Jul 22, 2014

Your Tongue Can Deliver The Message Of Your Heart: A Speaker's Bureau of Formerly Incarcerated Individuals

“You can speak well if your tongue can deliver the message of your heart.”

This sentence is posted to the wall in the basement of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church where thirteen men and women are chatting and breaking bread together on a rainy Monday evening. Deciphering the quote, one participant, Craig offers, “If you say it from your heart, you can say it freely and openly.” David suggested, “You’re confident when speaking about what you know.”

Although this group only first met the previous week, an outsider would have thought Monday night's gathering was a reunion of old friends. In fact, it was the second session of Raising My Voice, our inaugural Speaker’s Bureau training for formerly incarcerated individuals.

The Speaker’s Bureau is part of our Reentry Faith and Family Circles of Support initiative, a partnership with the Interfaith Center of New York and Network Support Services, generously funded by the J.C. Flowers Foundation. This public speaking and leadership initiative offers individuals who have returned from prison and transformed their lives the opportunity to share their personal narrative to: 1) inspire communities to mobilize around effective reentry policies and practices; 2) “give back” to communities they have harmed by deterring  others from walking in their shoes; and 3) develop critical work and leadership skills.  Raising My Voice members receive 22 hours of an intensive public speaking training utilizing an 11 session, highly interactive curriculum designed specifically for formerly incarcerated persons. Upon graduation, Raising My Voice members present to faith groups, community organizations, and students, as well as non-traditional audiences such as employers, prosecutors, and law enforcement. 

As evidenced from Monday night’s session, Raising My Voice also provides our participants with a strong peer support network. The basement of St. Philip’s was filled with an atmosphere of trust and safety as participants shared deeply personal experiences and in turn, supported one another with positive feedback. In the basement of St. Philip’s, the Speaker’s Bureau participants created their own sanctuary.

Linda Steele, HCJC Staff Member,facilitates the second
session of "Raising My Voice."
The night began with participants sharing a delicious dinner. The room quickly filled with sounds of laughter as participants shuffled in, greeting each other warmly. Capturing the special nature of this cohort, the group facilitator, Linda Steele told the group, “After doing interviews with you all, I needed to sit in dark room with no stimulation because I was so revved up for this group!”

The training kicked off with introductions in which participants were asked to share their reasons for joining the program: “I want to give back to my community”. “I enjoy writing personal narratives”. “Public speaking is my passion”. “I’m motivated to be around everyone and build community”.

 The core of the evening was spent on 2 minute presentations that participants had prepared in advance. Two of our faith-based volunteers, Eric Sessoms and Nuri Ansari helped out by videotaping the presentations so participants could assess their progress at the end of the program.

In their presentations, participants shared their aspirations. Each one gave voice to aspirations big and small; to become a social worker, to open a home for women coming home from prison, to learn to ride a bike, to go back and volunteer in prisons. They also shared challenges- being a single father for a young daughter, overcoming alcohol addiction, overcoming a speech impediment, and their experience with the criminal justice system. After each presenter, the group provided feedback in the form of “what was wow and what as good?”. Many members pointed to the sense of trust and comfort among the group that produced such heartfelt presentations.

Throughout the evening, the presenters approached the podium with grace and style, using presentation tools such as anecdotes and props. Most impressive was the courage and confidence they exhibited. After someone commented on one presenter’s bravery in speaking publicly about a personal topic, the presenter responded, “I think I’ve lost a lot of opportunities in the past by not being able to come up here and speak.”
After such a great start, we can only imagine the incredible accomplishments that are yet to come from this group!

 With a grant from the J.C Flowers Foundation, the Harlem Community Justice Center, the Interfaith Center of New York and the Network in the Prisons/ Network in the Community Programs (Network Program) have created a partnership with the goal of engaging family members and faith community volunteers to support men and women returning to Harlem from prison. The initiative is called The Family and Faith Reentry Circles of Support Program.

Bina Peltz, author of this blog post, is a student at Princeton University, where she majors in Politics with a focus on the intersection of religion and law and sociology of law. She is a summer intern at the Harlem Community Justice Center's Reentry Program.