Liberation Literacy's History

A Letter from our Co-founder

July 29, 2020

While I was imprisoned, Reiko Hilyer, a history professor (amongst many other things that encompass her incredible soul) brought in a volunteer for a two-night study group on Malcolm X. This volunteer was Garrett Felber. He and I instantly clicked, and had much in common.

After the group was over, he came back in to prison as a volunteer but in his own capacity, teaching the same subject at first but in a longer form. This Malcolm X study group only had about 5 people in it. This happened a couple more times until there were only three people, Garrett and I being two-thirds of that.

After his last class of that final small group, upon which he mentioned he was planning on leaving Portland, and lamenting on the small numbers we had in attendance in a prison of over 500 people, I devised a solution that we discussed, planned and began work on.

This idea I shared was somewhat simple, but had so much potential: instead of teaching a subject, why don't we make it more like a facilitated college class, where instead of learning some rote subject or trade, we offer education that can be used for defense against a system, and in turn through the bonds that social creatures naturally form, we forge our own family and community.

This weaponized education, where our main focus was an alternative to the structures of racism and capitalism, and directed towards the end goals of racial justice and prison abolition, is now known as Liberation Literacy.

This name was democratically invented and voted on amongst outside volunteers and those imprisoned in one of our first classes after the Department of Corrections in Oregon allowed us to tentatively try such an idea. Of course, this was after plentiful vague statements and the bare minimum of information were offered due to the temperament of the head of programming back then (which has since changed to a different person, who is far more helpful and healthy towards our organization).

Each class had a focus of multiple things such as reading part of a voted-on book beforehand and a deep intellectual and emotional foray into what the passages meant to the ones living in a cage, and how we interpreted the present day ramifications of such ponderings, actions, and ideas. Another main part was check-in and check-out questions, such as "how do you show love," and "what do you most want your legacy to be."

Additionally, 30 minutes was perpetually allotted before and after each class as a means of connection and social ties to one another. Becoming closer to one another every Wednesday night from 5 to 8 pm. Of course, many prison guards were disturbed, angry and uncomfortable seeing us on their closed circuit monitors being human with each other, let alone their theories on us being some type of prison dating service when they saw volunteers from the outside reciprocating this treatment alongside.

Personally, my roles were plentiful: making sure water was brought from the kitchen and taken back each class for the volunteers (of which I was later able to delegate); regulating who was in the class and not, for protection of the bonds we had formed and the volunteers that devoted so much time out of their lives to coming in to commune with us; defending what we were doing to staff, guards, and other personnel (and sometimes even other prisoners); and inviting the select few to join us when we had a rare spot on our 15 person limit open.

There was also curriculum and advice, facilitation, and rarely, "dropping the hammer" if anyone, inside or outside, was doing something or had done anything that could get someone in our group more time, our group banned from meeting or continuing in the prison by staff, or that caused harm to any of us, inside or outside.

I did this from the creation and implementation in October of 2016, when Garrett had gotten everything ready and cleared on the outside and the original bunch of volunteers together while I got everything approved and the OG members from the population on the inside, to November of 2018, when I was allowed to be set free from my confinement. After release, many things changed for me, but Liberation Literacy has continued to grow.

Today (2020), we are a certified non-profit that has a non-hierarchical structure with all board members having either done time, or are Black or indigenous people of color (or both). We have lent our voices to getting a new district attorney elected in Multnomah County as part of the community leaders of Oregon DA For The People, were invited to speak at a prison conference at Harvard, had public speeches given at churches, hospitals, and local colleges, and been a major voice in advocating for, and being in service of, anyone who knows what it feels like on the inside of a cell or has been told that somehow you are less than another.

I am so proud of what we've become, and all who have been with us on this journey. We hope you'll get involved, share our names, collaborate with us, donate funds for support, or otherwise look to us, and listen.

Listen,

To our truth.

Sincerely,

Joshua Edward Wright