Sister Warrior Spotlight: Betty McKay

In honor of the fourth anniversary of Freedom 2030, we’re celebrating one of our “O.G.” Sister Warriors, Betty McKay. As a formerly incarcerated individual, Betty has a profound understanding of the challenges folks face inside and upon returning home – and she has dedicated her life to improving the circumstances of systems-impacted people.

Right now, in addition to serving as Essie Justice’s Membership Growth & Wellness Coordinator, Betty advocates for policy reform and for incarcerated Black mothers. She is fundraising to establish a podcast broadcasting studio at California Institute for Women — facilities which are already available at some men’s prisons. Women who participate in the podcast broadcasting program will acquire technical skills and knowledge that can be useful for finding work after their release. We are proud of Betty’s work, and we are grateful for dedication to being a Sister Warrior!


You were a founding member of Sister Warriors, back when you were a lifer at California Institute for Women. This month, we’re celebrating the fourth anniversary of Freedom 2030. What was the energy like around the drafting of the Freedom Charter?

I had just gotten out of prison when that began. I met Jess [Nolan] at a grand opening for Kim Carter’s transitional living place. Then, we went to an event where I met Amika Mota. It was meant to be. From the beginning, Sister Warriors was so amazing, so diverse. It was definitely something that hadn't been done before. It was just “all-in” energy. The thing is that women are doing it, for the most part. [We’re] showing our strength, showing our care, and showing our tenacity.


How has your experience as a lifer impacted your activism and how you think about the prison system and mass incarceration?
I did 27 years, which was far beyond the eight the judge thought I was gonna do. We didn’t do this kind of time because we needed to. We did that kind of time during that time because we were political pawns. Because they could use, “We’re gonna keep them locked up forever so that you are safe” [as a] tactic. Thankfully, times have changed a little.

But what happened was we became “woke.” We didn’t go for what previous politicians and governors said. If things were going to change, it was going to be up to us. We started having community-based organizations. We got enough people woke to the system that we started fighting against it, challenging it. That’s how we got to where we are now: more lifers are being paroled; LWOPs are being paroled. Now, we have a society where enough people [understand that] the system is just the new slavery.

Now, we actually have enough people in collaboration and coalition to actually fight and have some success with it. We’ve come from going along with the system to fighting the system and winning, I must say!


Tell me about your work now with Essie Justice, “Black Mama Bail Out,” and your bill for dignity for incarcerated mothers.
My title is Membership Growth and Wellness Coordinator. What I know to be true is we can't talk about our [incarcerated] loved ones at work, at home [because they’ll say,] “Why are you with that man in prison? You could do better.” That isolates a person. So who do you talk to? At Essie, we created that space: not only do you get to talk to them, but, once you finish the 9-week cohort, we help you stand up straight and find your voice and advocate for your loved ones and family.

[For wellness,] we have free therapy. Because Black and brown women have been told we don’t need it – but why would a white woman get it when they haven’t been through what we have? We need it too.

We also try to [financially] support you so that you can show up 100% for your loved ones when you go to Sacramento for a legislative visit.

I also do the Black Mama’s Bail Out every year, around Mother’s Day. We search California for Black mamas to bail out – and we don’t use bondsmen because they are part of the problem. We’ll come in with a cashiers check and bail you. They act like we aren’t supposed to be able to get that kind of money – and they give a lot of flack. But it doesn’t matter because we still get it done.


You’re a formidable activist, and you’ve accomplished a lot. What are you most proud of?
I really like doing workshops because I like seeing the light come on for people, and I like seeing breakthroughs. I had one woman in Puerto Rico at FreeHer – she just broke down and started sobbing. She was like, “This is exactly what happened to me and my dad. I gotta go and talk to him.” She touched me so deeply. Several people connected with that – that it happened with them and their loved ones. My friend and I – who we went through when I came home – we went through it so bad. We both had a side of the situation that we had never communicated about. She had her own ideas for me to be successful in her head, but I already had ideas of what I wanted to do in mine. And it got so heated [sometimes]. But our friendship was so good that we could have these arguments and love each other in a couple of hours. A lot of people don’t do that.

Communication is the largest part of recidivism. You go back because you don’t wanna be calm with your family or girlfriend. If you get tired of getting nagged, you’re gonna go where you can find peace or rest – and it’s the worst place for you – because it’s what you know.


Do you have any advice for aspiring organizers? Veteran organizers?
Being an organizer is 80% creating relationships. When you create relationships where people know who you are and can trust you, they will go with you anywhere. Being an organizer is gathering folks on a common goal. Let people know who you are. Get to know them. Then, when things come up, people run to you because you gather people on a common goal. Know what you want folks to do. If you take care of your folks, they will take care of you.


Is there anything like a brand, influencer, song, podcast, book, or show that you’d recommend to other Sister Warriors?
I’d love to recommend Uncuffed