by Ben Adlin
More than two decades ago, Kimonti Carter was sentenced to 777 years in prison for his role in a devastating 1997 Tacoma drive-by shooting that left a college student dead. Since then, he’s become something of a role model — an example of how education and empathy can build bridges between traumatized groups and direct them toward common action.
From inside prison, Carter built a program within the Black Prisoners’ Caucus that teaches for-credit college courses to incarcerated people. Through an emphasis on shared humanity and empowerment through learning, the project has brought together prisoners of various backgrounds and identities, often shattering racial and ideological boundaries.
Carter is the uniting thread in the 2020 documentary Since I Been Down, which will be available to watch online later this month. The free screenings are being organized by a multifaith coalition initiated by the Blacks and Jews Building Beloved Community initiative, a Seattle-based project built in recent years to strengthen connections within and between Black and Jewish communities. The screenings will lead to a community conversation about criminal justice issues in Washington State, including calls to action around sentencing reform, prisoner reentry, prison debt, and housing justice. The organizers also hope the program will inspire people to get involved during the upcoming state legislative session.
Filmmaker Gilda Sheppard, who directed and wrote Since I Been Down, is also a professor of sociology, culture, and media studies at Evergreen State University’s Tacoma campus. She told the Emerald the event is part of an effort to “find the love and possibility that we can have for each other and be able to engage in difficult dialogue.”
Participants who register for the event will receive a link to watch the documentary, which will be available to stream online Oct. 16–19. Afterward, they’ll be invited to join a Zoom call at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 24, to discuss Washington’s criminal justice system “and how we can all take action towards a system of transformative justice,” according to the event’s website.
“What I find extremely important is proximity to groups of people who want to change the narrative that sustains punishment and separation,” Sheppard said. “Anytime that you can break down barriers and boundaries and develop a loving or — as Martin Luther King would say — a beloved community, that’s what I want my art to do.”
Sheppard is one of the panelists scheduled to host the Oct. 24 meeting and described the film as “an excellent fit” with the coalition’s mission. When organizers approached her about showing the film, she said, she recognized their approach as “a very similar paradigm” to what Carter himself adopted in his college education program, TEACH, or Taking Education and Creating History.
Carter, in an incisive 2006 speech at a Black Prisoners’ Caucus summit, spoke about his youth growing up in a community disproportionately without access to housing, education, or good jobs.
“I first became a gang member when I was around 11 years old,” he said. “My gang involvement brought me an extensive juvenile history, everything from burglary to robbery, theft of motor vehicles, possession of narcotics, escape — all before my 16th birthday. And the reason I’m telling you all this is because my history is the life of a lot of kids out there in our community. And my reality as a young man doing life in prison will be their future if we don’t start creating better ways of dealing with our children.”
The Black-Jewish Relationship
The Blacks and Jews Building Beloved Community initiative is the brainchild of community developer Mark Jones, Ph.D. and Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum, formerly of Herzl-Ner Tamid. Both will also be panelists at the conversation later this month.
The two met almost five years ago while doing work on civil discourse, they told the Emerald in a joint interview last month.
“Within a short period of time, we decided that we wanted to work on the area of the Black-Jewish relationship, and to do something in the way of rejuvenation, reinvigoration, repair, reimagination,” said Rosenbaum. “I quickly learned from Mark that the operative phrase that really described what we were doing was creating beloved community — or building beloved community, because we weren’t working from scratch.”
“Beloved community” is a phrase popularized by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who used it to describe a vision “in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth,” as The King Center describes. It’s a community in which “poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it.”
The relationship between Black and Jewish communities in the United States goes back at least a century, Rosenbaum noted, “but it’s been a rocky relationship. It’s had its glorious moments, it’s had some really challenging moments. And we thought that this was really an opportune time to, you know, bring it up another level in our own community.”
Many Jewish people were involved in the Civil Rights Movement, Rosenbaum said — perhaps most visibly in the relationship between King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel. Restorative justice and universal liberation from oppression are key elements in many modern interpretations of the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, often translated as “repair of the world.”
“The idea was there is a common starting point, and let’s go from there,” Jones said.
Beloved Community and Incarceration
In the past year or so, the project has broadened from a group of 12, six from the Jewish community and six from the Black Christian community, to include participants from across the country. It’s mission, too, has expanded to include shared secular goals, like legislative advocacy around criminal justice reforms. Jones said the group has also worked to build partnerships with organizations and BIPOC community leaders, “mostly from the Southeast Seattle area.”
“It has opened up a broader spectrum of ‘What does it really mean to build beloved community?’” Jones said. “‘What does it mean around prison incarceration? What does it mean around pre-incarceration?’”
Sheppard, who has been teaching in prisons for more than 15 years, said her work has taught her that the people closest to society’s problems are often those best equipped to solve them — Carter being a prime example. She also pointed to Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer and advocate for the rights of incarcerated people who founded the Alabama–based human rights organization Equal Justice Initiative.
“[Stevenson] says that to create a better community, a better world, you need to have proximity to the problem,” the filmmaker said. “You need to change the narrative that sustains the problem, you need to do something uncomfortable, and you need to maintain hope. I think that this is what this coalition is doing to create a better world.”
Editors’ Note: A previous version of this article referenced dozens of partner groups that were involved in the film screening project and incorrectly attributed a quote to Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum. This article was updated on 10/12/2021 specifying that the film screening project grew from a “group of 12 … to include participants from across the country” and attributing a partial quote to Mark Jones, Ph.D.
Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.
📸 Featured Image: Film still from “Since I Been Down.” Photo courtesy of Jimmie Lewis Productions & Prison Education LLC.
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