As part of its efforts to acknowledge and address racism on Vashon and beyond, the island’s Showing Up for Racial Justice group will host a discussion next weekend about incarceration and systemic racism in the criminal justice system.
Re-Entry: Life After Incarceration is a follow-up to the screening earlier this summer of the movie “13th” — which documents the history of racial inequality in the United States and the fact that the nation’s prisons are disproportionately filled with African-Americans. Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) founder Janie Starr said 70 people attended the June screening of “13th” and stayed afterward for conversation. Next Sunday’s event — which is the result of a collaborative effort by Vashon SURJ, the Backbone Campaign, the VISD Racial Equity Team and Sustainable Vashon — will be a panel discussion with four individuals, some of whom were formerly incarcerated, who are now working to help those released from prison with the re-entry process. The discussion will center around persistent barriers people face after serving time for felony convictions, including persistent profiling by police.
“SURJ is still new and finding our way, and our driving force is educating members of our predominately white society about our role and being responsible to individuals of color,” Starr said. “I think it (incarceration) is a powerful example of systemic racism, and being able to bring in people who have successfully re-entered and are helping others to do so will move people and galvanize interest and passion around racism.”
Thrett Brown, executive director of a mentorship program called Young Business Men and Women in Tacoma, will be one of the panelists at next Sunday’s event. Years ago, he spent time in prison on drug charges and is now using that experience for his grass-roots program, which aims to keep teenagers focused and out of trouble. He works with roughly 150 middle- and high-school students each year, mentoring them in how to keep company with the right people. His program serves as a preventative step to keep teens out of the system he was a part of.
When asked what he will be addressing during the Vashon panel discussion, and what those seeking re-entry after incarceration face, he said the overall message is a testimonial.
“We want to be able to share with formerly incarcerated people … that if we apply ourselves and tap into the resources we have we can overcome obstacles and not make excuses,” he said.
One of the biggest struggles for formerly incarcerated people is dealing with “the people who put them in that situation” — the people they hang out with — he said.
Brown said America’s criminal justice system was designed to “jail a certain population” — African Americans and a growing number of Latinos — and those populations need to learn to make the best of the opportunities they’re given, while working to change the system.
“It’s almost like the analogy of the Underground Railroad. It needed specific white Americans to help Harriet Tubman navigate her way to freedom,” he said. “There are certain people, certain white people in corporate America who do have the best interests of the black community in mind, and I have to seek out the people who are beneficial … who will give us a fair shot. I have to keep those people close.”
While Brown is utilizing preventative measures to keep people out of the prison system, Karen Dhaliwal is working with those on the other end of the system who have done their time and are re-entering. Dhaliwal is an apprenticeship navigator at Bates Technical College and works with those recently released from correctional facilities. She said that there is far more to re-entry then finding a job.
“When we have a client come in, we talk about the whole wraparound aspects,” she said. “You need to have all aspects of your life together. There’s always a lot of basic need barriers.”
Re-entry, for many, means starting life all over again, and Dhaliwal said the first step is tackling and changing the mindset fostered in prison by correctional officers.
“I had a conversation last night that really blew my mind about the parent-kid relationship and how we have that in a prison,” she said. “Those correctional officers have had an effect on those inmates.”
Brown and Dhaliwal will be joined on the panel by Jessica Means and Shaun Worthy, members of Pierce County’s Community Partnership for Transition Services (CPTS) Reinventing Reentry team.
For islander Yvonne Monique Aviva, the event is sorely needed to spread the word about the effects of incarceration.
Aviva is a parent educator, coach and prevention education consultant who volunteered with Dhaliwal after a friend who had been formerly incarcerated asked her to get involved with the re-entry group. She said she hopes the event can build bridges and allow “those of us who have privilege and resources to do more.”
“We need more people to be offering opportunities and paying living wages, offering housing,” she said. “If someone is affected by incarceration, what are we doing to help them?”
She said that while raising awareness of the issue is important, sitting in a room and hearing first-hand what someone going through re-entry is experiencing is crucial.
“Seeing them as a human being first is really, really important. And many of us say, ‘the only difference between me and them is I didn’t get caught,’” she said. “How many on Vashon drink and drive after a fundraiser and don’t get caught? The system right now is designed to produce exactly what the system is producing.”
Re-Entry: Life After Incarceration
A presentation by men and women, some formerly incarcerated, working on behalf of others in the process of re-entry will be given from 4 to 6 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 24 at the Land Trust Building on Bank Road.
Admission is by a suggested donation of $10 to $20 per person.