Asie Whitney

Returning to Antioch, Helping Imprisoned Mothers

Social justice and motherhood are interwoven—especially when it comes to the carceral state, which separates imprisoned women from their newborn babies and children. This unjust pattern, says Asie Whitney, produces “trauma on top of trauma.” The trauma and mental anguish that expectant mothers go through in prison while pregnant and the months and years following birth is unfathomable. When newborns are taken away from their mothers and placed into state care, this eliminates a crucial bonding period during which mother and child imprint on each other.

These are the circumstances that have led Asie, a student in Antioch’s new online Master of Business Administration program, to spend part of her studies working on a plan to convert an empty building in her current town of  Appleton, Minnesota—presently vacant and slated to eventually become a prison—into a center where incarcerated mothers can serve their sentences while living and thriving with their children.

The more personal reason why Asie is pursuing a career in change management is that she—a graduate student, social worker, and especially as a mother of two—has come to see advocacy, especially for mothers and children caught up in the criminal legal system, to be her life’s passion. In many ways, it’s the natural culmination of her life and experiences that has led her to study now for a second time at Antioch. A few weeks ago, I had the chance to sit down with her on Zoom, ask her about her path, and pick her brain about a dream of providing a safe space for expectant and new mothers who are incarcerated.

Serving Her Community as an Educator and Social Worker

In the mid-‘90s, Asie attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio as an undergraduate, and in 1997 she graduated with a BA in Communication Language and Culture. (Antioch College is now a separate institution from Antioch University.) After graduating, Asie taught English in Mexico for five months. The experience inspired her, on her return to the States, to stay in the field of education. She found work at a preschool, where she found herself most drawn to children with special needs.

When she told a close friend who happened to be a social worker about her emerging love of helping special needs children, the friend suggested that she consider switching fields and becoming a social worker herself. Social work allowed you to directly help the children who most needed it.

This led Asie to return to school for her first graduate degree. She attended Howard University, where in 2002 she completed her Master’s in Social Work. Over the almost twenty years since then, Asie has worked in a plethora of different departments as a social worker. Whether it be in youth advocacy, advocacy for the homeless, or interim disability assistance, Asie has done this vital work helping to care for those in her communities who are most at risk and in need of help. In her words, “working with people who are displaced is my passion.”

Once an Antiochian, Always an Antiochian

It was through her time working as a social worker that Asie discovered the term “change management.” To her, change management means “the intersection of Business and Social Work.” This soon became her passion, as she saw that change management could combine both her interests: as she says, it’s an “interaction of business and social work.”  Creating change became the driving force behind Asie’s journey—a path that now has led her back to school in pursuit of a degree that is nurturing and fostering these aspirations.

Serendipitously, this path has led her back to her roots as an Antiochian. She first was considering another university before realizing that the business degree at her alma mater was the program for her. And her experiences as a student in the program haven’t disappointed. “I made the right decision,” she says.

Asie’s immense passion for learning quickly became apparent to me in our interview. Whenever she discussed new courses, projects, or future plans, her entire being lit up with tangible joy and tenacity. Next semester she will be taking a leadership class that she hopes will prepare her for future leadership roles while also giving her the opportunity to network with others in similar lines of work. She loves taking all  kinds of business classes. “I am really excited,” she says. “That’s why I’m here!”

She is also impressed with her classmates and all of the “amazing people I’m studying with, people of all different walks of life, [from] all different sides of the country.” She says that this diversity “really adds to the greatness of the classroom.”

In a marketing course she took, one of her classmates memorably undertook the assignment of marketing an Apple watch to the class, after extensive outside research. By the end of the presentation, Asie was so convinced that she went home and did exactly as they had suggested and bought herself an Apple watch. This and other experiences in the course helped her realize not only the power of persuasion but the profound effect that research, sincerity, and determination can have when it comes to presenting information to a crowd.

For her own assignment, Asie chose to research, compare, and ultimately choose a new skateboard for her teenage son. She explains that “he didn’t think he needed one, but I thought he needed one!” Why? “It was quarantine!” She’s not sure if anyone in the class went straight home and bought a skateboard after her presentation, but the experience of giving a fully researched sales pitch was valuable.

Big Ambitions and a Postpartum Passion Project 

When asked what this degree might lead to Asie says, “Being a person of color it would be great to work with organizations or nonprofits that work with people of color.” She’s interested also in working with women-owned companies. The experiences she has had in her business courses have led her to value working on underrepresented and underfunded causes. As she explains, “I want to be able to create change from the bottom up.”

This is nowhere more evident than in the assignment that led to her plan to convert an empty building in Appleton into a center where incarcerated women need not be separated from their children. This came out of an assignment for one of her most recent courses that asked her to create a preliminary plan for a realistic and attainable project that would employ the business practices they were studying. Asie instantly thought of how she’d read that, after giving birth, imprisoned women have their newborn babies taken from them.

The idea of creating a space specifically for jailed mothers is one that promises a transformation in the criminal legal system. Asie poignantly explains, “I wanted to take some space that had been designated for a prison and wanted to turn it into a space for women and their babies.” This transformation would provide “a place for women that are in prison and are also pregnant. There aren’t a lot of spaces for them. Once they have their babies a lot of them must turn them over to family members or put them into foster care, so I wanted to create a space where she could parent and have her child with her in the same space.” The main desire, which came from her own experience of early motherhood, was that these women “not miss out on that critical binding time during their early years”.

This project comes not only from Asie’s empathic heart and kind nature but also from her devotion to reuse and environmental justice. She is quick to point out that it is a sustainable project that would be repurposing an already existing property and cut down on the use of new resources. This project would also open new jobs in this line of work in Minnesota.

At the end of my interview, Asie asked a simple but important question: “Who can’t understand the need for a mom to be able to bond with her child? Or breast-feed her child if she wants to? And give her a chance.” Questions like these are ones that need our collective attention, empathy, and understanding. We must, as individuals and as a society, ask ourselves these questions time and time again, then put our passions into action. That’s what Asie is doing. With this degree in business and her move into a career in change management, Asie plans to work creating “change on a larger scale.” And she’s well on her way.