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Grantee Spotlight

Youth Organizing

Sisters Unchained, Jamaica Plain, MA

Sisters Unchained is a prison abolitionist organization that supports young women and girls with incarcerated or formerly incarcerated parents. They are a refuge space where young women of color can focus on loving and improving themselves, and their communities in the way they see fit. 


Sisters Unchained is an emerging organization based in Massachusetts that formed in 2015 following the end of a pilot program called Coding for Justice by Andrea James. When speaking to Ayana Aubourg, Executive Director and Co-Founder, she expressed how the summer pilot project went deeper than they had imagined. When figuring out what to do next, they decided to continue building a sisterhood dedicated to breaking the isolation of young women and girls and supporting the development of their political awareness and leadership. Sisters Unchained programs are rooted in abolitionist values and frameworks that include the personal work of healing. Woven throughout each program is a transformative leadership curriculum designed to provide tools for emotional wellness and healing. One of the areas they often discuss is separation and grieving in its many forms. 


Currently, Sisters unchained runs fall, spring, and summer programs. Ayana shared that although they plan to continue supporting organizing efforts to restore the voting rights of incarcerated people, they are shifting more focus to relationship building. This year they are working on an intergenerational workshop series with formerly incarcerated mothers. They plan to relaunch a program providing rides for youth visiting their loved ones in prison, something they had to put on hold due to the pandemic. They are also working to develop partnerships with other community organizations to create an ecosystem of support and resources for young women and girls in their programs.

Our Interview with Ayana Aubourg, Executive Director & Co-founder

Tell Us About Yourself and Your Role In Sisters Unchained

Radical Dreaming and Finding a Political Home

My name is Ayana Aubourg, and I am the Executive Director and Co-Founder of Sisters Unchained. I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and am 28 years old. I started Sisters Unchained when I was 19-20 years old, along with a group of very brilliant, visionary women; we just really wanted to create a space dedicated to daughters of incarcerated parents. I am really proud to be part of that history. I became involved because of my personal experience growing up with a dad who was in and out for the first few years of my life and then had a 12-year sentence. For most of my childhood, he was inside prison. I feel like I entered this work before my dad was released - just trying to find a political home. And then my dad came home upon my high school graduation, and it was just so much. I found a political home with a community organizing group called Youth Against Mass Incarceration in Roxbury, Massachusetts. I think, in general, I felt like everything was in alignment and pushing me to become more radical in my dreams and my visions, and to really get into them with my own healing, and process the reunification with my father.

Because of society, we're conditioned to believe that everything is going to be how it is, and so prisons exist, that's the only option granted to us, and we're gonna have to deal with it. So, when I say radical, it's not assessing what's currently presented to us. For me, when I say radical, I feel like that’s a seed already in all of us. I will never forget attending a meeting [Youth Against Mass Incarceration]. They handed me the book, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. It was like, she had this book, and we were reading it, and she was just really pouring so much knowledge into us, backing up everything that I already felt. 

I feel “radical” for us, especially when finding a political home is like, Okay, I know I want my dad home, and I want other parents’ home- but radical means getting at the root. My journey with Youth Against Mass Incarceration was really learning about abolition. It's something that I was already open to in my heart, but I didn't fully understand what it meant or what it could have looked like. With getting at the root, it's like, how are you gonna stop that cycle from happening? What type of communities, relationships, structures systems are we going to put in place to make sure that abolition can fully thrive and be sustained? - That's what radical means to me.


Anti-Racist Values & Practices

Our organization is completely staffed and led by women of color. That's a control that we're keeping forever. It's important to us that in any anti-racist work, the people most affected by racism which are Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, are driving the work; we’re driving the visions. At the same time, we know that abolition can't happen without healing. Sometimes, even though we're in these positions or the leaders within our own communities, there's so much healing and unlearning that needs to happen. We're living in this world every single day. We all have internalized oppression within us. 

I feel that it’s really important to hold ourselves accountable. I'm talking about Black, Brown, and Indigenous people”; holding yourself accountable. Keep yourself in spaces where you're constantly learning, constantly evolving, and being able to check in with your peers. Just coming back to the why. Why are we doing this? Are we operating with integrity? Are we making sure we're not creating further harm? So on and so forth.

How does it trickle down into our younger sisters? We talk about anti-racism all the time. It’s in our curriculum, and we have very real conversations. Even about colorism and young people in our programming being bullied for their skin color- even within their own communities. We're unpacking all of it. And then we're always talking about white privilege and the historical path, how we've gotten to where we are today.

Creativity in Community Organizing & Movement Spaces

In the past, we've done a lot of legislative advocacy in supporting the passing of the Primary Caretakers' Bill. We also supported the ballot initiative to restore voting rights to incarcerated people and No cost phone calls legislation. This year, we haven't dived too much into the legislative advocacy realm. However, we will be supporting another organizing effort to restore voting rights. When it comes to our Community Action projects or campaigns, our sisters are creating the demands and the ideas. Our contributions have always been creative, so we are still focusing on that. 

The documentary, Eternity Misunderstood, was our contribution to the primary caretakers initiative. It's not currently publicized yet. We want to create a toolkit to publish with it so that people can engage with the stories in a meaningful way. The De-Criminalization of Youth Campaign is another campaign where our sisters created life-size paintings and videos, and we projected them outside the State House. Not only did some of the folks we invited show up, people walking by were able to stop, engage, and listen to our stories. 

Creative advocacy is our focus because we feel like it goes further. Not only within the State House and people in power but for us, it's about shifting mainstream thoughts and entering the conversation. A lot of conversations and topics around incarceration are focused on men. At the end of the day, we all are trying to free everybody. At the same time, women are particularly impacted in a way that's not widely spoken of. With Sisters Unchained, we enter our visions, experiences, and truth into the conversation. We foster creativity and creative expression. 

We foster creativity and creative expression. We have explored dance and movement, puppetry, digital media, gardening, yoga, and a variety of different art mediums. We also work with art for the spiritual aspects of going inward and tapping into ancestral healing. An example of this is an activity we do yearly because our sisters love it so much. It focuses on a time you needed to forgive yourself or someone else and write about that. Then you burn it and turn the ashes into some type of painting, or clay, or whatever the case can be to transform it into something beautiful.

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What’s a Challenge Sisters Unchained is Facing?

Well, we are openly abolitionists. I think that's always been a challenge and continues to be. We've heard with some funding rounds that certain foundations just weren't fully ready. Many are still learning about abolition. However, on the flip side, we've also heard from people who've expressed hesitance but accepted us and are actively learning and doing the work to learn more about abolition. So, it's twofold. I feel like just trying to continue to work with integrity is important for us. We'll never remove abolition from our grant writing or our website because lt's a guiding force through all our programs, projects, values, and how we relate to each other. The spaces that we're creating are unapologetic about abolition wherever we go. 

But to be clear, even though we are an abolitionist organization, it doesn't mean that every young person that comes to us is an abolitionist. We're not here to indoctrinate anybody. We expose an option to youth not usually presented to our communities, who can choose how they want to engage. Another challenge is related to meeting the immediate needs of our sisters. We're not a direct service provider. The only direct service that we have are rides for families. We've been focusing on building new partnerships with other organizations to create an ecosystem of resources. This way, If there's a service we can’t offer, we can direct them there, and not only can they provide the services, but we actually know some of the people within that organization and trust them. 

What Do You Think Other People Should Know About Sisters Unchained?

We focus on youth leadership and community organizing but, really, at the heart of it, we are building a true sisterhood. We honor everyone's path. The point isn't to make or turn somebody into an activist; it’s to enlighten one another with education or resources that could hopefully inspire their own personal transformation and community transformation- in whatever path they choose. If they want to be a doctor, fashion designer, hairdresser, or whatever the case may be, so be it.  A part of abolition is creating a new world. Yes, it's on a system level, but it's also on an interpersonal level; it's on an everyday communal level. Literally, how we talk to each other and how we relate to one another. For us, learning together and going out into the world with those seeds planted, we're inspiring a type of change and expectation of each other and the spaces we're in.

Prison Industrial Complex & The School to Prison Pipeline

In our programs, we talk about the prison industrial complex. Part of breaking the isolation is convening, but it's also knowledge, knowing that you're not alone, that this is a whole systemic issue you and your family were born into. The prison industrial complex is a complex, understanding that the system itself does not operate alone. It's a machine that's part of a bigger machine that ties into the government, the military, the immigration system, and even companies. People make 5 to 40 cents an hour to create license plates or for agricultural purposes. I remember my dad telling me how much money he made a day cultivating fish. More people are becoming familiar with the 13th Amendment, but just understanding how people inside prison are being used for free labor to really keep this country going. It’s a direct transformation from slavery.

Understanding how people have been affected by racism, classism, sexism, and so on within the criminal legal system and what abolition could look like, breaking all of this down, is super empowering. When we learn about prison as children, prison is a bad place where only bad people go, so most times, people automatically feel shame. Abolition will take away the entire complex, but it’s super hard to do in a day. So, learning about our values, how we can treat people with dignity, and breaking the isolation is essential. Parents, whether they harmed someone or not, there could have been a better way of addressing the issue; whether they committed murder or sold drugs. How could we create an alternative so that they're still in a child’s life in a positive way, still be held accountable, and still be able to live a life with dignity? 

Knowing about the school-to-prison pipeline is also important for our young people who are in school. It’s a hot topic. They're experiencing everything. As I mentioned earlier, when I read The New Jim Crow, everything that I learned, I felt. It's the same thing but in our curriculum. Even though they may be learning new terms or how other young people across the country are fighting back, they already live and feel the issues we discuss. This is how our campaign came to be with the criminalization of young girls struggling with mental health.

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We firmly believe that abolition can't happen without healing, and healing can't happen without abolition; both need each other. Healing, for Sisters Unchained, is getting at the root of your traumas. We understand that patience is vital. Healing is a continual journey. How do we support each other along that journey? How are we really developing awareness of the things that are normalized in our society that are deeply traumatic? Incarceration is so normalized in our communities that people often don’t view it as a trauma. So, we unpack those wounds and use art as a creative outlet. Whether we are creating vision boards and collage boards, having sister circles together, or collectively painting and dancing, the creative aspect is another way of providing an outlet where healing doesn't only have to be talking to a therapist. It’s another way of healing where you can find your voice, find your story, express yourself on a given day, and just be super aware of what you're feeling right now. That's having an impact in the present moment.


Healing & 

We learn a lot about transformative justice which informs our culture as a whole; how we address problems within the group or problems that we experience in our own lives. For us, we have continuously shown up for each other. That's really how it happens. We show up whenever there are moments of crisis, whether a person has been kicked out by a parent or whatever the case may be. There's a tool in transformative justice called pods, the immediate people you go to instead of calling the police. It's been happening naturally within our group for a long time. A part of healing is trust; with yourself and with your peers. We're gaining trust in one another to rely on each other, to help each other in those moments of crisis- or before it even happens. To lean on each other instead of going to the police or to some authority that could create or cause further harm.

What Excites You About Sisters Unchained?

I think what really excites me is seeing the growth. We had a kick-off event, and the girls were super quiet, just like, “what's going on”, not interacting at all… By the end of the first week, we couldn't get them to stop talking. It’s always beautiful to see how quickly each cohort becomes a family. They were creating jokes and dancing together. It was beautiful. Thanks to our lovely facilitator, she created a space where they felt safe and comfortable to be themselves. I love that we have a space where Black women and Latino women can come together and just be themselves. Really just take the weight of the world off them and just talk.

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