Sharon Fennell, also well known by her disc jockey name Sista Soul, is originally from the Bronx and has been a Humboldt County resident for over 30 years. Fennell is a HSU alumna, and through her 36 years of volunteer work at KHSU, she has shown continuous love and support for those held within the prison industrial complex. She has grown to become an advocate for prisoners and has shown faithfulness in bringing awareness to the conditions and contradictions of America’s penal system. After 36 years, Fenell, or Sista as she is called by friends and close acquaintances, has decided to move on. She has one more radio show this Sunday, Dec. 18.
Why did you decide to move to Humboldt?
Me and Michael decided we wanted to go back to school. When Michael was a young man, he traveled through Northern California and he remembered Humboldt as being a beautiful place, and it also had a university.
How did you become involved in the radio station?
I was having a political house meeting around 1980 about Central America solidarity work. There were two guys that showed up at my house who already had a radio show at KHSU and they invited me to join them. The show was called “The Alternative Review.”
How did this transition into “Sista’s Place”?
Around that same time, I became a student at Humboldt. After being on the alternative radio show I thought to myself, “Ooh I would love to do a music show.” During that time, there were mostly students on the air and a few community members. So I got a show right away. I called it the “Old Soul Show.”
Where did you get the name Sista Soul?
Where I grew up in New York City, I hung out with everybody. The brothers that I came up with used to tell me that I was an honorary soul sista. So I took that–Soul Sista–and just flipped it for my radio name.
When did you first become aware of Pelican Bay, and what were your initial thoughts?
1987, 88, when there was word they were going to build a prison in Crescent City. A lot of us didn’t know what a supermax was, but that a supermax was coming. So we started to do our homework to find out all we could.
When did inmates start writing you?
When the prison opened and the station at KHSU had a strong signal that reached Pelican Bay. Troy and Ernest were the first. The only way they were able to do that was one night, Troy had his radio out and was trying to get a signal when he heard someone playing Marvin Gaye.
From the letters, what were these inmates relaying that made you want to get more involved?
There was a guy, Michael Dourrough, who’s still in prison by the way, and still stays in touch with me. Michael and Troy, but mostly Micahel, would describe to me the horrific conditions. I think Troy was trying to protect me a bit from what was going on. Michael Dourrough spelled it out. Telling me what solitary [confinement] was. So I was getting educated by prisoners themselves.
How do you think growing up in the Bronx helped shaped your views on the world?
We are all products of our environment. I grew up in a working class, not middle, working class neighborhood with all ethnicities. I could see through my whiteness how others were treated differently in all kinds of ways growing up. That experience, growing up in a multi-ethnic working class neighborhood, has informed my whole life.
Was there ever a time when you felt frustrated by your white peers due to your interest in different cultures?
No, mostly because I chose people in my life who thought like I did. A lot of my friends are multi-racial couples.
When inmates started writing you, how did you feel you could help the most through your radio show?
At first, I believed that the music would be the best thing that could happen for them because it was music that they loved and didn’t have access to anymore. It also happened to be the same music that I grew up listening to. Guys would write me asking me to play this song or that song, and I would do that. Then, a friend of mine named Bato Talamantez from the San Quentin Six, urged me to do more educational work. And I was conflicted because the guys would write telling me, “Your two hours of music helps me take my mind off where I’m at.” Many years ago, I decided I was going to do that and I started interviewing all kinds of people, from prison rights attorneys to those doing great prison reform work.
Is there anything from this experience you learned that you want to share?
People should know that you can help change somebody’s life by just having correspondence. What amazes me as someone who only spent half a night in jail is the resilience of folks to be able to survive a really toxic environment, which is prison. So anyone that survives it with any mode of success is amazing. There are great success stories and I am blessed to know some of these people. It has enriched both me and my husbands life, without a doubt. I have to say that it was KHSU, Humboldt State’s radio station, that really, really shaped the rest of our lives. Not just mine, but Michael’s too.
For people who are not informed or involved with prison work, what do you want people to know or do?
Since we all pay for prisons through our tax dollars, we should be mindful of what happens when we lock people up. Regardless of what they did, we should be mindful of what happens to them because we are paying their way. In California, the recidivism rate, which is how many guys come in, go out and come back in, is 70 percent. If we are going to take away people’s’ freedom because they offended, and I don’t disagree with that, it’s what we do when we take them that matters.
Originally published in Humboldt State University’s weekly newspaper, The Lumberjack (2016)