Aimee Wissman and Kamisha Thomas, who in 2018 co-founded the Returning Artists Guild, have a natural chemistry that readily exhibits itself in conversation. The two artists frequently complete one another’s thoughts, and at multiple points during a mid-December interview at RAG’s East Side offices, the two exchanged learned, wordless glances that somehow managed to speak volumes.
“I think we have different perspectives and different personalities, but the motivations come from the same place, almost like we’re two sides of the same coin,” Wissman said. “And so, people can usually identify with one or the other of us in a way that’s been useful. ... And I don’t know what it is, but people seem to just love us as a duo … like, ‘Oh, I like these two. These two are funny.”
As a result, Wissman and Thomas said for years they’ve heard from people that they should have a podcast – an idea to which the two were always amenable, and which has finally come to fruition with “Call Declined.”
The four-part podcast, which debuted in early December, begins deep in the childhoods of both women and then traces their paths forward through the formation of RAG, an abolitionist nonprofit aimed at building and growing the creative community they discovered “inside,” and which proved therapeutic in both of their live.
“It starts with us before prison, and then gets into the prison experience, how we met, and then the work we did inside as artists and the people who kind of helped us along,” Wissman said of the podcast, produced in tandem with Lemonada Media and hosted by Melissa Beck, the second episode of which released today (Monday, Dec. 18). “And then it starts to go into where we are now in terms of RAG and the kind of model we’re trying to build. It’s just taking people on a brief ride and trying to get people to think about the idea of reentry.”
It’s also, the two said, a chance to finally close the door on that past, to some extent, rather than revisiting their incarceration and the circumstances that led to it in every interview.
“Part of my excitement is that maybe we can be done telling this fucking story, or at least the personal background part of things,” Wissman said. “I’ve had to talk about the things that led to prison a lot of times, which is beyond exhausting because not only am I rehashing a lot of things I personally don’t like to think about … but I’m also receiving what Kamisha is saying, and then thinking about all of her shit.”
The first episode, culled from more than 10 hours of interviews, centers these early years, with Wissman and Thomas describing the marathon recording sessions as emotionally draining but also isolating, since much of the episode lingered on the years before the two became entwined.
Though neither was keen to revisit those years, both described it as essential to the podcast, lending the series a necessary human element. “When you talk about decriminalization, you need to talk about real people who have real stories of what happened to them in the criminal justice system,” said Wissman, who cried for hours following the first day of recording. “People aren’t going to understand why prisons are so destructive to peoples’ lives if we don’t tell them the story of how it destroyed our lives.’”
“It was necessary [conversation] so that people can begin to have compassion for people whose experiences might be different from theirs,” Thomas said. “And not sympathy, but empathy. Because that empathy is the missing piece.”
While it took the two multiple days to recover emotionally from recording the first episode, the weather broke as the duo worked on subsequent installments, with the story becoming less about Wissman and Thomas as individuals and more about their time together.
“We start interacting more, because the memories are shared and the stories are shared,” Wissman said. “There’s more of that strength in numbers. And hearing each other’s stories is a way to feel more seen, and to know the things you care about are being talked about and taken seriously.”
Despite the traumas resurfaced by the premier, Thomas and Wissman have been buoyed by subsequent episodes, which gradually center the abolitionist work being done by RAG, which has grown in scale and intent from its comparatively scrappy early days.
“That’s what I can’t wait to talk about, the episode four part, and the work we’re doing and the art that I’m making,” Wissman said.
“And that actual work and the act of imagining abolition,” Thomas continued. “The actual act of imagining our world with no more prisons, no more jails, no more dehumanizing, degrading, oppressive bullshit. Maybe then we can start thinking about how we can meet the needs of people in a way that is beneficial to everybody.”