This has been a tough year—and we all know that’s a huge understatement. But through all the challenges and dark days, there’s been a bright light shining in St. Louis. After years of hard work, activists and advocates there managed to close the Workhouse jail. The Workhouse was truly a “hopeless” place—90% of the people incarcerated there hadn’t been convicted of anything. And 90% of its population was Black.
That’s amazing! But… how did they do it? And what can activists in other cities who want to divest from policing and incarceration and invest in people and communities learn from what happened in St. Louis?
To find out, we turned to three leaders of the Close the Workhouse movement—Inez Bordeaux, Jae Shepherd, and Madison Orozco—and asked them to talk about what made the campaign so successful. Here are the five most important steps you need to take to achieve change in your community.
Item number 1
Encourage People to Tell Their Stories
INEZ BORDEAUX, organizer with Close the Workhouse and manager of community collaborations at ArchCity Defenders:
We wanted to close the Workhouse. We wanted that money to go to Black folks in Black communities that have been most harmed by the failed racist policies at the city. We wanted to end cash bail. We wanted to re-envision public safety.
So, we gathered all the impacted people that were interested in telling their story and interested in advocating for the closure of the Workhouse and had people talk about the horrors of what they experienced, about the things that brought them to the Workhouse, the things that happened while they were there and what happened to them after they left.
The main reason I joined this campaign was because I was angry about the conditions that I was forced to live in when I was in the Workhouse. I am angry about the criminal legal system and the way that it destroys people, families, and communities.
I want you to listen to my story and I want you to listen to Deidra's story and Janice's story and Anthony's story and Callion's story and I want you to get angry on behalf of those people. And then, I want you to get up and do something with that anger because angry gets shit done and angry is a renewable energy source. It can motivate you.
Item number 2
Demand What You Want, Not What You Think You Can Get
Once we started getting people to tell their stories, then we really focused on the education part, the re-envisioning public safety, the divesting from carceral systems that have failed and investing in people and communities.
JAE SHEPHERD, abolitionist organizer for Action St. Louis:
We were really strategic about our demands, always educating, talking about how the city government works, constantly doing political education. Then we’d get out on the doors.
We wanted people to dream big. One of the things that we did a lot was ask people to imagine what they would do with $16 million [that the city of St. Louis had been spending every year on the Workhouse]. What could your ward do with that type of money? And when we were canvassing, we found a lot of the time that people had never imagined a St. Louis without the Workhouse. Once we got people to imagine the possibilities, we said, "Think big. Demand what you want and not what you think you can win."
So we said, we want to close this jail. We want that $16 million. We want to end cash bail. We want to re-invent public safety. We want to defund the police. We don't want any new jails in St. Louis. And we demanded what we wanted and not what we thought we could get. And look at us here now.
Item number 3
Listen to Impacted People
MADISON OROZCO, organizer with Close the Workhouse and community collaborations associate at Arch City Defenders:
I've done other organizing, and when I started doing organizing for the Close the Workhouse campaign, I just couldn't believe how much impacted people were a part of the organizing, which sounds dumb when I say it now, but a lot of nonprofits don't necessarily realize all it takes to get people who are impacted involved, and they're not necessarily willing to take that extra effort.
We had people bringing food to our monthly movement meetings. We had people providing childcare. You have to make sure that you're out there, that you reach people where they are, or else you're not going to have them be a part of what you're doing. And if you don't have them as a part of what you're doing, then it's not really going to go anywhere.
You have to know your base, and build with your base. Make sure that your base has the say, right? This is all driven by impacted folks. So you make sure that there's meetings for impacted folks to bond and learn.
Item number 4
Have a Plan to Avoid Burnout
I think it's important to know that not every day of organizing a successful campaign feels very exciting. Sometimes it looks like sending out emails, asking for people to get back to you and they don't. Or other days it looks like organizing really hard to get a ton of people to a meeting and only like 10 people show up.
You really have to persevere and keep pushing, because you're not going to always feel like you're making the progress that you need and you're not going to always feel like it's going the direction you want. But it just really pays off to like keep putting in that work. And that's why it's so important to have that community around you, because in those times where you feel low, you have the people around you that can say, there's been so much work up to this point and there's going to be a lot of work ahead, but that's because we all care, because we know we're going to be successful.
Item number 5
Remember that the People Have the Power
The power of the people is unstoppable. There are way more of us than there are them. And if we band together, there's nothing that we can't accomplish. I know that it sounds cliché. It absolutely sounds like the speech a football coach would give in one of those football movies or something like that. I get it, but the Close the Workhouse campaign is living, breathing proof that when you get your people together, when you stand together, when you are unified in trying to achieve a goal or a dream or build the future that you want to live in, they can't stop you. They can't stop you.
Can I add one thing? Anything and everything is possible through Black leadership.
That right there! Listen to Black folks!