By Karima Amin
For the last two years, I have been trying to figure out a way to link activism with art. I knew that there must be a way to show on stage, that storytelling, which I have been doing for almost 40 years, could work with the activism that I embraced as an educator and as the founder/director of Prisoners Are People Too, Inc. From the day that Prisoners Are People Too, Inc. was launched, it has provided a platform for formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones to tell their stories. Over the last 12 years at our monthly meetings, we have entertained all kinds of stories from men and women. Guest speakers delivered some of these stories, while others came unsolicited from the hearts and mouths of audience members who could no longer keep silent.
Everyone has a story and those stories have power. I always say, “Tell a story; save a life.” I wanted “Life Stories: Restoring Justice” to provide an opportunity for the community to hear stories from three women who turned to restorative thinking and restorative behaviors after losing loved ones to gun violence. I wanted the audience to have a better understanding of the value and benefits of restorative justice. As these women told their stories, parenthetically framed by their musical choices, bolstered by a poem that linked all three, and a talk-back that allowed the audience to share their feelings, the spiritual energy and emotion in the room was palpable. Tears flowed, people sighed, bodies rocked and unexpected stories came from the audience as “Life Stories: Restoring Justice” became a vehicle for healing.
As our DJ, Patrick Cray, gave us just a little bit of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” the first storyteller, Sandra “Sandi” Green, stood silently for a moment next to a photograph of her beautiful babies, Steven and Corey, her only children, two sons, both lost to gun violence in 2010 … one in Atlanta and one in Buffalo. She talked about her anger and the depression that nearly consumed her when she thought she was “all right.” Sandi, who spent 27 years as a corrections officer, learned that the path to wholeness includes forgiveness.
Danielle “Dani” Johnson followed with “Sunshine to the Rain” and a story about her nephew, Devon, who was killed at the age of 19 in New Orleans. Despite the distance from Buffalo, Devon and Dani were very close. She described the darkness of anger and bitterness that threatened to change her from the inside out until she discovered restorative justice at a peace circle at her church, facilitated by Baba Eng who later trained her in Restorative Justice Practices. She gave credit to BaBa and to Jerome Wright, a formerly incarcerated man whose story about transformation and redemption inspired her, a few months ago, to take an interest in working with Prisoners Are People Too, Inc. A large format poster in the staging area, depicted a three-year old Devon, held lovingly in the arms of his father, Dani’s big brother, whom Dani further acknowledged as a person who has been instrumental in her healing process.
Marquita Nailor lost her eighteen year old daughter, Sh’merea, to gun violence in 2014. Sh’merea was a star athlete, looking forward to her high school graduation, with a scholarship to Syracuse University. She was walking home from school with friends when someone mis-identified her, shot and killed her, and then “ran off before her body hit the ground.” Marquita ‘s grief was still apparent when she talked about the police who still have her daughter’s personal belongings and when she described the things she does to heal and keep her daughter’s name alive. She organizes annual fundraisers which allow her to give scholarships to promising high school students. She also created a van service, “Sh’merea World Transportation,” which she uses to transport people who want to visit their incarcerated loved ones around the state. The audience visibly responded to the heartbroken strains of Marquita’s musical choice, Wiz Khalfa’s “See You Again.”
Angela Woodson-Brice’s poem, “Beacon of Hope,” was a salute to the mothers and others who grieve; and a reminder to say the names of the children, gone but not forgotten; and a thank-you to the activists who work unceasingly in the name of Restorative Justice.
I expected this evening to be informational and inspirational. It was further described as strong, uplifting, and beautiful. I have to say that it was all that and more.
Amin is Founder/Director of Prisoners Are People Too, Inc.