In college, Amani Sawari studied public policy and media communications with a vision in mind: to use these skills in the movement to end mass incarceration. But when she graduated from the University of Washington, no job like that existed. So, she says “I combined my abilities in writing and communications to form Sawari Media in 2017.”
Sawari Media’s mission is “Building community between people in prison, their families and future advocates. Bridging the gap between civic isolation and political engagement.”
Her first big win, with support from a Roddenberry Foundation Civil Rights Fellowship, was the Right2Vote Campaign which evolved into a bi-monthly newsletter called The Right2 Vote Report. This national publication keeps incarcerated organizers and eligible inmate voters informed about new legislation that could impact their lives. The Right2Vote Report is currently distributed to over 1,100 people incarcerated in hundreds of facilities across 30 states.
Through the Roddenberry Foundation, Amani met Kat Calvin who founded SpreadTheVote, a national organization that helps the underserved get the photo-issued IDs that they need for homes, jobs, food, medical care, to vote and so much more.
It was with Spread the Vote, that Amani really found her niche – serving incarcerated folks who are eligible to vote. Currently, Amani heads their Vote By Mail in Jail program. This program provides everything a person who is eligible to vote in their state needs to exercise their right. This includes IDs, registration & absentee voting forms, stamps, and more. In Michigan, people held pre-trial or who are formerly incarcerated are eligible to vote. Some states allow voting while incarcerated.
Amani says “this work is so important to me, because once people realize that there are incarcerated people who are eligible to vote, then it starts to shake their understanding of like, oh, what is incarceration for? Is incarceration really serving us if we disconnect people from their community by stripping them of their voting rights? And so connecting those two pieces (voting and incarceration) helps kinda shake people’s understanding of what disenfranchisement does to our society.”
A full list of Amani’s other advocacy projects can be viewed here.
Below, Amani answers our Member Spotlight questions about her passions and motivations for her involvement in VAAC.
How has your life led you to an interest in Voting Rights?
I’ve always loved essays and reports and stuff like that, and I knew that I wanted to work in social justice. I wanted to work in the movement to end mass incarceration.
I knew this, but I didn’t know what that looked like, and so many people were like, you could be a corrections officer, and work in the prisons. A relative actually works in correctional facilities, so I I got to see what that looks like. But I knew that wasn’t what I wanted.
When I understood how denying voting rights to the incarcerated just further separates people from the communities they will return to, I knew that this would be my path.
When I started working at Spread the Vote, I brought all the justice services goodies, and so not only do we help folks get their IDs, birth certificates, and other vital records, but we also help people with voting in jails if they are eligible to vote. And so that brought me into this work with VAAC. From studying policy, getting this job, serving marginalized communities and then realizing that within the marginalized community of incarcerated folks there’s an even more marginalized community of incarcerated folks who can vote and they don’t know it. Or they don’t have the forms that they need to exercise that right.
And so a lot of my work focuses on serving that population in any way, whether it’s sending stamps, creating forms, sending voter guides, organizing mail-in election reminder efforts, designing those postcards, all that stuff is a part of what I do in my jailed voter support work.
How has your experience shaped your view of voting?
So I think that voting or even conversations around voting are a great tool for highlighting where the gaps are in servicing marginalized communities in society.
And so when we deny voting to millions of people in prison, who are serving time for sometimes decades, we’re missing out on the dialogue and communication that we need from those folks as to how we can make society better for them. Why are we leaving them out of that conversation just because they’re physically separated from society?
They’re still an active part of society. A lot of folks in prison are writing policies. They have children that they’re rearing. They have spouses that they’re caring for and supporting in emotional ways. So really, they’re still contributing to society in many ways.
In prisons, I see an active population of people who want to be involved. Over a 1,000 people read the Right2Vote, and receive it every other month because they’re interested in knowing what’s happening on a legislative level.
And so it’s important for me as I’m doing this advocacy work, to continue to highlight the fact that many people don’t think that incarcerated people have an interest in voting or in civics. So a really huge part of my advocacy work is making sure that people on the outside understand that not only are incarcerated people interested, some of these men and women are writing policy. They’re pushing petitions. They don’t just want to cast ballots. They would love to cast ballots, but they are talented, effective leaders in their circles and in their communities. And so it’s time to actually cater to that leadership. And really bring them into the fold of the movement. We can’t keep refusing to make prison voting happen just because it’s too big of a problem. The first thing that we can do is actually allow incarcerated people to vote.
And so my experience helping incarcerated people publish the Right2Vote Newsletter every other month, consolidating reports from them, reading their mail, transcribing different articles that they’ve written — it’s all just helped me become a better advocate. Advocating for incarcerated people makes me a better advocate for everyone every single day.
What do people need to know about their voting rights that they don’t know?
So people need to know that when you vote in Michigan you are voting on behalf of over 30,000 people in state prisons who cannot vote. I want people to have that mindset when they go into the voting booth or fill out their ballot.
So now we need to carry that filter as we’re looking at what policies are on the table, and how it impacts not only ourselves and our loved ones in our households, but also the tens of thousands of people locked away. The incarcerated are really explicit about what they need and what they want when we listen to them. We need to have an ear for that community and hold that with us as we exercise our right to vote.
What do you see as the biggest problem facing society right now?
VAAC member, Booker T. Washington said something about the movement toward social justice that really resonated with me. He said, ‘right now the community is on life support. All the organizing that we’re doing is really just life support’
We need to get our community out of life support. So the biggest problem facing society right now is that so much of our capacity is taken up by just trying to get the community out of life support. We’re trying to ensure that folks who are transitioning from one housing situation to another aren’t experiencing homelessness, trying to ensure that incarcerated citizens have access to nutritious and wholesome food. Trying to make sure that incarcerated people can earn a wage that they don’t have to spend all their money on phone calls. All these really ridiculous nuances that continue just because they’re there, like the fact that people have to pay high prices for phone calls, they have to pay for a video visit. So I think that there’s a lot of life support work that’s going on.
I think we really need to get on the other side of being consumed with working just to keep people going. There are so many passionate souls in this movement, with gifts we might never experience because they don’t have the freedom or capacity. Society loses a lot when we can’t cater to what fuels us.
And so we have to not just reform, but completely transform the way that that entire system functions. And so as we usher ourselves through that, I want to see other passions that folks have.
For my part, I write music, I play the guitar. I’m gonna be coming out with an album next month, because music is part of refueling and restoring myself. And so I wanna share and see more of the other work that folks in the movement do.