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A feminist reimagining of Kenya’s public transport | Naomi Mwaura

Visit to watch more groundbreaking talks from the TED Fellows. Kenya’s minibuses — known as “matatus” — offer a convenient, affordable and colorful way for people to get around. But they also pose safety risks and accessibility issues for many of their passengers, especially women. Bringing a feminist perspective, activist and TED Fellow Naomi Mwaura…

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Visit to watch more groundbreaking talks from the TED Fellows.

Kenya’s minibuses — known as “matatus” — offer a convenient, affordable and colorful way for people to get around. But they also pose safety risks and accessibility issues for many of their passengers, especially women. Bringing a feminist perspective, activist and TED Fellow Naomi Mwaura calls for a revolution in public transportation by making routes transparent, protecting passengers from harassment and paving a career path for women in the industry.

The TED Talks channel features the best talks and performances from the TED Conference, where the world’s leading thinkers and doers give the talk of their lives in 18 minutes (or less). Look for talks on Technology, Entertainment and Design — plus science, business, global issues, the arts and more. You’re welcome to link to or embed these videos, forward them to others and share these ideas with people you know.

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TED’s videos may be used for non-commercial purposes under a Creative Commons License, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives (or the CC BY – NC – ND 4.0 International) and in accordance with our TED Talks Usage Policy (). For more information on using TED for commercial purposes (e.g. employee learning, in a film or online course), please submit a Media Request at

[SHAPE YOUR FUTURE]

In Kenya, buses are commonly
known as “matatus.”

They’re everywhere —
and I mean everywhere.

And they form a very crucial part
of Kenyans’ urban life.

They’re fun, colorfully painted buses

with graffiti that depicts
what is going on in Kenya

and the world at large.

They’re informal and affordable ways
for Kenyans to get around

and are used by the vast majority
as the main mode of transportation.

But they have a couple of flaws.

They can be a bit too loud,

drive on the wrong side of the road

to avoid traffic

and can be inaccessible for women,
children and people with disabilities.

Back in the 90s, my family
was in the matatu business

and ran a popular graffiti matatu
called “Gridlock’d.”

“Gridlock’d” was an American
black comedy film

starring the popular rapper Tupac Shakur.

My uncles loved Tupac, and as a result,

I can still sing along
to most of his songs.

Seven years ago, I stepped into
the family business,

and I brought a twist with me —
a feminist perspective.

And this is what informs this perspective:

women all over the world face sexual
harassment while using public transport.

In Kenya, 88 percent of women
have experienced harassment

while using public transportation.

Unfortunately, we Kenyans are not alone.

In a 2014 study conducted in the US,

public transportation was
the second-most common place

for street harassment.

This percentage is even higher
in Cairo, Egypt,

where a whopping 95 percent of women
have experienced harassment

while using public transportation.

This percentage ranges all over the world,

but there’s not a single transport system

where women do not face
this type of harassment.

This leads to a massive
financial loss for women,

more commute time as they try
to avoid dangerous routes,

and eventually, they drop out of a system
that isn’t built for them

and doesn’t cater to their travel needs.

So instead of women using affordable

and environmentally sustainable
public transportation

to work, school and social events,

they use their hard-earned
and saved monies

on safer but much more expensive
means of transportation

that leaves them out of building savings
to ensure financial independence.

I cringe when newspaper headlines read,
“Let’s get rid of matatus,”

because millions of commuters
would be stranded

and thousands of youths unemployed.

They say, “The system doesn’t work.
Let’s get rid of it.”

But I say no.

We have a lot to work with,
and we need to put in the work.

For the past seven years,

we’ve worked with over 1,000+
public transport operators,

2,000 transport stakeholders

and over 150 women professionals
in the industry.

The interventions that have yielded great
impact are driven by research findings

and working with public
transport organizations

to change the existing systems.

One way we are doing this
is by offering trainings

on how to improve commuter experience.

For example, it used to be that buses
would unexpectedly change their route

either to avoid traffic

or the police,

and women would find themselves
in totally unknown neighborhoods.

But now, buses are required
to display their route map,

fare charts

and contact details of how and whom
to report any incidences.

We’ve also been actively recruiting
and shining a spotlight

on women professionals
working in the industry

so more women can join.

When more women work in the industry,
they are in positions to make changes.

So we’ve created a community,
and an active network

of women professionals working
in the Nairobi metropolitan area

who meet regularly and attend
professional development courses.

Women who are joining the industry
have a real voice now.

We have a stronger network,

more and more expertise,

and more money is being put into
researching gender-based violence

that plagues women
as they go about their day.

So instead of getting rid of matatus,

let’s understand travel habits.

Let’s train on how to improve
commuter experience.

Let’s change behavior.

Let’s train on and adopt
sexual harassment policies,

and let’s hire a more diverse workforce.

Just like myself and my family,

I believe public transportation can be
the preferred mode of transport

and workplace for millions of Kenyans.

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43 Comments

43 Comments

  1. Eli Nope

    June 9, 2021 at 1:39 pm

    I have seen plenty of feminist ideas over the last decade, can we get a male extremist and racist perspective? I feel like you aren’t being very inclusive.

    • Δημήτρης Μπαλφούσιας

      June 9, 2021 at 2:00 pm

      If you want to listen to racists and misogynists you can find easily plenty of stuff online.

    • Jommy Davi

      June 10, 2021 at 12:30 am

      “A Nazi’s solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict” make it happen TED

  2. Patrice Silva

    June 9, 2021 at 1:43 pm

    Father God I ask you in the name of Jesus please help all of their bad situations protect n shield them walk with them always and please improve all of their situation.

  3. Someone Who Stans Way Too Many Groups

    June 9, 2021 at 1:44 pm

    Such a shame that a channel meant for educating people has attracted so many bitter and close-minded viewers. Chin up ladies, you guys still have a long battle ahead of you. But you guys have to keep fighting and raising your voices. This generation might be a lost cause, but we still have hope of building a better society for the next generation❤️

    • Δημήτρης Μπαλφούσιας

      June 9, 2021 at 1:59 pm

      @Peter Griffin
      You could definitely use this advice as well pal.

    • Peter Griffin

      June 9, 2021 at 4:17 pm

      @Δημήτρης Μπαλφούσιας Well, only a more-on would use their actual name and photo on YT lol!

    • Peter Griffin

      June 9, 2021 at 4:43 pm

      @Δημήτρης Μπαλφούσιας I don’t use any of that trash.

    • Peter Griffin

      June 9, 2021 at 6:25 pm

      @Δημήτρης Μπαλφούσιας You’re obsessed move along buddy 🤣🤣🤣

    • Peter Griffin

      June 9, 2021 at 7:49 pm

      @Δημήτρης Μπαλφούσιας Yeah.

  4. Marcus Evans

    June 9, 2021 at 1:45 pm

    All my Kenyan stand-up

  5. Anthony

    June 9, 2021 at 1:54 pm

    Feminism has never fixed anything. Only made things worse.

    • Anthony

      June 9, 2021 at 5:38 pm

      @Joannot learn some history. Wyoming gave women he right to vote back in the 1890s. Waaaaay before feminism was a thing.

    • Rahim Rahim

      June 9, 2021 at 6:21 pm

      you are right 👍

    • Δημήτρης Μπαλφούσιας

      June 9, 2021 at 6:28 pm

      @Anthony Nope feminism was a thing since early 1800s. Check an encyclopedia.

      In the West feminism came forth with the dawn of capitalism and the unfair labor practiced against men, women and children.

      Moreover you can find thinkers that could be labeled as feminists in the mid 1700s and even Ancient Greece.

    • Ricky boy

      June 9, 2021 at 8:12 pm

      Yea I love my mom but i don’t want to her to vote… Also not moving to a third world country. My mom and all women i know would be better off never talking to a feminist. Feminism is cancer always.

    • Δημήτρης Μπαλφούσιας

      June 9, 2021 at 8:22 pm

      @Ricky boy
      Your mom must be disappointed in you pal…

  6. Derty Grows-it

    June 9, 2021 at 1:55 pm

    Women need to learn defensive skills. Not just yelling for justice. That does not work if you are alone in wilderness of the third world countries with limited police resources to protect the innocent of the world. This is why you must defense yourself with skills to be able to overcome these reality of life.

    • Δημήτρης Μπαλφούσιας

      June 9, 2021 at 4:39 pm

      You do realize how dumb your statement sounds right?

  7. Big Dee

    June 9, 2021 at 2:23 pm

    Sub Saharan Africa is full of the stone aged … completely unable and dependent on others

    • Δημήτρης Μπαλφούσιας

      June 9, 2021 at 5:28 pm

      Stone aged what?

    • Big Dee

      June 9, 2021 at 5:32 pm

      @Δημήτρης Μπαλφούσιας the sky over Africa contains every known written word available … progress update … sticks and mud without global donations

  8. Sannidor

    June 9, 2021 at 2:26 pm

    You lost me at “feminist”.

    • Δημήτρης Μπαλφούσιας

      June 9, 2021 at 4:40 pm

      You were already lost pal

    • Sannidor

      June 9, 2021 at 8:36 pm

      @Δημήτρης Μπαλφούσιας No mister white knight, she won’t touch your pee-pee even if you pretend to care about “feminist point of view” on anything.

  9. Krunoslav Stifter

    June 9, 2021 at 2:44 pm

    What could possibly go wrong when you let feminist (communists in a skirt) to play with other people’s money? Hmmm!

    • Δημήτρης Μπαλφούσιας

      June 9, 2021 at 4:39 pm

      Most of modern feminists are hardcore capitalists though…

      Maybe some feminists were also communist 100 years ago but nowadays none is advocating this murderous ideology.

  10. Mkurugenzi Mkuu

    June 9, 2021 at 2:51 pm

    I’m Kenyan, and I’m one of those who hold the view that matatus should be banished from major cities and towns in Kenya. Below is why.

    In the early years of our independence, commute buses within towns and cities were managed by the municipals. The bus operators and conductors were charged to keep strict bus schedules. It didn’t matter if the bus went empty or not, the staff were on regular wages. Upcountry routes were run by private entities, and they too mimicked what the municipals did – regular bus time schedules and regular wages.

    Then came the 80’s and the government made what I believe to date is one of the worst transportation policy change in out country. That was after the state-owned municipal buses were denied funding and thus died off. The government allowed private individuals to own and operate buses, now nicknamed matatus. One thing greatly differed in their model – the driver and conductors were not on wages/salaries but on commission. That meant a bus half-full was no good when compared to a full bus. Soon, gone were the days of very easy and reliable commutes and in came speeding and overloading during rush hours (more commuters and more trips = more money), and off-peak delays at the bus stops as each bus dwelled longer at each stop waiting for commuters to fill the matatus (no commuters = no money).

    The solution is easy. Compel those who venture into this industry to have their staff on regular wages. A major player in Nairobi (Express Connections Ltd) has a fleet of proper buses that charge a bit more than regular matatus (what I mean by proper buses is some matatus have seats that are 30-35 cm /12-14 inches wide that are unbearable even when two small-bodied persons seat together, all so that they could squeeze in more commuters). Since that company’s drivers and conductors are on wages, the buses are driven in a less rough and much more comfortable speed. And the waiting times at the bus stops are a lot less dramatic and time consuming.

    I probably have oversimplified both the problems and solutions in this one comment. But one fact still remains. The government needs to take charge, to save Kenya’s commuters from the matatu men and women.

    • StrangerEyes

      June 9, 2021 at 3:19 pm

      You sir have a great deal of common sense and understanding of the situation. Colorful graffiti wont fix anything, a reliable public transport system will. What “presenters” like the woman above ignore is, that in order to have a functioning economy, you need reliable public transport so commuters can plan and schedule working days and the travel from and to the workplace reliably and safely. Only then companies can plan reliably, produce reliably and at the end, grow and make everyone more well off reliably. Many first world people take public transport that works like a clock for granted and forget that this is one of the major pillars successful economies rely on.

      Please dont stop being the mature voice, your country needs you.

    • A R B

      June 9, 2021 at 4:50 pm

      @StrangerEyes you sir, speaking God Level Truth

  11. Suresh Ravichandran

    June 9, 2021 at 2:53 pm

    Good luck 👍

  12. Rimantas

    June 9, 2021 at 3:05 pm

    Famaly courts of law or first place in usa and world wher man get harassment and abuse

  13. English IELTS

    June 9, 2021 at 3:11 pm

    ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

  14. AN ENTIRE SLEEVE OF OREOS

    June 9, 2021 at 3:23 pm

    angry men: *sees the word ‘feminist’ in title*
    angry men: thumb points down

  15. A Reader in Scotland

    June 9, 2021 at 3:34 pm

    This can be inspiring for other problematic sides of the society. Annihilation of an unpleasant system may not work for all time, rather worsen people’s life. Instead, have a positive impact on people’s traditional behaviour so that they can lead to changes gradually.

    • Julio Pedro

      June 9, 2021 at 3:38 pm

      Hello

  16. أم الحسن

    June 9, 2021 at 3:39 pm

    ALSALAM ALYKOM
    قال تعالى” ومن يعمل مثقال ذرة خيرا يره”
    I am your sister “UM AL HASSAN ” from PALESTINE _GAZA STRIP

    The great responsibility and difficult life circumstances deprived us of the simplest necessities of life

    Since my husband died, may Allah  have mercy on him, and I have been raising my orphan children, and we are in a state of extreme poverty that no human or even animal can tolerate

    I live in an old, dilapidated house with rent, I have accumulated debts, and the owner of the house may expel me at any time

    In order to be able to provide food for my children, he was forced to sell in the streets and intersections

    I desperately need your help my Muslim brothers everywhere

    anything you can donate will be useful for me and my children

    Qaal Rasul Allah (whoever removes a grief from a believer from amongest the sorrows of this life, Allah will remove a grief from him amongest the sorrows of the day of Resurrection)

  17. adibers

    June 9, 2021 at 4:47 pm

    Write the word feminist in the title and all the triggered men will be flocking the comments section 😂

  18. Ricky boy

    June 9, 2021 at 8:10 pm

    Feminism is cancer >.>

  19. SSDi Boi

    June 9, 2021 at 8:16 pm

    Because if ur saying harrassment than I assume these professional women or r they jus sum vagabond chik wearing skimpy clothes) sooo yea I would say women need 2 respect the natural way of life n stop thinking every1 is harassing u

  20. Monteiro

    June 9, 2021 at 9:21 pm

    Great job, all the best!

  21. canturgan

    June 9, 2021 at 11:26 pm

    Why don’t they have women only buses?

    • Jommy Davi

      June 10, 2021 at 12:28 am

      That’s called segregation. People kinda fought against that back in the day

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Nonprofits & Activism

The real-life superheroes helping Syrian refugees | Feras Fayyad

Visit to watch more groundbreaking talks from the TED Fellows. With his films, he’s on a mission to separate the facts about refugees from fiction, as a form of resistance — for himself, his daughter and the millions of other Syrian refugees across the world. A harrowing account, a quest to end injustice and a…

Published

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Visit to watch more groundbreaking talks from the TED Fellows.

With his films, he’s on a mission to separate the facts about refugees from fiction, as a form of resistance — for himself, his daughter and the millions of other Syrian refugees across the world. A harrowing account, a quest to end injustice and a testament to the power of storytelling.

The TED Talks channel features the best talks and performances from the TED Conference, where the world’s leading thinkers and doers give the talk of their lives in 18 minutes (or less). Look for talks on Technology, Entertainment and Design — plus science, business, global issues, the arts and more. You’re welcome to link to or embed these videos, forward them to others and share these ideas with people you know.

Become a TED Member:
Follow TED on Twitter:
Like TED on Facebook:
Subscribe to our channel:

TED’s videos may be used for non-commercial purposes under a Creative Commons License, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives (or the CC BY – NC – ND 4.0 International) and in accordance with our TED Talks Usage Policy (). For more information on using TED for commercial purposes (e.g. employee learning, in a film or online course), please submit a Media Request at

[SHAPE YOUR FUTURE]

Society has a set
of stories it tells itself

about who refugees are
and what they look like.

But let me tell you a different story.

My story.

I’m a filmmaker and a refugee

from a small village in northern Syria.

In our village, growing up,
there was no stable electricity supply.

We spend most of our nights
around gas lanterns

and told stories about Syrian
mythological superbeings

that protected the vulnerable.

I was a boy who loved
the stories of superheroes.

But later on, these stories shifted
to tales of heroes

that my family has to face
under the Assad dictatorship.

One of my uncles was killed under torture.

My father had to burn his books
before they were even published

in order to protect us from the regime.

He burned his dreams along with his books.

These stories must not be forgotten,

my parents insisted.

The stories stopped being a pastime.

It became a form of resistance.

I studied filmmaking
and focused on documentaries.

Documentary filmmaking, you see,
became my way of resistance.

I documented stories of Syrians
who opposed the Assad regime,

in 2011, when the revolution started.

I was arrested, tortured

and sexually assaulted.

When I was released, I left Syria.

I was traumatized

and tried to end my life.

My wife stood by me
and helped me hang onto life.

But as a result, I stopped making films.

Despite my arrest and torture,

I took many risks
in order to see my family.

So a year later, when the Assad regime
lost control of the north of Syria,

I was able to visit my hometown.

There, I met many inspiring Syrians,

real life superheroes
who stayed behind to save lives.

I was captivated by how genuine they were.

Without planning, I took out
my camera and started filming,

I felt inspired.

These real-life superheroes
saved the filmmaker in me.

Khalid was one of the heroes
in my first feature film,

“Last Men in Aleppo.”

Khaled was a simple man
who dreamed to be a firefighter,

but he couldn’t follow his dream.

So he worked as a house painter.

When the war destroyed his city,
he found his calling.

He joined the White Helmets,

a group of Syrian volunteers
who formed a civil defense organization

to rescue civilians
from their bombed homes.

Khalid saved hundreds of lives.

While doing that, he died as a hero.

The second hero is Dr. Amani Ballour,

whose story I told
in my second film, “The Cave.”

It’s a story of an extraordinary woman

who founded an underground
hospital in eastern Ghouta.

She treated injured children,
victims of atrocities,

while bombs fell around them.

As a female scientist,

she defied sexism and patriarchy

to save civilians who suffered two attacks
with chemical weapons.

And then there are the two superheroes
who saved my own life.

Khalil Ma’touq and Anwar al-Bunni.

They are the lawyers who took up my case

and got me out of the most notorious
torture facilities in Damascus.

While Anwar now is in Germany,
fighting for justice for Syrian refugees,

Khalil was arrested in 2012
because of his work.

We don’t know anything about him

because the Syrian regime
continues to deny his arrest,

but his work is not in vain.

It’s for Khalil I faced
my torturer in Germany.

In June 2020 I gave my testimony

at the first trial
on Syrian state of torture

before a German court in Koblenz.

It is for Amani and Khalid

I’m still the filmmaker today.

They inspired me to create
a new cinematic universe of superheroes,

based on their quest to end injustice.

Creating this cinematic universe
has not been an easy journey.

It’s been a brutal struggle

against racism and discrimination
in the film industry,

an industry dominated by people
who think they know how the audience,

how you want a film about Syrians to be,

how you want superheroes
or refugees to look.

But refugees look just like me.

These refugees were superheroes

who defied the status quo and stereotype.

So I will not stop. I owe it to them.

I owe it to my daughter,
the young refugee child.

To tell the stories of superheros

who look just like her.

For her, I will continue to resist.

Thank you.

Continue Reading

Nonprofits & Activism

Playful, wondrous public spaces built for community and possibility | Matthew Mazzotta

Visit to watch more groundbreaking talks from the TED Fellows. Introducing a new type of public space, custom-fit for communities in need of a shot of hope and wonder. Artist and TED Fellow Matthew Mazzotta takes us across the US, sharing delightful projects that refresh space and place, spark collective conversation and reignite a sense…

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Visit to watch more groundbreaking talks from the TED Fellows.

Introducing a new type of public space, custom-fit for communities in need of a shot of hope and wonder. Artist and TED Fellow Matthew Mazzotta takes us across the US, sharing delightful projects that refresh space and place, spark collective conversation and reignite a sense of possibility and purpose in their surroundings.

The TED Talks channel features the best talks and performances from the TED Conference, where the world’s leading thinkers and doers give the talk of their lives in 18 minutes (or less). Look for talks on Technology, Entertainment and Design — plus science, business, global issues, the arts and more. You’re welcome to link to or embed these videos, forward them to others and share these ideas with people you know.

Become a TED Member:
Follow TED on Twitter:
Like TED on Facebook:
Subscribe to our channel:

TED’s videos may be used for non-commercial purposes under a Creative Commons License, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives (or the CC BY – NC – ND 4.0 International) and in accordance with our TED Talks Usage Policy (). For more information on using TED for commercial purposes (e.g. employee learning, in a film or online course), please submit a Media Request at

[SHAPE YOUR FUTURE]

For me, public space is political.

I work with communities around the world,

and as we know,
every community has problems.

Some of these problems are solved
through the ballot box

or city hall meetings

or community efforts, like bike lanes
and potholes and school budgets.

But some problems are beyond
the reach of these structures,

like food deserts,

community well-being

and the loss of cultural identity.

These problems cannot be solved
with the existing tool sets.

I believe that public space is the most
potent place to discuss these issues,

because it contains the richest
diversity of perspectives.

And that’s what makes it so powerful.

The existing parks, town squares
and sidewalks are not enough, though,

which is why I’m interested in creating
a new type of public space,

one that’s built by the community
and designed specifically for their needs.

I start by listening

and by setting up
actual outdoor living rooms,

complete with couches, tables,
chairs, rugs and lamps,

as a way of holding meetings
to learn about the issues

directly from the community.

I use this technique to capture
the voices and ideas of people

that might not have time or feel
comfortable in more formal meetings.

So why get someone to sit in a love seat
in the middle of the street?

In York, Alabama,
the residents bear witness

to the abandoned houses
that cover the town,

which are a constant reminder
of the white flight that took place

after segregation ended,

when white homeowners left the area
and let their houses fall into disrepair.

Teaming up with the people of York,

we transformed an iconic, pink-sided,
blighted property in the middle of town

into a new house, called “Open House.”

However, this house has a secret.

It physically transforms into a 100-seat
open-air theater for plays, movies, music

or whatever the community
would like to experience.

And when it folds back up
into the shape of a house,

the image of the reclaimed pink siding
reminds people of the past.

After its opening, the mayor saw
the potential in Open House

and held the next town hall meeting there.

The excitement of this unique
gathering space brought new energy

and gave a fresh viewpoint to collectively
discuss the future of the town.

In Cambridge, Massachusetts,

to highlight the issues of energy,
waste and climate change,

we replaced a garbage can in a park
with an anaerobic digester

to transform dog waste
into usable methane gas.

Burning this methane lights the park

and reduces greenhouse gases.

By slightly changing an everyday
experience in public space,

the Park Spark Project
provokes neighbors to have conversations

about the natural and built
systems around them

and their connection to the environment.

In Lyons, Nebraska, residents
spoke about the loss of social life

as downtown storefronts began
to shutter their doors,

a result of the slow violence
of disinvestment,

which has left many rural downtowns empty.

To address this loss of human connection,

we used an abandoned storefront
to turn Main Street into a movie theater.

The storefront wall is modified
with hydraulics

so that the awning and false front
fold down over the sidewalk

with the push of a button,

providing seating for 100.

As the community came together
to build a storefront theater,

an eccentric postman who makes
sci-fi movies starring his cat

proposed to make a documentary
for the debut.

And so that summer, we turned
downtown into a movie set

and the townspeople into actors

to create the movie “Decades,”
a history of Lyons downtown

from its founding to the present moment.

On opening night, the main street,

which is usually empty after dark,

filled with people to watch
the story of their town,

leaving locals to question:

How will we write
the next chapter of Lyons?

Well, the next chapter started
with a series of movie screenings,

public events and international musicians,

as well as a low-budget film community
that has blossomed in Lyons,

bringing in people from all over the world

and a permanent art gallery
that has opened next door.

My work harnesses the power
of the built environment

to focus on issues that communities
and local governments

have failed to address themselves,

by creating projects so custom fit

that the community naturally
makes it their own.

When people from all walks of life
have a shared experience in these spaces,

it can lead to a paradigm shift
in how we see our home,

our community and the world.

For me, public space is political

and becomes powerful when it sparks
people’s imagination to envision

a new future.

And although every place
I’ve worked is unique,

it all boils down to one thing:

if people can sit together,
they can dream together.

Thank you.

Continue Reading

Nonprofits & Activism

The multibillion-dollar US prison industry — and how to dismantle it | Bianca Tylek

Visit to watch more groundbreaking talks from the TED Fellows. A phone call to a US prison or jail can cost up to a dollar per minute — a rate that forces one in three families with incarcerated loved ones into debt. In this searing talk about mass incarceration, criminal justice advocate and TED Fellow…

Published

on

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A phone call to a US prison or jail can cost up to a dollar per minute — a rate that forces one in three families with incarcerated loved ones into debt. In this searing talk about mass incarceration, criminal justice advocate and TED Fellow Bianca Tylek exposes the predatory nature of the billion-dollar prison telecom industry and presents straightforward strategies to dismantle the network of corporations that has a financial interest in seeing more people behind bars for longer periods of time.

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[SHAPE YOUR FUTURE]

Not too long ago, a mother told me,

“I can talk to my son in the dark.”

[Operator voice: The prepaid
collect call from an inmate at –]

Her son was in prison

and paying for phone calls often meant
she couldn’t afford her light bill.

See, families can pay as much
as a dollar a minute

to speak to a loved one in prison or jail.

These egregious rates

have created a 1.2-billion-dollar
prison telecom industry

and with visit costs

forced one in three families
with an incarcerated loved one into debt.

Eighty-seven percent of those carrying
this financial burden are women.

And as a result of decades
of racist policies and policing,

they’re disproportionately
Black and brown.

Prison telecom corporations claim
that these high rates are necessary

to pay site commissions
to prisons and jails

and provide security and surveillance.

While the government’s hands
are far from clean,

these corporate claims are simply
not supported by reality.

Consider this.

In Connecticut,

where families are charged
as much as 32.5 cents per minute

and the state takes
a 68 percent commission,

the telecom provider
takes home 10 cents per minute.

Now, in Illinois, where the state
takes no commission,

families pay the same corporation
nine tenths of a cent per minute.

In other words, even after
the government takes its cut,

the corporation makes 10 times more
in Connecticut than it does in Illinois

for providing the same service.

And prisons in Illinois are no less secure
than those in Connecticut.

These are simply corporate arguments

used to justify predatory
business practices

and distract from the very simple truth.

Corporations in the prison industry

have a financial interest
in seeing more people behind bars

and for longer periods of time.

In reality, providing families
and their incarcerated loved ones

with regular communication

is not just the right thing to do.

It’s also the most fiscally responsible
and safe thing to do.

If you think taxpayers
shouldn’t be on the hook

for phone calls for people
who have committed crimes,

remember this.

The most expensive rates
are charged in jails

where the majority of people
are awaiting trial and not yet convicted.

Prison wages range from nothing
to a few cents an hour,

so it’s hard working, taxpaying families
that are paying for calls.

And maintaining strong community ties
is one of the most important factors

in a person’s successful
reentry upon release.

It improves housing,
employment and social outcomes,

making it less likely that people
need government support

or end up back in prison.

The bottom line is
that prison telecom corporations,

and the thousands of others
in the prison industry,

prioritize profit as they promote
the caging of people

to exploit them and their families.

See, prison telecom is just one sector
in the 80-billion-dollar prison industry.

When I say prison industry,

I’m talking about food
service corporations

that serve rotten meat
to people behind bars,

health care providers
that deny incarcerated people care,

and architecture firms that design
windowless six-by-nine-foot cells

for solitary confinement,

where people spend weeks,
months and even years.

We invest in these corporations

through our retirement funds,
public pensions,

university endowments
and private foundations,

and we celebrate their executives

on the boards of our favorite
cultural institutions.

And in all fairness,
it’s not just the private sector.

It’s also government agencies
that charge excessive fines and fees

and abuse free or grossly
underpaid prison labor

to manufacture license plates,

staff DMV call centers, fight wildfires

and, yes, even pick cotton.

So this begs the question,

how can we address our crisis
of mass incarceration

if an entire segment of our economy
is fighting to put more people behind bars

and for longer?

We can’t.

But we can demand and create change.

The key is running coordinated
policy and corporate campaigns.

That’s the playbook I put to use
when I founded Worth Rises,

a nonprofit prison abolition organization

dedicated to dismantling
the prison industry.

Let’s go back to prison telecom
for a quick example.

In 2018, we led a campaign
in New York City

that passed the first piece of legislation
to make jail phone calls free,

saving families with
incarcerated loved ones,

nearly 10 million dollars a year

and increasing communication
by roughly 40 percent overnight.

In 2019,

we helped local advocates in San Francisco
introduce a similar policy

and launched several statewide
campaigns to do the same.

That same year,

we fought the consolidation
of two major market players

in front of the Federal Communications
Commission and won.

We blocked 150-million-dollar
investment by a public pension

with a private equity firm
that owned a prison telecom corporation.

And we removed one
of the largest investors in the field

from a major museum board.

In just two years,

we toxified the industry and threatened
its business model,

causing an investor sell-off.

But more importantly,

that means millions of families connected

and billions of dollars protected

from the predatory hands
of prison profiteers.

It means fewer dollars invested in
and promoting human caging and control.

And it means at least one mother
won’t have to sit in the dark

to talk to her son again.

[Operator: You may start
the conversation now.]

Thank you.

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