Piper Anderson and Sylvia Ryerson’s Stories That Speak to Us Event

Piper Anderson and Sylvia Ryerson’s Stories That Speak to Us Event

On Thursday, September 28th in Davis Auditorium, Piper Anderson, a writer and educator with a TED Residency, and Sylvia Ryerson, an independent radio producer, put on the Stories That Speak to Us lecture as part of the Tang’s States of Incarceration exhibitions and events.               

The event began with Anderson asking the audience to chat with a neighbor about the first time they became aware of the prison system.  After the conversations in the audience, Ryerson took the stage to discuss her first time being made aware of the prison system.  Ryerson was an undergraduate student in her junior year at Wesleyan University when she took a class on the history of the United States prison system and was made aware of its workings and effects. 

Graphs flashed on the screen before the audience, depicting rates of incarceration in the US and its relation to race.  Ryerson explained how her time in college learning about the prison system compelled her to want to take action.  She went on to work for a radio station for Appalshop, a media arts and education center in Kentucky, that allowed those with incarcerated family members to leave shout-outs on air every Monday night for their loved ones.  These shout-outs were one of the only ways families could reach their incarcerated relatives inside the prison.  Ryerson described using radio in this way as a method to “penetrate prison walls without censorship.” 

Ryerson was also involved in coordinating van trips to Red Onion State Prison in Virginia for families wishing to go to visitation hours at the prison to see their relative.  An audio recording began to play for the audience; it was of family members talking about their experience visiting their loved ones through the van trips, and how appreciative they were of the trips.  Ryerson then talked about how she started a project where family members could record stories, sharing their world and day-to-day events with their incarcerated family member.  These “restorative radio” pieces, as Ryerson called them, would play on the air in the prison. 

A grandmother’s voice came through the speakers of Davis Auditorium.  The audience could hear a clip of one of the radio shows, in which a prisoner’s grandma detailed her day going to church and then told stories of her grandson in his younger years.  Stopping the clip, Ryerson explained to the audience how through her radio show, storytelling became a means for justice: “listeners can hear themselves in the stories they hear on the radio and can question their own delusions about who is in the prison system, who is worthy of love, and who deserves second chances.”

Anderson then took the stage.  “I use stories to resist and recover,” she said, before going into a story about being in the car when she was 7 years old and her parents were pulled over by police for drugs and driving a stolen van.  She stated that this was the first time she encountered the prison system, having spent her 7th birthday in a holding cell with her mother.  After telling the audience she had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, Anderson stated, “I understand the effects of this system even on my own body.”

Anderson explained how she was granted a TED residency, and created the Mass Story Lab from this residency.  Mass Story Lab is a public story sharing project meant to build community and reveal the impact of mass incarceration through the sharing of short personal narratives from a diverse range of perspectives by people directly impacted by the prison system.  Through dialogue and reflection on stories, people form a connection in the Mass Story Lab and collaboratively design strategies for change. 

The Mass Story Lab includes story agents, people directly impacted by mass incarceration, and engaged witnesses, people strategically positioned to create change, from concerned citizens to those in law enforcement.  Anderson noted, “It’s important to have officials there like those from law enforcement, because often people just follow orders and enforce rules and policies without thinking about the impact on others, family members, or the long-term effects.” 

Anderson ended her portion of the lecture by detailing the journey the Mass Story Lab has taken, from starting in Rikers Island with a “Close Rikers” campaign, to coming to Skidmore as part of the States of Incarceration exhibitions and events.  Anderson and Ryerson then partook in a discussion about each other’s work, asked each other questions, and then opened the conversation to the audience after a few minutes for more questions.  

After the questions and answers portion, Anderson left the audience with this: "The prison system is the kind of business that is always reinventing itself in new ways.  It is a system based on profit.  We are a country built on slavery, and it has only evolved from this."

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