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October 18, 2013

by balexisd

The summer has ended, but my project continues. My project was one of the few, if not only, Maharam STEAM projects proposed that has a longer timeframe than just the summer. I will be updating here every month on my progress.

Since the summer, a lot has happened. On September 30th I was invited to give a talk at the Village Leadership Academy about youth incarceration on behalf of Project NIA. I was nervous to accept, because I’ve only just started my journey in learning about this, and wondered how could begin to explain it to children? That is the core of my project, however, and I knew I had to say yes. I was also comforted by the fact that part of Project NIA’s mission is to empower diverse community members to take leadership in addressing issues faced by youth impacted by the juvenile justice system. I am a member of the community, and so I can share what I have been learning. It was as simple as that, and I tried to share that idea with the kids of the VLA, as they will soon begin learning about their own communities and creating their own grassroots campaigns to address an issue of their choice.

When I arrived for the talk, the children were running around and practicing Capoiera. The walls were brightly decorated with drawings the children had done of themselves in their neighborhoods, with writings alongside about who they are and what they like. It seemed like a great, progressive school in downtown Chicago. When the 4-7th graders filed in and sat down, it was time for me to start. I was very nervous. I talked to them about how in Illinois, you can be put in jail at the age of 10. And at age 13, you can become a part of the juvenile justice system. I showed them a video made by photographer Richard Ross, who spent 24 hours in isolation and set his camera up to take a picture every 7 seconds. They saw what a cell looked like, what his clothes looked like, and what he did to pass the time. Much of it was spent reading.

I tried to explain the emotional aspect of it to the students. I asked them to imagine what it would feel like to be separated from their mothers, their fathers, their friends, their school, everything, with nothing to do and no one to talk to. I also showed the students a video where a young man talked about his experience with being targetted by the cops because of the color of his skin. That was at the heart of my talk. I tried to explain in the simplest words I could what racial profiling was, the school to prison pipeline, zero tolerance policies, and restorative and transformative justice. This was really not easy. I had been learning about those things for the past three months, but always using the same terms.

So when I explained peace circles, I thought it might help me explain it to ask them a question. Do you think a kid who gets in a fight at school should be sent to jail and go to court? Or do you think they should talk to the teachers and the person they harmed, and other people from the school and community, and figure out what can be done so that everyone feels healed from what happened? This was an oversimplification, but I only realized how oversimplifed it was after the talk. I talked to two groups of students that day, K-3rd and 4-7th graders. At the end of both talks, I asked the students to imagine what it would feel like to be a child sent to prison or jail, and to respond with a drawing. Those drawings can all be seen here:
When everyone was getting ready to leave and I was collecting the drawings from the 4-7th group, four young girls crowded around me to talk to me about what was in their drawings. I listened intently, excited to hear what they had to say. I asked them if they learned anything, and most said yes, one girl began to explain what, while one girl, emphatically and almost defiantly, clearly said no. I asked her why not, and she said that a man is in prison for killing my daddy, and that’s not right. All I could say was no, that’s not right.

How could you explain to a child or anyone that a peace circle can help people heal from even the worst tragedy? How can you explain restorative justice? In my talk, this is what I tried to say:


Restorative justice is a different way of thinking about what justice means altogether.  It is a way of thinking about how we deal with harm. When we think about justice, we think about good guys and bad guys, the police who arrest them, and the judge who decides what’s fair. We have all kinds of laws set in place that say what is and what isn’t fair, and what kind of punishment you deserve for what you did. The victim of the crime is never involved. It’s the bad guy vs. the state. In restorative justice, the victim, meaning the person who was harmed, the offender, meaning the person who did something wrong, and the community are all involved. This might mean the families of the offender and victim, people from a local church who are willing to help, and anyone else who can help both people feel healed from the harm that was done.

In a peacemaking circle, everyone involved gets a chance to tell their truth and to be heard. It only works if everyone is commited to sitting down and talking about it though. Sometimes it can take hours, and planning has to be done beforehand so that there are people from the community there who are willing to step up and help guide the victim and the offender to healing and reconciliation. Sometimes this means the victim has to do community service. All of this happens with the intention of allowing people to know eachother, the different realities they face, and the community becomes stronger as a whole.


It sounds implausible, and I’ve never done one myself, so it’s impossible to speak from personal experience, but Mariame Kaba, founder of Project NIA, once told me an incredible story about how a peacemaking circle helped her in a terrible situation. Two of her students were dating. One day, that young man killed that young woman. It is incredible to believe that anyone would have wanted anything other than for the boy to be locked away, but that wasn’t the case when Mariame sat down with the two families. In the coming month, I hope to be able to provide an interview with Mariame  about this situation. I also plan on being trained within the coming months on leading peace circles. to gain a greater understanding of what will become a part of my book.

This past week I also conducted a workshop with women who participated in the Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI) group CLAIM, or, Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers. These mothers were supported by LSSI throughout their stay in prison. For example, they were able to see their children once a month thanks to a bus service that was organized, and a bus driver who volunteered their time.

The women I met at this workshop were warm, kind, thoughtful, and so strong. I couldn’t even imagine how strong they truly were. And they said some very surprising things. One woman, we’ll call her Claire, was early to the meeting and I thought she worked there. She was beautiful and charming and said it herself, “you wouldn’t even know I was in prison unless I told you.” Before anyone else arrived and the workshop began, we talked about what it was like for her at Lincoln Correctional Center, and it was completely not what I was expecting. She was in for five and a half years, and in that time, she got her GED. She braided hair and did nails. She spent much of her time at the church. She read, a lot. She got to speak to the warden face to face. I was amazed, and I wondered if this was an anomaly.

When another woman showed up, we’ll call her Jamie, she too had similar things to say. The walls of Decatur Correctional Center were brightly decorated. In a lot of ways, she said, it was almost better being in prison than it was being out. Now she has her children with her in a transitional home. They were moved from the stability of a friends home who took them in when they needed it most. She struggles to find a job. Both women talked about struggling to find a job. Claire, whose voice had held so much optimism thus far, began to cry when she said she couldn’t even get a job at Target. A lot of the work that the women had to do upon being released and going home wasn’t just finding a job, it was reconnecting with their families. Hearing this made me realize that a big part of the book should be about what happens before, during, and after a mother’s incarceration. Claire, who had been out of prison for two or three years was living with her sons at her mothers house, and making money by singing at churches. She has a record deal in the works. She sang for us, and it gave me goosebumps, she was so powerful.

Meeting these women complicated my idea of what this children’s book should say. Do you explain to a child why it could ever be better to be in prison than in the real world? How do you do that? How do you explain all the outside forces acting on a person’s life that alter their existence? How much does a child need to know in order to begin to heal? Everything?

It was hard to see them talk about the obstacles they’ve had to overcome, and the feeling of wanting to just give up. There were interns of LSSI present at the workshop, for which I was so thankful. They were supportive and encouraging, and able to empathize with these women in a way that they both knew what the struggle was really like. I don’t know what that struggle is like. But I do know how to draw, and I do know how to tell stories, and I love to teach art. And I want people to hear every voice of their communities, not just the ones with the most access to the microphone. I want to hear those voices too, and learn from them.

“And if I no longer continue to do this work after this project is done?” I continue to ask myself. Am I an imposter? A thief? I don’t think of myself as an activist. For a while I thought I wanted to be, but I realize that I am an artist, first and foremost. Art is the language I speak best. And everything that I learn can’t be unlearned. I might not organize a protest, but I will make a painting, a story, a book that tries to speak as true to the voices I’ve heard and my own voice in response, or in solidarity, as long as I live. That is my passion.  And in that way, I don’t think that the work ever stops. It continues if you let it breathe in what you make.

To wrap up this post, I will mention that on November 9th I will be leading another workshop at an event called “Explaining Jail & Prison to Children with Incarcerated Loved Ones”. Here is the invitation:

Workshop #1 — Things I Wish I’d Said To My Children: A Workshop for Formerly Incarcerated Parents

Join Bianca Diaz, a Project NIA volunteer, in a workshop that asks parents to share their hopes, fears, and dreams for the children they left behind. Through letter writing and art making, we will share and discuss what formerly incarcerated parents would have wanted their children to know while they were gone. How did you explain to your child what was happening? How did you stay connected? Do you wish you could have explained things better? What did you want them to know?


Until next time,


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