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The Feminist on Cell Block Y Is Now a Free Man

A conversation with the star of the recent CNN doc about getting laughed out of the room the first time he taught feminism in prison, the idea of ‘weakness’ behind bars and how he felt free long before his prison sentence ended

In February 2008, I was a sophomore at Cleveland High School in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley when an anatomical diagram of a vagina graced the front page of our student newspaper. “Prior to this, I doubt anybody cared about the school newspaper,” Richard Edmond Vargas tells me. “But this day, the school newspaper was poppin.”

As editor-in-chief of Le Sabre, Vargas, who goes by the name Richie Reseda (Reseda being the neighborhood where our high school is located), oversaw the production of a monthly issue dedicated to the vagina instead of Valentine’s Day. “The idea came from the Vagina Monologues and Eve Ensler, who also started V-Day, in recognition of the fact that more women get date-raped on Valentine’s Day than any other day of the year,” Reseda explains. “So rather than just talk about candy and bullshit, we wanted to put out an issue bringing attention to the date-rape that takes place on Valentine’s Day, as well as the taboo around the vagina in culture.” Our school’s administration flipped out, with little security carts speeding through the sprawling, suburban campus in an effort to collect as many of the papers as possible before they reached student hands.

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Happy #Vday tho! . Valentine's Day is the day of the year when the most date rapes happen. So #Feminists started Vday to end the silencing of womyn, the taboo of the #vagina and the pervasiveness of #rapeculture. . 10 years ago today, we ran this cover in our school newspaper at Cleveland High School in #Reseda CA to do exactly that… . To quote #SteveBannon (I never thought I'd say that), "…we're talking about the end of 10,000 years of #patriarchy." . So peace to @rchrys, Ms. Bondy (our journalism teacher), #EveEnsler, The #VaginaMonologues, @elbordeaux, @contessagayles, @feministajones, @indegomateo, #TheWomensMarch, @cupcakes.of.color, @_heyywonton, #BellHooks and all the dope ass womyn around the world who've been shutting shit down. Y'all #QuestionCulture for real.

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Also while at Cleveland, Reseda found a mentor in Patrisse Cullors, an alum of the school who was working with the school psychologist’s office as an addiction counselor. She supported Reseda in being transparent about the drug addiction he’d developed, and eventually, she trained him as a community organizer as part of a summer youth academy. “We first met when Patrisse Cullors and Mark-Anthony Johnson came into my biology class one day and started talking about mass incarceration,” he remembers. “This was in 2006. Everything they said rang so true for me. At that point in my life, I’d already been harassed by the cops so many times. By the time I was 14 years old, I’d already been in handcuffs three times — for things like play fighting or talking when I wasn’t supposed to.”

At 19, though, the charges became much more serious, and Reseda pled out to two armed robberies, receiving a 10-year sentence for his involvement in robbing two local Rite-Aid drug stores. While in prison, he both famously released an album (Forgotten But Not Gone) and served as the subject of the CNN documentary The Feminist on Cellblock Y. In it, director Contessa Gayles profiles Success Stories, a program that Reseda co-founded that invites incarcerated men to discuss the way masculinity has shaped their lives (including whatever path led them to prison).

The rendition of the workshop shown in the film was the last Reseda ever led, because thanks to Prop 57, a legislative measure he lobbied for that allows incarcerated folks to earn credit off of their time by participating in programs like Success Stories, Reseda knew he was on his way to minimum security prison and then back home to L.A. (a couple of years before his intended release). I spoke to Reseda just a week after said release. Over the course of nearly two hours, we talked about what happens when you don’t stand up for yourself in prison when you’re called a “bitch”; the threats he received for attempting to teach feminism in prison; and how fighting fires and earning his college degree helped shorten his sentence.

You’ve talked about how creating Success Stories was, in part, your reaction to other types of self-help groups available for men in prison. How so?
At the beginning of my sentence, I served ten months in L.A. County and then another ten months in a high-security prison. When I got to medium-security prison, I was introduced to the culture of self-help groups there. There were 20 to 30 different groups, but when I started going, I realized the programs challenged illegal activity, but not the root of these problems, which is patriarchy. In fact, all of these self-help groups reinforced it.

Their answer to everything was traditional American patriarchal values: Run your house and run your woman. They acted like if we had all done that, we wouldn’t have been in jail right then, and that’s the only perspective they were offering. But I was lucky to grow up around dope feminists, so I knew that wasn’t the case. My dad never broke the law, but he was a traditional patriarch who was very much emotionally disconnected and violent in our house and encouraged violence in our house. So I knew that all harm wasn’t illegal and that everything illegal isn’t harmful.

I also knew that simply not breaking the law wasn’t the real answer to our problems and felt they weren’t training us to actually be better people. I was like, “You’re just helping me be someone who doesn’t break the law.” But that doesn’t mean I’m not harming people. Misogyny, isn’t illegal, right?

How did you go about creating your own group?
At first, I just wanted to go around to the larger groups and do a patriarchy workshop for about 45 minutes or an hour. The materials were largely based on bell hooksThe Will to Change and We Real Cool. But at the time, I’d just turned 22, and most of the dudes who were running these groups had been in prison longer than I’d been alive. They were like, “Get out of here, what are you talking about?” They couldn’t even pronounce the word “patriarchy.” I mean they could, but they’d purposely say it wrong to low-key indicate how unimportant it was. But I was finally able to do it. I got a slot with one of the groups.

But it went horrible. They cut my time hella short, by like 40 minutes, and dudes was laughing. Afterwards, I went to my computer class, another program I was in, and turned to my boy Charles, who was the same age as me, and told him, “Bro, we got to start our own group.” He said, “Let’s do it!” That’s when we started doing more research and putting the curriculum together for Success Stories.

Did you ever doubt your ability to lead such a group?
I never questioned our ability to make the group happen. Mostly because I was formally trained as an organizer in the Summer Youth Organizing Academy when I was 15. That was a program Patrisse Cullors had started. Even though I was living a life in the streets and doing drugs and all that, I still remembered that training really well. So I felt comfortable in my ability to both speak up front and facilitate breakout groups.

But getting the curriculum right took a minute. It was clumsy at first. By the time they started filming for The Feminist on Cellblock Y, they filmed our sixth and seventh time doing the workshop. We had already taken what we observed from the first five workshops and figured out what worked. I also had to get off my high horse, where I saw myself as a teacher teaching all these people about patriarchy, rather than seeing myself as a patriarchal man who has to work through patriarchy by connecting with other patriarchal men.

Also, the fourth or fifth time we tried the Success Stories workshop, we brought in two students from Cal State, Monterey Bay. That wasn’t getting through to people. Out of a class of 60 guys, maybe one or two would get what we were talking about. Dudes would get really mad. Dudes would get verbally violent, and sometimes even physically threatening in each other’s faces, although a punch was never thrown. Mostly, though, guys would just get in our faces. My face mostly. So we had to keep refining our approach until the workshop reached the kind of effectiveness you see in the documentary.

What were some of the key points of resistance you experienced among the men while organizing?
There’s another layer to patriarchy in prison, at least in California men’s prisons. There’s this culture in prison that’s called “prison politic,” or all these rules deeply rooted in patriarchy that are self-imposed by incarcerated men. If you don’t follow these rules, there’s a threat of some pretty serious violence happening to you. For example, in California jails and prisons, if you let somebody call you a “bitch,” a “pussy” or a “faggot” and you don’t fire back on them, your homies are going to jump you for letting that happen. So the biggest thing we came up against is how scared everybody in jail is of that.

Everybody’s living from this place of fear, because even if it doesn’t happen right then, you might transfer to another prison where they find out about what happened and jump you for it there. Or they jump you for it both places. That kind of thing makes you “bad news,” which means you can no longer live safely in the prison system because there’s always a threat of some bad shit happening to you. This is why everybody is afraid to challenge anything that remotely resembles patriarchy, because they don’t want to be seen as bad news. They don’t want to be seen as weak or as a potential victim.

Did you feel especially vulnerable when you began resisting that?
I was terrified at first. I was blessed to be at the same prison for over four years, so I was able to build enough of a reputation for myself that it wasn’t so scary anymore, and as a community of men challenging this culture together, we created our own reputation. That gave us context and made us feel safer. It wasn’t the same horror story we told ourselves about being beaten up, jacked or raped. Those were mostly myths. Patriarchy is mostly bark and less bite. That’s not to say that nobody ever gets violent, because people definitely do. But it didn’t happen as often as we may have thought it would. I think there’s more opportunities and possibilities available than we, as men, see sometimes because we’re not looking for other options — if that makes sense.

Still, it’s hard as fuck to do, and for the dudes who haven’t made that decision yet, I understand why. I did the same thing for years. I played the game because I was so afraid of what would happen if I didn’t. So I get where the dudes who haven’t made that choice yet are coming from. But for the dudes who have, we get to be free. Even in prison, we get to be free.

What impact did your relationships with women have on you during your time in prison?
Having the women that I’ve had in my life throughout my incarceration is the only reason why I could say I had a successful incarceration, if there is such a thing. Just to note, a lot of men in prison, especially men who have been down a long time, don’t even know any women. They don’t have any women in their life. They don’t talk to women. It’s a privilege to even have women in your life or interact with women when you’ve been in an all-male prison for a long time. And I didn’t just have women — I had extremely enlightened women in my life. They called me out and made me aware of my experience. They held me to be more accountable and more emotionally available than I otherwise would have been.

This is what enabled me to become aware of what being connected to my emotions felt like, and the freedom of being a whole person. Because if you don’t know, you don’t know. If they didn’t guide me to learn that, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be like, “Hey, these guys could have this experience too.” Basically, I wouldn’t have known what that freedom felt like and been able to give it away to others otherwise.

Beyond this support, these relationships allowed me to see what leadership looks like without toxic masculinity. You know, so much of male leadership within patriarchal culture is tied up with status. And in prison it’s all about status and reputation because no one’s getting paid. But watching leaders like Patrisse create organizations, watching how they move through the world, how they network, how they prioritize results over status taught me so much.

What’s it been like forming organizations with the help of your wife Taina?
Being with Taina is everything. Being in prison, I was very limited in what I could do by myself, so Taina helped with everything. Hearing about her experiences was transformative, too. A dude tried to throw a brick through her window because she wouldn’t listen to him when he was yelling out her name. In the political movement, some men felt entitled enough to grab her arm or instruct her. You can imagine how enraged you would feel, how scared you would feel, how sad you would feel, how hurt you would feel while listening to your partner go through these things, and there’s nothing you can do about it. That shit pushed me to be like, “Man, I can’t stop these dudes from driving down the street and from yelling these disgusting things at you, but I can try to make it so that these dudes in here with me don’t get out and do that to women.”

Tell me about the work you did together in support of Proposition 57.
Prop 57 is why I’m here right now. Otherwise, I’d still be in prison. After Charles and I started Success Stories, we realized there were no incentives for guys to do these programs. It was like pulling teeth trying to get guys to show up. There were incentives for older guys who were lifers and could use going to group as evidence of doing well at their parole board meetings. But we started Success Stories for men 35 and under.

We realized we should write a law that would let people earn time off by participating in rehabilitative programs. Charles and I did the research using the prison’s law library. Then we sent the research to Taina, who worked for an assembly member at the time. She formatted it into a bill proposal and got it introduced in the 2015 legislative session as “AB-512.”

As soon as it was introduced, the governor hit up the author and said, “Hey, I can do this better. Let me do it with a ballot initiative.” He’d received money from the union for prison guards, so we thought he was trying to stop us. But it ended up being true. When all the proposed ballot initiatives started coming out for 2016, was called The Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act. That’s Prop 57. The governor had amended it so that it would do exactly what we were trying to get AB-512 to do, which was to incentivize participating in rehabilitation programs. Once we saw that, we started organizing hard around getting it passed. We were collecting signatures for it in the visiting room. We had organizing drives on the yard where we got people to send literature home to their families so that they could sign it. What ended up happening was, without giving it a name or anything, we basically built an organization to help get it passed.

Taina and I collected 500 signatures, roughly 150 of which were from the actual visiting room of the prison. It got on the ballot. Then we sent out 2,000 copies of our Get Out the Vote literature through prisoners. We gave it to people in prison; they would then send it home to their families. We eventually had this little army between guys in jail and their families on the outside. But once it passed, it took the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation [CDCR] almost a year to implement it.

By that time, our little army became the organization that Taina named Initiate Justice. We led the statewide work to get what was then known as Prop 57 implemented in the way it was supposed to — because CDCR was trying to make as little change as possible. The initiative itself left much room for their interpretation — it gave CDCR a lot of discretion on how to implement it. We had a series of talking points that the entire state coalition that was behind the law adopted, and we brought more than 300 people up to the public hearing on Prop 57.

One of the things that made it into the implementation was that people could earn time off by participating in groups like Success Stories and other self-help groups; for going to college; and for working as incarcerated firefighters. I’d already become an incarcerated firefighter. I got my [associate degree], and then I got my [bachelor’s degree]. Plus, I kept going to group. All in all, I was able to earn almost two years off my sentence. That’s why I went home last Monday instead of March 30, 2020.

The first project you’ve launched since your release is a record label called Question Culture. I saw your video saying you want to imagine “social justice being part of everyday swag.” What does that mean exactly?
Our goal is to make social justice as ubiquitous to youth culture as hip hop is and to make social justice inextricable from hip-hop culture. Social justice is becoming dope to the mainstream, and brands are latching onto it. But how do we make it real? How dope would it be then if social justice was just a part of hip-hop — an element that always came with it in the most subtle and accessible ways?