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JustUS Voices - Mothers Talk

Mothers Talk ~ Breaking Free

Living Library Gives Formerly Incarcerated Women Their Voice

Giving birth in shackles. Mother-daughter confidences conveyed through a glass partition. Goodbye kisses to a six-year old boy who, at reunification, is a 21 year-old adult. Frayed safety nets. Disbanded family units. The twisted circle of foster care, child protective services and parenting without options.

For many women, this Mother’s Day will be yet another period of obstacles and absence. But for some, their trials and triumphs will be part of a celebration of voices lifted in transformative storytelling.

JustUS Voices | Storytelling for Change℠ will officially launch on the eve of Mother’s Day, showcasing formerly incarcerated women who have been touched by the criminal justice system. The unveiling of the multimedia story project will also feature Susan Burton, executive director and founder of A New Way of Life (ANWOL) Reentry Project, and the debut of her new book, Becoming Ms. Burton From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women.

In this era of digital media, the Living Library creates an innovative engagement through low-tech, high-touch in person encounters that explore human experiences via the intimate medium of conversation. The JustUS Voices Living Library will host six formerly incarcerated women, beginning with a panel discussion and followed by a rotating series of small group conversations. The number of mothers behind bars has exploded in California, home to the largest women’s prison in the world, and across the country. Over the past 25 years, the rate of incarcerated women has increased 700 percent. More than 60 percent of women in state prisons are mothers of children under the age of 18. They are disproportionately Black and Latina.

The living library will explore questions, often unasked, that define the perverse and twisted path of formerly incarcerated women. How do they navigate a criminal justice system structured for men? What are the coping mechanisms in returning home after isolation in a cage? What securities and supports, challenges and crisis have defined reentry? And what are the collateral consequences on children and families?

These realities, shared through the women’s lived experiences, can help inform national policy and the growing movement to end mass incarceration. The special needs of women are largely missing from the current public discourse.

“Storytelling is a powerful tool to give the world a window into the human condition,” says Gwen McKinney who designed the project concept and content in partnership with Susan Burton. “We are staunch advocates for change, but we believe people who are not directly affected by mass incarceration need to understand why change is an imperative for them as well.”

The Living Library will animate the stories of six formerly incarcerated women who, like human books, can be checked out by the library audience.

  • A one-time lifer who completed her bachelor’s and master’s degree in the first five years of coming home, and now helps other formerly incarcerated students pursue their dreams through a scholarship and mentoring program.
  • A sister and aunt who sought her own salvation from drug misuse, treatment, sobriety to now guide others toward rehabilitation.
  • A recently released woman on parole who struggles with reentry in a rural community where resources for women coming home give her few options beyond “homelessness, sleeping in the rain, on a park bench or under a rock.”
  • A self-described “disrupter” who calls for ‘eradicating the box’ at the same time she brings urban gardens to Los Angeles food deserts.
  • A daughter of undocumented parents who emerged after three years in solitary confinement to build a new movement of the prison to college pipeline among “revolutionary scholars.”
  • A grandmother who endured childhood trauma but found her creative spark in prison, and is now writing plays and leading a women’s self-help group.

JustUS Voices will embrace advocacy through the power of storytelling, interviews, testimonials and commentaries, blogs, video vignettes and social media. The project, which launches its website in early May, will also invite new storytellers – formerly incarcerated women who never knew they had a voice – to share through an online “Tell Your Story” function on the website.

JustUS Voices will focus on Southern California first and expand statewide. After start-up in California, the initiative aims to reach women and advocates across the country.

The JustUS Voices initiative is a partnership with ANWOL and the Washington, DC-based strategic communications firm McKinney & Associates. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Weingart Foundation provided initial funding.