Declaring What’s Right Isn’t Always Easy For A Woman To Say Among Men: Daring To Speak For Myself   by    Ruth Utnage

I am part of a quilting group. We volunteer to make quilts for donation. Our resources are donated and so is our time, both precious. During this whole pandemic we were half volun-told and half asked to make masks for our fellow inmates and even staff, to halt quilting and all hands on deck to help make cloth masks for as many people as possible. Some folks who have made quilts for years in here didn’t like the interruption in their routines and bucked back, an attempt to restore the previous way of life.

They didn’t like that someone else made decisions on where materials went, materials originally donated to make quilts- into the community no less- that are now being used to make face masks to inmates and prison guards. I see their point, I just don’t agree with it. Usually, I keep quiet in moments like this, let the boisterous and aggressive temperaments sort it out and wait until I’m asked to throw in my two cents, usually feeling lucky I am there as a transwoman to begin with. But not this time. This time I spoke up, and boy did it not go over well.

I said I thought we should continue making masks until we are either out of resources or out of need and if it was resources, we could ask the community for more because we were doing a good thing. A few weeks at most making masks and then we’re back to quilting. I said I had a voice and an opinion and I’m expressing it. I was then accused of “being hormonal”‘ “on the rag”, and “causing factions and drama”. I guess a price paid for going against the dominant.

I watched as some cowered, literally, as tensions rose. I watched grown men lower their eyes and look away, mumbling they don’t have an opinion and scurrying off into the corners like scared children. I watched the aggressive and dominant voice stomp his feet and throw a temper tantrum, throwing his hands up saying “I’m not in charge anymore!”. Funny what one opinion does. Interesting that one thinks they’re “in charge” in prison in the first place.

I was inevitably pulled to the side, a final attempt to get me to change my mind, speak a different truth that coincides with his. I explained that I loved making quilts, but our mission is to help our community. The counter was that cloth masks don’t protect anyone anyway and DOC is just exploiting us to save from buying masks, breaking our machines and using our fabric…as if it’s not all replaceable…

I then said “This is my opinion, just one persons. I have listened to men cry on the phone to their families that they are worried about dying from this, putting together last will and testaments. Granted, it may be an overreaction but if me making a cloth mask makes them feel better, safer, then yeah, I’ll make that all day long. And it does. Moms, wives, men and women’s children are happy that they have something to cover their faces. My own Mother is happy, it makes her feel better. All of this stuff is replaceable but people aren’t. The whole world is making concessions, changing from what they love to adapt to this circumstance. Yeah, I’m exhausted, I worked 155 hours in 10 days, exhausted actually, but I’ll keep doing it until it’s no longer needed and if we stop now, for any other reason other than ‘it’s not needed’, I wanted all of you to know I think that’s wrong and I don’t agree with that, I won’t agree with that no matter who makes that decision whether it’s all of you or staff or whoever. I wanted to make sure my opinion was heard and now it has been.”

Now I have made a few enemies, but I guess that’s the price you pay sometimes. I stand by my decision and opinion, even if it costs me cool points and my future ability to make quilts…I’m okay with that.

With Love
Ruth Utnage

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“A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, then by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.” (“Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Freire )