Greetings all! It is an honor to share my first blog on this site. I hope to continue to keep Sharmus’s presence and leadership as vibrant and inspiring as she was as we move forward in our struggle for justice and dignity while standing on her shoulders. Sharmus was a great educator- and continues to be. I had the pleasure of sharing memories of Sharmus with Alex Andrews and Jill McCracken, Co-directors of SWOP Behind Bars, where we discussed The Sharmus Outlaw Scholarship, one of 7 scholarship opportunities for incarcerated sex workers.
“Sharmus was a beacon of love and a tireless fighter,” Jill said, “and we want to remember and honor her energy, spirit, and lifeline for trans people and the sex worker rights movement.” She went on: “We all learned from Sharmus continually: her humor, insights, and lived experience. I am proud to honor her name on this scholarship. We will never forget Sharmus, and this is just one more reminder; one more way of spreading her love and passion.”
“We have very little institutional memory,” Alex told me, as we discussed the movement for sex worker rights, “and we are not very good at remembering the people that have gone before us.” Alex was inspired to name the seven scholarships offered by SWOP Behind Bars for those we have loved and lost within this movement after long-time activist Dana Hemingway took her life early this year. “We can’t forget where we came from,” Alex told me.
Alex and Jill co-founded SWOP Behind Bars in April 2016, and the growth has been spectacular. They focus primarily on three critical elements: Providing education and information through a book drive and newsletter; mentoring the community via mail; and offering basic reentry services. “Prison is a place of fear. We are trying to break down that wall,” says Alex. “We feel that offering education, information, and connection to a community is an important part of getting out. Not having such a fearful world to come back to.”
“Education takes time and money” Jill said. “And the one thing most prisoners have is time. So if we can provide the money, we can not only help provide something for them while they are in prison, but also contribute to their life beyond the prison walls. Education provides knowledge, cultural capital, and hope. And SWOP Behind Bars wants to be a part of that contribution.” SWOP Behind Bars offers scholarships for college degrees and a paralegal program, and hey include tuition and learning materials. The Sharmus Outlaw Scholarship exclusively serves black transgender women - and this is no coincidence. “Sharmus would have said ‘Give it to the person who needs it the most’,” Alex told me, “transwomen of color have less opportunity.” Indeed, while incarceration limits opportunities for all, black transgender women face disproportionate violence within the criminal justice system, as well as the lack of opportunities on the outside due to sexism, racism and transphobia.
Scholarships are awarded in June and December. Alex emphasized that all funding came from people who were not sex workers: “It is important to recognize that allies stepped up.” The application process is on the website, and the requirements includes two letters of reference, an essay detailing why they would like this educational opportunity and why it would benefit their community. All applicants must have a GED. Awardees are decided upon by the Board of Directors and Advisory Board of SWOP Behind Bars. SWOP Behind Bars also supports awardees with their college applications. “We want to teach people how to ask for help. It's okay to ask someone for assistance,” Alex told me.
There are a number of ways to support the the Sharmus Outlaw Scholarship, as well as the other work of SWOP Behind Bars. Monetary donations are important for the program and are tax deductible. SWOP Behind Bars also maintains multiple Amazon wish lists where you can purchase books for incarcerated sex workers. They also encourage anyone to sign up to be a pen pal, or mentor my mail, especially those who have higher learning in the legal field or other areas of study. Finally, they are looking for help on more GED study guides, given how important this certificate is to have for reentry. Often GED classes are full, and they want to provide self-study guides to help incarcerated individuals be prepared. “We are really excited about creating a robust reentry program,” Alex shared, “Resources are widely available but not known inside.”
“[Sharmus] spent every minute of her life educating people on how to treat each other better. I want to be like that. I want to be that person,” shared Alex. Indeed, Sharmus continues to inspire and incite learning and compassion. If you are interested in getting involved, check out www.swopbehindbars.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.