“Artivist” Liza Jessie Peterson joined the Pulitzer Center’s University and Community Outreach Director Ann Peters to discuss Peterson’s body of creative work, which spans two decades and focuses on themes of criminal and racial justice, and to reflect on the nation’s ongoing reckoning over racism and police brutality.
The playwright, actress, and youth advocate shared clips from two of her productions: The Peculiar Patriot, a one-woman play in which protagonist Betsy LaQuanda Ross, played by Peterson, makes a series of visits to her loved ones in state penitentiaries, and Do You Really Wanna Know?, where actress Saycon Sengbloh plays a black woman attempting to answer a loaded question posed by her coworkers during a Zoom call: How is she doing?
Peterson's outrage over mass incarceration was sparked in 1998 when she began teaching incarcerated adolescent boys at Rikers Island. A black correctional officer informed her that she wasn't really on Rikers Island, but on a modern-day plantation. He told her to go home, look up "prison industrial complex," and return the next day ready to have a conversation about what she learned. Since then, Peterson has used her art to shed light on the injustices within the carceral system and advocate for prison abolition.
"What you can do is start having courageous conversations," Peterson said when asked how audience members can do their part. "That's so important: having courageous conversations with people who may not think like you—in your family, in your workplace, in your circles—instead of tiptoeing. We're in a time now—we don't have time to tiptoe."