SPARK interviews Marilynn Winn about family, tips for mothers, and how our society can support mothers and families beyond Mama’s Day.

Marilynn Winn

Marilynn Winn
Photograph: Ingemar Smith

We begin our Strong Families Mama’s Day campaign by honoring Marilynn Winn. Ms. Winn is the extraordinary strategist behind Atlanta 9to5’s Ban the Box campaign that ensures employment opportunities for Georgia’s formerly incarcerated family members. She is also starting a new organization called Women on the Rise led by women impacted by incarceration both in and outside of prison.

We celebrate Winn’s wisdom and loving energy with an intimate sit-down interview where we discuss family, tips for mothers, and how our society can support mothers and families beyond the holiday.

SPARK: How do you define family and who is in yours?
MW: Right now, my family is my mother, my daughter, my son and my 6 grandkids.

When I think of how a family should be, the way I would love for it to be, I think of my grandma’s family. She had 14 kids and they all stayed in the same house. They all used that one bathroom and ate at that one table.

I visited for months at a time in Tuskegee, Alabama. My grandmother worked at a fish market, but she couldn’t afford the fish. She bought the red snapper fish heads and made a stew with grits and pork & beans. I used to turn my nose up at her dishes, but I learned to enjoy what my grandma supplied for us.

I really enjoyed those days because I knew my grandmother, aunts, uncles loved me. Genuine connections with my family and friends are the most important to me.

SPARK: What keeps you smiling as a mother in the movement and what do you need from the movement?
MW: I believe one day we will make a difference in so many Black people’s lives. They will be able to apply for a job, to get housing, to get benefits, to start our own jobs. Some people who have records can’t even get a professional license for certain entrepreneurial jobs—in other words, we can’t even hire ourselves!

And I smile because I am a formerly incarcerated person and mother starting this campaign with other mothers, other families impacted by incarceration. I have served my time, so you can’t hold it over my head! I just feel unstoppable. I just need more formerly incarcerated people to feel that way.

200 people return to Atlanta alone from prison every month. If I can get those people to feel like there is hope, we can do so much! When they can see a room of other formerly incarcerated people who are working, making moves—they will say, “I want to be a part of this.” So, that’s what I am hoping for and that’s what keeps me going.

SPARK: How can Ban The Box help people have the families they want?
MW: It will stop recidivism, meaning families stay together longer. Children will also have parents who can supply their immediate needs, and I think every family deserves financial stability.

SPARK: What tips do you have for mothers or anyone leading a family?
MW: I felt guilty as a mother for being formerly incarcerated. There were times I should have put my foot down with my children, but I felt like I owed them something because I had been away. Now, I love myself enough to say “no” when I have to, to say I deserve dignity. I didn’t leave you by choice. I did what I had to do to take care of you. So my tip is to remember that you are always a mom.

Also, I wish that all mothers who don’t feel love, feel love by loving themselves first. Once you love yourself, you are able to receive love. Every day, learn to love you.


We end this interview with a quote from Winn reminding us that we must remain resilient and that change is always possible. “I used to say that my bad times outweighed my good times. Now, I can say my good times outweigh my bad times. I could have been in prison. I could have been dead. I could have been a lot of things, but at 62, I am still here, I am happy, and I am making a difference here in Atlanta.”

This year, consider supporting Atlanta 9to5’s Ban the Box campaign striving to put formerly incarcerated mothers and all people back in the workforce. Financial stability and emotional dignity are two gifts few would turn down this Mama’s Day. SPARK works to bridge the intersections between economic justice, reproductive justice and mass incarceration. Let women know that you support our autonomy and respect our leadership by donating to SPARK.

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