Mercedes Eng advocates for social change during Shadbolt Fellowship

September 01, 2023

When Mercedes Eng applied to be a Jack and Doris Shadbolt Fellow in the Humanities, she did so as a poet and community organizer, rather than as an academic. Although she’s a post-secondary educator, Eng sometimes feels she’s not part of the world of academia. Thus, it’s not surprising that during her eight months as a fellow she focused on advocating for social change in the community.

An award-winning poet, Eng has written three poetry collections, including 2017’s Prison Industrial Complex Explodes. In this text, she focuses on her father’s incarceration and the growing number of Indigenous people and people of colour in the Canadian prison system. During her fellowship, Eng worked on an anthology featuring writers who have lived experience of the prison system.

“The fellowship has certainly given me the time to deepen the community connections that serve this project,” says Eng. “Part of my public engagement for the Shadbolt fellowship was to convene in person for a conversation with a group of writers on the prison industrial complex that I hope will contribute to this anthology.”

This in-person conversation became the March 25th event, Prison Reform + Picturing Abolition. Hosted by Eng and writer Cecily Nicholson, the speakers included, Cassandra Blanchard, Magin Payet, jaye simpson, and Harsha Walia. Both prison reform and abolition were discussed, though Eng identifies as an abolitionist.

“When folks think of prison abolition, they think of doors opening and ‘dangerous criminals’ being out in the world,” says Eng. “So, sometimes I think people maybe see it as this monolithic thing that’s huge, and it’s impossible to even know where to start.”

Thus, Eng pointed out small acts of abolition are possible, as noted in an example that speaker Magin Payette gave at the event.

“If you see someone taking food from a store because they’re hungry, don’t say anything; it’s a small act of abolition.”

Eng also notes that, rather than prisons, mental health facilities should be built to help those who are currently incarcerated and are neurodiverse and/or struggle with drug addiction. She points out that law enforcement unfairly targets racialized populations and ultimately incarcerates them in much higher numbers, as well.

“Indigenous people, Black people, and people of colour, are disproportionately represented in the prison system, and that’s simply because it is a colonial institution,” says Eng. “They should not be targeted the way they are. There would be so few folks in prison if we just didn’t incarcerate the folks I have just mentioned.”

Aligned in some ways with her overall abolition project, and continuing the work she started in her book, Prison Industrial Complex Explodes, Eng is also working on a book of poetry called, Cop City Swagger.

The “Cop City” part of the title refers to Vancouver and the Vancouver Police Department (VPD).

“I’m looking at the VPD at this particular moment in time where the city now has a new mayor—a mayor that was endorsed by the VPD—a mayor who promised to increase the police presence in the city, rather than to build more housing,” says Eng. “The mayor is also the first Chinese-Canadian mayor of the city and that is occurring at a time where we have seen hate crimes against Asian Canadians increase in a distressingly speedy way.”

The term “swagger” in the title of the book came from Mayor Ken Sim. In one of his first speeches as mayor, Sim said in the not-so-distant future he wants to see a Vancouver with a renewed swagger. Many, along with Eng, wonder what “swagger” means to Sim. She wonders whether it involves making the city more expensive and gentrifying neighbourhoods like Chinatown.

“As a Chinese-Canadian, I am not particularly proud to have the first Chinese-Canadian mayor of the city. It doesn’t matter when there is a certain agenda being served, and that agenda leaves out low-income folks,” says Eng.

In reflecting on the fellowship, Eng says it was incredible to have the time and the money to think further through her book project, as well as gather the speakers together for her event.

“It was very useful to help me think through things, particularly as I said that idea of the scale of abolition and small acts of abolition,” says Eng. “It was incredible to have a budget for to be able to pay people well, provide speakers’ gifts, delicious food for everyone, and to have money for American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters.”