On March 10, Tamanika Ferguson, visiting assistant professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Allegheny College, visited Harambee House for a meet and greet to discuss her research and answer questions from students. Ferguson centers women and incarceration in her work as a scholar-advocate, partnering with abolitionist advocacy groups such as the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) and the Massachusetts-based No New Women’s Prisons campaign. Besides being a visiting professor, she is connected to Wellesley College as the Project on Public Leadership & Action’s Scholar-Advocate in Residence, which she became after meeting Wellesley professors at the Faculty of Color Working Group Mentoring Program hosted during the 2021-22 academic year.
To kickstart the event, Patricia Birch, assistant dean for intercultural education, facilitated the event by introducing Ferguson and asking her several questions throughout the event. Students comfortably fit in Harambee House’s living room and were enlivened with questions throughout the meet and greet.
Ferguson opened the talk by sharing her personal and academic background. Originally from Los Angeles, she completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Africana studies and sociology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, before relocating to Washington, D.C. to receive her Ph.D. in communication, culture, and media studies at Howard University. Throughout her studies, she has explored police and prison abolition, starting with her interest in juvenile justice in undergrad, which was informed by her personal experiences with the carceral system as a teenager.
“Being in the Africana studies and sociology departments gave me a lot of context [and] the language that I needed to understand all that I had seen and observed growing up in LA,” said Ferguson at the event. “Once I got to Howard, that critical intellectual education really did it for me. So my feminist awakening really deepened when I got to Howard. And then I started focusing … on women and incarceration in California.”
At Howard, Ferguson focused on archival research. For her dissertation, she analyzed CCWP’s newsletter, which has been published since 1996 in collaboration with incarcerated people.
“I studied the newsletters to … better understand the violence of incarceration and how incarcerated people in women’s prisons are resisting [and] self organizing,” Ferguson said at the event.
In addition to studying the newsletters, she continues to contribute to them in partnership with CCWP when possible. In 2021, she received a grant to conduct interviews with formerly incarcerated women, which provided a “more nuanced account of the violence of incarceration and the real challenges of resisting and self organizing in women’s prisons.” Through her research, she aims to illustrate that “incarcerated women, transgender and gender non-conforming people resist and self organize” in different ways compared to men due to the gender-based violence that is threatened in retaliation. One example she provided is the work of incarcerated women in California to organize against the abysmal healthcare provided in women’s prisons since the 1990s.
“The prison is really a replica of what’s going on out here in society … with sexual abuse, exploitation and all of these issues that are going on,” said Ferguson at the event. “Women are a hidden demographic. You hear a lot about incarcerated men, but rarely do you hear about incarcerated women, particularly when we’re talking about resistance and self organizing, because within … the abolitionist movement, there’s an idea that women’s acts are not aggressive enough. In my work on shifting that narrative, we’re not talking about these passive, helpless observers. Incarcerated women have to think differently, strategically about how to self organize and resist.”
Maren Frye ’23 said she attended the event because it piqued her existing interest in police and prison abolition. She asked Ferguson a question about her archival research because she was curious to what extent the CCWP newsletter has evolved over the past 30 years.
“I found it to be very telling that [Ferguson] was talking about all these things that had not changed [in women’s prisons] like healthcare, programming and the prison institution as a whole replicating itself over and over again,” Frye said.
Ferguson’s ongoing book project, “Voices from the Inside: Incarcerated Women Speak,” synthesizes her dissertation and ethnographic research. After she finishes her first book, she hopes to explore how abolitionist activists center self care and wellness in their work. This interest is informed by the burnout that grassroots organizers often experience, which she described as “grueling.”
“Commitment to justice and systemic change is a practice that requires a marathon approach and mentality,” said Ferguson. “Wellness and self-care must be centered in this marathon movement to chip away at racist structures, policies and ideas.”
After describing her past, present and future work, Ferguson opened up the conversation to hear from attendees about their experiences with organizing and burnout, which led to a general Q&A session for the rest of the event. Attendees asked questions about the intersections between motherhood and female incarceration, what activist self-care looks like in practice and other topics.
Reflecting on the event, Frye said that she loved its conversational style.
“I really liked the collaborative element where she was asking us questions, and we were also asking her questions, and she just had so much wisdom to share,” said Frye. “It was incredible to hear her speak about all the work that she has done and from her own experiences being impacted by the system. … Just getting that access to someone who’s so deeply connected to the work and the field and being able to ask these questions that really you can only get answers from people who are doing the work was really exciting.”
Ferguson ended the meet and greet by urging students to get involved in local organizing groups working on issues that matter to them.
“[Organizing] is a marathon, not a sprint,” said Ferguson at the event. “Those on the frontline have always felt a sense of urgency because there’s always an issue we have to fight against, but if we approach it as a sprint, that becomes detrimental to our health. … So I see it as a marathon now.”