As MJ Hart was installing their mural at the Baskin Art Department on May 3, an observer called campus police to report what they thought was vandalism.

While Hart, the UCSC Underground Scholars outreach coordinator described this as ironic, their story led the attendees and speakers at “Sesnon Speak Up: Underground Scholars” into a discussion about how art allows people to share their lived experiences with others.  

Hart told audience members that after the mural had been installed, they were instructed by UCPD to redact information seen on Hart’s court and carceral documents in the background, leading to the mural being altered post-installation. 

“The highlighted annotations are me saying my truth of what actually happened when I was in the system, because all those documents were just justifications of keeping me incarcerated as a child because this is my juvenile record,” Hart said during the event. “For the first time in my life, I was able to vocalize my own experience in narrative, which you see as the annotations. Then, the police said I had to redact every single name, or they were going to sue me, and that’s why now it’s heavily redacted.” 

The Mary Porter Sesnon Art Gallery joined the Underground Scholars Initiative (USI), an organization devoted to the advocacy, success, and healing of formerly incarcerated and system-impacted students, to host Sesnon Speak Up: Underground Scholars on May 12. This event brought together instructors, deans, students, and Underground Scholars from across the UC to discuss the needs of the organization and showcase their artwork. 

Louise Leong, gallery manager at the Sesnon, facilitated a conversation between Hart and Underground Scholars Alberto Lule, Ryan Flaco Rising, Shani Shay, and Rodrigo Vasquez during the event. Leong said that she hopes the event exposed audience members to the idea of the prison to university pipeline, which would provide incarcerated individuals with resources and support in getting a college education. 

Alberto Lule: Representing Underground Scholars UCLA as a recent graduate, he will be entering a Masters of Fine Arts program at UC Irvine in the fall
Ryan Flaco Rising: Representing UC Santa Barbara
Shani Shay: Representing UC Berkeley 
Rodrigo Vasquez: Aided in the creation of the Underground Scholars at Berkeley and is now a graduate student at UCLA

“As formerly incarcerated people, they’re facing so many obstacles and barriers to just being students. And then on top of that, they’re also organizing and advocating for change throughout the university,” Leong said. “What I heard from that event is that finding more people to support them will give them the opportunity to enjoy being students and thrive on campuses without having to work twice as hard just to survive.”

The Underground Scholars emphasized its need for faculty directors and advisors. The USI is now run entirely by students, who also have to manage their academic and personal lives while coordinating events and supporting others. 

These needs extend beyond staffing support. The five Underground Scholars explained that most campus’ USI initiatives do not have a secure place to meet and lack support or recognition from their respective universities. 

Working to combat this lack of recognition and support is Dean of Humanities Jasmine Alinder, who attended the event. Having just started as a Dean in August 2020, Alinder is eager to meet and hear from students about how the university can improve their experiences.

“[Visualizing Abolition] and the [Barring Freedom] exhibition have been extremely inspiring to me,” Alinder said in an email. “The panel discussion by Underground Scholars at the Sesnon Speak Up added an important set of student voices to this larger campus discussion around the deleterious impacts of mass incarceration and how we might envision the abolition of prisons.”

Visualizing Abolition is a series of online events hosted by the Institute of Arts and Sciences (IAS) alongside the San José Museum of Art and the Mary Porter Sesnon Art Gallery, featuring artists and scholars committed to prison abolition. The series events coincide with larger projects like Solitary Garden and Barring Freedom, which comment on issues of mass incarceration and prison justice. 

While organizing events, exhibitions, and projects amplifies the voices of the Underground Scholars, there is still more to be done in terms of support and recognition.

“We need to acknowledge that our universities are living off of the blood of other human beings, and those human beings are those that are incarcerated,” said presenter and Berkeley Underground Scholar Shani Shay. “We will ask again and again for your support because we are working to the bone to do what we need to do. […] We are going to change the world regardless and we are already doing that. We just need to be acknowledged.”

A recording of the event is available to watch here. To view the artwork of the Underground Scholars click here.