Interview with a Professional Activist: Jesse Lava ’02 of Beyond Bars

Jesse Lava ’02 runs Brave New Films’ Beyond Bars campaign, which uses video storytelling to advocate for reform in our nation’s criminal justice system. The campaign focuses on fighting mass incarceration through social media and short films. Classic Wesleyan. He worked with the United Student-Labor Action Coalition (USLAC) during his time at Wes (when they occupied the admissions office for 33 hours), as well other environmental and political groups, namely to start the first campaign for socially responsible investing. He sheds light on his lengthy career in activism and his transition from an amateur to a professional.

Why did you choose to make political activism your career?

Part of it was a crush I had on a girl at Wesleyan who worked on trade justice. There was something about her commitment that raised the bar for me on what constituted a decent person. If I wanted to improve the world, simply having liberal opinions wasn’t sufficient. It was barely even a baseline. I had to get active for my beliefs to have tangible meaning. More fundamentally, I got into activism because of values I’d learned long before from my mother, who instilled in me that my life isn’t only for me. Every night she prayed with me at my bedside and had me make wishes for those who are hungry or sick—those who weren’t as fortunate as I was. I understood that the suffering of others is my suffering, too. And with all of that rattling around in my head and heart, I decided to get involved. My first job after Wesleyan was as a field organizer for a U.S. Senate race in South Dakota, trying to convince thousands of conservatives to vote for a Democratic candidate. From there I’ve had a variety of positions. I’ve tried in each one to leverage my skills in pursuit of social justice.

Was there continuity in your transition from college organizing on campus to professional activism?

Yes and no. What you choose do in college does really does end up helping you. It’s easy to say college is playtime, that it’s not the real world. But I think that’s total bullshit. It is absolutely the real world and we should treat it as such. Skills you develop in college are skills that you will keep with you. One thing I learned about at Wesleyan was political leverage. I was part of the United Student Labor Action Coalition (USLAC) when we did a sit-in at the admissions office to get better wages for janitors. We won that fight, and that’s only because the administration wanted us out of that building while high school students were visiting. I’ve remembered that lesson.

Of course, when you’re doing activism for money, there are only a handful of jobs available, so you have to figure out what people are willing to pay you for. But I think that’s of secondary importance, because if you decide that there is something you love and something you’re good at, you’ll find a job that is at least in the ballpark.

How did you zero in on prison reform from the variety of issues you were working on?

There was a poem of my mom’s on our kitchen wall. It was called “While There Is a Wall,” and it went, “While there is a wall, I am limited by it / While one has no chance to, I can’t try it / We all exist to form a chain, extending outward endlessly / And while there is a prison, I cannot be free.” I really do believe that. In a spiritual sense, if some people are confined, everyone in some way is confined, and that includes me. To be clear, I am not a prison abolitionist; I believe society needs to be protected from those who are dangerous. But we need a more vigorous social commitment to cultivating strong communities and healthy human beings so that people feel they have value. We now do the opposite: we fail to offer people opportunity, and then when they become criminals, we throw them behind bars. I think we need a radical re-envisioning of how we relate to one another. That’s partly why I’m involved in prison reform.

Equally important was my belief that I could move the ball forward on mass incarceration. The past few years have been a good political moment to create change on this because with state budgets being crunched, legislators are looking for ways to cut spending. That means the country might be receptive to arguments saying we should have fewer people in expensive prisons and invest in rehabilitation and prevention programs that are comparatively cheap.

There’s also a more banal reason I got into prison reform, which is that I was offered a job. If the Ford Foundation hadn’t decided to fund a campaign on this issue, my job never would have been created, and I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.

What have you found to be the most effective tool in creating conversation on a topic that many Americans are content ignoring?

I don’t think there’s a silver bullet. You have to look at the landscape and see what holes need to be filled. When I started looking into mass incarceration and created Beyond Bars, I found groups like the Sentencing Project releasing quality reports and groups like Equal Justice Initiative providing legal services, but there wasn’t enough visual storytelling to transform hearts and minds. There wasn’t enough emphasis on fostering public urgency. Criminal justice documentaries were mainly about wrongful conviction or the death penalty. There was relatively little about mass incarceration—about the people who, yeah, are guilty of violating a law, but who have nevertheless received an excessive sentence from a system that’s focused on retribution over rehabilitation. That’s why visual storytelling has been central to Beyond Bars’ strategy for mass incarceration. But different issues require case-by-case assessments to determine what can be leveraged to create change.