Nov 26, 2014

Leading By Example: Raising My Voice Speaker's Bureau presents to Justice Involved Young Adults

On October 20th, 2014, three graduates of Raising My Voice, a leadership and public speaking training for formerly incarcerated men and women, shared their story with the Harlem Justice Corps, a community service, employment, and education program for 18-24 year old men and women with histories of justice involvement.  The packed room consisted of 21 corps members, staff and interns. When the speakers entered the room, the anticipation of the youth was felt and verbalized with statements like, “stop introducing them, and let them talk to us!”
With humility and grace, three graduates shared their life stories of childhood, gang involvement, robberies, homicide, incarceration and reentry. All three of these speakers were under the age of twenty when they committed their crimes. The speakers focused on the effects that their crimes had on the victims, their families and their lives.  When one speaker shared, “I made the choice of being in the street to get away from a bad home situation,” the silence in the room was deafening.  
Another speaker shared that his loyalty to a gang cost him nineteen birthdays in prison and in the end that gang showed him not one shred of loyalty back. The third speaker spoke about poor decision making and the unintended consequences of shattering his family. One speaker shared that he created a new life narrative during his incarceration by raising money to support an injured woman.
All of our speakers talked about the role of education and how it transformed their world view and self-perception. Each speaker described the relationship between being uneducated, lacking employment and life skills and their attraction to “street life”.
In a pivotal moment of the presentation one speaker remarked: “I knew I needed to change, but didn’t know how. I thought and thought about what I could do, and it hit me- I need to stop doing crime. Just that one thing began to change my life.”
At the end of the presentations, we opened the floor for questions. The first corps member to ask a question, a participant of the Reentry Family and Faith Circles of Support Program at Harlem Reentry, asked the panel, “How do you feel now that the holidays are coming?”
“The holidays didn’t mean much to me while in prison for all of those years- it was just another day. Now that I am home, I am going to have to get used to customs and spending time with my family. Prison teaches you to be isolated and alone, to be safe” responded one of the speakers.
Another question asked by a corps member was, “How much money did you get from these robberies?”  The speakers answered incisively: a very high price was paid, nothing was gained.
The messages of these three speakers weren’t just heard today; they were received. This was even clear after the presentation, when the Justice Corps members approached the speakers to shake their hands and thank them for coming. Maybe for the first time in their lives, they weren’t being lectured by someone in power – they were receiving a message from credible and skilled messengers. Maybe the next time HJC hosts speakers from this training, it will be former HJC members finding and raising their own voices.

 Written by Linda Steele, Raising My Voice Trainer and Workforce Development Specialist at the Harlem Community Justice Center