“What We Leave Behind”: The women of Grace House & Beyondmedia on personal narrative beyond the prison system

In Winter 2021 The Block was honored to present Voices Across Time: Sharing Women’s Experiences of Re-entry, a special program bringing together organizers from Beyondmedia Education with current and former members of Grace House, a residential program for women exiting the Illinois prison system.

This screening and discussion centered on women’s experiences of re-entry after incarcertaion, exploring the possibilities of art and storytelling in reclaiming citizenship. In the early 2000s, activist media organizations Beyondmedia and Visible Voices offered critical, collaborative media-making workshops to formerly incarcerated women at Grace House as part of the re-entry process. These educational encounters, spearheaded by artist Salome Chasnoff and activist Joanne Archibald, created space for women to challenge mainstream media’s representations while learning to use the tools of video production.

In videos like What We Leave Behind (2001, 21 min), the women of Grace House told their own stories on both sides of the camera. The post-screening discussion included women who worked on the film originally in the early 2000s and women who worked through and lived at the residency program at Grace House, as well as current members of the Grace House program who spoke to their experiences..

This event was co-presented by the Block Museum of Art with The Graduate SchoolGraduate Women Across Northwestern (GWAN)Women Initiating New Directions (WIND), and Gender & Sexuality Studies Program. With support from the Center for Civic Engagement, the School of Education and Social Policy, and The Alumnae of Northwestern University.


WATCH: VOICES ACROSS TIME

Captions embedded in video

Introduction by Malia Haines-Stewart
Introduction by Sally Nuamah (5:31)
Presentation of “What We Leave Behind” (8:10)
Statement from Graduate Women Across Northwestern (29:54)
Post-screening conversation (32:30) with:

  • Pastor Bernadine Dowdell
  • Janet Williams
  • Cynthia Faria
  • Michelle Johnson
  • Lisa Robinson
  • Salome Chasnoff
  • Joanne Archibald
  • with moderation by Sally Nuamah

I got involved with issues around women’s incarceration as a graduate student at Northwestern. The Center for Civic Engagement was looking for volunteers to work as a writing workshop mentor at Grace House. I got there and got immediately involved with the 18 women I got to directly interface with every week. What I didn’t know at the time was that this was part of a larger phenomenon. While men represent a large portion of the prison population the number of incarcerated women has increased over 700 percent over the past 20 years. The disproportionately impacts Black and Latinx women especially, but in recent years we are starting to see white women’s detention and incarceration increase as well. Of those who are incarcerated many of them will come home one day, and when they do return home there are not a lot of places for them to go. Grace House represents one of just a few places that actually houses women that are in transition leaving prison and trying to enter the world.

Sally Nuamah

OUR PROGRAM PARTNERS

ONE BOOK, ONE NORTHWESTERN – JUST MERCY

The Block Museum is proud to partner with the One Book One Northwestern program in 2021 for a year of programming and art that explores the themes of Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Just Mercy follows Stevenson through the beginning of his career as a lawyer devoted to seeking justice for those who have already been treated unfairly by the judicial system. Stevenson’s book has prompted a national reckoning with how racism and poverty have so often marred American society. The Block Museum is proud to partner with the One Book program for a year of programming and art that explores the themes of this shared text.

GRACE HOUSE

Since its opening in 1994, the Grace House residential program has provided interim housing, emotional and spiritual support, and professional counseling to women who are exiting the Illinois prison system. Services are provided in a warm setting located on the Near West Side of Chicago. Residents are encouraged to set goals for the future and are taught how to make informed choices that will empower them to lead lives with dignity in their communities and their families. Program participants come to Grace House voluntarily, seeking to take steps that will lead them to a new beginning.

The Grace House program works: in Illinois, 35% of women released from prison recidivate (return) to prison within three years. For women completing the Grace House program, only 5% return to prison.

 Interested in volunteering at Grace House? Fill out an interest/registration form and they’ll be in touch! Individual Volunteers / Register a Volunteer Group 

Want to donate? Make a financial gift to Grace House. Grace House is a 501(c)3 organization, and gifts are tax deductible to the full extent of the law. 

Would you like to provide or collect material donations? Please see their regularly updated Wish List at myregistry.com/giftlist/slm for ideas or to make purchases. Gifts can be brought in person or shipped directly to St. Leonard’s Ministries, 2100 W. Warren Blvd., Chicago, IL 60612. 

BEYONDMEDIA EDUCATION

Beyondmedia Education’s mission is to collaborate with under-served and under-represented women, youth and communities to tell their stories, connect their stories to the world around us, and organize for social justice through the creation and distribution of media arts.

 You can check out their videos on https://vimeo.com/beyondmedia 

WOMEN INITIATING NEW DIRECTIONS (WIND)

 WIND provides workshops and support to help women build the skills and tools needed post-incarceration. WIND is currently running a weekly workshop with Grace House residents, as well as working with student volunteers from Northwestern to write and highlight the stories of women going through the re-entry process on their blog and in social media. 

Interested in volunteering with WIND? Fill out their Volunteer Interest Form. 

Want to donate? Make a financial gift to WIND. 

SALLY NUAMAH

Sally A. Nuamah is an assistant professor of Urban Politics in Human Development, Social Policy and Political Science (by courtesy) at Northwestern University. Professor Nuamah’s research sits at the intersections of race, gender, education policy, and political behavior. In addition to her work as a scholar, Professor Nuamah works as a workshop mentor at the Grace House for incarcerated women and girls in the United States

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