Bring Those Voices Forward To Stand On Their Own

Photos from PWIT sorting and
distribution events by Joe Cantrell

I have been lucky enough to call Rebecca Whetstine (Bex for short, to those of us who love her) my friend for several years now and, while there is so much I could tell you about this wonderful and powerful woman, I know that the best way to give you the insight into her character and spirit that you deserve as readers is to let her work speak for itself. I believe that what follows is one of the most powerful interviews I have ever been graced with the fortune to take part in, and perhaps, will ever take part in:

M- Your life’s work, Project WIT, has taken you on a very diverse journey over the years but before we explore your many travels into the world of meeting unmet needs, can you tell us a little bit about how this journey began and about your first project?

R- Project WIT (Whatever It Takes!) (PWIT) was founded in 1990 in Tahlequah, OK. Originally operating in cooperation with Project Reach Out, Inc. in Tulsa, PWIT offered full spectrum HIV/AIDS education, intervention and testing services. In 1992 PWIT began to operate independently but still as a collaborative partner with Reach Out. PWIT was the last anonymous/confidential test site established in Oklahoma. Thereafter, OK would not allow anonymous testing, a demotivator for the hardest to reach populations and populations of color. The need for an independent source for HIV/AIDS services became clear as it became known that nobody in the community were having their needs met. Native locals reported IHS staff and administrators pointing out AIDS patients, a PWIT volunteer’s mother used to peruse medical records of men she wanted to date and tell others if she saw they’d been HIV tested. IHS was not following federal laws around confidentiality and so it was difficult to get Indigenous people to test for the disease and take part in programming. The local public health administrator had publicly announced that so long as he was in office, there would be no HIV/AIDS testing in his counties, so Settler communities had no access to testing unless they drove two hours North to Tulsa to get services.

M- Can you give us some insight into the central purpose of PWIT and how that has affected your work with various communities?

R- Project WIT’s model is to meet the community where they are and provide crucial services on those terms. In partnership with Reach Out, PWIT provided “Train The Trainer” curriculum to the state, assisting state employees to learn how we accomplished our zero loss to follow up and assisting in creating a more-responsive, more knowledgeable culture within OK’s public health community. If we had to go find a client in a bar, we did so. If we needed to go to a client’s home to do a testing session because they would not make it through their window period to retest, we did that. 

M- I know that you accomplished quite a lot during your time in Oklahoma but can you give us a quick glimpse into some of your other work there?

R- Among other accomplishments, Project WIT surfaced that NE Oklahoma kids were coming to college already needle savvy as a result of sports involvements. PWIT helped found a peer education program at Northeastern State University (NSU), performed the STD and HIV/AIDS education offerings for NSUs School of Public Health, as well as offering HIV/AIDS 101 presentations geared to the specifics of each of the professional schools across NSU’s academic campus. The counseling department was in support of our work. PWIT provided education, counseling and testing at local rehab facilities as well as via churches, community organizations and agencies. A local medical doctor hosted a weekly test site and offered confidential storage of PWIT files. PWIT also founded a needle exchange that was quite active.

M- When you moved PWIT from Oklahoma to Oregon your work began to shift pretty rapidly though, at first, your focus remained the same so before we cover that shift can you tell us a little about your initial work in Oregon?

R- Once we moved to Oregon, PWIT continued in HIV/AIDS work and community action, offering training and proctoring of volunteers at various community organizations, and joining the ranks of professionals at Multnomah County, Oregon State and The Research & Education Group, a clinical trials organization.

M- Early on in your decades of work in Oregon, PWIT began to focus to homelessness, hunger, and race reconciliation to meet the needs of the community there, can you give us a view into that experience and maybe breakdown the events that led to that change in focus?

R- PWIT began working with the River People in the 90’s. Ga lo Vann, who produces technical reports on mass incarceration and data issues with population studies and much more, came into contact with the Grandmothers of Warm Springs and Umatilla at Elder Feeds. He took the staff of a nationally known hearing loss research shop into community events to teach them how to do most effective work with and for the community. Bringing hearing aids to the elders and an award winning curriculum to the children, PWIT soon became affiliated with the Grandmas and responsive to the needs of the people. 

(M- Just to clarify for any readers unfamiliar with the Native communities of Oregon, both Warm Springs and Umatilla are reservation based communities in northern Oregon. Warm Springs Reservation is home to Wasco, Tenino and Paiute tribal communities while the Umatilla Indian Reservation is home to Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla tribal communities.)

M- It is well known that your work in Native communities had a profound impact, not just on those whose needs you were working to meet but also on a large number of both Natives and non-Natives who came to volunteer with PWIT, can you tell us about that particular journey and about how that came to happen?

R- PWIT had already begun to respond to a particularly notable crisis in the streets of Portland during several years of record rainfall and snow/ice events coupled to record numbers of swollen homeless encampments bursting out under the many bridges of the city. Calling upon ceremony communities (there are many solid Sweatlodge altars in the area, and a fair number of Sundance-based circles as well as other cultural communities), PWIT made regular sorties to those who were not camped in the hectic, drug-impacted areas, but, rather stowed away from the noise and mess trying to survive on the streets. From this regular sharing of household goods, came the responses to the Grandmas across the mountains. PWIT was pulling a semi truck worth of household items and foods to the reservation every other month to fill up the longhouse and feast the community in a ceremony of connection and giveaway. PWIT would focus in specific on particular needs presented by the Elders each time. But communities across the mountain responded explosively with gently used or brand new items to assist. Each run was accompanied by new volunteers with their own trucks filled with shared items. And the Elders invited these relatives into their ceremonies too. We found ourselves not only explicitly a part of the ceremony family now, but our giveaway runs were also woven into the rhythm of the community’s ceremonies and regular life. We taught our community and volunteers to not come with a savior mind but to come and be instructed. The rejection of the Giving Industrial Complex mindset was a powerful relationship hundreds of people took on.

M- I think the pivot from working with hunger, homelessness and race relations to working in advocacy surrounding mass incarceration is fairly intuitive so rather than ask you about that pivot to your current work I think our readers would benefit more from hearing about when that work started and the issues you focus on in that work so I’m just going to ask about that.

R- In the 2000s, PWIT began working on Indigenous issues of mass incarceration. Our central focus now is to fight the policy of suppression of spiritual or cultural services to Native people inside Oregon’s prisons. Thus far the DOC uses data that they know is false. It undercounts Native and Islander prisoners by as much as 51.8% in the largest prison in the state, and that data is used to set explicitly anti-Indigenous policy and to validate racist decisions. In 2020, the DOC knowingly submitted this falsified data to the US Census Bureau, thereby thefting many millions of dollars from Native communities for the next ten years. The Census Bureau did not care, and DOC refused to resubmit slightly better data in their hands. 

M- Most of our readers are aware that the “religious freedoms” finally granted to us in 1978 are “guaranteed” in name only and are explicitly denied to incarcerated Natives and that non-Natives who invent their own “shamanistic spiritualities”, centered mainly on pan-Native myths and bigotry, successfully demand specialized new age diets while the often thousand year old or older spiritual traditions and religious ceremonies of genuine Indigenous cultures are denied to their Indigenous counterparts so rather than explore that obvious hurdle can you tell us more about the hurdles you and PWIT face in that advocacy work that readers may not be as aware of and some of the successes you’ve had as well?

R- We’ve fought battles that resulted in dangerous retaliations, we’ve reached legislators who only needed to know exactly “how” they were being lied to. We’ve been able to force resistant prison administration to open more ceremony opportunities to our people, and left a record that cannot be erased. Our technical reports have resulted in DOC cannibalizing the staff who set out to fix it; yet we are now in weekly meetings with the new director of Equity who is determined to correct their ethnicity and gender database that has been used as a weapon against the people. I am confident that though we may not accomplish a best practices anti-whitewashing data redesign, we will be able to get a minimal better than the US Census, and perhaps even a bit better than that. Our reports have gone to the legislature, Office of the Inspector General, OSHA and the Oregon Health Authority detailing specifics of DOC’s active endangerment of prisoners during en masse COVID testing. Our reports have also analyzed the near-absence of real effort to do standard risk reductions as per CDC and WHO requirements. DOC continues to lie to the media, the legislature and to us, yet we are able to get on the ground reports from qualified/validated key informants and assess the actual practices of the agency. We have been able to determine that, in fact, there is no oversight authority governing DOC. DOC is a fiefdom unto itself, and we are addressing this now with legislators during a key moment.

M- These successes represent a transformation from what was once a seemingly immovable wall, what do you think influenced that transformation?

R- The months of nightly BLM protests with strong Indigenous presence at all times on the ground has created a moment in the Oregon legislature. 

M- What does this transformation mean, in terms of outcomes for Incarcerated members of racialized groups? Or rather, what outcomes and dynamics do you believe will result from, or perhaps might already be the result of, this transformation?

R- There are several progressive House and Senate measures on deck to take apart mandatory minimum sentencing, return the vote to prisoners, decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs and at the same time fully fund statewide programming to offer addictions services. At present we are fourth in the nation at locking up those with mental health and addictions troubles; we are forty-fourth in the nation at offering access to drug and mental health treatment. This is our moment to drive home to the citizenry and to legislators that racist, anti-Indigenous erasure is absolutely a baked-in part of everything we are protesting, legislating and discussing now. PWIT is in there pitching. 

M- I’ve heard from you that PWIT is breaking new ground and approaching these issues from many directions, can you share some of your more recent strides with our readers?

R- One of our people is now writing a regular prison topics column for Street Roots, a zine with a 100K circulation. In collaboration with other orgs, PWIT is taking inmate testimonies into lobbying sessions and legislative hearings. These hearings are jammed with other orgs and self-proclaimed “lobbyists” who take the words of inmates and use them for their own purposes. Good purposes, but still using. PWIT specializes in bringing inmate testimony into these settings only so that a live human voice can be heard to utter these people’s words. We are the only organization that does NOT interpret nor use the inmate’s voice for our own purposes, inevitably bending them out of their original shape. Our goal is to galvanize humans with influence to respond authentically to the words of these forgotten and too often reviled humans we have locked away. The inmate voice needs restored. They can tell us what we need to know about ourselves. Given that incarceration of Indigenous people is baked into policing, over-sentencing and racist policies against our culture, against us healing ourselves – we must do everything we can to bring those voices forward to stand on their own, to say what they mean to say.

M- That really says it all doesn’t it? “We must do everything we can to bring those voices forward to stand on their own, to say what they mean to say.”
The only question left to add is: Your work is both time consuming and expensive (I know from prior conversations that mailing just one technical report costs as much as $14.00 and that is without including the cost of printing), so how can people help? How can they donate and volunteer to assist in this work?

R- The paypal folks can use is- project.wit.pdx@gmail.com (If they click friend and family it will not take a fee out of their funds)
If they want to learn more about future actions and ongoing volunteer work they can contact me using the same email: project.wit.pdx@gmail.com 

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