inside.

Robin: 09:31 So it sounds like that solidarity is about in part about stepping into this issue as a shared issue not simply I'm helping you with your issue.

Anthony: 09:42 Yeah. I wouldn't put it as so much as a shared issue. But you know part of it is like one of the values of restorative justice is that we all have to be accountable for the harm that we might cause to other people. And I'm not oblivious to the fact that as much as I'm going into these bases to help with a problem that doesn't directly affect me and even if you frame it as a shared problem, well, it's a shared problem, but some people have to face a lot more than others. But what I see it as is like the system that we have where we choose to respond to crime primarily with incarceration and with other dehumanizing responses was mostly designed and functions to keep people in power and wealth who are already there so to keep the social order that we have in place. And since I'm coming from a wealthy suburb and having the privilege to you know go to college and all of these things to some extent I'm benefiting from that social order, then I have to be accountable for whatever role I might be playing in causing the harm that's being done by this system of mass incarceration. So it's not so much that I see it as a shared problem where it affects me the same way it affects you. But more that I see it as personally being accountable to try to change the system that could be hurting others and a way that I might be benefiting from it.

Robin: 11:12 How did responsibility to act toward a more just society become attached to that for you?

Anthony: 11:18 I don't know. I think in some ways I've always felt that way even before I understood the exact mechanisms that were going on. Just a sense of a sense of fairness that I think most of us have but that we don't always know how to articulate. And getting involved with the restorative justice work that I do kind of brought me a lot farther in that line of thinking because so much of it is focused on accountability.

Robin: 11:48 When we met six years ago your gender identity was different than it is now. I'm curious how that has affected your thinking about social justice work and your relationships with the incarcerated men that you're working with now.

Anthony: 12:03 Yeah. So when I was on TV at that time I identified and presented as female. And then about how long ago was it now. Well it was after my sophomore year at Haverford that summer that I started to come out about being transgender and being non-binary so not identifying as just male or just female. So that was actually after I had begun working with the group in the prison and although it was a long time before I shared that with the people there. And I've also taken the whole process quite quite slowly. I think that it has affected the work that I do in a lot of in a lot of important ways. In terms of the work that I do on the inside around restorative justice, it kind of forced me to be more vulnerable in a way that previously I had not had to be. Even though restorative justice can apply to all sorts of situations and not just to what we would call crime a lot of what we talked about in the workshops on the inside very naturally does gravitate towards crime and is in some ways designed like that. And because luckily I have not in my life been affected by crime almost at all, I never really had to be vulnerable if I didn't want to. You know we have one part of the workshop where we are in small groups and we ask what's your first memory of witnessing a crime. And whenever that comes up I'm just like I haven't witnessed a crime you know and other people have to talk about some very personal experiences. I mean most people who are incarcerated or are themselves also victims of crime and these things being really personal things for them in a way it didn't for me. So when I came out about being transgender and putting that out there to the people that I work with, it forced me to share something personal that is not always easy or comfortable to share and that's what they've been doing all along, in sharing you know both the crimes that they may have committed or been victims of which are highly personal for people. So, it almost brought a new level of equity to what I was doing. And I think it has generally made my relationships with the people that I work with stronger and given me also a sense of what it's like to fear the judgment of others just in the way that a lot of people who are currently or formerly incarcerated or have criminal records fear the judgment of others.

Robin: 14:49 So what was it like to come out incarcerated men when you're working with? What was what was the process and what do you feel like the outcomes have been?

Anthony: 14:56 Well I didn't come out to anybody that I was working with in the prison until over a year after I had started coming out on the outside. And I think that was out of a certain level of a fear like there isn't as strong of a movement. Things aren't as progressive around LGBT issues inside of prisons, so I was a little bit afraid of what people might think or say.  But then towards the end of or midway through my junior year at Haverford I actually ran one of our restorative justice workshops at Haverford College with the students there and that was the first time that the workshop in its current form had ever been done outside of outside of the prison. So that was a really great experience for me to implement that. And at the beginning and end of all of our workshops you know we collect these feedback forms because we want information from our participants about how we could do better. And I of course wanted to bring those feedback forms in to show with you know my colleagues on the inside, but they all said you know Anthony did a great job facilitating. Or like I'm so glad that Anthony did this. So I couldn't go in there and hand these forms to to my friends on the inside and have them say "Anthony who? I thought you were running this." And I you know had been definitely planning for a while I like to bring it up with them. I did feel kind of guilty holding back this very important part of my identity. But that was logistically the kick because there was that and then my voice was also starting to change. And at some point that would have been noticeable. So the next time after that that I was in there for one of our two day workshops, there's a lunch break in between the morning and afternoon sessions that's pretty long because they have lunch and then they have like a lockdown for a while where they literally just go in like count everyone to make sure everyone is there or something. And so during that break I wrote a letter to one of the leaders who I had known for awhile explaining what it meant to be non-binary. Explaining this is why these feedback forms are all talking about this Anthony guy and inviting you know questions and everything like that. And he came back into the room a little bit a little bit early so we had some time and I handed him this letter and I said "I want you to go read this and then respond." And he was like "Well we have a few minutes. Why don't you just tell me." And I was very nervous so I was like "No take the letter or go somewhere else read it and then come back to me." I wasn't able to actually say it to his face. So then a few minutes later he did in fact come back into the room and had just a very big smile on his face and I just like breathed out. I was like OK good sign. So this individual like he's a total feminist, like really open minded and a progressive thinker. But there's always some level of fear when you don't know what somebody's opinion about being transgender is. So he was like really positive and accepting and then after that I had to leave. But the letter was passed around to the other members of sort of our leadership team and then we had at our next steering committee meeting kind of a Q&A about it where people asked whatever questions they have. Which I was very impressed with how insightful and respectful all the questions were. Even in the context of knowing these people for a while. And since then some people still mess up and will call me she, or even use my own name. Some people I've been able to connect with them over it and compare our different experiences of fear of stigma. And other people have actually been really interested in have taken initiative to you know educate themselves further and learn more about issues relating to being transgender or non-binary. So it's a kind of it's it depends on that people have individually acted in different ways. It wasn't until another year after that that I actually started using Anthony and he/him in the workshops as opposed to only with the people that I know well as part of the leadership team. And that's been another thing that I that I was nervous about regarding that level of vulnerability. But recently I've had a few cases where somebody who is participating in one of our workshops you know came up to me and said "I'm bi" or "I'm gay" or something and I really appreciate you you know being who you are and everything. And in the environment where they live most people who are LGBT don't feel safe coming out. And so I didn't really realize beforehand that my being there and being open about my identity could have that positive effect for other people to just allow them to talk to somebody even if they still aren't safe to come out in the larger atmosphere of the prison and to see that you know things are going forward on the outside and that it's not always going to be the way that it is now with the level of stigma and violence that people face.

Robin: 20:17 You know honestly what really strikes me and hearing you tell that story is how social justice issues can cross so many of the lines that the things that stand between us as barriers in the form of privilege right in terms of race or class or gender or you know all different types of privilege that are out there that there are still ways for us to cross over those boundaries in humanizing ways and connect with others.

Anthony: 20:47 Yeah. And I think it's right that we have a tendency in social justice spaces to be wary of equating different experiences. Like you can't say you know well as as an LGBT person I understand what it's like to be a victim of racism because I too am oppressed. Right? You don't want like I think it's right that we try to stay away from that kind of thing because you know it's important to realize that you really don't know. But I think that what you can gain from making those kinds of connections is understanding what it's like to have other people not know if that makes sense. When I as a as a trans person you know talk to sisgender people or straight people I'm often very aware of what they don't understand or what they will never be able to know from not having had that experience. And so it helps me to be more humble about similar like experiences of marginalization or oppression and aware that in that relationship I'm the person who doesn't know, no matter how well intentioned I may be. So I think in that sense it can be very beneficial for everybody to connect around those things.  And that's not even getting into the fact of you know people who are for example are transgender and incarcerated, of which there are way too many.

Robin: 22:10 You studied religion as part of your major and have for college. I'm curious about what led you to those studies and how do they play into your social justice work.

Anthony: 22:23 Well I think I've always been drawn to learning about people from many backgrounds and people with different experiences from mine. That was definitely part of my impetus for you know starting to volunteer in that prison was you know partly curiosity based and of course you can see that I chose to do that Thinking Beyond Borders gap year also for  very similar reasons. So with religion I was interested in the fact that you get to study a lot of different perspectives, different parts of the world and different ways of understanding and interpreting the world. I'm not particularly religious myself, but I think that the way that people draw their values and strength from religion can be very positive and it can also be very negative.

Robin: 23:12 I find that really interesting. Do you find that faith is an important component of social work?

Anthony: 23:21 I think it can be for a lot of people. I mean with restorative justice, for example, a lot of the core practices and tenets come from native practices both Native American and people from other places. But, then also in a sort of modern movement for restorative justice you had groups like Mennonites and Quakers who are at the forefront because they see that their religious values match up with this particular movement. We all come from a different set of values and motivations. But you know if we can come together on like what we would like the world to look like then it doesn't have to stop us from working across boundaries of faith.

Robin: 24:05 Are there things that you have faith in? Or are there core values or core assumptions about people and how people can and should interact that really undergird your belief in what social justice should look like?

Anthony: 24:17 Yeah. And I think that that is restorative justice for me, which is why it has been really valuable to have those core beliefs articulated explicitly so that I can I can look to them. I mean like I said we have sort of a whole list of 10 values, and I'm you know not to say that it's not the definitive list of restorative justice values, but it's it's pretty good.  And it has you know things like for example what I mentioned about we are all called to hold ourselves accountable for harm because the other is that. We are all called to live in a way that is life giving to ourselves and others. We are all connected to one another. And so in the sense that these are values that I use outside of the explicit context of restorative justice just to guide my daily life, it is a little bit analogous to religion, and I think it's important also because sometimes when people hear about restorative justice they think of it as a standard practice is like you should do this thing or do that thing. But I really think of it as first off rooted in the values. And then you can draw your practices or the way you want to just harm from those values rather than the other way around.

Robin: 25:29 So you mentioned that you're not employed at the moment in doing criminal justice work. How have you been able to do this and not be employed?

Anthony: 25:37 Well so I just finished up a job a couple weeks ago. After I graduated from Haverford I had a fellowship where I was working at a legal aid society here in Philadelphia. So that was really great. And in the long term I definitely plan to be employed. I'm just currently sort of in the job search. And it's been a big question in my mind of how much do I want my career to relate to my activism or my work around criminal justice because I'm very wary of getting money tied into what I'm doing in that field because of the way that it can have negative effects you know. You can start to be beholden to something other than your own values if you're getting your income from some organization with a different set of values. And then also there's the fact that if you really believe as I do that the movement for change around the issue of the criminal legal system needs to be led by the people most directly impacted, then you don't want to be stepping into a position that will undermine that goal either by literally taking a job from somebody who is directly affected or by positioning yourself as an expert in a way that is damaging to the idea that the real experts are the people who have been most affected by the current system. It's really on my mind of like is it right to merge my career with what it has so far been outside of my career practices that I'm engaged in.

Robin: 27:20 So I guess that leaves me with the question of how do you create a career in social justice if your concern is not wanting to professionalize your social justice work?

Anthony: 27:33 Right. And you know I had a conversation a little bit like that with somebody that I met at CADBI a while ago, and I asked her quite similar question and her answer was very sensitive and diplomatic. But what it came down to in some sense was, you don't. Right? So I think that you want to have a career that is consistent with your own values. Not that there can't be very ethical people who are working on Wall Street, but you don't want to like feel like well it can't work in social justice. I'm just going to you know milk money out of the stock market all day on Wall Street. But at the same time you have to be careful about contributing to organizations or groups that use the language and rhetoric of social justice, but that don't get themselves in the community or that in practice are more top down. You know because the whole idea of restorative justice is that justice comes from the community and those directly involved. So you can have I mean you can have people who have a lot of experience and expertise about restorative justice who can help with that process. But you don't want it to be hierarchical and you don't want somebody disconnected from the community you know coming in and doing things and when you have that as "your job" that can often be implied. It narrows your options a little bit. But in the long run, it's important. And you can also just get a job somewhere else and do things in your spare time. I mean the person who I had that conversation with works at a rec center. Most of the time. And then also as a part time art as empowerment thing with youth who are incarcerated in Philadelphia. I think to work through an organization whose mission is to empower other people as opposed to a model of like providing a service, although that can also be valuable in certain contexts when you know some people have access to resources that others others don't. You know for example with the legal aid society where I worked you can you can empower people but you also need lawyers to literally fight for the rights of low income people which is what they were doing over there. So I think you can contribute to an effort like that or you know if an organization is rooted in the community then you want to start rooting yourself in the community not focusing just on being part of the organization. And I think it's a little tricky because for me I'm not from Philadelphia originally, I only moved here after graduating from Haverford. So to some extent you know the city isn't my community and I can make it also more complicated and trying to think about well where do I fit in as a transplant? But there are a lot of places that that do really good work that I think there is space for somebody who who wants to help and is willing willing to learn.

Robin: 30:30 In the last few years of your life have you found yourself becoming a part of the trans community, and does that feel like an area of social justice for you? Or is that apart from the way you think about the way you want to impact the world?

Anthony: 30:45 Yeah that's a really hard question because I largely have not become part of the trans community. I mean I am a little bit, but I have often questioned myself like why don't I feel more drawn to that. You know I skipped Philadelphia pride because I was going to a prison abolition demonstration this year. Right? So why is it that I don't spend a lot of time engaging with this community which I am a part of? I'm really sheltered from a lot of the negative experiences that many trans people have, you know because of things like race and class and geographic location. So not having to deal with those injustices as much you know makes it easy for me to ignore that aspect of my identity in my daily life much more than others. Still not completely, but you know I don't feel that same level of fear. And so I haven't been driven to engage with that. And I think that's kind of a shame because it's something that I should try to do more of. There's a lot of complicated internal politics within the trans community that can be hard to hard to navigate. It's really difficult sometimes for me to see the vitriol that people who are part of marginalized groups including ones that I'm part of will espouse, especially ones that I'm part of. So  you know if I if I see other trans people saying like cisgender, which means not transgender people, are the worst. And like I don't want to educate them. I think those sentiments are really reasonable but it's hard for me because I just like because I haven't had to experience the same level of sort of antagonism and harassment that many of them have it's really easier for me to be like guys who should just be nice and educate people and things like that.  And in restorative justice you know we want to strive to be our best selves and like forgive people the fact that they may not know certain things or like be open to reaching greater understanding with everybody. But at the same time, restorative justice is supposed to be focused on the harm to the victim which in this case would be a marginalized group like transgender people. So I don't want to go to other trans people and say that you know that there's anything wrong with their reaction to this situation because there really there really isn't but because that's not my personal experience. It can be difficult for me to relate to it and to get involved. And so much of the time we're holding onto these multiple identities multiple positions in the world just like with you know with people who are incarcerated or otherwise harmed by the criminal legal system you know most people are in prison because a committed a crime that harmed somebody else. But at the same time you know I believe that prison is itself a crime in a way and that they are being harmed by the way that we have chosen to punish the original crime. So how do you get to a place where people can like reasserting asserting their dignity as people who are being harmed by the criminal legal system while also taking accountability for you know whatever harm they may have caused in their community that led them to be in the system? So it can be a really tricky thing to merge those two together.

Robin: 34:30 At the end of each of our interviews we ask this same question: What's the most important question you are asking right now?

Anthony: 34:39 I think the most important question that I'm asking right now is: How can I be better and hold myself to a higher standard without judging myself or without succumbing to a lot of emotional distress? So yeah you know how can I become better and more like the person that I hope to be without being too harsh on myself to the point that it damages my mental or emotional health?

Robin: 35:11 Anthony Marqusee, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today.

Anthony: 35:14 No problem.

Robin Pendoley - Host

Robin is Founder & President of Thinking Beyond Borders, an educational institution helping young people develop the capacities to be exceptional social impact leaders. With a BA in International Development at UCLA and an EdM from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Robin’s work is focused on understanding how meaningful impact is created and replicated. He is humbled and inspired every day by the learning and work of the students, educators, and alumni of the Thinking Beyond Borders community.

Julia Jones - Editor & Producer

Julia is an alumt of TBB’s Global Gap Year class of 2012. She received her Bachelor of Arts in International Relations and Entrepreneurship & Emerging Enterprises from Syracuse University. Having studied and worked around the world, she has now joined the Thinking Beyond Borders staff, supporting our US operations and serving as a Program Leader for our Gap Year Programs. She is thrilled to continue her exploration of social justice, global issues, and deeper cultural understanding alongside students.

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