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January 2021Vol. 22, No. 1Abolition Asks Us to Stretch and Grow

Written by Rise staff

As the pandemic began this spring and New York City families found themselves confined to small apartments with restless children, trying to home school, short on food, and physically disconnected from friends and family, we witnessed the tremendous creative energy of small community organizations—particularly those led by Black women and women of color. To families and communities under stress, they offered everything from financial support and food delivery to healing workshops on coping with racism, family stress, isolation, and grief. Parents at Rise also came together, checking in on one another by group text and through our buddy system. We saw collective trauma met by collective care.

All of this stood in sharp contrast to the frameworks of individual pathology and reactive intervention that define child welfare. Unsurprisingly, New York City families under stress during the pandemic did not seek help from preventive services overseen by child welfare. Those programs, which rely on hotline calls and court mandates rather than community relationships to fill slots, ran at less than 60 percent capacity throughout the spring.

Calls to abolish the child welfare system grew as 2020 laid bare the racism and social control at the root of family policing. We saw vividly that so many anonymous hotline calls and terrifying investigations are totally unnecessary and that investments in community building can meet families' real needs.

For some, abolition is a scary word. Abolition is a framework that challenges all of us to recognize the failure and even harm of reforms that many of us worked passionately to enact. Abolition also requires radical imagination, hope, and belief that our society can be different, that we can treat one another differently, that we can heal, and that our relationships can become stronger. It requires a belief that a neighbor will provide, that punishment and banishment are not effective solutions, and that White supremacy can be overcome. With hope, commitment, and principled practice, we believe healing is possible.

Rise has been exploring abolition as a vision, strategy, and healing process in the past 2 years, and this has been a transition. We've needed to acknowledge the depth to which we've internalized the precepts of oppressive systems and how oppressive dynamics often go unnamed and unaddressed in all manner of spaces, including at Rise and many nonprofit spaces organizing for freedom from harmful systems. Our transition to "changing everything," as abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore has put it, began with steps to shift our own organizational culture. That has meant naming our values, redistributing power, centering healing, and creating conditions for mutual trust and support.

One constant reminder has been that "small is all." Abolition is not just about toppling systems but also cultivating spaces where people feel seen, safe, affirmed, courageous, and respected. If we can build this culture within Rise, we'll know deeply what it takes to create different conditions for families in impacted communities.

This work at Rise is still beginning, but the difference is palpable. We have long named a value within Rise of "resisting system dynamics" of shame, blame, punishment, banishment, and loss of control. More recently, we are leaning more deeply into our value of "passion and love in the work."

Relationships that cultivate love and joy can be a powerful change mechanism for strengthening communities. Just as we're beginning to see how "credible messengers" and "violence interrupters" can create safety instead of police presence, parent peer support and advocacy can come to replace system interventions.

This winter, Rise will begin holding "community conversations"—intentional spaces for parents to begin a radical reimagining of what family and child well-being actually looks and feels like. These will be opportunities to connect, heal, imagine, and build power together. They will be part of the early steps toward mobilizing parents around an abolitionist parents' platform for New York City.

This transition of shifting our culture and vision has not been easy. Abolition isn't mapped out, especially not abolition of family regulation. Luckily, we have practitioners, organizers, and activists ahead of us who have thought deeply and tried new things and are sharing their knowledge. Luckily, we are a team that has always been building the plane while we fly it. Luckily, we recognize how critical it is to activate our abolitionist imaginations to transform a society that relies on punitive justice.

In New York City, our devastating spring offered a glimpse of what's possible if we begin to realign city spending and move dollars into community supports that operate from a radically different perspective than child welfare. Clearly, we can better shield parents and children from stress by meeting material needs, building connection, supporting joy, and working toward liberation.

Everyone working in child welfare or involved in advocacy needs to reckon with abolition—beginning with learning what it really means (and there are many helpful lists and guides out there). Of course, transition includes sorting your losses. It may require a loss of power and influence. It may feel like a threat to identity. But no one believes our current system works. All of us need to open ourselves to discomfort. Abolition asks us to stretch and grow.