This blog post was originally published on Re-thinking Reentry.
Last night while it was stormy outside, there was a storm of love inside the Church of the Heavenly Rest. For the past twelve weeks a group of formerly incarcerated persons, supported by volunteers from the Church, participated in a presentation skills training called Raising My Voice.
Raising My Voice was started to provide an avenue for formerly incarcerated persons to learn effective presentation skills that allow them to share their stories with a broad audience. The idea grew out of an experience I had in 2009 when I took some men from our reentry program to speak at a local middle school to kids who were truant and getting in trouble (one child was on probation and had an electronic monitoring ankle bracelet). The men spoke honestly about their prison experience. They also expressed a deep desire to do more to make sure young people from their community did go to prison as they had. Eventually a recommendation for a speaker’s bureau made it into a ground breaking Upper Manhattan Reentry Strategic Plan.
In 2011, the J.C Flowers Foundation funded a new effort in Harlem, Circles of Support, that brings the faith community and families of the incarcerated together to support men and women leaving prison. We piloted Raising My Voice in 2014. Since that time three cohorts of trainees have participated. Graduates learn critical story telling skills and the program connects them to paid speaking opportunities. In 2015, $2700 in speaking fees were earned by graduates of the program. The most recent class was hosted at the Church of the Heavenly Rest. The Church provided free space and volunteers to serve as mentors to the trainees. Last night's graduation highlighted not just the skills of the newly minted public speakers, but also the deep commitment and new relationships that evolved between graduates and their faith-based mentors.