Interviews

We Got Us Now: An Interview with Ebony Underwood

Underwood, who is a daughter of an incarcerated parent, speaking to a group of students. Photo courtesy of Ebony Underwood.

Ebony Underwood, founder and CEO of grantee We Got Us Now, has a heart for children and young adults whose parent(s) were or are incarcerated. She works to ensure their voices are centered in criminal justice reform discussions. Team Spitfire recently spoke with Ebony about “Handbook on Children with Incarcerated Parents: Research, Policy, and Practice, Second Edition,” which she co-authored with Dr. Whitney Hollins and Tanya Krupat. Below is an excerpt of our discussion. The full interview is here. 

Spitfire: What called you into advocacy for criminal justice reform?

Ebony: My father has been incarcerated for 30 years. After being silent and never sharing my story, during the last administration, I felt like, “Wow! If [former President Obama] is saying that he wanted to do something to reform the criminal justice system [then I should join in].”

My father has never once stopped being a father. He has been a very consistent parent, and he’s been fighting, fighting for so long to just come back into our lives: not just phone calls once a week, I mean every day. Whether we answered the phone or not, he kept calling. Graduation cards every year, holiday cards every year… My passion, my love for my dad and my family [brought me into this effort].  

Spitfire: You’re an established writer. How’d you start writing about mass incarceration? And what’s the power of the pen in driving forward reform?

 Ebony: I started by writing “The Stain of Mass Incarceration,” an article, for Vibe magazine. That article led to another article that I wrote for Huffington Post. Those two articles opened people’s eyes to the experience of having a parent incarcerated from a child’s perspective. Writing is an incredible tool to really humanize the issue and reach masses of people .

For the author, especially if they’re directly impacted [by mass incarceration], it is also cathartic to express some of what has occurred to you in this experience. It also uplifts so many others that are going through it. So it could be healing, which I think is essentially the first step. The power in the pen is being able to write from a personal experience, educate the reader and bring to light the humanity & injustices in the law that necessitates driving forward reform.

Ebony Underwood is the founder and CEO of We Got Us Now, a national organization built by, led by and about children and young adults of incarcerated parents. Photo courtesy of Ebony Underwood.

Spitfire: What do you hope people get out of your chapter in Handbook on Children with Incarcerated Parents: Research, Policy, and Practice, Second Edition?

Ebony: This book is the handbook on children of incarcerated parents and [the chapter that I wrote] is aimed at researchers. It’s really important that we have a voice in the research because a lot of the related research has been done from a peripheral point of view. And some of [the journal articles], because we’ve been historically invisible, include myths [about our experiences]. We want to shift the narrative that continues to be perpetuated that a daughter like me is more than likely to be incarcerated because a parent is incarcerated. Also, [we want to encourage researchers to be mindful] of the type of language [they use in describing us, because some words] can be harmful to children.

Spitfire: How can we learn more about We Got Us Now?

Ebony: Visit wegotusnow.org. We are a national organization that seeks to engage, educate, elevate and empower children and young adults who’ve been impacted by parental incarceration. We are building community, allies and partnerships all across the country to ensure our voices are an integral part of the conversation in reform discussions.

We’re always looking for people to join the movement. It’s hard to find these daughters and sons because a lot of us have a lot of shame and stigma attached with having a parent incarcerated.