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When thinking of the next womyn you should know, the first to come to my mind were power couple Olivia Buntaine and Alex Washburn. Olivia's work examines the usage of Shakespeare as an incredibly successful rehabilitative tool in prisons. Alex has taken the stale world of sexual education and is turning it on its head, planning and implementing her own dynamic public health program specifically focused on women and women's bodies. Though their work is different, their individual passion and grounded kindness couldn't be more aligned. They share with me the inspiration they draw from their work and from each other. --Lauren
I. OLIVIA BUNTAINE
Lauren Moon: Hi Olivia! So tell me about the work you’ve been doing with Shakespeare.
Olivia Buntaine: My thesis explores the program Shakespeare Behind Bars and sort of was a culmination of two of my biggest interests: Shakespeare and prisons. What I’m trying to get at with my thesis is that Shakespeare ensembles in prisons serve as moments of prison abolitionism. During a performance, incarcerated people are able to access their humanity in a way that prison culture in general systematically denies them. And through accessing their humanity, they are able to understand their crime in a different way and hold themselves responsible in a new light. I first started doing work in prisons my freshman year of college.
LM: What were you doing?
OB: I was gardening with some incarcerated women at Chino Institute for Women. It was really amazing. Everyone sort of says they become politicized when they come to college and I don’t really think I would describe myself like that, but I also hadn’t ever really thought about incarceration in the way that I started thinking about it in college. And the garden opened my eyes to a whole world that most people, well, if you don’t try to think about prisons then you just won’t. There’s no part of our world that really prods you to think about incarcerated folks or incarceration in general.
Then, I started working on a collaborative Shakespeare ensemble in college and realized that it’s kind of what I want to be doing. When I discovered this organization called Shakespeare Behind Bars, I immediately decided to write my thesis on it. It’s basically an organization that’s been going for about twenty years now and it is an ensemble. It’s run by this guy named Kurt Tofland and he facilitates Shakespeare ensembles in prisons. All of the incarcerated folks read a play together and then cast each other based off of what they think that person needs to gain from the show. I just interviewed someone who had, he’s out of jail now, but he had murdered his girlfriend, and his fellow incarcerated actors cast him as Othello! And basically some really profound psychological work happens in doing these plays. It’s crazy and awesome.
LM: You mentioned that your thinking about incarceration changed your freshman year. What changed? Do you think there’s a general view that people have about incarceration that you also shared?
OB: You know, there wasn’t even a view. It just didn’t exist. I didn’t think about prison at all. Angela Davis talks in her book about prison abolitionism about how the way that the Prison-Industrial system functions in American society makes it impossible for us to imagine a society without it, because then you’re like, “Well, what are we going to do with like the rapists and the murderers and these really really horrible people?” And it essentially functions so that it’s like the lights are totally out on the incarcerated population. It’s not that people really have that many feelings about it, it’s just that everything is in the dark.
Working in the prison garden felt like working with totally normal people who missed their families. And that’s really how our interactions went. What was crazy for me was watching how the guards treated the women. There was this one moment where a guard and I were talking about a ground squirrel infestation they had and the guard said to me, “Yeah, you just have to like, spray the ground squirrels with pepper spray. Just the way you would treat the inmates.” And a light went on for me about the really debilitating conditions that incarcerated people have to live with. It’s really nuts because if the goal is rehabilitation, how would we ever expect that to happen in these circumstances? If you look at the national rate of recidivism -- the national rate of people who return to prison after leaving-- it’s like 60%. So we are literally failing. And it’s because of how we’re treating the people inside. It’s totally broken as a system. The garden illuminated the incarcerated population to me as a population that everyone is, for the most part, pretty silent about. There are a lot of groups that have a lot of struggle going on, but I think few with as little attention as incarcerated folks.
LM: So your thesis, is it about bringing voice to breaking this silence? Or is it more like a study of how Shakespeare is a particularly effective rehab tool? Or all of those things?
OB: It’s sort of both. By showing how effective the Shakespeare Behind Bars program is, it also shows how sort of desperately ineffective pretty much our entire incarceral system is. Doing Shakespeare allows people to access their common humanity. And that is definitely why I think some people think Shakespeare has lasted so long, because there is just something that’s so quintessentially human that you just can’t escape it. And humanity is exactly what is getting sort of denied to folks in prison over and over again. So I think that’s where they kind of meetup.
LM: That’s great. Are there programs like the Shakespeare Behind Bars programs at most prisons or is it a sort of special thing?
OB: It’s a special thing.
LM: How do they choose which prisons get these really great programs?
OB: It depends entirely on the warden.
OB: There are some wardens that believe in programming and some wardens who don’t. So, you know, some prisons don’t have any kind of programming like that whatsoever. But you know the ones that do… I feel stupid spouting off statistics, but recidivism rates nationally are around 60%. Recidivism rates for the two prisons that have Shakespeare Behind Bars programs for the folks who go through the program is 5.3%.
OB: Clearly something is happening there.
LM: Wow. Why do you think Shakespeare is more effective than other arts-in-corrections programs? And you mentioned the humanity aspect. Could you maybe elaborate on that?
OB: Totally. You know the reason Shakespeare’s stuck around for so long, honestly, in my opinion is because his work raises a lot of problems that we still have not solved. About inequality, social inequality, and a lot about prejudice and the way that human beings interact with each other, especially in oppressive circumstances. It’s just so relevant. There’s a language barrier, which is Shakespearean English, but once you get past that it’s like everything could have been written yesterday.
Another thing is that Shakespeare, in my opinion, didn’t write a lot of pointless characters. I think that’s one thing that really differentiates it from a lot of performance art today. I think every word was super intentional and what I really love about his work is that there is this sort of sense of humanity that’s kind of inexplicable. Anytime you try to talk about it you just sound stupid! Which is the sign of something really good-- when you stop having the words to describe it in a way that actually sounds reasonable. It’s just very human!
LM: What do you recommend to the normal layperson if they are really interested in what you’re talking about and they want to get involved? Are there books they should read? Are there things they should do?
LM: Well, there’s a documentary called “Shakespeare Behind Bars” that you can definitely watch. It’s pretty heartbreaking and beautiful. If you live in Kentucky or Michigan, every year there will be a performance of the ensembles and you should go. I guess, prison activism is tricky, because a lot of folks say if you advocate for reform then you’re not an abolitionist because that is only making it a little better. It’s not fundamentally saying that the prison system is an agent of dehumanization and should be gotten rid of. I think I sort of toe the line somewhere in the middle. I think advocating for prison reform is the most realistic and important thing we can do because while we’re still waiting for the revolution, that doesn’t mean that the people who are currently inside should have to suffer. I don’t know, getting involved with understanding what programming is allowed in the prisons in your area and how you can have a sway in that as a citizen. Also, just start liking Shakespeare if you don’t!
II. ALEX WASHBURN
Lauren Moon: Switching over to you, Alex! Tell me about what you’ve been up to.
Alex Washburn: Well, I guess to start out, the beginning of the story I guess is that I self-designed a major, Public Health and Society, at Scripps College and through an interdisciplinary approach. Instead of doing a traditional thesis, I planned, implemented, and evaluated a public health program on Scripps campus. It’s called “Safe, Sound, and Sexy: Female Sexual Health in a Nutshell.” And basically, what it’s intended to be is sort of a primer, or like a Sex Ed 101, specifically focused on women and women’s bodies, their sexual health… everything you wanted to learn in public school but they wouldn’t teach you. And that’s my ultimate goal, that’s what like about studying public health and studying sexual education: it’s everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask. Someone told you it wasn’t okay to ask, someone told you it was wrong or gross, or all of those things. So that, though not all-encompassing, was intended to be a primer.
LM: Which is so vital and essential.
AW: I think there is this sort of assumption that people have; everyone makes the assumption that everyone is at their level or knows more than them about sex, or anything, really, but specifically about bodies, sex, and relationships. And so we all wander around not knowing the answers and being afraid to ask and thinking that everybody else has it figured out. So I wanted to go over those basic things so people knew that it’s okay if you don’t know this term or didn’t know this certain thing before, because the reality is that sex education-- particularly in American public schools-- is fucked up.
LM: Why do you think that is? I know that’s a huge question.
AW: I mean, a lot of reasons, but I think it has to do with the fact that it’s so dependent on the politics and values of individual school districts, because they’re the ones that decide the curriculum. They’re the ones that decide what can and can’t be taught and if anything should be taught. To throw out some statistics, I believe there are only 22 states that require any sort of sex education. So it’s less than half. So in more than half of the country, those kids are just on their own. And then even when you get into the ones that require sex education, some of them require what I would call “negative sex education” because it requires them to talk about abstinence. Some of them are required to talk about homosexuality in a negative way. It’s not just, “don’t talk about it” but specifically shame it, which is horrifying in my opinion.
LM: I didn’t know about any of this.
AW: You don’t know! So not only do people not have the information and the tools that they need but they’re actively being shamed and told that their bodies, identities, and feelings are wrong, which is such a big problem.
LM: In a perfect world, to me, your “Safe, Sound, and Sexy” would be everywhere. In every school. Do you have personal goals or steps you’re trying to take to bring this to a bigger audience? To bring this to a congressman? It’s obvious from what you’re telling me that this an area where work is really new and not being done well, so you’ve kind of had to pave your own way which I think is so admirable and incredible. Do you see yourself continuing to take this project somewhere?
AW: Yeah. I would say so. In a perfect world I’d like to continue with sex education. I really like working with women, not just for the obvious reasons (wink). I winked, did you catch that? (laughs) Particularly because there is so much stigma associated with women’s bodies and historically that knowledge and those communities where we can talk about things and not be shamed and struck down and institutionalized, it’s just been denied, so it’s so important that we have spaces where we can talk openly and comfortably.
LM: And you’ve created those spaces. Talk about the screenings a little bit.
AW: Do you mean the HIV testing?
AW: So I do HIV testing. I run HIV testing for the Claremont Colleges. And so people can come get tested with me and then obviously ask any questions and learn more. I can give them resources, stuff like that. But in general, any programming that I do through my job as a peer health educator at HEO, I try and open it up to questions, any and all, as well as anonymous questions or “come see me afterwards” if you don’t want to ask in front of everybody. One of my favorite things to tell people is that there is no such thing as a stupid question. When there is so little accurate, empowering, and inclusive information going around, there are no stupid questions. And chances are I’ve heard it before. I really try to make that a part of the programming I do.
LM: You’ve had one “Safe, Sound, and Sexy.” Did you have people come up to you afterwards and ask questions?
AW: A ton. It was so lovely. There were just a lot of people who were thankful and appreciative which was really kind, but also, that’s my favorite part, just talking to people. And reassuring them that they’re not stupid and their questions aren’t wrong or gross or any of those things and they have every right to ask it and be happy. Have the information they need to make choices they want to make that fulfill them and make them feel good. Isn’t that what having a body and having sex, if you choose to, is about? And that is my favorite part, answering those questions. I’m working on becoming a sexpert but I obviously don’t know everything, so helping guide people to other resources.
LM: Are there questions that you would have never expected? That almost disturb you, or motivate you to keep going?
AW: I think it’s simultaneously disturbing and encouraging, which I think is a fun mix, but a lot of the questions are just like, “is it okay if…” or “is it weird if…” and that can be anything from “I don’t enjoy sex” to “I don’t orgasm through penetrative sex” or “I don’t really wanna shave my pubic hair” or whatever. But it’s always questions that are like, “Is it okay? Is this weird? Is this normal?” Which I think represents, if we want to get philosophical, a greater human need to feel normal and feel connected to other people’s experiences and not feel like you’re the weird one or the odd one out. So it’s frustrating sometimes to hear people ask those questions because I just want to wrap everybody up in my arms and be like, “No, it’s okay, it’s okay, I promise! I’ll beat up whoever told you it wasn’t okay!” But it’s also encouraging because I get to answer that question, and I haven’t come across a question yet where the answer hasn’t been an “Absolutely normal. That’s totally okay. That happens to me all the time.” So that’s encouraging, to get to sort of reassure someone and hopefully undo a little bit of the damage that their friends, or their family, or the media, or whatever, have inflicted.
LM: It’s hard to be a woman with a body, guys.
Olivia: Yeah, it’s tough.
LM: Why, why does everyone treat it so badly? Just, everyone… I was just going to ask a logistical question, if people are like, “Hey this is a really cool thing, how do I help? How do I get involved, what do I do?”
AW: Well the first thing would be to educate yourself and ask questions. Like, get to know your own body. That’s one of the biggest things that I like to cover as well, stressing how important self-knowledge is. Like, I could show you a chart with a latin name or something, but what it means to you, what it does for you, what you like to do with it, those are things that only you are going to figure out yourself, and that in some ways is so much more important than what you call it. So getting to know yourself in that way and figuring out what you like and don’t like and educating yourself. And then just like, asking people questions and talking about it. Talking to friends, talking to family… obviously everybody has a level that they’re comfortable with, but I’d say pushing yourself a little bit to talk about those things because if we keep treating it like it’s a big secret and that it’s shameful then it’s going to keep happening that way but when we sit around and talk about our vulvas it’s going to become a lot more normalized.
LM: You know how to create these incredible spaces that make people feel comfortable, warm, and like they can ask these questions. Do you have advice for someone who would maybe want to create a space similar? Ground rules that they should know, or things that they’d want to be on the lookout for, or things to keep in mind?
AW: I can think of some of the basic things which is keeping it inclusive. Opening it up. If you want to focus on something specific or a specific population, like women or college-aged women, that’s cool but also keeping in mind who might also want to know that information or might also identify with that group and making sure that you’re using inclusive language and making your space accessible to people. Admitting what you don’t know I think is a big thing. If you don’t know the answer, being like, I don’t have that answer for you right off the top of my head but give me your email and I’ll do some research and help you figure that out. Also, making sure that you insert a little bit of yourself into it. Don’t lose the personal touch, if that doesn’t sound weird. I like to tell a couple stories of exploits, sexploits, rather, to lighten things up. Because it is a funny thing sometimes and we should be able to laugh about it, talk about it, and enjoy it.
III. ALEX & OLIVIA
LM: So, Olivia, how does it feel to watch your amazing girlfriend do these amazing hings?
OB: Oh my god, when I’m not crying. When she gave her presentation, I was just weeping the whole time. There was this one part at the beginning where she was talking about how women are systematically denied knowledge or their bodies… I don’t know, it was really amazing watching her do that, but also just, I think a lot of the smartest people sometimes take a long time to believe in what they’re saying, because when you’re one of the smartest people around, that means that you usually believe something that other people don’t and watching her give that presentation was just a lot because it just felt like truth was unfolding and that was really, really, lovely.
AW: Now I’m gonna cry.
OB: Everyone’s gonna cry.
AW: You’re going to have a sound recording of just, everyone crying.
OB: So yeah, it’s a really wonderful thing. She’s also just teaching me things every day and is also so stupidly humble, it’s ridiculous.
LM: She’s the most humble person I’ve ever met.
OB: It’s unreal.
LM: And vice versa, Alex, how does it feel watching your lady just doing her stuff?
AW: It’s incredible. It’s incredible. Not only is it inspiring, it inspires me to do more and think more critically and be a better person, but it also, just the sparkle in her eyeballs when she talks about things that she cares about and is so passionate about and can speak so eloquently about is such a treasure.
LM: You guys have been friends for a long time and have watched each other grow, you’ve watched each other face trials, you’ve watched each other become the beautiful, passionate, empowered people that you are. Do you think that’s really added this stability and amazing foundation to your relationship?
OB: I think that’s something that we talk a lot about. Yeah, especially as we’re heading into some transitions. It’s really been important for me for us to remind each other where we’re coming from and what sort of grounds our relationship to each other. When I think about my relationship with Alex, it’s like there’s something sort of above everything there’s a word for so that is really nice, it’s something I’ve never experienced before. It’s nice to know that there will be transitions, there have been transitions, there will be shifts, there have been shifts, but there is a certain level that’s going to remain constant.
AW: I am going to cry (laughs). I think that in a lot of ways in the past few years I’ve grown up. I didn’t do a whole lot of living earlier on in my life and I think I wouldn’t be who I am without the person I’ve grown up with.