by Ari Robin McKenna
Last spring, during Nova High School’s Racial Justice Day, Melissa Park’s ethnic studies classroom was packed full of students and teachers rapt with attention for over an hour. They listened and engaged with Eugene Youngblood — recently released from prison after almost 30 years — who spoke and then fielded questions about what had led to his incarceration, and how he became the person he is today.
A charismatic speaker and a diligent listener who put students at ease even as they were confronted with the difficult systemic issues his story kicks up, Youngblood’s narrative contains a haunting detail: He and his mom never met outside of prison.
Before Youngblood’s first memories were formed, his mom was already imprisoned. Then, when his grandma passed, the intolerable stressor of not being able to regularly drive with her to visit his mom was a factor in his own incarceration as a teenager. By the time he was released this past March, his mom had passed away a few years before.
Tate Williams, an 11th grader at Nova in attendance that day, says Youngblood’s firsthand account was impactful. “It was incredible hearing him speak — with his experience — and gave me a lot of insight into things I didn’t understand, or hadn’t personally experienced because of who I am and how I’ve grown up: only having one family member out of 50 being in prison, and being white.” Williams went on to wish other students the opportunity to have a similar educational experience, because “school is a place of learning, not a place of hiding what goes on in the real world.”
Youngblood is a longtime member of the Black Prisoners’ Caucus (BPC), an organization founded and kept alive against steep odds by prisoners in the state of Washington for half a century. Besides providing space to strengthen the identity of Black prisoners, BPC focuses on improving relationships with prisoners’ families, providing educational opportunities, and strengthening the communities prisoners are missing from. Though perpetually struggling to obtain and maintain its nonprofit status and intellectual property, some of the most impactful initiatives associated with prisons can trace their roots back to BPC. A notable example is the acclaimed University Beyond Bars, which was previously University Behind Bars, but before that, many BPC members claim it emerged from a prison degree program people used to refer to as “Black Prisoners’ Caucus University.”
That Youngblood is speaking to students and teachers as a free man is a hopeful sign for the continued connection of the BPC to Seattle Public Schools (SPS) — one rich with educational possibilities for the state’s largest school district. It is also a pivotal moment in the organization’s history. Gilda Sheppard’s profound 2022 documentary, Since I Been Down, is bringing increased awareness to the effectiveness of BPC’s educational programming within prisons, such as Taking Education and Creating History (T.E.A.C.H.), while some key BPC members have recently been released from prison and look to expand on their BPC work.
Youngblood, Curtis Rodgers, Faraji Bhakti, Brandon Pedro, Devon Adams, Kimonti Carter (the man the film centers), and at least a dozen other recently free BPC members meet weekly in a Renton office hoping to bolster the BPC work continuing within 11 prisons and, now, increasingly outside them. After the success of their BPC activities, despite the many restrictions and challenges prison presents, these men know how much they have to offer the society that caged them and their fellow BPC members still inside.
BPC and SPS
For almost a decade, Nova’s previous principal, Mark Perry — who was formerly incarcerated himself — was a BPC sponsor of a program connecting SPS teachers with incarcerated men in the Monroe Correctional Complex. Monthly, a group of up to 15 educators, administrators, and other school staff visited Monroe and sat down with BPC members in small groups to hear their own educational experiences from the other end of the school-to-prison pipeline.
After attending numerous Monroe visits over the years, ethnic studies teacher Melissa Park is certain of their invaluable educational worth for teachers in training and everyone who works with SPS students and, in particular, Black males. “I heard a lot of men share their stories of how school was not a welcoming place where they felt seen or cared for,” said Park.
“I think there is not enough teacher training around opening up your lens to understand that different households do things differently,” Park said. “There’s a variety of cultures, community practices, and communication styles, and a richness of culture that every kid comes from within your class. You can’t make the mistake of just buying into that hidden culture of a white supremacist way of doing school: ‘You have to do it my way,’ or ‘You have to do it when I say,’ or ‘You have to comply.’ Not enough teachers are taught to break that open. Just because not every student is well versed in that white middle-class way of doing things doesn’t mean they’re bad kids, or that you should label them a problem, or that they need special services. Maybe we need to try harder to understand where this kid is coming from, or their context.
“The value of the BPC visits is that you get to build community with a real human being who’s had these impacts, and it takes it out of that intellectual concept, because the very lives of BPC members — the lives of their families — have been directly impacted. It’s this bridge between the silo of the classroom and real life for people,” Park said.
Park says disrupting the pipeline still looks a lot like what these men needed. “Students feel like they belong. They feel like they got people in their corner. They feel seen. There’s joy in their learning. Their ancestors are recognized by the curriculum besides just learning about oppression.”
Along with the annual Monroe Education Summits welcoming those who work with youth in different capacities, Perry estimates around a thousand educators — most from Seattle Public Schools — were able to gain access to and insight into the systematic way in which the public school system fails Students of Color. Yet these summits and the monthly educator visits have come to an end due to a confluence of two factors: the closure of the Washington State Reformatory (WSR), where the majority of Monroe BPC members were housed, and the pandemic shutting down the visits of monthly educators indefinitely.
History of the BPC
Curtis Rodgers, an original founding member of the BPC released from prison in 2020, says the organization came about in response to discrimination within Monroe in the late 1960s. Black prisoners weren’t allowed to participate in trades programs, such as meat cutting, culinary arts, hairdressing, and janitorial, that were some of the few pathways to work after release, and there were almost no Black staff working in the prisons at that time.
Though they established the BPC in 1972, unofficially, the path toward getting nonprofit status was long and arduous. Without the assistance of the internet and sporadic help from outside the gates, the original BPC founders, led by Tony Wheat and Dave Riggins, were able to cobble together finished applications a number of times, only to have them rejected by the Department of Corrections (DOC). Rodgers says this is “because they didn’t want us to have that much power.”
After all, getting nonprofit status entailed an office, a phone line, a bank account, and access to a computer and the community. Even after the BPC became official on March 1, 1982, guards could still enter their meeting space at any time and destroy all the paperwork they’d struggled to put together. Rodgers says this happened enough times that it became common practice for him to hand out a new copy of the bylaws and constitution at meetings, “so if something happened to me … they would be able to continue.”
Through the sharing of their founding paperwork with people in other prisons, the BPC was able to expand to other Washington correctional facilities, and to help groups of non-Black prisoners get initiatives started as well. Rodgers played a key role in disseminating the nonprofit application and their articles of incorporation paperwork beyond Monroe, partly because he was transferred to other facilities multiple times. Rodgers said, “The more people that you bring together, the more power you have. And when you bring all the races together inside an institution, you get them working together, they ship your ass.”
Rodgers ended up helping get BPCs set up and gain nonprofit status at four other corrections centers: Stafford Creek, Airway Heights, Shelton, and Larch, but says each process was different, and the BPC’s expansion required remaining flexible. If a sponsor was a chaplain, for example, the BPC paperwork was likely to include religious verbiage, because “you had to go through different sponsors in order to get it set up.” Rodgers also remembers the time the BPC was able to give out prized Johnson & Johnson toiletry kits (prisoners have to purchase their own personal hygiene products) at each meeting, along with a brochure about what the BPC was about — which usually included quotes from the likes of Malcolm X or Frederick Douglass. Whatever their means of getting their message out, the immutable element of the BPC, Rodgers says, was always “growth,” learning about “African American Heritage, the Black experience in America.”
Currently, there are active BPC chapters in 11 Washington prisons, most with a president, a vice president, a treasurer, and articles of incorporation. Impactful BPC programs, such as TEACH at Clallam Bay, or the one with SPS Perry had arranged with the WSR education committee chairs at Monroe, Anthony Wright and Thomas Hill, and the Family and Children Committee chairs, Faraji Bhakti and Brandon Pedro, are two great examples of the myriad initiatives that have emerged from the BPC in its history.
The Future of BPC
Though the Monroe BPC’s 501(c)(3) status has elapsed, Faraji Bhakti is part of the group of recently freed BPC members looking to write a new chapter in BPC’s half-century history. Bhakti says this group has the blessing of the BPC chapters still doing the work inside prisons, and that they’re looking to create a Free BPC chapter with 501(c)(3) status, “which could put an umbrella over all the chapters that are in Washington State to protect the authenticity of BPC efforts.” This is important, Bhakti said, “because there’s harm that happens when you’re incarcerated and you feel desperate and you don’t have any resources and you give all your ideas away. … I want to make sure that we’re protected in the present. So that in the future I can sit down with a new member and say, ‘This is why our articles of incorporation are important.’”
Brandon Pedro sees the importance of BPC’s self-determination. While still imprisoned, he began pushing for teacher-inmate parent conferences, calling them “TIP” conferences at a Ted Talk he gave, and he was in touch with the Seattle Teacher Residency as a potential advocacy partner. But Pedro and Bhakti say the DOC showed little willingness to accept this idea. Pedro said, “It’s a very easy process, especially in this day and age, where technology is at everybody’s fingertips, and yet we were coming up against so many barriers.” The DOC eventually developed a very similar program to what Pedro had been calling for, without contacting him. He sees it as another one of the DOC’s “paper programs,” having minimal impact, but likely being well funded.
Because of the scrappy way BPC chapters were founded, legitimized, and maintained, each chapter is different, and perhaps the organization hasn’t had a chance to take stock of itself as a whole until now. Bhakti envisions, among other things, all of the education committees partnering and having someone on the outside dedicated to holding space for their activities, possibly at Nova. One of the first activities he envisions would be a screening of Since I Been Down, where he, Carter, Youngblood, and other BPC members could engage with students and teachers about the film.
These freed BPC members are certainly making their mark. Youngblood works “for and with the community,” specifically with the Freedom Project as a community engagement specialist, and responding to incidents of violence as a member of the Regional Peacekeepers. He’s also fielding speaking requests from area schools. Rodgers started a nonprofit called Be Inside or Out that is engaged in holistic support for formerly incarcerated people to combat recidivism in the Portland area. Bhakti is the community engagement specialist for Yoga Behind Bars, and a trauma-informed yoga instructor who has been bringing both his expertise and lived experience into area youth detention centers. Devon Adams, another BPC member released in 2020, is the fundraising and development director for the nonprofit Collective Justice. Brandon Pedro, just released in June, was hired last week at local nonprofit Community Passageways. And Kimonti Carter, released this summer, is breathing life into community and his newfound freedom, eyeing his next steps.
In Sheppard’s documentary, Since I Been Down, a still-imprisoned BPC member named Touré Zimbabwé says something that seems to apply to this robust, recently released group of BPC members — and many who are still serving time. “We dare say that a lot of the answers that people in society are seeking will be found in prisons. We caused pain, but we caused pain primarily ’cause we was in pain. And so every day that we get up, we face a challenge. You know … how I’mma do today? What am I gonna do today? I’m gonna try to be better today than I was yesterday.”
Editors’ Note: This article was updated on 10/17/2022 to correct a hyperlink from Anthony Wright’s name.
Check out Marcus Harrison Green’s recent opinion piece about accountability in our justice system.
Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, New York; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, Washington, before settling in South Seattle. He writes about education for the Emerald. You can contact him through his website.
📸 Featured Image: From left: Devon Adams, Brandon Pedro, Faraji Bhakti, and Kimonti Carter hold up an empty BPC T-shirt representing the hundreds of BPC members still incarcerated. (Photo: Keys)
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