Lessons and Commitments

Sophie Kupetz

When I had the privilege of helping to envision the inaugural Carceral State Reading Group for Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice (CSSJ), I returned to the 2006 Slavery and Justice Report. Thanks to the Report, I had an understanding of a history that had long been erased: enslaved people helped build Brown, and founders of the University were involved in and profited from the transatlantic slave trade. I was deeply struck by the Report’s recommendations, which outline how the institution can hold itself accountable for its troubling past, recognizing that institutions must not only investigate and acknowledge their histories, but take concrete, material action in the present.

I had previously held a student job at the CSSJ, which is dedicated to continuing the research and work of the Report. The CSSJ quickly became an intellectual home for me on campus, teaching me that publicly engaged, collective scholarship is not only possible, but necessary. And it was this lesson and commitment — to take concrete, material action to address the history and legacies of Brown’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade — that I thought of when tasked with co-creating the Carceral State Reading Group.

As the Report states, Brown has the obligation “to foster research and teaching on… slavery and other forms of historical and contemporary injustice, movements to promote human rights, and struggles over the meaning of individual and institutional responsibility.”1 Examining the carceral state and resistance to carcerality is clearly consistent with these goals. However, when designing the group, my co-facilitator and I asked ourselves, how can we thoughtfully build and facilitate a group dedicated to learning about the carceral state — a modern-day, for-profit system of racial control — at Brown, an institution rooted in exclusivity and built to maintain power and privilege? We drew inspiration from some of the recommendations outlined in the Report: (1) building public programming geared toward the Providence community; (2) expanding opportunities at Brown for those disadvantaged by the legacies of slavery and the slave trade; and (3) using University resources to support quality education in Rhode Island.

We believed that the group must not only be for enrolled Brown University students, but also for people with varying relationships to the University, such as staff members, K–12 students, community organizers, formerly incarcerated people, artists, and educators. We also believed that unlike a university course, the group needed to be built by its participants to foster deep learning, intellectual vulnerability, critical self-reflection, and collaboration. The CSSJ wholeheartedly supported this vision and the group thrived.

Every two weeks, we would gather, either on Brown’s campus or at a community space, to share a warm meal and learn about issues of incarceration, criminalization, and policing. Our conversations always went beyond that week’s reading. We talked about our days: formerly incarcerated members grounded readings in their lived experiences; a community organizer made sure there was space for laughter; a professor gave a short, impromptu lesson on Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci. We were all both students and also teachers.

For one of our final meetings, we decided to read the Slavery and Justice Report. We sat in the CSSJ conference room, enjoying a meal together and discussing the Report’s recommendations — what had Brown fulfilled and what had it failed to do in the fourteen years since publishing the Report? What recommendations resonated and what was missing? We brought our different perspectives to the conversation — as Brown University students; as someone who saw rent in their neighborhood rise as Brown expanded; as a teacher who felt angry that so few Providence public school students were accepted to Brown; as someone who leads Black history tours around the city. To me, such honest, reflective conversations honor the work of a report committed to truth-seeking and accountability. They make clear that neither the Reading Group, nor the Center, are the culmination of the work of the Report. The work is ongoing and can only be accomplished by continuing to reach beyond and expand the bounds of the University.

Sophie Kupetz, who received her bachelor’s degree as a member of Brown’s Class of 2019.5, is a client advocate at the Harris County Public Defender’s Office through Partners for Justice.