I had plans. I intended to have the group read and review materials on the history of struggle behind the walls. I wanted people to connect to and use these histories to map new terrains of struggle and to create new strategies. I copied zines. I copied articles and essays. I created discussion questions. I was prepared. Then life happened.
From the very first session, the participants wanted to discuss violence, gun violence particularly. They spoke of their experiences and their frustration with the “solutions” they read or heard in the mainstream media. These are people who know about gun violence, as people who have harmed and experienced harm. I listened. What I thought was a one-off conversation became our focus for Black August. The group spent the month reading texts like Danielle Sered’s Until We Reckon and learning about accountability and transformative justice. They want to learn more and see themselves as people capable of creating solutions to problems in their communities.
The discussions we had have taught me so much. I did a lot of listening this month. My role was more of a connector this month. The discussions were organic. They went where the people needed them to go. I have written before about the need to become noticers, to be observant. As organizers, we often come to communities or organizations with our own plans. We think we know what the people need and want. What this month taught me was how to listen better, to listen deeply. It taught me to let go and let the process unfold organically. It taught me that we must be flexible and willing to adjust our roles in the work.
As the month winds down, the work is just getting started. The group is excited and is hoping to reach out to allies and organizations doing anti-violence work. They are interested in curricula and how we can replicate these programs inside. There are no programs inside that are trauma-informed. There are no programs that focus on healing justice.
We intend to change that. People inside need healing. As Danielle Sered wrote: Almost no one’s entry point into violence was committing it. Everyone in the group has experienced and witnessed violence. They are closest to the problem. They are also closest to the solution. They want to heal. But the DOC will never provide the tools or materials for them to do so. This is where outside allies are needed. We need our allies to help us learn more and to connect us to people and organizations that can help us heal. In turn, we intend to pay it forward inside and outside of these walls.
I have never gone into Black August more prepared to study and discuss the work. But when my plans were upended, I realized something greater was taking place: the group was organically discovering what they needed. Being open, being flexible, being attentive has enabled me to see more clearly that people inside know what they need and want to heal and grow. We just need more people to support us and listen to us.