Our featured volunteer this winter is Kim (she/they). Kim has been volunteering with BTP since June. Recently, she saw how many requests for Dungeons and Dragons and Role Playing Games we are unable to meet. To help meet this need, Kim wrote two printable pamphlets with D&D game set-ups and a cut-out spinner. Thank you for your dedication to this work, Kim!
What got you interested in BTP to begin with, or what made you start volunteering? Does it tie into the rest of your life in any meaningful way?
When I immigrated from Vietnam to the US when I was five, I learned English through reading a lot. Reading is one of the best and most valuable things that you can do, period. I can't imagine how difficult it would be to not have access to reading or to books when you’re incarcerated. Access to reading and education allowed me to learn about my own family's refugee history and broadly Asian American history and led me to become an abolitionist. Something I saw a lot when learning about the Vietnamese Diaspora is that Southeast Asian people are incarcerated or deported at much higher rates than other Asian people. This was talked about a lot in my childhood because I had family members who were incarcerated.
Is there anything you especially like about volunteering with us? What are your favorite parts of the process?
I love wrapping, answering letters, and making some D&D resources/games to send! (So everything, really) It's so interesting to see the books that are most requested and the topics that are most interesting to folks! And it's just a nice thing to do in the middle of the week. I work from home a lot, so I really like the community aspect of volunteering. I am able to talk to so many people from different walks of life who don’t have the same experiences I do. Everyone is coming in with different things they want to take out of it. It's so rewarding to immerse myself into something and do it for the sake of doing it and because it's inherently a good thing and not because I am getting paid.
Everybody starts off by responding to letters, even if they eventually move on to wrapping or other tasks. Some of the letters can be memorable. Are there any requests that surprised you, or that you remember standing out in any way?
I remember one inmate's letter that starts off with a "thank you" and then goes into them looking to receive some books on how to start a business after they're released as well as parenting books because they want to be the best parent they can be to their kid. It was so touching to me that they have a whole life waiting for them and how hard they're working to make the best of it. We have gotten some really nice letters. So many people write in as a thank you note and don't even expect anything back. It's really nice that they write to us even though it costs them money and resources. I've also gotten a couple of requests for my favorite authors, which is really exciting. I've gotten lots of requests for Douglas Adams or just sillier more fun sci-fi and fantasy. It's exciting to be able to meet what they're looking for.
In the time that you’ve been here, do you think that your views on the prison system, or what it’s like to be incarcerated, have changed? Please feel free to talk about those views if you would like.
I don’t think they’ve necessarily been changed as much as they were reinforced. Reading the letters reminds me that people aren’t inherently bad-- like the one I just mentioned. They are parents, children, cousins, friends, lovers, etc., and have entire lives. It's very humanizing, and it’s really nice that we get to do this even though ultimately this system shouldn’t exist. It also reinforces my belief that most things (if not all) don’t require a carceral solution. There is almost nothing that you can’t address by providing other resources-- like healthcare and social services. This just reinforces that.
Do you have any book recommendations for us? Is there anything you especially like to read in your spare time?
One of my favorite authors right now is RF Kuang - she wrote the Poppy War trilogy and Babel. She has written in 3 genres now. Her work is so deeply researched and slightly unhinged. She is one of the smartest younger authors I have read. I also love Ocean Vuong. He could write a grocery list and I'd probably read it. That man makes me cry like no one else can. I'm a huge reader though in general. I don't really care about genres - I'll read anything as long as it's a great story!
Are there any other parting words that you’d like to share with whoever’s reading this?
I assume that if you’re reading this you probably volunteer here (hi! would love to meet you if I haven't!), but if you don't, you absolutely should. Also...I am not going to pressure anyone into being an abolitionist, but I want to. But like, it's a strong nudge. :)