Posted on Mar 22, 2017
from Hakim Bellamy, Inaugural Albuquerque Poet Laureate, with introduction and images from the Museum's Gallery of Conscience Team
In late Fall of 2015, MOIFA's Gallery of Conscience embarked on a three-year project, along with leaders from nine other museums and historic sites around the country. The goal was to create dynamic, youth-based public engagement programs that foster much-needed community dialogues on race, education equity and incarceration in the context of civil rights history.
Organized by the International Coalition of the Sites of Conscience, and funded in part through the generous support of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, this program is designed to provide safe—and “brave”-- spaces for community youth to explore what has become known as the “school to prison pipeline” in their communities, and give them an opportunity to amplify their voices, train in the art of dialogue and community engagement, and become leaders for peace in their communities. Our program began with a four-session workshop at the Gordon Bernell Charter School of the Metropolitan Detention Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where we piloted our dialogue program with students from the women’s pod, using folk art, poetry, film and music as catalysts for our conversations.
From a poetry exercise about a particularly impactful day in one’s life
Changing Lives From The Inside Out
In September, after months of organizing, strategizing, planning and dreaming … the day arrived. Our From Brown vs. Board to Ferguson Dialogue Team would meet for the first time eight of the eleven women who would change our lives over the next few months. This was good fortune, especially since we were betting that these women would leave a lasting and life-changing impression on our community.
We were fortunate, not lucky, to find ourselves in a classroom full of lady inmates at Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center (just outside Albuquerque, New Mexico). The selection of these particular women was quite intentional. In fact, our Dialogue Team sort of obsessed over it. Our Team is Patricia Sigala, Suzy Seriff, Chloe Accardi (all from the Museum of International Folk Art Gallery of Conscience), Andrea Fletcher (from Gordon Bernell Charter School) and me (Hakim Bellamy, Teaching Artist). After much deliberation amongst our Team concerning the virtues of working with male vs. female inmates, we arrived at a simple decision based on the principles of social justice. The majority of the programs that come to the jail primarily cater to the male population. We decided that’s not fair. Andrea drafted our group to ensure that we had a diverse composition of women who showed palpable interest and would be “in” long enough to participate in all four workshops. And from day one knew…they were perfect. It was intentional. However, we were still fortunate.
Students working on and talking about the “impactful day in your life” exercise
The long vision for our Dialogue Team was to equip young leaders in our community with a tool to drive a critical dialogue in their community around the school to prison pipeline. We felt that the authenticity and accessibility of the tool was important. As important as “the messenger,” or the person who delivers the tool. Our tool is a curriculum developed by eleven women whose lives bear witness to the school-to-prison pipeline. The messengers will be young people who are one family member or one mistake removed from ending up incarcerated. In fact, just this week our Dialogue Team is producing the first of two recruitment performances at Santa Fe ¡YouthWorks! to solicit our population for the resultant community dialogues.
From a “what advice would you give to a young person” exercise
But it all began in early September with these women. We met them through their answers to questions like, “What did you want to be when you grew up?” We wanted to meet them, not their alleged infraction. We wanted to meet their aspirations, because no one says they want to be incarcerated when they grow up. At least not at first, not until they are taught to want it … because wanting anything else is unrealistic. And though their stated dreams were different in detail, they were aligned in theme. They all wanted to make a difference. And after first drafting some community agreements, we began the shared journey of storytelling and relationship building in order to assist them in making that dream come true.
From an exercise brainstorming community-inspiring imagery for public murals
We shared folk art of the visual variety. Curated a themed gallery walk to begin building a shared vocabulary for reflection and the exchange of ideas. Asked them more questions like, “Does this artwork make you think about your own story or experience of growing up and struggling to be the person you want to be?” We shared tears. We talked about home and homelessness. They told us what issues their children and relatives are facing, and how attempting to provide solutions to some of those issues landed them in front of us. We didn’t use the word “pipeline” in that first visit, but we talked about school, prison and everything in between. We listened to their powerful stories, desperately hoping that we could transport those stories to the community beyond those walls careful not to lose any of the medicine embedded therein. So we could make good on the promise of their dreams. Now, leaders born from their unlearned lessons.
More “advice to a young person alongside a storyboard exercise
We ended that first visit with Six Word Memoirs. A way for them to individually bookend all we discussed over our few hours together. I hoped to leave them with a little micro-poetry technique for their toolbox. Already master storytellers, they wrote things like…
Sometimes, finding myself means doing time.
Lack of forgiveness is my prison.
Love has always been our religion.
We are born of our children.
This home inside me can’t escape.
How does it feel to want?
Loved enough to change for you.
But we came up with a few too. They were perfect. It was intentional and Leaders born of their unlearned lessons. Or…the tagline from our academic hosts at the jail, Gordon Bernell Charter School. Changing lives from the inside out.
Hip Hop generation dad. Person-in-progress. Poetry-in-practice. Journo. Author. Actor. Community Organizer. Bright ideas magnet. Music maker. Music addict. Hakim Bellamy is the Inaugural Albuquerque Poet Laureate and can be found at www.hakimbe.com.