Tyra Patterson Breaks Down Barriers

Free after two decades of wrongful imprisonment, Patterson drives change at the intersection of art and social justice. 

Free after two decades of wrongful imprisonment, Tyra Patterson drives change at the intersection of art and social justice. The community outreach strategies specialist at the Ohio Justice & Policy Center also serves on the board of directors of ArtWorks.

Photograph by Angie Lipscomb

What are the gaps you’re fighting to close regarding opportunities for formerly incarcerated individuals?

The barriers we face uphold the narrative that once you make a mistake, you will always be that mistake. It doesn’t recognize that an individual could be a survivor of extraordinary circumstances. Far too often, people coming home from prison get poverty-wage positions that are menial. I hope that people have a seat at the table and have a chance at leadership positions. We need access to meaningful work, housing, banking, and guidance along the way.

In what unique ways does art facilitate this mission?

We find the arts community to be more inclusive and more willing to give opportunities based on talent and less likely to be exclusionary based on mistakes people have made. Every single one of my projects includes women who live inside institutions and those of us who are free. Art is language. Sharing our stories and creative narratives begins with language. We have nothing to lose by humanizing people.

What progress have you seen from your efforts?

My efforts have started with equal pay. Seeing those who are still inside the prisons selling their art for the money it deserves and getting recognized for their true talents and selves has been incredible.

How does your personal story give you greater impact?

I often feel inadequate because of my limited education and difficult upbringing. To a huge extent, I was literally raised in prison. The need to give myself grace was one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned. I spent over half of my life in a situation where being assertive had consequences and individuality was highly discouraged, so my dedication to survival and hope is what keeps me going.

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