April 18, 2017 by Debra Gittler

31 STORIES IN 10 WEEKS.

It’s like walking through a dark tunnel with your arms out,
reaching for the closest object to hold on to so that you don’t fall.

Like being blindfolded from the moment that you get out of bed
until it’s time to go back to sleep at night.


They don’t even know that I’m in this cell feeling lonely.
They don’t even care.

From “The Love I Deserve” by Crandall William,
Founding Author of ConTextos in Chicago at CCDOC

Last week, Tony, ConTextos’ Chairman of the Board and my dear mentor, friend, personal champion and perpetual nudge asked me:

“How has doing the work in Chicago changed you?”

The question I least expected.
The question I most needed.

Here’s some things I know now, 10 weeks into teaching classes “on the inside” and “on the outside.” Small items that are common knowledge to many in Chicago, but to me… well, these lessons have been transformative.

1. Twenty-something-years old and only been downtown once. While I celebrated second seder for passover, Anthony texted me pictures of outfits, preparing to visit our new office on the edge of downtown. Twenty-something-years-old, having held friends as they bled out, having yelled at me: “Do you know what it’s like to see your friend get shot? To hold him? To not be able to do anything?” The man who told me: “How the F is this going to change something? Has social media changed anything? Telling stories… is that going to stop those guys from retaliation? That’s not going to stop these killings…”

Twenty-something years old, downtown for the second time, dressed handsomely in a new outfit with a collar of bling, and tattoos snaking along swollen arms exposed because he lent me his jacket during a cool afternoon…

Twenty something years old. He told me the next day that he saw the guy who shot his friend. And didn’t do anything. “I’m proud of myself,” he told me. And shit… I’m so proud of him too.

He said maybe he doesn’t belong downtown. That his dreads make people uncomfortable. “I hope that’s not true,” I told him. “But if it is, then you NEED to come downtown. Because the only way to change people’s minds, is by letting them see you as the gentleman you are.”

He came back the next day.

2. I want to take some parts out,” said Alexander Weatherspoon. “I want to take out the parts where it seems like I don’t take responsibility.”

In the class before, Alex—a natural writer, with a strong narrative voice, a timid inviting demeanor, and a story that’s traumatic, tragic and terrifying—shared his draft with the officer on duty. I eavesdropped. The officer told him that hearing about how Alex had grown up, that made him see Alex differently. But Alex had choices, had opportunities… and he didn’t take advantage of them. “At that transitional home—you didn’t want to work because they didn’t pay you. But they gave you a place to live…”

Alex came in the next day. And changed his story.

“I need to be honest about my responsibility,” he told me. “Some stuff was out of my control. But some stuff could’ve been different. It’s just that now… I want my life to be different. I don’t want to go back to that.”

3. I asked Victor how he felt about sharing his book with his mom.

“I’ve been thinking about saying these things to her for a long time,” he told me. He knew that the abuse he suffered for years wasn’t right. Didn’t mean he didn’t love his mom. Just that he wanted to be different. But wanting wasn’t enough. Changing the patterns he’d learned was hard.

Victor could get a certificate for “the most changed.” The first few times I taught, he pushed and negotiated and commented incessantly. But the writing process changed him. The illustration process changed him. He was writing a book for his kid. A book for redemption. He was painstaking in his choices. And breathtaking in the result.

He’s still silly and playful. He told me that he’s decided not to invite anyone to the Publication Ceremony next week. I know that we couldn’t reach anyone—all the numbers he shared have been disconnected. Victor R… changed my life. None of his loved ones will be there to receive his final published book.

But his story will change many lives. I met a man today who is currently in a court-ordered parenting class. He read Victor’s story. “If I’d had a story like this, maybe I’d be different,” he said. Victor R wrote a story for his son. But it turns out that he wrote a story for all of us…

So how have I changed? Better question: how am I changing?

These are three stories of the 31 that I’ve been a part of in the past 10 weeks. Three stories of the dozens more that have been drafted and discarded; of the few that were selected for revision, illustration and soon, printing and publication. Three conversations of the dozens that I’ve listened to, responded to, helped sparked or received in anger.

So how have I changed? I certainly won’t ever be the same. And I like to think that these stories will change others. But probably what’s changed most is this realization:

The problem isn’t so complex that the solution is hard to find, or complicated, or elusive.

The problem is young men who do not feel loved or needed; who do not know that the world is their oyster and that their lives matter.

I will not pretend that our little actions alone can change such big problems. But these problems are solvable. They take time and commitment and patience and love.

I guess what I’ve learned is that the heart break I feel every time I read their stories is just a morsel of what they experience every day.

From tragedy comes art. From art comes movements. And from movements comes change. I hope. I hope these stories change others as much as they’ve changed me.

Anthony, Alexander, Victor.
Devonte, Johnathan, Antwone, Federico, Darrian, Ezequiel, Larry, Jose, Alonzo, Crandall, Julius, Tykari, Donald, Omar, Ja’Corey, Dwayne, Daniel, Elijah, Justin, Tobaree, Ulises, Victor. And the seven others in Roseland.

Watching you craft your stories—the ebb and flow, the anger and relief, the joy and pride… all these things have changed me. And I believe it can change others.

Next week, on April 26, 24 Authors currently detained “inside” at Cook County Department of Corrections will present published, printed memoirs to their loved ones. And the world. At the same time, eight authors “outside” in Roseland will begin the process of revision in order to publish their own stories.

It might be small stones in a vast pond, but it’s a ripple of change.


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