Highlights from the 2011 Benevolent Media Festival: On Saturday, November 5, Benevolent Media and American University's Center for Social Media hosted a screening of The Interrupters, a documentary film examining street violence in Chicago. The screening was followed by a panel discussion with Washington, D.C. peace activists and members of the Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop, a nonprofit organization that uses books and creative writing to help young inmates transform their lives.
Along a wall dedicated to individuals who have been murdered in the midst of gang violence is a tiny scribbled sentence. It reads: "I am next.”
The scene is one of many chilling and poignant moments in the documentary film The Interrupters (we've written about it before.) Violence is treated as a disease, according to Gary Slutkin, the founder of the Chicago-based violence prevention organization Ceasefire. The cyclical story of revenge is passed on throughout generations. It is a learned behavior.
The film follows a group of Ceasefire peacemakers who live their lives dedicated to interrupting gang violence on the streets of Chicago. By building trusting relationships with youth on the streets, Ceasefire members create positive change in the community. What’s so powerful is that every member has been through the same violence, poverty and consistent struggle as the youth that they mentor.
Ameena Matthews, a former gang member, is shown working with an 18-year-old girl named Caprysha Anderson. Caprysha lacks any parental guidance and feels ostracized from society. A rocky road of drug abuse, fighting, jail time, and lack of confidence gives way to a small light of happiness from Ameena's persistent guidance. Despite having her own family to take care of, Ameena dedicates herself to interrupting the violence in Caprysha's life. She works with families, makes speeches at funerals, and most importantly, provides friendship.
The other Ceasefire members featured in the documentary - Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra - also have the "courage, tireless energy, hope, and never-give-up attitude to transform lives,” said Tara Libert, the executive director and co-founder of Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop, the host of the event's panel discussion.
The Free Minds program began 9 years ago and dedicates itself to giving young inmates another chance to lead healthy, productive and peaceful lives. Free Minds provides the inmates with books to read, often relating the literature to their current lives. After reading, the youth have a chance to write their own stories and poems, which are collected into books and made available in print and online. Free Minds understands that to eliminate violence, we must fix the stories that precede the shootings.
"Where are the positive success stories? That's what we're trying to do," Libert said of her organization's mission.
After the film screening, Libert moderated a discussion with some of Free Minds' own peace activists and re-entry specialists.
"It takes strong individuals to go into the battle fields and pick our soldiers up,” said Mark Timberlake, a part-time outreach and re-entry specialist. He said that the time he served in jail, in a way, “saved him,” and now he understands what he went through and wants to use this to create change. Not all "interruptions" have to be grand sweeping gestures, he reminded the audience: "A letter can be an interruption; that may be all that it takes."
Gang violence continues to be a problem across the country. Too many fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles are lost each year to violence. It tears apart families and does nothing but breed revenge. One violent act creates anger in the victims, which creates more violence, and thus more victims.
Brian McEwen, a mentor and supporter of Free Minds since it first began, works from his own experience having spent 17 years incarcerated. “When I see a wrong, I try to do right," he said. "I get labeled a peacemaker, but at least I know what I stand for."
There was one main takeaway from the panel discussion: D.C. needs better re-entry programs for inmates who have finished their sentences. As Libert says, “We have failed them as a community.” In prison, many of them realize their wrongs and want to change their lives, however when they finally get back into mainstream society, no job options are available to them. Once discouraged, it’s easy to ease back into old habits, especially when income and social support are inconsistent.
As Benevolent Media Creator Erica Schlaikjer said in her introduction of the discussion, “Take your emotion and move it to action.”
Be a violence interrupter.
On November 16 from 6:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m., the University of the District of Columbia will host a screening of "In Your Hands," a documentary by Jane Goldpitt and Annette Brieger, about the challenges of re-entry. It follows Xavier and Kim as they come home from incarceration and face incredible obstacles and struggle to make the difficult transition home. The event is free and open to the public. Light refreshments will be served.
Address: UDC, Building 41, Room A-03, 4200 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C.
Ways to Support Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop: