Updated: Aug 31, 2020
Part I (Part II updated 8/31/2020) below.
I did not start this journey with the intent to clean up with the messiness that mass incarceration left behind. It is heartbreaking to understand from research and personal observations, that families and children have been affected by this social problem in ways that are not always clearly articulated. For some affected families, it is understandable why they would much rather remain tucked away from the shaming and stigma of this situation, rather than to be out front, advocating where reclaiming their life comes with emotional toil and cost of exposure. I get it. That is why I am here advocating and trying to make a difference. As a Black woman, of course, my family has been impacted by mass incarceration. We know that in the DC area 90% of those incarcerated are people of color. It becomes not a matter of "who" but "when" someone you love will be uprooted because of whatever the reason. So, yes, I relate. As I prepare to line up speakers for the Fall Coffee Talk sessions, for residents who are transitioning home from prison, I ponder where this all began.
Coffee Talk is a Tuesday morning life skills class currently conducted via Zoom at a local halfway house in DC. I am one of the main facilitators from DC Project Connect. However, I invite speakers to talk about various topics such as health and wellbeing, conflict management, and other issues.
About eight or nine years ago, I decided that I would leave my lucrative career in business, and move to a field where empathy, compassion, and strength-based focus were the mainstay of the daily experience. That field was human services. Now, to be clear, I was unsure of what that change would look like, but I knew the transition had to do with working with people of whom I could relate.
Of course, I did not get here through a direct path. Life is sort of like that---filled with many twists, turns, and coincidences. I began my work in this field while seeking a second master’s degree. I have always loved education. My first, master’s degree is in information technology. However, the idea of learning about forensic psychology drew me in. I was in love with that educational pursuit. I got a chance to become completely immersed in two fields that intrigue me most: the intersection of the law blended with the psychology of crime. As a result, I began to attend seminars, workshops, and conferences in this field.
During a conference, on a late summer evening on Capitol Hill, in Washington DC, I listened to a panel of women who had recently been released from prison. They spoke of the sheer agony of being torn from their children for non-violent crimes. Many of their incarceration related histories had to something that could have been dealt with outside of prison (e.g. mental health, substance use/addictions, intimate partner violence). However, I will not litigate that here as a point of debate. These women touched my heart as they spoke of situations that made shivers travel down my spine. Situations such as giving birth with shackles on their ankles and around their bellies. I was appalled. I swore under my breath that I would do something to foster social change. Later that evening after the conference, and at the same event, I began networking. That's when I met the owner of Washington, DC’s only halfway house for women. It is at that moment my life changed.
Change Begins Within (Part II)
August 31, 2020. I indicated that the moment I walked into the RRC or the halfway house, I knew that there was something special occurring in my life. Those of you who have ever given the part of yourself that expects nothing in return know what I am talking about. My view of advocacy was completely turned upside down after a couple of years of providing group mentoring at the RRC. This is because you recognize that you are not offering service, you are engaging in service with others.
I soon recognized that every support group was a circle of which my own soul experienced healing. At the end of the day when people come together, titles are left at the door, and egos are checked outside of the group, a meaningful conversation can take place. We are all at different stages of growth. Join me in about a week to learn more about what Coffee Talk is all about.
Part II forthcoming...stay tuned. --Dr. Avon Hart-Johnson