- Daniel Fishel
Mariame Kaba doesn’t like to think about the past. She’s always looking forward, working to give birth to projects and grassroots organizations meant to serve the moment. “I’m not a reflective person and that’s important for me,” Kaba says. “I like to talk about my ideas for the future. That’s who I am.”
The longtime organizer, activist, author, and abolitionist is a household name in the Chicago liberation movement and helped launch a plethora of projects and collectives focused on transformative justice, ending violence, and dismantling the prison industrial complex (PIC) that have since developed into a world of their own. With a slow and clear cadence grounded in admirable confidence, she says that’s exactly how she wants it to be.
“Organizations are dynamic and that means they should die,” she tells me. “They come and go, and you come and go. You are part of them for as long as they serve the moment and the time and the work, but you don’t hold onto them just because they exist.”
This lifestyle of always looking forward isn’t meant to be dramatic or radical. It’s a grounding practice rooted in Kaba’s identity and is why her passion for collaboration and growth flows so easily from one cup to the next. And yet, her newest book looks backward to the abolitionist’s decades-long fight for justice to meet the present moment.
We Do This ‘Til We Free Us (Haymarket Books), which releases February 23, is a collection of talks, interviews, and past work that can serve as an initial primer on the PIC abolition and community building rooted in transformative justice. Although Kaba says she resisted publishing the book for some time, the summer uprisings of 2020 were a timely push.
“I spent most of my life as a young [activist] building what I see as containers for collective action,” she says. “I hope that this book helps young folks and others who are building those containers find language for what they are doing and also gives them some fuel and inspiration because it’s hard work.”
Kaba knows how to give fuel and inspiration to her colleagues, too. Since 2018, she’s been in partnership with Andrea J. Ritchie, an attorney, author, and activist focusing on policing and criminalization of women and LGBTQ+ people of color. Together, the duo created an initiative called Interrupting Criminalization: Research in Action during their time as researchers in residence at the Social Justice Institute of the Barnard Center for Research on Women. Cofounded with researcher Woods Ervin, the project aims to interrupt the growing criminalization and incarceration of women and LGBTQ+ people of color for acts related to public order, poverty, child welfare, drug use, survival, and self-defense, including criminalization and incarceration of survivors of violence.
Ritchie has known Kaba for more than ten years and says she’s blessed to cofound the project with her and work with someone she calls a visionary leader. The amount of energy she puts into her work is rooted in Kaba’s vision of a liberated future—where safety is real, where survivors of violence can move past their trauma, and where there is less violence, her colleague says.
“[Kaba] is one of the most brilliant, incisive visionary leaders of my generation, of this moment, and also one of the funniest, most practical and kind, even though she likes to hide it,” Ritchie says with a laugh. “Her love of Black people, survivors, migrants, working people, disabled people—her entire body of work is about what love looks like in action.”
After more than 20 years of organizing in Chicago, Kaba moved back to her native New York City in 2016, but she leaves her mark on the city of big shoulders. If you haven’t heard her name, you likely know the organizations she helped birth. She is the founder and director of Project NIA, a grassroots organization with a vision to end youth incarceration. She cofounded the Chicago Freedom School, the Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls and Young Women, the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander, and the Rogers Park Young Women’s Action Team. She runs the popular blog Prison Culture, which looks at the PIC structures around the country and its effects on society.
Kaba was also behind We Charge Genocide, an intergenerational effort that documented police brutality and violence in Chicago and sent youth organizers to Geneva, Switzerland, to present their report to the United Nations Committee Against Torture. She’s an advisory board member of Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, a group that worked to get the city council to pass a reparations law providing restitution to the victims of Jon Burge, the police commander who, along with officers he trained, tortured more than 100 suspects, most of them Black men, from the 1970s through the early 1990s.
She is also a founding advisory board member of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, which provides bonds for people charged with crimes in Cook County who cannot afford to pay bonds themselves. But in January, local abolitionists and organizers celebrated a victory years in the making: The Illinois General Assembly passed the Pretrial Fairness Act, a key component of the Illinois Legislative Black caucus’ criminal justice omnibus bill, which ends the state’s use of money bond and plans to transform the state’s pretrial justice system. It seems like Kaba works 20 full-time jobs, but that’s how she likes it. She says she’s learned how to live fully in the world by doing things she cares about, such as knitting and going out to dinner with friends pre-pandemic. But her work is a large part of that, too. These achievements in local liberation and restorative justice movements over the years make Kaba a memorable figure—but she takes credit for none of it on her own. Kaba’s motto, known by her friends, colleagues, and anyone familiar with her work, speaks to her values: “Nothing that we do that is worthwhile is done alone.”
“The idea that we need other people in order to be able to win the things we want to win and to put your talent and ideas together—that is something that was reinforced for me working in Chicago,” she says. “You will meet people beyond your specific interests and that’s incredibly powerful and generative because you are forced to look beyond your very narrow spoke.”
Kaba, who began her organizing career in the late 1980s in NYC before moving to Rogers Park as an early 20-something, says Chicago’s nature as an organizing city and the collaborative spirit from people she worked with here greatly shaped her into the activist she is today. “I came as someone who was struggling to understand myself in the world and where my place would be, and I left Chicago understanding myself much better as an organizer and as a Black woman.”
The diversity of the Chicago organizing community, part of the city’s identity, was a positive change compared to the siloed organizing scenes of NYC, she says. If you attend any rally, protest, or justice movement in Chicago, you’ll meet organizers standing up for labor issues, climate change, housing issues, religious institutions, LGBTQ+ rights, and more—this I saw to be particularly true over the summer while out reporting on the various social justice movements that were largely led by young folks. That overlap, which includes the use of creativity and art to assist political movements, makes Chicago stand out compared to other cities, she says.
Tony Alvarado-Rivera sees that intersectionality as critical to Chicago’s movements. Alvarado-Rivera is the executive director of the Chicago Freedom School, which was founded in 2007 and teaches youth how to use their unique experiences and power to create an equitable world through leadership, activism, and movement building. He says Kaba’s spirit still lives on at CFS and its youth learn about her work through its programs, staff, and personal visits from Kaba.
The recent youth uprising makes Kaba’s newest book expedient and captures the school’s values—such as abolishing prison systems and the police, and creating mutual aid and community safety networks—that have been in practice for over a decade,
Alvarado-Rivera says. “It’s beautiful to be able to be free about these ideas and see people wanting to learn more about abolition and organizing with young people in ways that are empowering and recognizing that youth have been at the forefront of these movements.”
Alvarado-Rivera is forever grateful to Kaba for helping plant the seed that has grown to be CFS and her support that has “allowed people to be connected and believe the vision will live on.”
Kaba says what makes her happiest is seeing the youth, like those at CFS, take over and expand on work that’s meaningful to them, especially policies that directly impact them. The collectivity she formed while carving out a place for herself to grow and constantly be curious she learned from other organizers before her in the movement. It’s cyclical, she says, as is the influence she’s had on—and felt from—others.
“To me it feels lucky and blessed that people feel that what I have done in terms of work is useful to them,” she says. “That’s not false humility. It’s because I’m grounded in understanding history.”
One example she gives is the youth behind the #NoCopAcademy movement from 2017, many of whom she worked closely with. Even though the city council approved the massive, $95 million new facility set for West Garfield Park, activists called the experience a win and a lesson in Chicago civics. Kaba looks to those youth with admiration.
“It’s that that I feel most proud of—just how they have taken things they have learned and made it their own thing,” she says. “It makes me so happy to see that work because that’s what it’s all about: what gets generated that’s new from what it is we seed.”
Asha Edwards, a 20-year-old youth activist and abolitionist with Assata’s Daughters and We Are Dissenters, was an active member of the #NoCopAcademy campaign. The south-side native, who currently studies sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, looks to Kaba as an inspiration and mentor. She is incredibly thankful to the veteran organizer for providing her with the necessary resources, language, and materials to end the PIC and the importance of organizing by way of her books, lectures, and social media.
“She made me believe in abolition,” Edwards says, who remembers learning about Kaba in high school. “With her knowledge and how she created a successful platform to understanding abolition, I started to think about, ‘How do I address conflict in my own relationships?’ or ‘How can I get to the root causes of what leads to violence?’ And believing that prisons don’t do that.”
The young activist remembers meeting Kaba at an awards ceremony shortly after the #NoCopAcademy campaign and getting a big hug from her, as well as useful quotes and lessons on how to undo oppressive systems during a 2020 abolitionist training. Having these direct experiences with Kaba gives Edwards a sense of hope for the future. Addressing harm is the hardest aspect for her when thinking about abolition, but Kaba’s tools makes the task seem possible, she says.
Others who have been touched by Kaba’s work and her newest book say her values of collaborative action and mutual aid have positively driven social change, and are lessons that will be passed down to the next generation. Notable Chicago writer, scholar, professor, and cultural organizer Eve L. Ewing, who met Kaba through mutual connections and her work around prison abolition, calls her an amazing writer who knows how to invoke the wisdom of people before her through her writing. We Do This ‘Til We Free Us is a needed resource for those looking to be more politically and civically engaged—and who want to be changemakers, she says.
“I imagine my kids or grandkids being in the back of a classroom and getting a tattered copy of this book that they got from the library or stole from somewhere,” Ewing says. “That’s the kind of book it’s going to be: an insurgent book that people will be calling on and speaking to for a very long time.”
Ewing is currently writing a new book and isn’t taking any interviews, but she made an exception to talk to me about Kaba’s impact, a testament to the true power of her influence. Ewing says the abolitionist has inspired her to think about working together and drawing on people’s strengths to create the best possible outcome. Activism should be representative of the collective responsibility we all want to lead.
“If we dream of a society where everyone is collectively responsible for one another but our ‘activism’ is driven by wanting to jump out front and be the hero, I think that’s sad and not a great path to be on,” she says. “Mariame really shows and embodies what it looks like and to truly work collectively in humble partnership with other people.”
Kaba’s humility in her work, and her organic ability to practice nonattachment to the movements she creates, feels like a life lesson we can all carry. It’s a reminder to live passionately and presently in a world that can feel increasingly stressful and traumatic at times. As she told me, it’s not going away. It helps to pump love and constant curiosity into your days, whether that’s through watching Hallmark Channel movies, reading, making art, or fighting for liberation, if you’re Mariame Kaba.
“You have to figure out a way to live in the world, that’s life,” she says. “I don’t have to carve out my hobby time. I just have to live—live fully.” v