People’s Paper Co-op rewrites the narratives of those with criminal records through papermaking

This is the third in a series of artist profiles featuring the work of artists around social justice, policing, and activism. Click on the links to read previous stories on Detroit’s Allied Media Conference and Theatre of the Oppressed NYC

Anyone who has ever filled out a job application is familiar with the question, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” Many people can easily check “no” and move on without a second thought about the one in five people in the United States who must check “yes,” and what those people have to do in order to find steady employment and earn a living as a returning citizen. The People’s Paper Co-op in Philadelphia addresses that process.
Mark Strandquist and Courtney Bowles started the People’s Paper Co-op (PPC) as part of the Village of Arts and Humanities‘ inaugural SPACES artist and residency program in August 2014. Both are artists, educators, and community organizers with a background in social justice issues and a vast range of past creative projects and experiences between them.
Previously the two co-founded the People’s Library in Richmond, Virginia, transforming discarded materials into blank books that anyone in the city could fill with their histories, which were then added into the permanent collection of the Richmond Public Library. This community engagement project also introduced a teen mentor program and has grown to include other library branches throughout the country.
The papermaking process has been something of interest to Strandquist and Bowles for a long time, but their work with People’s Library seemed to be just a precursor of what was to come. He jokes, “Courtney and I are not master papermakers; our main collaborators are YouTube videos! But papermaking is a really accessible process.”
Strandquist in particular has also done a lot of work around criminal justice issues, and it was through a photography exhibit called Prison Obscura in Philadelphia that he and Bowles were connected to the group Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE) and the Village of Arts and Humanities. First they attended one of the free workshops that PLSE hosted.
“Within two hours, 200 people began the process of clearing their records for free at this workshop, [a process that can] cost thousands of dollars,” recalls Strandquist. He and Bowles also toured the Village, and soon they had developed their own strategy of how they could further facilitate the work PLSE was doing through the Village with more of a personal touch of their own, addressing the human element of the legal paperwork.
“A lot of our work is about working with people most impacted by certain issues to become the leaders and voices of those issues,” says Strandquist. “The experience [with the lawyers] still felt like a social service space. We proposed to the Village to form a collective of formerly incarcerated men and women to work with us to transform how those legal clinics look and feel.”
The People’s Paper Co-op became one of three collectives to be a part of the Village’s first-ever SPACES residency program, and it functions as both an advocacy organization, working closely with the lawyers on various aspects of engagement, as well as a papermaking business that empowers and employs people in reentry.
“You’ve gone through this process with this lawyer that dredged up some memories,” Strandquist explains. “It’s a pretty intense experience going through your whole past in a dehumanizing document. We wanted to create something after that that is transformative and reflects the process [of transformation].”
With the People’s Paper Co-op papermaking process, formerly incarcerated men and women who are working with the PLSE to clear or clean up their records are able to print their records out, tear them up and put them in a blender, transforming them into blank sheets of handmade paper on which they then write “Without these records I am…” underneath Polaroid photos of themselves to envision who they are as people, not as records.   
“A mug shot tells the same story over and over again regardless of how you change,” says Strandquist. “This is a reflection on what this new moment in their lives is going to look like. Their rap sheets become a blank canvas for them to talk about themselves.”
These results will be stitched together to create giant paper quilt.
The People’s Paper Co-op also functions as a collective business, making handmade paper that is turned into journals, cards, and hand-sewn books that are sold in various spaces and events. Strandquist says that not being labeled strictly as an “advocacy group” has allowed them access to places and events they would otherwise not have access to. Because they also make paper out of donated flowers, which gained them entry to sell at the PHS Philadelphia Flower Show, the world’s largest flower show, where they were also invited to do a demonstration of how they make their flower paper.
While a flower show is typically not the kind of space where criminal justice issues are discussed, people started asking Faith Bartley, the co-op member leading the demonstration, questions about her life, in turn learning more about the social practices behind the People’s Paper Co-op.
Strandquist explains that if a person is crime-free for over seven years, he or she is no more likely to commit another crime than someone who never has. Someone like Barton, who has taken on a huge leadership and mentoring role with PPC, is held hostage by her record. PPC, which is deeply engaged in advocacy work while still providing paid employment opportunities and job skills training, provides recourse where little else exists.
“It’s really important for those people impacted by those issues to become leaders on those issues and [in the] social advocacy,” he says. “There are more people in this country with criminal records than the entire population of France, but reentry is part of this conversation that’s less talked about. Ninety-eight percent of those in prison will get out in five years. To discuss how hard it is for people to reenter and show alternatives to how people experience that is really important to us.”
Each book made by PPC features stories written by co-op members, and are themselves also ways of sharing these issues.
Co-op members develop skills in papermaking, public speaking, community organizing, critical thinking, and journalism. Co-op members are paid a stipend for their work, and are also paid for the workshops they lead at arts and education institutions. PPC has a storefront at the Village that is open from 11am to 4pm Monday through Thursday where they will also have local writers come in to lead workshops.
Strandquist emphasizes the importance of having a really diverse curriculum program that includes job-based training, advocacy work, and teaching experience. “The goal for the co-op members is for them to walk away with a resume that far outweighs the criminal record they walked in with.”
What started as a five-month residency has evolved into something more permanent. While Strandquist and Bowles had to initially treat PPC as an idea they were working through and waiting to see what happened at the end of the five months, the Village made it permanent after the end of the residency and is committed to seeing this project continue. This also means that their co-op members went from having a five-month-long temp job to committed employment.
PPC is currently a finalist for the current Knight News Challenge, focused on elections (the community of formerly incarcerated persons are less likely to be registered to vote and more likely to be disinterested in civic participation, and PPC would work to activate these voters who have historically been ignored), and will tour through the southern states this spring. They’ll head from Philadelphia to Houston to exhibit the project at Project Row Houses, and are also working with the group Art Built Mobile Studios on a mobile version of the project that could make stops along the way to host local legal clinics, papermaking workshops, and public presentations of the project.