OUR STORY

Abolitionist Sanctuary is a nonprofit faith-based grassroots organization that emerges from the lived experiences of impoverished Black mothers who bend rules and break laws to survive and secure quality of life for themselves and their families against unjust social conditions and economic struggles.

The above picture is of Carol and her son whom she conceived at the tender age of fifteen-years-old. Ten years later, she conceived me, Rev. Dr.  Nikia S. Robert. By the age of 12, I received my first parcel from prison. It was a Christmas card dated December 1991 from my brother in a medium security prison for men at Riverview Correctional facility in Ogdenburg, New York. With one son already in prison, our mother did not want the same fate for her daughter. 

At all costs, Carol became resolute, by any means necessary, to keep me safe from the unjust “War on Drugs” that besieged our family and to provide a better life against the economic pressures that threatened the vitality of our futures. Our mother, a woman of tremendous faith, sometimes bent rules and broke the law to ensure her children had a chance at a life better than she was accorded as a teenage mother struggling to overcome oppressive conditions.  

Breaking The Law When The Law Breaks Us

In my research, I have found that some poor Black mothers, like my mother, desperately exercise moral agency that push the boundaries of societal norms and, at times bend rules or break laws to ensure that their children can meet their basic needs and secure resources to thrive.

My mother forged doctor’s notes to get a day off from work during inconvenient school holidays, when she could not afford backup childcare.

She manufactured a higher tax refund to secure disposable income to pay bills, including tuition for an afterschool program that kept me safe from the drugs and violence that were common in our Harlem neighborhood.

She also falsified lease renewal agreements to mitigate astronomical rent increases and the threat of displacement as a result of gentrification.

I had a profound admiration for my mother’s survival strategies that proved salvific for our family. In fact, we benefited from an unlawful salvation. Because of her faith and extralegal survival practices, we kept a roof over our heads and clothes on our back.

Abolitionist Sanctuary honors the narratives of poor Black mothers who exercise practical wisdom by violating laws to overcome interlocking systems or racial, gender and class inequities that impede survival and human flourishing.

#SheIsWorthy

Poor Black mothers who break the law to survive and secure quality of life for themselves and their families to overcome oppressive conditions are often maligned by stereotypes of deviance and consequently disadvantaged by punitive responses. Narratives of individual blame are used to condemn poor Black mothers for exercising moral agency to prevail over a system that is stacked up against them.

These punitive responses are also prominent in church teachings and practices. Theologies of sin, sacrifice and punishment can reproduce carceral logic. Also, practices of respectability can target Black women who transgress the boundaries of acceptable norms of holiness, sacrality, morality and correctness of activities and behaviors. Through these teachings and practices, churches can become complicit in coopting State violence. 

Abolitionist Sanctuary aims to use public policies and transformative justice strategies to shift narratives of individual blame to social responsibility, and from punishment to accountability. We believe in the moral worth of Black women’s who make the hard decision to break the law to survive dire circumstances wrought by structural inequities. Poor Black mothers are worthy of moral concern and not criminalization and incarceration that strips away their human and civil rights. The cumulative consequences of carcerality causes far more harm than redressing the systemic injustices that lead to Black women’s lawbreaking in the first place. We believe that there are extreme cases where poor Black mothers must make the difficult choice between lawfulness and morality; and in cases where actions are unlawful, they may also find appraisal as  morally right. 

Abolitionist Sanctuary emerges against this backdrop of Black women’s survival that is inspired by my mother’s story and the poor Black mothers she represents. These women are worthy of life-generating possibilities in a society beyond condemnation and carcerality.

The Reappraisal of Black Mothers' Survival Practices

I created a groundbreaking methodology to reappraise Black mothers’ survival practices that I call a, “Womanist Theo-Ethical Approach to Public Policy and Transformative Justice Strategies for the Black Church.” 

I draw from Womanist virtue ethics and the works of ethicist Katie Geneva Cannon to find moral integrity and virtuosity in Black women’s moral agency, which dominant society would otherwise constitute as vice, immoral, deviant and criminal.

A womanist theo-ethical approach is comprised of a methodological framework to help churches become catalysts for social change by embracing three essential components: 1) a liberation theology of courageous change that redresses retributive church teachings about sacrifice, sin, and respectability politics, 2) four community-based virtues: compassion, care, creativity and courage, which are mined from the survival practices of poor Black mothers’ lawbreaking, and 3) a 2×2 quadrant for churches to evaluate their teachings and practices with the aspiration of moving from condemnation and complicity to courage and change quadrants.

The goal of a Womanist Theo-Ethical Approach to Public Policy and Transformative Justice for the Black Church is to help congregations to place their teachings and practices in the Change quadrant by identifying public policy and transformative justice strategies that are anchored in abolitionist ideals and liberatory religious values to point toward a future where society no longer relies on punitive responses but embraces communal alternatives that center poor Black mothers’ human flourishing

Hence, Abolitionist Sanctuary emerges from Black women’s survival as inspired by my mother’s story and the poor Black mothers she represents, and also to educate, encourage and equip faith communities to use religious values and abolitionist ideals to advocate for  a more just and equitable society beyond punishment, prisons and policing where poor Black mothers and their communities can flourish.

Religion and Abolition

Church teachings of sin, sacrifice and punishment, as well as ecclesial practices of respectability politics and condemnation are counter to liberatory religious values and abolitionist principles.

Abolitionist Sanctuary helps churches to align liberatory religious values with public policies and transformative justice strategies that increase civic engagement and advocate for system-impacted communities, particularly poor Black mothers, to flourish in a more just and equitable society beyond prisons, policing and punishment.

We believe that religious values of compassion, care, creativity, and courage correspond to  abolitionist principles of healing harms, repairing individuals, restoring communities and rebuilding infrastructure and social programs so poor Black mothers and other vulnerable groups can imagine, hope and obtain a society of social thriving without criminalization, caging and condemnation.

Services
We want to help churches to join a faith-based abolition movement.

Abolitionist Sanctuary specializes in coalition building and trainings at the intersections of theology, ethics and public policy. Our services are designed to center system-impacted individuals, with a focus on impoverished Black mothers; and to educate, equip and empower churches to identify public policies and transformative justice strategies to eradicate prisons, policing and punishment that impede communal flourishing.

Four Churches is a proprietary assessment tool that churches can use to evaluate their teachings and practices. Abolitionist Sanctuary will evaluate this assessment to map a strategic plan that helps churches to move from Condemnation and Complicity to demonstrating Courage and acting as Change agents in a faith-based abolitionist movement.

We teach and consult religious leaders, laity and faith communities our method for connecting religion to abolition, using theory and praxis. We engage a womanist-theo-ethical approach to public policy and transformative justice that is grounded in research and experience. We also offer  courses, trainings, and teach-ins for churches to become certified as an Abolitionist Sanctuary.
We convene system-impacted mothers and their families, religious leaders and laity, academic scholars and industry experts, movement leaders and community activist to engage in critical dialogue to imagine and create a world beyond prisons. The Policy Circle is dialogical but also rooted in action. We help churches to set policy agendas, influence political decision-making, and advance the abolitionist goals of transformative justice.
We develop a robust network of community partners to match system-impacted mothers to the resources and opportunities they need to find sanctuary and to self-actualize. We believe in mutual aid, cooperative economics and strategic partnerships to ensure that mothers can rebuild their lives beyond criminality, caging and condemnation.

Dr. Robert is a trained public speaker with significant experience talking to educational institutions, nonprofit organizations, corporate clients, religious organizations, political campaigns, community organized events and social movement rallies. She is available to keynote, lecture, preach and speak to your organization. Key talks include topical themes related to religion, politics, women empowerment, leadership, strategy, anti-black racism, abolition and social justice.