abolishing the constraints on our collective imagination with Tracey Corder

Kendra Bozarth
9 min readJan 8, 2023

crossposted from the Black Women Know Best newsletter.

Everyone knows that the Defund movement is about abolishing police and prisons, but what most people are quick to (dis)miss is that this vision is rooted in the possibilities of an abundant and affirmative future. Some of the Democrats, progressives, and even leftists who are the loudest about wanting to build a better world frustratingly refuse to think beyond the one we’re in. The problem with what I’m calling an “imagination insufficiency” is that it limits societal restructuring — AND it’s used to crush Black women’s dreams for what tomorrow could bring.

In unshackling ourselves from institutions of harm, we’ll first need to (re)commit to abolishing the constraints on our collective imagination.

In the work of dreaming up new worlds, there are a lot of contradictions that Black women have to navigate, especially as it relates to people who say they champion our leadership while also scapegoating us and minimizing our ideas for a police-and-prison-free society. So I called up my dear friend and go-to visioning partner, Tracey Corder, to start pulling at the threads of this entanglement.

Key Takeaways and Contradictions:

  • Are y’all gonna listen to Black women or not? If so, that means embracing Defund, which is a very clear demand that we don’t need to be talked out of.
  • As Tracey lifted, people need to stop “hearing to respond” and need to start practicing deep listening — to Black women, first and foremost.
  • Solidarity is not a switch that we will continue to let our so-called allies flip on and off.
  • There are certain levels of power and privilege that Black women don’t yet have access to. We need folks with positional authority to show the fuck up for us and make demands in ways that we cannot.
  • We have to know the system to beat the system. Black women understand these institutions of harm better than anyone, and we have the playbook for repair.
A sketch of two femme-presenting people embracing among flames and flowers—all in bright/neon colors, including pink, yellow, orange, green. Above them it reads: “Remember to imagine + craft the worlds you cannot live without just as you dismantle the ones you cannot live within.” —Ruha Benjamin
art by Ashley Lukashevsky via Interrupting Criminalization

Kendra: To kick us off, I want to share this quote from Ruha Benjamin: “Remember to imagine and craft the worlds you cannot live without just as you dismantle the ones you cannot live within.” What does this quote affirm for you?

Tracey: I’m constantly sitting with that tension: of trying to do the least amount of harm within these systems and make them do the least amount of harm to us — while also educating our people and working with them to tear these systems down. When talking about electoral politics, my friend Mercedes Fulbright was like, “Listen, we can’t throw this system away because I’m not willing to throw away my people — and our people are invested in this system.”

Tracey: This requires really, really deep listening. It’s really easy to get on our super-woke high horse and think “I know what needs to happen,” but we end up missing so much of the jewels and wisdom people hold, especially that of our elders. They are the ones who have lifted the boat with their tides. When I talk to my mom or my aunt, they don’t sound like us but certainly share the core of our politics. At the end of the day, they do want to address root causes.

Kendra: How does Ruha’s statement speak to our cultural and societal failings? This definitely goes back to what you said about listening. I think people are spearheading toward whatever answer they’ve somehow formed without actually being in community with others and collectively deciding, “This is what we’re going to build.” And that spearheading isn’t capturing imagination and possibility but rather bulldozing it away.

Tracey: We are funneled into a system of efficiency, which starts with the education system. And so most of us aren’t listening but are hearing to respond. With a background in social work, I had to listen. It was actually an honor, a privilege, and a pleasure to listen. But we don’t learn this in school. We’re not taught to be empathetic or to listen to each other, and that is a societal failing. But as our elders tell us: Ain’t nothing new under the sun.

“There is nothing new
under the sun,
but there are new suns.”
— Octavia E. Butler

Tracey: And so when we miss out on that deep listening, we miss out on the wisdom that comes from our shared and individual experiences. Our elders also show us the gift of listening to each other even when we don’t agree. They’ve been through it, so even if they’re not on board with Defund, they can still offer guidance. And that’s the problem, right? People who disagree with Defund, especially those in power, won’t even hear us out. They dismiss the idea outright without even listening to us and exploring what this could mean.

“And that’s the problem, right? People who disagree with Defund, especially those in power, won’t even hear us out. They dismiss the idea outright without even listening to us and exploring what this could mean.”

Tracey: And then there’s young people. Revolution is always in their head, right? They’re the people who are willing to call out some of the things that we got too comfortable to call out. And so I think that listening to them, supporting them, uplifting them, and not trying to squash their imagination is the only way that we can move forward.

Kendra: Speaking of imagination: When you imagine the world you cannot live without, what’s prominent for you?

Tracey: It’s joy, and it’s laughter. That means so much to me. Because it means that you’re taken care of. It means that you have what you need. It means that you feel safe. It means that you feel whole. It means that you’re in a place where you can let your inhibitions down. If you think of deep belly laughter, you can’t do that in a place where you don’t feel comfortable. And so when I think about the world I wanna live in, I wanna live in one full of laughter — because, to me, that indicates that we’re taking care of each other.

Kendra: I love that, as always, your answer leads with the affirmative. In the same way that we think about Defund, you’re not centering on absence but on being additive.

Kendra: So I think one major barrier between today and literally the future of our dreams is that people get stuck trying to ensure repair in unrepairable systems. We’re stuck in a place of trying to fix what’s broken, and we can’t seem to move past that. You’ve taught me so much about abolition, and one thing we know for sure is that there’s no reforming the police. There’s no repair in that system — and we don’t want it. But too many people refuse to imagine a future without police, and there’s no consideration for the abundance that this vision is rooted in. Can you talk through why these limited mindsets are so harmful?

Tracey: Something I think about a lot is how comfortable we are as a society with not taking care of each other and not addressing very real, very deep harm. People love philanthropy and charity more than they love doing the actual work to uproot oppression. Volunteering at a shelter on Thanksgiving is great, but it’s not enough if we aren’t asking — and addressing — why people are hungry and homeless in the first place. The fact that some suffering is normal is such a problem.

Tracey: It’s scary to imagine a world we haven’t seen. What’s easy and what is constantly reinforced to us is the idea that we should tinker around the edges and try to fix what we know instead of upending harm and building something new.

Kendra: In preparing for this interview, I landed on the term “imagination insufficiency” to describe the societal inability to dream, which inevitably impacts the individual. As someone who is such a strong advocate and champion for abolition, what are some of the ways you see this idea of an imagination insufficiency show up?

Tracey: For me, I look at abolition not just as the absence of policing but as this presence of all the things that we need. Because the reality is we can never get to abolition by just solving one thing at a time. That just doesn’t make sense. But the way that our work flows and the way that the system flows is that you address one thing at a time.

In black font over a lilac purple background it reads: “I look at abolition not just as the absence of policing but as this presence of all the things that we need.” — Tracey Corder. The word “presence” is highlighted in neon yellowish green and there’s an asterisk in the same color in the top right-hand corner.

Tracey: I want to be very clear that the other side of abolition is not a utopia. The anecdote to our imagination insufficiency is figuring out how everything we do is intertwined.

During our conversation, Tracey paused to lift Angela Lang, executive director of Black Leaders Organizing Communities (BLOC), who she says “holds electoral politics with such integrity. And that is really hard because the system has no integrity.”

Tracey: When BLOC goes out in Milwaukee to talk to people about safety, they hear about potholes in the streets and how the snow hasn’t been plowed. That’s about your car, the way you get to work; the safety of your neighborhood, and how it looks.

Kendra: That’s about the safety of your body, too.

Tracey: Yes! Abolition means filling in these potholes and ultimately protecting people. When you think about imagination insufficiency, it does become very, very broad. It does become: What’s the world we want to build? How do we get there? How do we dream together? AND it also becomes: What are the things that people immediately need right now?

Kendra: As an organizer, you’ve had to interact with a lot of political people. How are Democrats, progressives, and even leftists responsible for the constraints on our collective imagination?

Tracey: There’s this expectation that Black activists have to put out demands that work with polling. We’re talking about people’s livelihoods. We’re talking about moral questions. And moral questions don’t start out polling well — and they don’t actually have to poll well to be the right thing to do.

Kendra: Thank you! Polling is such a constraint on our imaginations. Because even if we start to get excited about something — if we start to dream — then someone throws a poll in our face and says, Oh, that’s not possible. Just let it go.

Kendra: As a Black woman who says “fuck the police, fuck prisons, fuck austerity” with your whole chest, how are you perceived and received? What does it mean to be a farsighted Black woman who is ignored or dismissed by these assholes who can’t think past themselves or their current reality?

Tracey explained recent Twitter drama she was pulled into as well as a powerful moment in politics, both epitomizing how she has to shift and contort herself to meet the world — rather than being able to simply show up and exist.

Tracey: Because of the way that I look, it’s easy to blame me for something or to redefine a moment that I’m part of. I know that I can’t show up as a skinny white girl and be assertive without being perceived as aggressive. Because if I don’t speak the right way, if I make the wrong person mad, or if I say something that feels out of pocket to somebody, it is so easy for others to push the narrative that I’m a bully.

Tracey: And so, for me, it’s just really important that I continue to be in my integrity, and I continue to be consistent. Because I can’t impact how the world sees me, but I can impact how I see me.

“I can’t impact how the world sees me, but I can impact how I see me.”

Kendra: Are there any parting words you want to say on abolishing the constraints on our imagination or on Black Women (Know) Best in general?

Tracey: I just deeply feel that we have Fannie Lou Hamer at our backs. She understood the system. She didn’t like the system, she wasn’t invested in the system, but she knew that in order to upend the system, we had to know it better than anybody else. I appreciate you and everyone else who are experts in these systems that we’re trying to tear down.

A black-and-white gif of Fannie Lou Hamer speaking the quote, “I want to see a change for the people.”

Journal Prompts:

  • What does the Ruha Benjamin quote affirm for you?
  • Describe the world you cannot live without.
  • How can you meet the call to action that’s inherent to Black Women Best in your everyday life?

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