Community project helps incarcerated and those affected bounce back

Feb 8, 2012

Community Works started working with inmates in San Francisco's jail system in 1997. Since then, the program has grown to include programs for men who have committed domestic violence and for children with incarcerated parents. On Saturday, Community Works is celebrating its 15th anniversary with a benefit show at the Brava Theater in San Francisco. KALW's criminal justice editor Rina Palta sat down with a team from Community Works to discuss where the program has been, and where it’s going.

RINA PALTA: First, I’m just going to go around the table and have you guys all introduce yourselves and tell me a little bit about yourselves.

DANIELLE DOKES: Hello, my name is Danielle Dokes. I’m 17 years old and I go to El Cerrito High School. I’m a peer mentor for “Project WHAT,” which is a program for Community Works. It’s for kids with incarcerated parents. And I’m just getting ready to branch off and go to college.

RUTH MORGAN: Hi, I’m Ruth Morgan. I’m the executive director of Community Works. Community Works started 15 years ago. We started a program at San Francisco County Jail, in collaboration with the Sheriff’s department. We started, or we were original partners in, Resolve to Stop the Violence Project and then won an “Innovations in Government” award. Since then we’ve been managing RSVP, which is a violence prevention intervention program for male offenders and is based on a belief system change that violence is learned and can be unlearned. We give the men in RSVP the tools to understand where their violence came from and how to stop it.

REGGIE DANIELS: Hello, my name is Reggie Daniels. I’m a case manager and facilitator for Community Works and the RSVP program and I got with Community Works about five years ago. I’m a theater participant and currently in college working towards my Masters in social work. Certainly, now if you hear me talk, you kinda hear that my life is kinda together, but it wasn’t always that way. I was a chronic re-offender and basically my life was in a hell of a condition when I came into Community Works.

I was incarcerated and had been to prison over seven times and had a countless amount of arrests and county jail time. When I came in to Community Works, I came in for an internship – a collaboration they do with the sheriff’s department – and I didn’t really have an idea where my life was gonna go at that point. I was actually put through the RSVP/Our Men Alive curriculum for a year as an intern and started to begin to train for the position to teach the information that was being delivered to me and at that point I knew that that’s what I wanted to do with my life.

PALTA: If you could just tell me a little bit about your involvement with Community Works.

DOKES: Well I’ve been in Community Works programs for a while, since I was a freshman in 2009, in a group called Roots. It was just for kids who had friends or family in jail or in prison and the last year they were going to be at our school they told us about Project What, which is for kids with incarcerated parents. My parents have been incarcerated most of my life. My mom has been out for ten years now and sobered up, but, as for my dad, he keeps going in and out. And I applied – it was a whole application – you had to explain, show that you had leadership skills, and that you were ready to take on such a tough topic. So I applied and on my birthday they told me I got it. It was an eight-week training because all the kids we have – we have at least 13 kids now and they go through an eight-week training on learning about the legislative advocacy, public speaking and gaining leadership skills. We do presentations to the teachers, policy makers, police officers, to everyone, to just give them awareness of the impacts that incarceration has on us. When people get incarcerated they – policy makers and police officers – don’t really think about the child’s point of view. They’re always worried about “okay, we’re going to sentence this person and that’s it.” So we’re just trying to show them that we’re out here and we’re talking. WHAT stands for “We’re Here And Talking.” All 2.4 children with a parent incarcerated.

PALTA: Tell me a little bit about the issues you try to teach police and legislators and policy makers about with regards to children of incarcerated parents.

DOKES: Well, one of the big things that we have in our group that we always talk about is when the parent is getting arrested in front of us. The police don’t really think about that the child is sitting there watching you handcuff their parent. Most of the time, they’re either quick to put you in a car, take you to CPS, Child Protective Services, instead of waiting to get a phone and call somebody else in San Francisco. We have eight rights. We have the little cards with them when they go and arrest somebody and they get to call a parent to make sure, or a family member to come get them. When my parents got arrested I was stuck in a house for two days. I didn’t know what happened. I just know they came got my parents and left and made me go into foster care. So now we just try to teach them that, when the child is around, at least sit them down and let them know, “Okay, we’re going to take your parents. Do you have anybody you can call right now to come get you?” Instead of automatically either leaving the child or taking them to CPS.

MORGAN: I just wanted to add one more thing to that – and I know that Danielle hasn’t done this yet because she’s not eighteen – but we also go into the jail and Project WHAT youth who are over eighteen come into the jail and speak to parents in jail about the impact of incarceration on them and on their families. How really important it is to stay connected to their child and how contact, visiting, makes all the difference in the world –  in most cases – or at least writing or a phone call. And that lying to a child is really ineffective and most children know when you say you’re on vacation for three months that you’re not on vacation. Talking about just how much incarceration affects their children.

PALTA: You are in a very tough field where you could easily get very frustrated. How do you keep your positive outlook working in such a place where success might not be a ninety percent, maybe more like a ten percent?

MORGAN: Well, I think Reggie is how I keep my outlook. People like Reggie and the fact that we’re really committed to trying to hire people that go through the program. We see incredible successes and we see failures as well, there’s no question, but it’s the Reggies and Danielles that really make it worthwhile.

DANIELS: Yeah, you know, again it’s just working with the incredible amount of talent. People are extremely talented and extremely gifted and really are living the change in their life that they’re talking about. I think that’s an amazing way to be nurtured daily, to work with those kind of people. Also to have my passion reignited, to be doing something. The things that mean the most to me: helping people, going back to school, and I’m a DJ. All of those things, Community Works inspired me and gave me the resources to be able to pursue. And that’s what keeps me alive. I share that passion with the men so that when they fall back, our idea is that we keep the light on. We’re the hotel that doesn’t close. We don’t give up on people. We believe in redemption.