TREE builds campaign toward ending private prisons, proposes divestment

Ballou Hall is pictured on Oct. 6. Ava Iannuccillo / The Tufts Daily

In the months following the death of George Floyd and the start of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, many students at Tufts have been making a concerted effort to educate themselves about systemic racism and its influence on institutions that we interact with every day.

This summer, one group of students decided to look into how Tufts plays a role in contributing to these issues. This research has manifested itself into a larger project in the form of Tufts for a Racially Equitable Endowment (TREE), a new organization on campus centered around raising awareness of the private prison system and, according to TREE’s Facebook page, pushing Tufts to divest.

TREE’s goal is to educate both current students and alumni about the role that the prison-industrial complex (PIC) plays in everyday life at institutions around the country, such as Tufts. For students, the focus is on education and facilitating conversation about this topic, which may be difficult to participate in and comprehend without prior knowledge. 

Temple Miller-Hodgkin, a junior who is a member of the steering committee, a structure that replaces the traditional executive board, said on Zoom that the first step is raising awareness among the student body. 

 “We’re really trying to emphasize the role that the prison-industrial complex plays in everyday life for people by putting it out there that like, ‘Hey, this is how Tufts is profiting off of [the PIC] and how we, as students of Tufts are also profiting off that system,’” Miller-Hodgkin said. “Then we want to try to use that momentum and exposure to compel the university to make some changes.” 

Arlyss Herzig, a sophomore who is also part of the steering committee, added that part of the impetus of founding the club was the Black Lives Matter movement. She emphasized the connection between educating individuals and engaging the Tufts community with its mission.

“We were trying to figure out the best way to integrate into Tufts because Tufts is a primarily white and upper-class community, so these are issues that don’t affect the majority of students,” Herzig said. “Now the goal is to push for transparency at Tufts but also to educate on racial concerns and equity issues and to push for more equitable practices, on Tufts campus and in our larger community.”

TREE is unique among Tufts clubs in that it has a horizontal leadership structure rather than a hierarchical executive board. Miller-Hodgkin says this creates a more inclusive environment, making it so that its approximately 30 members feel comfortable with any level of involvement. 

“We’re emphasizing a non-hierarchical kind of leadership so that people can kind of take on the roles that they want to take on. … If you want to be super committed to this club and participate a lot, you can,” Miller-Hodgkin said. “And if you don’t, you don’t have to, and can just show up and listen to meetings, or come to our events. So the way that works is we have unofficial positions that people can change in and out of at any time.”

Members can be a part of one of five committees: research, on-campus outreach, graphics and social media, stakeholder outreach and events/town halls.

So far this year, TREE has hosted open Q&A sessions, the work of the events/town hall committee. The next TREE event is planned for Oct. 22.

“We’re going to have a lot of educational events where people can come learn about how universities and the prison-industrial complex are intertwined. We’re going to have professors and other experts or people that are involved talking about it there,” Miller-Hodgkin said. 

Regarding alumni, TREE wants to educate and raise awareness about where exactly their investments to Tufts’ endowment are going.

Alex Kiefus, a sophomore who is the “point person” for the stakeholder outreach committee, said it’s important to remember that although alumni graduated, they can still learn more about these issues.

To get them involved, Kiefus said that members of TREE are planning on reaching out soon and learning more about their academic background, current jobs and interest in becoming involved with the organization. She said reaching out to them gives alumni the opportunity to engage with the community beyond their time at Tufts.

“Something we’ve been emphasizing within the group is that we want to make [this process] as not robot-like as possible, to be very much like, ‘Hi, this is my name. This is what I’m studying. I just heard about this. I saw that you signed this petition, and I’m really interested in your work and trying to build a community.’ So it’s not just like another form letter that they’re receiving in their inbox from another social justice warrior from Tufts,” Kiefus said.

TREE has an ongoing research committee working to understand the extent of how exactly Tufts is involved in the PIC. 

“Tufts just happens to be invested in the two firms that have a monopoly on the private prison industry, CoreCivic and the GEO Group,” junior Kate Murphy, a research team facilitator, wrote in an email to the Daily.

According to a 2019 CoreCivic report of its 2018 finances, the corporation earned $1.83 billion in revenue in 2018. The organization also has a partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). About 70% of ICE detainees are held in private prisons, according to The Guardian.

In addition, the club is going through a process called the Responsible Investment Advisory Group (RIAG) that will allow TREE to gain insight into specifics about Tufts’ investments.

After a proposal is submitted and approved, a group of trustees, faculty, students and other administrators will review the proposal in relation to Tufts’ financial assets, mission and financial position.

In regard to working with the administration to find a solution, TREE’s steering committee is waiting to take action until there is a larger conversation on campus.

“We want to show up prepared,” Kiefus said. 

Miller-Hodgkin affirmed this strategy.

“Eventually, we’re going to try to do some more tangible things like talking to the administration and making changes work. But for the very beginning, we’re mostly focused on educating and spreading the word so that by the time that we’re involved with administration, we have [enough awareness] on campus to actually get changes done,” Miller-Hodgkin said.

Since TREE has only been on campus this semester, the club is still getting off the ground and is focused on getting recognized by the Tufts Community Union, recruiting members and increasing overall engagement.

“Our goals [for this semester] are to create a greater campus awareness about Tufts’ endowment and also the issues of the prison-industrial complex, as well as racial inequities both within Tufts and in the U.S.,” Herzig said. 

Kiefus hopes to raise the same kind of awareness among alumni with the prospect of working with them directly in the near future.

Miller-Hodgkin has high hopes for what’s to come with the group. 

“I think there’s a larger desire for students on campus to do and learn about things related to racial justice and the prison-industrial complex now. I think we are one of the student clubs that are filling that role in regards to specifically how Tufts can do better. I also think a lot of students that I’ve talked to have been pretty disappointed about the university putting out a bunch of statements and saying things like, ‘We’re sorry,’ but then not actually making any changes in relation to that,” he said. “So I think that we’re going to be one of the forces that holds the university accountable to actually make those changes.”


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