Call Declined: Answering the Call
Starting a non-profit is a challenging and confusing process that also, sometimes, includes joyful shenanigans. In this episode, we get a behind-the-scenes look at how Aimee and Kamisha approached building The Returning Artists Guild. We learn how they met and formed a relationship with Melissa and we hear from a variety of philanthropic funders about why the arts are important to ending mass incarceration. Kamisha and Aimee speak candidly about their vision for the future and what it will take to get there.
Kamisha Thomas’s Portfolio: https://thomaskamisha.myportfolio.com/ (portfolio)
Ohio Prison Arts Connection: https://wexarts.org/education/ohio-prison-arts-connection-online
The Wexner Center for the Arts: https://wexarts.org/
California Lawyers for the Arts: https://www.calawyersforthearts.org/
Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration (MOMA exhibit): https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/5208
Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration (Book by Dr. Nicole Fleetwood): https://www.hup.harvard.edu/books/9780674919228
Art for Justice: https://artforjusticefund.org/
Agnes Gund Sells a Lichtenstein to Start Criminal Justice Fund (New York Times): https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/11/arts/design/agnes-gund-sells-a-lichtenstein-to-start-criminal-justice-fund.html
Imagining Freedom (The Mellon Foundation): https://www.mellon.org/article/imagining-freedom-initiative
Fitton Center for Creative Arts: https://www.fittoncenter.org/
Cummings Center for the History of Psychology: https://www.uakron.edu/chp/
Julie B. Ehrlich–Director of Presidential Initiatives and Chief of Staff (Mellon Foundation): https://www.mellon.org/people/julie-b-ehrlich
Rick Kellar–President and CEO (Peg’s Foundation): https://pegsfoundation.org/leadership/#rick-kellar-mba-president-and-ceo
Aliyah Salim – Program Officer (Galaxy Gives): https://www.galaxygives.com/team/aliyah-paulsingh
Call Declined is hosted by Melissa Beck and presented by the Sozosei Foundation, a philanthropic arm of Otsuka. The Foundation’s goal is to increase access to mental healthcare in order to eliminate the inappropriate use of jails and prisons for the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness in the United States. Learn more at www.SozoseiFoundation.org.
The Sozosei Foundation extends special thanks to Aimee Wissman and Kamisha Thomas, visionary artists and co-founders of The Returning Artists Guild whose creativity, resilience, and lived experience inspire us to build a world where mental illness is not a crime. To learn more about the Guild visit www.thereturningartistsguild.org.
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Please note that this podcast contains mature content, including explicit language and discussions about drug use and other potentially sensitive topics. The views expressed are solely those of the participants and do not reflect the opinions of the Sozosei Foundation, podcast host or sponsors. Listener discretion is advised. This content is intended for mature audiences and is not suitable for all listeners.
Kamisha Thomas, Melissa Beck, Julie, Rick Keller, Lea
Melissa Beck 00:00
This podcast contains mature content, including explicit language and discussions about drug use, and other potentially sensitive topics. The views expressed are solely those of the participants, and do not reflect the opinions of the Soto safe Foundation, podcast host or sponsors. Listener discretion is advised. The content is intended for mature audiences and is not suitable for all listeners.
Kamisha Thomas 00:28
We realized very quickly that we really leaned into each other for support, we just started to think about whoever else is home, maybe we can connect with them, and be of some assistance and get them some shine in some of these shows.
Melissa Beck 00:52
Welcome back to Call Declined, I’m your host, Melissa Beck. In this final episode of our four part series, we’re talking about the returning artists guilt. You’ll hear about how Aimee and Kamisha built a nonprofit organization to help artists who have also experienced the trauma of incarceration, and how they are envisioning a better future without mass incarceration. You’ll also hear about how we all met and got some behind the scenes on the nitty gritty of how nonprofits and funders interact, or at least how Amy and camicia interact with me, and how I interact with them. Where we left off in episode three, Aimee had been out of prison for about six months, and Kamisha was just out. They were both focused on transitioning back to life with their freedom and their families.
Kamisha Thomas 01:53
So Aimee was doing, actually as much work as she could possibly do, to keep us relevant to keep us kind of like fresh in their brains off of the pins to pictures thing and the art therapy, success that we had while we were incarcerated. And then shortly thereafter, she’s dragging me along to I don’t mean dragging me along. But she’s she’s requesting my presence at these OPAC meetings, the Ohio Prison Arts Connection, and I was down for the ride, you know, I’m down for all the shenanigans. Yeah, every last one of them.
Melissa Beck 02:32
The Ohio prison arts connection, or OPAC, is an organization that facilitates arts shows, and supports artists in Ohio. And it was a starting point for Aimee and Kamisha as professional artists after they had been inside.
Kamisha Thomas 02:48
I do remember vividly pulling up to the Wexner with some like supplies or paintings or you know what I’m saying? Like, what’s the Wexner? The Wexner? Center for the Arts? It’s the Ohio State University’s Galor.
Melissa Beck 03:10
And so any How did you get involved with OPAC?
Rick Keller 03:15
We knew several of the founding like core people from them coming inside and doing like a program of some sort. And I was pretty determined to not forget about the people that were still there. And to find a way to like make art work.
Melissa Beck 03:36
What does that mean to you to make art work?
Rick Keller 03:40
Like to be an artist as a job, and not as like a cute hobby or, you know, how some people interpret making art. And I felt that they needed some directly impacted people on their steering committee. And they agreed, so that’s where that started and then they had a an annual gathering a big event. So I coordinated the pop up artwork for that, and it was kind of a nightmare. I mean, I remember driving all the way to Yellow Springs, in a van that I borrowed from my grandfather, who was still alive at the time to pick up easels, which does display work because like the, the space you couldn’t hang anything on the wall. And I was way out of my depth. But it was successful people were like very interested in the art very impacted by the art. It really supported the messaging that the organization was trying to do. And for me, it was kind of like my first little taste of being a curator.
Melissa Beck 04:44
Yeah, art as work as a vocation. Had that been something that was on your mind? Was that something that in your family when you were younger, was supported as a career goal?
Rick Keller 05:00
No, like, my parents wanted me to be like, a doctor or a lawyer, or maybe I could have been a journalist and that might have been taken seriously but the arts were not an option in high school, I begged to go to vocational school because I was like, I just want to smoke weed, like, let me go learn how to do hair or something. And that was a no, you know, it was very, like college, college college and I don’t think anybody in my family had any kind of understanding that, like, there are professional artists and like this is that, like, there’s the arts is a big sector of our economy, actually and there’s a lot of people that are working in the arts, you know, those are things I was starting to realize, and I was also starting to realize, like, I don’t want to Barton, I’m going to be making my work regardless, because this is the only way I can stay sane, so if I’m going to be making this work, and I’m going to be staying connected to these people that I did time with, like, why don’t I just try to marry that all into a thing and make that work.
Melissa Beck 06:00
Yeah, and Kamisha, what about you kind of the art as vocation? Did that occur to you when you were younger person?
Kamisha Thomas 06:10
Not until right before I went to prison when I was, you know, doing the MAMARAZZI. You know, because that was like, oh, I’ve got this skill. I’ve got this natural talent for like, directing and visualizing the end goal and figuring out how to get there. You know, so I didn’t start thinking about that as a means of income until that time, so I was fully an adult with children. Right, you know, but before that, I used to toss around the idea of writing books, and you know, things like that. Did I have support? I’m gonna say no, and even with the MAMARAZZI thing, like, my mom didn’t want to watch the kids so that I could go record a live performance. Because it’s mostly like at a bar and late at night, you know, that type of thing. So she didn’t think that that would produce any real income.
Melissa Beck 07:16
So the two of you are finally out. Tell us about the returning artists guild. Where did that come from? How was that born?
Rick Keller 07:34
The returning artists guild was born out of probably that first exhibition experience. And then I went to California after that to a California lawyers for the arts sponsored arts and corrections meeting, and I never knew that state could have arts programming as a line item in their budget. And so like, that’s when I realized, like, hey, there’s a ton of arts programming that’s going on inside, in other places. And I was still mostly thinking about the people that were still inside at that time and struggling with kind of the more traditional pathways to continuing the work like, whoa, I can go back in and teach a painting class, for instance but what I started thinking about more and more was that I don’t want to build a better prison.
Kamisha Thomas 08:26
Yeah, that’s not the goal. The goal is to have no prisons.
Melissa Beck 08:30
And so did you go about reconnecting with those women who were on the outside?
Rick Keller 08:35
Yeah, I think we were always in the process of kind of putting eyeballs on people, or vice versa, you know, a lot of people reached out to one or the other of us, and then also, I got into the marking time exhibition. And they also screened our pins to pictures films at the MoMA opening. And that was kind of another light bulb is like, this work is extremely important like the work that people are making inside and out, artistically is like really important. Maybe there’s this moment happening where the public is starting to pay attention and appreciate these artists and I’m starting to ask, like, where will where are the black women and where are the women in general? And, you know, why is it New York, New York, New York, New, you know [….] . So, I just kind of felt like, maybe there’s it started to help me understand that there there seems to be a moment happening. And I know a lot of artists.
Melissa Beck 09:39
Yeah, yeah, can you tell folks what the marking time exhibit was?
Rick Keller 09:45
Marking time Art in the Age of mass incarceration is a book by Dr. Nicole Fleetwood also from Ohio. A MacArthur Fellow amongst other I mean, she’s awesome.
Kamisha Thomas 09:59
She got the interest.
Rick Keller 10:01
She’s got she’s got the alphabets, she’s pretty great and the book is fantastic in terms of making the argument in many ways about these artists being the forefront of Contemporary Art in America but the book is so awesome that there was a call for, you know, like an exhibition to partner with and so many of the artists that are featured in the book are also in the exhibition and then some people like me, who are not a part of the book also got an on the exhibition. And it travels still currently traveling.
Melissa Beck 10:38
Yeah, it’s a pretty incredible exhibit, I had the pleasure of seeing it in New York at MoMA [..] it’s a pretty transformative thing and I think of, you know, some of the work of the returning artists guild is that art gives people access to stories in a way that they can hear that they may not be able to, through words, and you can tell your story through art, and you can hear a story through art, so what happened next?
Rick Keller 11:16
We were getting art, you know, like, we’re starting to get art out from people that were inside and building space for artists that had been released to have a creative practice by using our own funds to buy people supplies, you know, like, get them rolling. So in many ways, we kind of had to jumpstart the careers of a few of these folks, like I don’t know if they would have been able to sustain a creative practice without that, but as the people in the guild started to grow, it’s like this community is becoming a lot stronger. But for the most part, it’s the band me and Kamisha kind of strategizing, where we could get a show and a lot of that is built on the networks that we have as individual artists, and then the people that have seen a show of ours, you know, because if another space sees a show, they typically are like, we want a rack show so that just what started as like, getting stuff out of our trunk still remains getting stuff out of our trunk.
Melissa Beck 12:23
Right, having just been in the backseat of Kamisha’s car can attest to the fact there’s a lot of art supply, I was ready to do my painting. So just break it down for the listeners a little bit, what, what’s the mission of the returning artists guild? Where are we now?
Kamisha Thomas 12:41
Well, our goal is just to continue to provide a safe space for artists, and reentry and still incarcerated to support and empower them and to give them agency and also we are abolitionists, we want to end mass incarceration, it’s a big thing for us, we are just not happy with the idea of building a better prison or reforming a system that is just so fucked up in the first place that like, why are we even doing this, and we also want to collaborate with, you know, the population of the world that has not been affected by incarceration, to show them why they should care.
Rick Keller 13:26
I think some of the ways that we’ve done that is obviously through exhibitions through supporting people’s creative practice needs, and also they’re just like, typical everyday life needs help I need $10 to get on the bus today because blah, blah, blah, and it’s like, I don’t even need to hear the reason, just tell me what you need.
Kamisha Thomas 13:46
Yeah, just send me your cash […]
Rick Keller 13:49
We, so once a week, I’m like, what’s your cash, like, just tell me how we can solve this with money because it seems like we do a lot of that and it’s like, really important to have access to funds that are flexible enough for us to be able to, like, give people what they need, because it never really looks the same for any artists, you know, the folks that are inside is a little more similar, because we’re limited in terms of what we can do for them, but you know, we’ve sold a lot of work for people, we’ve never taken a percentage of that, so if the gallery does, there’s not a lot I can do, except price you up. But we we are not taking a cut from these artists so we have a lot of ethics around paying artists and then, you know, I think what’s coming out of all of this is a really solid starting point for a peer driven model about reentry and the importance of the role of the arts. I’m really big on the processes and the practice of an artist being a lot more important than the artistic output. I think like artists have a tremendous impact when they are in community and they are real sourced. So the goal is to build an artist’s residency portion of the rag so that someone could come home to studio space and housing provided. And for everyone else we’re working on just like meeting needs where they’re at.
Melissa Beck 15:19
After the break, we talk about how Aimee and Kamisha, I all met, and we get into the details of what it takes to build a nonprofit from the ground up.
Melissa Beck 15:58
So let’s talk for a minute about the three of us and how the three of us met. Anyone want to take a stab at that?
Kamisha Thomas 16:07
I received an email as part of a listserv for art for justice from either Su or Helina talking about a new funder who was looking for letters of inquiry regarding mental health. So I forwarded that to Aimee, and said we need to check this out.
Melissa Beck 16:31
When I speak later with my colleague Julie Erlich from the Mellon Foundation. We’ll talk more about art for justice, a powerful vehicle for giving launched by the arts patron and philanthropist Agnes Gund. For now, I’ll just say that in January 2017, Agnes Gunn sold Roy Lichtenstein piece in order to provide $100 million in seed funding to start the art for justice fund. My colleague, Elena Wang was tapped to run art for justice. And as the Sozosei Foundation, the organization that I run, began to contemplate the role of the arts and the decriminalization of mental illness. I turned to Elena for help and insight, I’m so glad I did, because she introduced me to Kamisha.
Kamisha Thomas 17:18
And then the next thing you know, I think we were getting some type of invitation to Rockaway.
Melissa Beck 17:25
Yeah, there’s one thing that happened in between that, which Aimee probably remembers more, because it was so bananas. So we got the letter of inquiry, it’s true and I was like, wait, who are these women? And what are they doing? This sounds so amazing and I was traveling out to Ohio to look at a different project and I thought remember the same me, and I thought like, like, so typical.
Rick Keller 17:51
Window of time, I have a vague window of time. No, wait, I have a different window of time. No, wait, I have a last I must return to New York.
Kamisha Thomas 18:00
We got to Rockaway and met and it was just like a super fun time I felt like she’s definitely our tribe.
Melissa Beck 18:00
Oh, my God, that was like the best Melissa, since my teenage daughters dropped the mic after that. Yeah, that and that is so typical me like, I’m gonna schedule three things for the same 15 minutes. And somehow they’re all going to happen, so it’s completely that shenana again, which is the theme, the word of the day but I was so excited, I wanted to meet you both so badly and I remember I was calling him It kept dipping out of an event at Ohio State where it was like I didn’t even like really understand New Yorker, I don’t understand anything outside of the city that goes live, where am I? So sadly, we couldn’t meet right and then I returned to New York and as a foundation, we don’t think that we hold all the knowledge or expertise. So I thought, well, let’s bring in some people to help us answer that so that then we sent the invitation. And then I remember what happened next to you Kamisha.
Melissa Beck 19:08
Thank you, I’m honored.
Kamisha Thomas 19:10
Like you are so funny, so witty, so just like real, you know, not like fabricated in any way. I could tell that you were saying exactly what you were thinking, and I love that because I am the same way, and Aimee is also the same way as we quickly found out.
Melissa Beck 19:37
Yes, right Aimee you are wonderful at that convenient and fresh, right. You know, philanthropy, there’s such a power dynamic and funders can often you know, that sort of you kind of want to like, like hold the room be in charge of the dialogue, and I think one of the things about the Sozosei foundation it’s like it’s a big tent and everyone’s voice matters. And so there’s really room to question and be really real, like you were at that meeting. As a funder of the returning artists guild now, it’s a pleasure to look back at where Aimee and Kamisha were in their thought processes just a year and a half ago, and there are a few things that really stand out to me now. The first was the clarity of their vision for the guild. Second was their entrepreneurial zest, which made clear that they were going to build this nonprofit and build it well. And lastly, was how the guild was centered on their lived experience, that the centering of the arts in the reentry process would be a powerful tool for people, as well as a tool to shift public perception and policy in a way that would be transformative. Take me back to the bench, where you were sitting together. What were you dreaming about thinking about?
Rick Keller 20:57
We have a long history of benches and we’ve, we seem to find a bench wherever we go. And you know, what started it’s just kind of like meeting on the yard to sit on the bench to bullshit has become a lifestyle for us, so we weren’t surprised to find the bench like they’re findable but I think the feeling was kind of like a little bit of awe, you know, we neither one of us had been to New York where you had been no, no and so we naturally had like to had to take the train in to the city, remember, and that was a very long, insane train ride.
Kamisha Thomas 21:39
It was so late.
Rick Keller 21:40
Oh, we got we got up to some shenanigans in the city and then it was time to like, rush, rush back, and so yeah, that next day, when we had the bench on the beach, it was a lot more chill, and it was more like, well, we know Melissa is about to give us this money. We know Melissa is about to give us his money, like we’ve said everything as directly as we possibly can and so has she and so I think we got really lucky having you as our first experience of a funder, because you’re a pretty unique experience of a funder.
Melissa Beck 22:21
The Sozosei foundation is honored to have been the first private philanthropy supporting the returning artists guild. And here it’s fair to acknowledge that the first grant is often one of the most difficult to get. I’m proud to work for the Sozosei Foundation, which is willing to be an initial investor in early, often untested ideas, particularly ideas like the guilt that are poised and ready to prove their impact. But now, this also say foundation is no longer the sole funder of the guild, delightfully, some others, like the Mellon Foundation are now also funding Aimee and Kamisha work. So I called up my colleague, Julie Ehrlich from Mellon to talk about what makes the guild so special, and why the Mellon Foundation has decided to support their work.
My name is Julie Erlich, I’m the director of presidential initiatives and the Chief of Staff at the Mellon Foundation. Imagining freedom our most recently announced presidential initiative, which we launched formally in early 2022, focused on supporting work that engages the knowledge, critical thinking and creativity of the many millions of people who are impacted by the US as sprawling criminal legal system.
Melissa Beck 23:36
What inspired the Mellon Foundation to undertake that effort.
So as a major funder working towards social justice, it seemed very important for us to be explicitly engaged with the carceral system. And with work that helps us envision different approaches to harm in this country, other than criminalization, the second reason is that Elizabeth, in her previous time at the Ford Foundation was part of the creation of art for justice. And so came to this to her leadership at Mellon with a really clear understanding about the important role that the arts and creativity play in pursuing justice, particularly around carceral issues and the importance of supporting people who are artists, who are storytellers, who are other people engaging in methods beyond the legal which are important, and I say that as a lawyer who used to use the law to seek improve conditions and freedom for people who are incarcerated or criminalized, but that the arts and creativity are are a key part of this movement. And so she brought her experience helping envision or for justice when she came to Mellon and so there’s a thread that continues that DNA although we have a slightly different perspective and a different font across a slightly different range of fields and projects and then third for me personally, I came to Mellon and to work in the arts and humanities after time spent as a civil rights lawyer, much of that time was one working with folks who had been impacted by the criminal legal system in one way or another and so work that addresses mass incarceration and the injustice is of our carceral system is really deeply important to me personally.
Melissa Beck 25:13
Yeah, all very important work and I’m so glad that Mellon is picking that up and making it its own at the Sozosei foundation, you know, we were a relatively new entity, right and really where we came out, one of the key takeaways was that art should be central to decriminalization activities, both as a messenger and as the practice the creative practice of, you know, rehearsal and creation, and healing, of course, particularly with folks who’ve been inside and the trauma that they will stand there, so we were very excited to be there first foundation funder of the returning artists guild, because we see that connection very deeply. If you could send a message to other funders who might be listening to you and I chataway here this afternoon, what would you tell them? I’d love for you to kind of share messages out to other funders who might be thinking about or considering whether they should integrate the arts into their philanthropic strategy.
Thank you for this question, I think it’s so important. Yeah, art is vital to this justice work for several reasons. So one, art is just a core key part of being human and even if we don’t all express ourselves as artists, engaging with creativity is a fundamental part of how we understand the world, so that’s one, two, art is as effective as almost anything else I can I can imagine at helping us think beyond our current ways of doing things and our current experience and imagine something different, and so I think part of what we need and thinking about thinking beyond our current carceral system, beyond mass incarceration beyond, you know, arrest and prosecution being the default responses to harm, we need art to crack us open, you know, to make different kinds of futures feel less unfamiliar, and less scary and less impossible. And who understands that better than people who have experienced the carceral system themselves, right? Who understands better, what we might imagine differently than people who know the experience deep in their bones, and, you know, deep in their bodies so art allows us to express ourselves to understand each other’s experiences to imagine something different, and then lastly, and fundamentally related to the first thing I said, I think, art does have the power in, in allowing us to see other people’s experiences, to uplift and make visible for the folks for whom it’s not always visible, other people’s humanity. And, you know, sometimes, for people who don’t imagine themselves as being impacted by the system, and you know, footnote, nearly half of Americans have some connection to somebody’s family connection to somebody who’s been incarcerated so it’s a lot of people and a lot of us. But for those among us who have a harder time, seeing the humanity of folks who are incarcerated or flattened, or who easily moved to flatten the experiences, or the the humanity of people who are incarcerated art can help create space to be seen as being, you know, with with leaders like me, and Kamisha , who are building from a place of vision and care, and knowledge, deep personal knowledge, you know, with leaders like them, I have confidence that we will make progress, even if it takes a long time to get us fully they’re excited to see what they’re going to do.
Me too Julie, now, let’s get back to Aimee and Kamisha. So we the foundation was your first foundation source of funding. And what did you want to do first, like, you know, you’re starting a nonprofit. There’s all these barriers in your way.
Rick Keller 29:00
I mean, we had never had any kind of funding, and not because we didn’t, it’s not like we looked for funding and didn’t get it, we just hadn’t gotten that far, I think in our processing of what we were doing.
Kamisha Thomas 29:10
Not as the rag as the we had received individual funds.
Rick Keller 29:16
And I think the conversation that we had with you was very direct about the fact that like, as single mothers, we could no longer do this work without a salary, and that salary support would enable us to actually take stock of what we were doing, and figure out more funding for operating and, you know, build a board and take the steps to becoming the nonprofit that we want to be. And so that salary support piece was like, he like, like chainmail.
Kamisha Thomas 29:44
Yes, Primo yeah.
Melissa Beck 29:46
That was top tier.
Rick Keller 29:48
No one in my life has ever thought that I would be able to make a living and provide, you know, stability as a mother and all that kind of thing as an artist.
Melissa Beck 30:02
After this last short break, we take a look at the big picture. What does a better world look like? And how are Aimee and Kamisha and their work at the guild getting us closer to it?
Melissa Beck 30:40
Let’s go back to an observation you had […], you said, you know that the rag is going to burn it all down. What are we burning down? What’s important?
Rick Keller 30:54
Before I left prison I had, I used to have a recurring dream for a long time about standing like on the other side of the fences, looking through the yard, looking directly into you know, my unit where my window is, with a gas can. And that was the dream like, and that was like it but it went it felt like that was a long dream but that was the dream and it happened a lot. And I think that that feels right to us, you know, as partially as a life goal is like, I want to see this one torn down, like this is the one that had my body in it, and still holds the bodies of people that I love and like, I want this thing obliterated, but like you can’t really burn it down yet.
Kamisha Thomas 31:48
You know, like, because like we said, we’re not interested in creating like better conditions in prison ultimately, we want no more prisons and it’s funny because I when one day I asked my daughter as an alternative, let’s just take prison out of the picture, you know, what do you think life would be like with no prisons. And she kind of came to the conclusion after thinking that we need prisons, we absolutely need prisons, the world would be chaos if we didn’t have prisons. And then shortly after that, she got her job at the courthouse working housekeeping and she was in the juvenile department a lot and seeing people that she knew and how they are treating the people inside, you know, and the prisoners and and she was like, yeah, maybe prison is not the answer, right? Like maybe there’s something else we could be doing with people outside of prison. And it made her angry, and it made me so happy, I was like, yes, she gets it, she gets it. Now she gets it right, because I guess on some level, you have to experience it in a way that will resonate with you, because with me being in prison, and her having to come visit me when she could and you know, things like that is different experience than walking into a jail when seeing every day, what is happening with people’s bodies just because they made a mistake, or, you know, they’re being criminalized because of their poverty or because of their mental health or whatever.
Melissa Beck 33:40
Right, what role do you see the returning artists guild in playing for people who don’t have experience in the system, either working in it being thrust into it.
Rick Keller 34:00
I think that we are trying to address in some ways the issue of safety. Because so much of this is people are scared into a lot of their thoughts about prisons, and you know, the idea that prisons are just full of murderers and rapists and people that have done unforgivable unspeakable things when in reality like that may be a portion of some people that are there, but it is not even close to the majority, so we’ve done a lot of work of just like humanizing who’s in prison and and why they’re there, but I think artists are particularly important, especially those that have been directly impacted because we are the people that can imagine new solutions, we may be agree that there’s a small portion of people that are unsafe at large in the community, but we can address that group of people humanely when we’re not wasting all of our money and resources, housing, you know, drug addicts and victims of domestic violence, right, you know.
Melissa Beck 35:10
The women who you worked with who are still at DCI, what do they think of the returning artists guild?
Kamisha Thomas 35:19
They love us and they’re so proud of us in they are really always excited to be involved in whatever we got going on. And like joy is even pulling other people who have said that they would not do art in to doing art so it’s in it’s helpful. It’s that community that that idea that we are here for you, we’re supporting you, even though we’re not behind those walls anymore. There’s a place for you.
Rick Keller 35:54
Yeah, and your conduct we’re going to send you photos of your work being hung. We’re going to sell your work and send you that money we’re going to this year, we had the absolute pleasure of writing a letter to the parole board on Joy’s behalf and I got to say in that letter, yeah, we have earmarked funding for her housing in her studio in her creative practice, like, why don’t you just go ahead and turn her over to us please.
Kamisha Thomas 36:24
Give us joy.
Melissa Beck 36:30
Joy is a dear friend of Kamisha, and Aimee, who is still incarcerated at the Dayton Correctional Institution. One of the things I think I’ve learned from Aimee and Kamisha, is that the prison system can be thought of as the nation’s largest shelter for survivors of domestic violence. This deserves our attention, as it underscores yet another Call Declined. But even with written support from Aimee and Kamisha, that included assurances of stable housing and employment, Joy was denied parole. The Parole Board will hear her case in four long years from now and until then, she remains inside.
Melissa Beck 37:15
What role does reg have to play in decriminalizing mental health issues substance use mental illness?
Rick Keller 37:27
I think there’s a group of people that need mental health support, but maybe don’t need it from a professional. A lot of us seem to do well, when we’re just able to access each other because we have this shared experience you don’t have to baseline your whole traumatic childhood for me or whatever like, we’re past that and so there’s a lot of power and being able to just like, immediately support people because they feel safe with us, they trust us. And then there’s another aspect where if people need, you know, like professional support, it’s more about to what extent can they access to the resources they need on their own? To what extent are they going to tell us that they need some other kind of help? And then to what extent can we help them, and that just, you know, varies, but I think even like just being available to be like, do you want me to call down there and pretend to be your mom? You know, a lot of times there’ll be like, no call, you know, so it’s just sometimes just knowing that someone’s down to like, help you figure something out, because a lot of times, like accessing things is just like we’ve talked about, you know, like, even finding the resource to start with. I think a lot of crimes that we incarcerate people for are provoked out of a need that’s simply just not being met. So this, the criminal as a psychopath has got to go away, like that’s, that’s fake news, that’s fake news is not representative of the majority of people that commit a crime I think they have a need, like, Columbus has public schools that are rated ones. What kind of citizens are we raising up in those systems? I did a summer school thing. This year as an artist and I got to the summer school program, they had given these children one week worth of curriculum for the whole summer and supply bag with some like booty art supplies and a deck of cards. And to me that was like, we’re just, we’re really just training children to go to jail at this point. So yeah, I think it’s a reimagining of the kinds of needs and the kinds of people and a better understanding of like, how we can be serious about prevention instead of wasting money on the back end,
Melissa Beck 39:52
Kamisha what do you add to that vision?
Kamisha Thomas 39:54
Yeah, just meeting the needs of people without the humanizing them in any way or making them jump through hoops of fire with gasoline draws on, like, there should be after school programs everywhere that are free and that have, you know, things for kids to do other than play cards. You know, there should be community housing that is not income based, it’s just a place a safe place for you to lay your head. And also, I think we need to, I hate to use words like this, but we need to start indoctrinating people with more empathy, just training them up with empathy for another human being experiencing this scam of America.
Rick Keller 40:58
Yeah, like poor people did not create poverty.
Melissa Beck 41:01
You know, one of the things that we’ve been talking a lot about, it’s the role and Aimee, you’re just saying that the role that prison played in your life that it doesn’t sound as negative as some of the other pieces that we’ve elevated about prison. Like the time it provided you, this powerful community of women doing art. And that’s the system we want to burn down is reconcile that with me.
Rick Keller 41:39
That’s hard, like, I didn’t need safety, and I didn’t need clean time. And we’ve discussed ways that I think that that could be imagined better, I think it what’s interesting about the arts is that I think it speaks to like, the resilience of human beings, and particularly women, like we are very nurturing sometimes in our nature, and more, I think, like, community power sort of focused, were more more more collective, it seems like, in a lot of ways, and so the idea that you’re gonna put a bunch of women, you’re gonna house a bunch of women together, and we’re not going to be, you know, cooking and crafting and, you know, like listening to everybody’s terrible baby dads stories or whatever. You know, like that is just the nature of, I think, who we are on some level and human, like, we’re not meant to be in cages. And so when you put us in cages, like, of course, we’re going to find ways to make it feel like home, and of course, we’re going to find ways to celebrate each other and make memories and, you know, find the positive because I think that’s kind of human nature. I mean, like, it’s a really good example, to help people understand, I think we’re really good. I think our nature as human beings is good, and I think we’re, we are driven and compelled toward good when it’s available to us.
Melissa Beck 43:12
And part of being able to do good is being able to tell your own story. It’s something that I think a lot of people take for granted, but something that people who have been incarcerated, people with mental illness, and people who have experienced poverty, racism, and abuse, often have taken away from them, Kamisha and Aimee have both spoken about art as a way that they can own and share their stories in order to make a difference in the world. Art is empowering in this way to them as people, and it also serves to educate others about a system they might not understand. And this power of art is something Kamisha and Aimee, through the returning artists guild want to make sure other people have access to as well.
Rick Keller 43:56
For me, it’s been a process of understanding like, yes, there is power in this story, yes, we need to do the work of changing public perceptions, yes, this story and, and those of my peers is very important to doing that work but we have to include the storytellers in the process of how they want to tell the story and where it might go, and what you know, the narrative arc is going to be and what questions don’t need to be asked, you know, and what labels don’t need to be used and so we’ve become slowly more empowered, in part because we want to also protect our artists, you know, through us learning about agency and how we can control our own narratives is helping us help our you know, artists understand that as well.
Melissa Beck 44:41
Yeah, I guess I want to say as we close episode four, that I hear your story, and I hear your story, and I honor it, and I’m humbled by it, and I see it holding power, and changing policies, changing practices, and elevating something that, to me is really important, which is the ability we all have to have empathy and compassion for one another, and so I thank you, on behalf of all of our listeners for sharing your stories.
Rick Keller 45:22
Thank you for having us. Thank you for receiving them thoughtfully.
Melissa Beck 45:25
Yeah, an honor.
Melissa Beck 45:33
And that’s the end of this season of Call Declined. Thank you for taking this journey with us. The returning artists guild has many exciting things coming up, including an ongoing exhibit at the Fitten Center for Creative Arts in Hamilton, Ohio. And you can learn more about their work and make a donation to support their efforts at the returning artists guild.org.
Melissa Beck 46:06
Call Declined is the production of Lemonada Media in partnership with the Sozosei Foundation. I’m your host Melissa Beck. […] is our producer. Noah Smith is our audio engineer. Montez Mickens is our recording engineer. Music by Xander Singh. Story editing by Jackie Danziger. Additional support from Karen Powell, Don Gunderson Taylor and Maggie Croushore . Thanks to Dr. Jennifer Bazar and Dr. Cathy Fay at the cutting center for the history of psychology. Call Declined as presented by the Sozosei Foundation, a philanthropic arm of Otsuka the foundation’s goal is to increase access to mental health care in order to eliminate the inappropriate use of jails and prisons for the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness in the United States. Learn more at SozoseiFoundation.org. The Sozosei Foundation extends special thanks to Aimee Wissman and Kamisha Thomas, visionary artists and the cofounders of the returning artists guild, whose creativity resilience and lift experience inspire us to build a world where mental illness is not a crime. To learn more about the guild, visit thereturningartistsguild.org. Follow Call Declined wherever you get your podcasts or listen ad free on Amazon music with your Prime membership.
Rick Keller 47:56
Ours plays a significant role in everyone’s well-being than their sense of connectedness to community that brings us all together that allows us to transcend our differences and see each other as human beings. And therefore arts plays a significant role in ending mass incarceration and decriminalizing mental illness, because it allows us to identify past our differences and paths or illnesses that typically are biological by nature, and shouldn’t be criminalized.
Melissa Beck 48:27
And also a Lea Solemn from Galaxy gives.
Art has the potential to change hearts and minds in a way that no other organizing tool can. It creates compassion and connection bringing people closer to their own humanity. It helps us to imagine what’s possible even when the current reality can make us feel stuck and hopeless. Art grounds us and hope and when used to organize and amplify voices can be transformative in destigmatizing mental illness exploring our universal oneness, and moving the needle and ending mass incarceration. The work of the returning artists guild is exciting to me because it is community centered and prioritizes healing they work with currently and formerly incarcerated artists centering those most impacted by the criminal legal system to lead the way in ending mass incarceration. Aimee and Kamisha are incredible leaders and their work will have lasting impact.
Will link to Galaxy gifts, the Pegs Foundation and the Mellon Foundation in our show notes so you can check them all out. Private philanthropy plays an important role in supporting new breakthrough ideas that accelerate the decriminalization of mental illness. Thanks again to all of the funders, current and future who joined with the Sozosei foundation to decriminalize mental illness, and who helped support the truly vital work of the returning artists Guild and people like Kamisha and Aimee.