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Collective Collateral

By Ashley Cooper

Try on the process. Go below, not above. Propose, not impose. We began with the agreements. Hundreds, maybe thousands of recitations over hours, weeks, years. Always begin with the agreements. Relationships are founded on the strength of agreements, forms of mutual accountability that seek to halt and redirect flows of apparent and invisible power from divesting from the collective subject. Our agreements organized us, our relationships, and our work. This process is messy. We failed, often. But we also made something beautiful[1].

The lines between co-learning, co-researching, and conspiring blurred over the years of study and struggle in our little collective inside a state women’s prison. We emerged, adapted, and took on a joyous living form – right under the terror and surveillance of a deadly institution. A fluid group of incarcerated women, community healers, activists, teachers, and poets, we sought to steal away space and time from the prison’s extractive capacity to imagine and cultivate livability and radical accountability across prison walls. Through formative years of collective study, workshops, and artistic projects, we soon identified an emerging horizontal research practice toward these aims to embody our commitments to and generate tools for organized survival.

After years of co-learning and conspiring, and in the fall of 2018, we began an extensive collaborative project to catalogue local expertise “as part of an ongoing process of community regeneration”[2] among the imprisoned, formerly imprisoned and those impacted relationally by incarceration. This project generated layered reflections and interventions, from intimate knowledges to broad analysis on the prison as a life-altering and organizing web of state-sanctioned violence. The research we practiced did not comport with the standard, academic practice of imposition, hierarchical review, and extraction. What we created was designed by, centered in, and remains accountable to the wisdom and struggles of those typically cast as subjects (or worse, objects), rather than experts. Together we practiced a mode of convivial methodology, in which the co-generation of knowledge requires several vital recognitions and modes of accountability, including: a refusal to objectify those in struggle; engagement with multiple sites and forms of knowledge production; and the generation of collective tools in service of strategy and dignity in struggle[3].

In recognition of multiple sites of knowledge production, our project sought to collect and map the ways varying experiences of state violence compound upon the lives and labors of incarcerated women. We drew largely from the example of Precarias a la Deriva, a formation in Madrid whose immersive research took them through various sites of precarious reproductive labor, in their words as “a bid for survival arising out of our own needs: networks to break solitude, words to talk about what is happening to us.”[4] This process drew connections between systematic vulnerabilities and forged lines to navigate power and resources. In our work, storytelling, testimony, and drift methods amassed a rich and telling archive that is both representational and generative.

The drift, or deriva[5], was our primary method and became a grounding routine still occurring today. Precarias used the term deriva to describe their method of movement through existing sites where women do precarious labors (from sex work to domestic and catering). This process endorsed local expertise and cultivated shared lines of flight, serving as a dispersed organizing tool, often with women articulating their conditions and needs. Similar to Precarias, our drifting resembled transient connections, clandestine workplace meetings, witnessing, and collective reflection. In movement through the everyday, we gathered insights and meanings, instances that revealed more pieces to our investigation. With these drifts, we compiled an open list of themes of insight into navigating and challenging state violence prior to, during, and after incarceration. Among our dozen initial themes were sentencing misconduct, medical neglect, and family reunification. We reflected on drift data collectively, documenting these reflections also as drift notes on our collective meaning-making. We struggled with balancing the desire to remain open as researchers and decidedly over-determining the value of insights politically in our ability to map liberatory possibility.

Following several months of drifting, we collaboratively constructed interview questions to generate input for identified themes, and naturally, this process lent itself to the identification of more themes. We conducted a series of collective interviews that better resembled testimonials. Women shared deep and grave histories of struggle as well as feats of resilience in these concealed convenings. All of the “we” present were responsible for witnessing; each story deepened our collective accountability. This process itself generated a liberatory tool, as we simultaneously grew in our collective capacity to respond to moments of imminent state violence.

Our commitment to this work came from trying on the process and remaining accountable to our agreements. Throughout the duration of this endeavor, we practiced horizontal decision-making but recognized differentiated knowledges – not for their legibility but for their use. We drew from our early practices of collective study to provide context, plan, and execute what we needed. The tools we produced comprised our archives, events, legal victories, and relationships. Our methodology reflected our practices of collective care and their underlying political commitments. “Convivial research,” as Manolo Callahan noted, “prioritizes the intersection between engaged research, insurgent learning, and direct action as a fundamental dimension of a radical democratic praxis.”[6]

What we produced is a testament to how we produced it: the self-reflective fruition of collective process as an embodiment to militant resistance to the prison. Our research spaces became, if not always already were, active organizing sites – in collective interviews, in drifts on the yard, in the constant movement of knowledge and resources across bars and imposed silos. The full possibilities of the archive we created, the research process, and our collective are still emerging, but they promise an embodied reflection on what collective collateral might make possible. For now, we know we’re telling the story from inside, together.

Ashley Cooper is a writer, conspirator, and doctoral student committed to radical feminist abolitionist praxis in research and political work. Her background is in immigrant rights and labor organizing, and her research investigates reproductive labor and justice in the context of fugitive community regeneration in and beyond prisons.  

[1] While singly authored, this essay only exists as a reflection upon the collaborative work in which I was a participant. My co-researchers and comrades are on both sides of the walls at the time of this publication, and their feedback and support was vital to this specific piece, as was their guiding participation in all that this piece reflects.

[2] From the pamphlet titled “Convivial Research” by the Center for Convivial Research and Autonomy, 2018.

[3] From the pamphlet titled “Convivial Research” by the Center for Convivial Research and Autonomy, 2018.

[4] Precarias a la Deriva, 2004. “Adrift through the circuits of feminized precarious work.”

[5] See note above and Tirler, Julia. “Precarias a la deriva” in Marx in the Margins: A Collective Project, from A to Z; Krisis 2018, Issue 2. (citing Precarias a la deriva 2004a, 26)

[6] Callahan, Manolo. “Convivial Research” by the Center for Convivial Research and Autonomy, 2018.

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