Marlies Talay ’10 is committed to being a changemaker, especially when it comes to issues of racial and criminal justice.
In recognition of her advocacy work on behalf of incarcerated individuals in New York State, Talay is the recipient of the Pomona College Inspirational Young Alumni Award.
Talay’s social justice efforts are multi-pronged and impressive — distinct, yet she says thematically related.
Talay’s full-time day job is with the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center in Brooklyn, New York, a justice organization working to reduce gun violence, led by formerly incarcerated people and people who were formerly involved in gang violence. As the program manager of the legal resource center, she directs cases related to employment, benefits, housing, senior issues, family law and other legal resources.
Separately, Talay volunteers with Solitary Watch and the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC), which works to abolish solitary confinement in New York State prisons and jails. CAIC advocates for a bill in the New York state legislature called the HALT Solitary Confinement, which stands for Humane Alternatives to Long Term Solitary Confinement. With Solitary Watch, she coordinates Lifelines to Solitary, a national pen pal program matching hundreds of individuals in solitary confinement with volunteer pen pals. She also works on Photo Requests from Solitary, a program that invites incarcerated people in New York and California to imagine a scene or to imagine a photograph that they would like on their wall — whether a wooded scene with a lake in the background or a picture of their grandmother’s house in upstate New York — and volunteer photographers all around the country in turn take that picture for them.
Talay, who was a politics major at Pomona, categorizes all of her work under the phrase “restorative justice,” which she says she is most passionate about.
For her work with the Mediation Center, Talay says, “I'm interested in understanding how we define safety, criminality, and punishment, and how these changing definitions adversely affect poor communities of color specifically; and how we can expand the definition of safety to include more people than just the narrow definition of how we traditionally think of victims.”
For her work on behalf of those in solitary confinement, her commitment is to change society’s approach:
“We cannot base our criminal justice system solely on punishment, particularly when the punishment is most severe for people of color and poor people. It's not anything any sane person would call justice. That's where restorative justice and anti-racism comes in. Restorative justice is a paradigm that's not rooted in punishment the way our current criminal justice system is.”
Justice that is based on restoration poses some important questions, Talay says. Questions about offenders’ families, prohibitive bail amounts, prison safety, reentry and recidivism. For Talay, restorative justice is holistic rather than punitive.
“When we think of a victim and offender, it's just bad versus good and that's a myth. That's a fallacy. Anyone who commits a crime is also a full person and has probably been the victim of a crime in the past, which is why they're in this moment,” she says.
Looking back at her time at Pomona, Talay cites Professor of Art History Phyllis Jackson’s Critical Race Theory course and classes she took with her advisor Politics Professor John Seery and former Politics Professor Justin Crowe as key to her political formation and understanding of racial oppression. Jackson’s class unpacked definitions of whiteness and oriented Talay as to her place in the work of fighting racial injustice, and Seery and Crowe’s classes taught her that “everything is political.” Scholars Angela Davis and Michelle Alexander and, after Pomona, her Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs also shaped Talay’s worldview. Taken all together, Talay felt compelled to work for change. To not speak out and not act was not neutral.
“Silence is political and the ability to be comfortable in silence is troubling,” she says.
At this particular moment in U.S. history, silence is particularly troubling for Talay.
“My greatest concern right now is the silence of white people, mostly of my fellow white people. I actually consider that much more frightening than the outright racism of neo-Nazis or Klan members because I know where they stand…but the silence of white people, both conservative and liberals who are seeing injustice right now, it just brought about this current moment and the violence that we see everywhere.”
Talay is wholehearted in her fight for basic rights like housing, safety, shelter and freedom. These are efforts to upend entire systems, whether they are political, social, economic or systems of belief. But despite the daunting challenges of working for transformation, Talay is relentlessly hopeful. She quotes James Baldwin: “I can’t be a pessimist because I am alive.”