Our GOSO Justice Transformer of the Month series continues, recognizing individuals from our community who are working to create a more equitable and vibrant world. Mary Rinaldi is GOSO’s much appreciated Policy & Advocacy advisor, bringing her much needed eyes and ears to policy initiatives that GOSO is and should be involved towards creating a net positive in our communities.
Mary Rinaldi is a strategist, advocate and occasional writer living and working in NYC. She advises creative founders, works with artists and nonprofits on strategy and policy, and writes ? PSST dot wtf, an occasional newsletter about current events through a cultural lens.
How did you get involved with GOSO?
I got involved with GOSO through my husband, Ash. He introduced me to Dr. Rainey and the two of us met monthly through the summer and fall of 2020 to discuss what was happening in New York City, across the country and the world. We exchanged book recommendations, talked about our personal reckonings, life experiences and discussed how we wanted to fight for racial justice in New York City.
I’ve had a few wake-up calls in my life but 2020 was probably the most seismic.
It became truly essential that I spend my time working for justice. So, just as much as I am helping to build up GOSO, GOSO has been building me up, and I feel lucky to be doing this work.
How do you work to be inclusive and work towards a more equitable society for all?
Some of the most important work we do to transform our world is invisible. It is hard work, it is heart and soul work, and it is mostly unknown to our peers. But we must do it if we really want to see a more equitable society for all. And the public work – of demanding accountability from our elected officials, of building an unrelenting groundswell of support for legislative action, like the Less Is More NY Act, H.A.L.T. Solitary Act and Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act, all of which were passed and signed into law this year – is the fruit of that invisible, spiritual work.
I am conscious and respectful of this symbiotic relationship, because I’ve found that this holds true in other areas of life too. Personal, spiritual health leads to collective, spiritual health. So, as much as you might see that I am writing and submitting testimony to legislative bodies, or working on legislative campaigns, I couldn’t sustain that work without doing personal work.
For example, a very difficult and frustrating scenario played out this year with the Mayor’s Office and the Board of Correction, in which the moral gains of the H.A.L.T. Solitary Act were actively attacked under the disingenuous guise of “ending solitary confinement once and for all in New York City.” Because, how would the public know?
We (directly impacted people and advocates) demanded a public hearing and many of us registered to testify. Having a close loved one who endured solitary confinement, I knew I had to testify. But the process of writing my testimony, of listening to other people’s testimony, of hearing the disingenuous testimony from the Department of Correction, of giving my testimony broke me. I really struggled for days, and I kept wondering how I could keep doing this work, if every time I gave testimony I collapsed or needed days to recover.
But, I was also surrounded by people who had done this work over and over, who showed up at every campaign meeting with love and generosity and joy, after numerous times telling their own story of trauma and pain. Should we have to re-tell our stories over and over? No, but I wanted to be the kind of person who shows up for my neighbors even when it’s really difficult; because how could I ask other people to do this work if I pulled back when there was a way forward, narrow though it may be? And that was the beginning of new spiritual work for me: believing that I can grow stronger and show up for justice, like the elders (young and old) who show up every time, even after great personal loss.
Truly, that’s how I am still here, with hopefully, a little more courage every day.
How do you feel society can move past the stigmas of incarceration?
I think moving society past the stigmas of incarceration calls for personal action in multiple arenas – organizing in our communities, educating our peers and families, and fighting for justice transformation legislation, specifically the Justice Roadmap, which is a nationwide initiative to decarcerate our country.
It may seem like we do not have any influence when it comes to the latter action, but I like to remind people that they have a local council member, a State Assembly Member, a State Senator and they have every right as a constituent to demand action from them on passing legislation that decarcerates our city and state, and invests back into our communities.
When we fight a system that abuses and harms people, we help demolish the stigmas of that same system, and remove barriers to the ‘pursuit of happiness’ that every American has a right to.
How can we level the playing field, so that people with justice involvement can see a future for themselves in any career?
Part of the challenge with leveling the playing field, is that too many people believe that it shouldn’t be leveled. Some are actively virulent about their position, and others carry with them assumptions and beliefs all crafted by a society that supports the criminal legal system as it exists – their parents, teachers, entertainment media and news outlets both unwittingly and knowingly inculcated these beliefs in them. There is an opportunity with the latter group to break through the smoke screens and the buried histories to reveal the true story.
It’s deeply important for this to happen in order for gatekeepers in companies and industries stop gate keeping opportunities from people with a conviction record.
Truth telling is a powerful tool in shattering assumptions, which is why the work that activists and artists do to change hearts and minds through storytelling is so powerful. I think of Ava DuVernay, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise and their Netflix Series, When They See Us, of Akeem Browder’s work to memorialize and honor his brother Kalief, and of the Black Power Mixtape, an effort by Swedish journalists to record and share the experience and work of Black American activists, thinkers and writers for racial justice between 1967-1975.
Observing people who have had your experience doing truly great things – making movies, writing books, building businesses – expands your own horizons. All of sudden, a dream that you kept really small, explodes into this big, colorful, exciting thing, that is maybe just possible.
Bringing those stories front and center, not as exceptions, but as accessible to many because we bring the resources to go with them is hugely powerful. Advocating for and prioritizing investment that honors the creativity, potential and talent of people who have experienced incarceration is transformative. Caring for everyone’s streets, the houses they live in, the schools they attend, the community and sports centers they frequent, provides what every person needs: the space to dream and imagine a big, rich, fulfilling life.
What does justice transformation mean to you?
It means dismantling the criminal legal system, abolishing prisons and creating truly just processes when harm is done.
It’s important to note that prison abolition does not translate to a neglect of accountability or ignoring our responsibility to protect each other from persons who would continue to enact harm, but that prison, especially as it exists today in the United States, is not the answer. There many studied, brilliant people who have written, spoken and debated extensively about what this might look like, including Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Angela Davis and Mariame Kamba. Please read them!
One of the pillars of our Dignity Roadmap is “Be Curious” At GOSO, everyday we learn something new about the lives of our participants and the situations they face. Why is constantly educating yourself and others important to creating justice transformation?
Anything can happen when we’re curious, and that is why it’s both essential and sometimes hard to practice! As humans, we love ambiguity but we also gravitate toward certainty, or safety. But practicing curiosity expands our view of the world, builds layers and textures into our experiences and is an essential act of generosity and faith, especially when we are creating justice transformation.
We are all coming to this work with our lived experiences, specific skill set and only so much time in the day, which is why sharing what we’ve learned and disseminating important information that affects our work is so necessary.
Specifically, educating myself means that I go to the source: who is being harmed, what are their stories and what are their solutions? That is where justice transformation work begins and ends, really. There’s a famous grassroots mantra, which is more deeply true than most realize: “The people closest to the problem are the closest to the solution.” All of the justice transformation campaigns GOSO supports and works on are built on this principle. For example, the Less Is More NY Act was originally written by Derek Singletary, who is currently incarcerated, and the campaign itself led by directly impacted people and advocates from 300+ organizations across New York State. Centering of people who have directly experienced the problem is foundational to justice transformation work and a principle GOSO relies on to determine which campaigns we support, how we enter those spaces and participate.
How can ordinary people use the technology at their fingertips to organize and advocate for change?
Technology is a tricky business. There are so many tools for self-expression, it can be overwhelming. The first principle is to do you. Whatever ways you enjoy communicating, wherever your people congregate online, that’s your natural space to organize and advocate for change. If you use technology for your own education and research, think about how you test out credible messengers for new information,then find and follow people or organizations in the criminal justice space and learn from them, and if you participate by educating and sharing research with your circle, use that skill to organize and advocate for change when it comes to criminal justice reform.
If you’re feeling comfortable and you’re itching to experiment, there are a ton of tools to explore: Substack for writing newsletters (if that’s your thing), Discord for gaming conversations that can turn into policy and advocacy conversations, and Twitter for up to the minute information. Get creative :)!
There’s also the art of disruption – instead of using tools as they’re designed, we can subvert them: last year, thousands of LGBTQ+ Twitter users tweet-bombed the hashtag #ProudBoys with LGBTQ+ Pride images, so that the racist harm of that hashtag would disappear from people’s Twitter timelines. That’s an example of using a feature – the hashtag – which is normally used to amplify a campaign or idea, to drown out a campaign or idea. A brilliant example of activism and advocacy in a public space!
I do want to note that every tech platform, including those I’ve mentioned, has content moderation and abuse problems. Tech is never neutral or apolitical, and the biases and failings of the people who built and are building these platforms are encoded into the platforms themselves. It’s important to be conscious of this, and take steps to protect your peace in those spaces. You also don’t have to use technology, if you don’t want to! The old-fashioned one-on-one conversation is probably still the most effective organizing and advocacy tool out there.
Do you have a personal motto that guides you in your daily life? What keeps you focused and motivated during challenging times?
Laugh in the face of evil. This is a new motto for me, but I love it, and I think I finally understand what it means. To have fun, be yourself and create in the face of institutions that don’t want you to be free, is liberating and powerful. Evil is predictable, boring, square, and of course, cruel. And it’s main function is to crush your creativity and your joy, so laughing in the face of evil is perhaps the most subversive and effective tool you can use to honor your life.