April has been a busy month for the New Orleans members of the national Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice (CSSJ) network, a partner of VOTE. On April 7, several CSSJ New Orleans activists traveled to Sacramento, CA for the 6th annual Survivors Speak Conference, where hundreds of survivor-organizers gathered to share their stories, hopes and visions. Then, on Saturday, April 13, local CSSJ Coordinator Ariel Jeanjacques hosted an all-day healing vigil for living and deceased survivors of crime. Community members from all over the city came out to remember and celebrate the lives of loved ones near and far. More than 20 cities nationwide held simultaneous vigils to honor National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. VOTE sat down with Ariel and Nicole Marshall--one of CSSJ’s superstar members (read her self-written bio here, and see her photos above)--to find out how the events went, and how they connect to the movements for safety, justice, and healing for all.
VOTE: Who is on your heart right now?
Nicole Marshall (NM): My seven sons, who range from 3 to 27 years old, my 6 ‘glamkids’, and my husband, Ronald Marshall, who is currently incarcerated at Rayburn Correctional Center.
Ariel Jeanjacques (AJ): Dawina McLarn, one of my CSSJ members. She was arrested because she missed a court date. That was last week, two days before the healing vigil she was supposed to be at. She’s in jail with a $300,000 bond, and is in a cell with a white woman who killed her child but only has a $100,000 bond.
VOTE: Thank you, they’re here with us in spirit. Do you use the word survivor for yourself?
AJ: Yes. A survivor is a person who has overcome the worst obstacles in life, is resilient, and keeps going. A person who doesn’t look at themselves as a victim but as a survivor because they know how much power they have.
NM: I prefer to say that I am a surviving victor, because the surviving is day-to-day, and the victor means that I have goals and I set out to accomplish them with victory in mind.
VOTE: Nicole, how did you get involved in CSSJ?
NM: I got involved through Ariel, who has known me for at least 20 years. We were both a part of the Freedom School that the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond was running. I speak with her brother quite often, so he put us in touch and, many years later, we got reconnected.
VOTE: And how does it feel to be a part of the network?
NM: It makes me feel like I have a sense of power. It gives me a voice and a platform, and let’s me know I’m not the only one. One of the things I experienced when I started the healing process was a lot of guilt and shame. It was as if I was walking around and everybody was looking at me like they knew what I was going through. With CSSJ I don’t feel like that. I feel like the supermom I’ve always been. I feel like an organizer around my community--changing the traumatic experiences that I and others have had.
VOTE: Beautiful. And how have you grown since being with the group?
AJ: So many members rely on me to help them start their healing journeys, so that has made me want to grow, learn, and be as supportive as I can. Also, with the network of survivors that I’m building relationships with, I’m learning to be more humble because they go through a lot of the same battles that I go through, or worse. That makes me want to be more present in my members’ lives and try to help them in any areas that they lack as far as their healing goes.
NM: I’ve always had a super positive attitude, cheering other people on to reach the stars. CSSJ has brought that back out of me, but to another level. I’ve found myself open to different avenues that I never thought I’d be a part of, and I’m deepening my organizing by seeing parts of myself that I didn’t know existed.
VOTE: Have you had any challenges so far?
NM: At first I only thought that CSSJ was for people who had lost close loved ones to violence, not necessarily for what I had been through, which is domestic violence. But they’ve been great, helping us to understand that not just one type of experience is centered, and that’s helped me realize that everyone has experienced some form of trauma.
AJ: Getting calls from survivors whose trauma is still fresh, like a woman who called on Sunday right after her son-in-law was killed. CSSJ works with survivors starting two to three years after the incident, because that’s how we build prevention over incarceration. In the beginning, you’re so hurt that you want to go and hurt someone back. Survivors think, “Oh this person hurt me--put him away forever, give him the death penalty.” They’re not going to get it overnight, so I just let them know that I’m always here and give them any resources CSSJ can provide. I just continue to educate, motivate and encourage, like ‘we’re in this together.’ We’re all survivors of something.
VOTE: Absolutely, we know that well here. How can we honor that everyone has experienced trauma without minimizing the impact of having different backgrounds and identities?
NM: By seeing each other as human. Everybody grieves differently. Everybody heals differently. A lot of people talk about it but I don’t think we really respect that that word--human--is very, very powerful. It should come with a lot of respect--just saying that we’re human.
AJ: Let’s look at counseling or therapy. That’s not something that’s common in my [Black] culture, but it’s common in yours [white culture]. If you see a therapist, people think you’re crazy or have a problem. Also, how the system is set up plays a big role in the ways we resolve trauma. Poor communities are the hardest hit, and we have the most unresolved trauma.
VOTE: Thank you for that. So, switching to the Survivors Speak conference in Sacramento, what was your favorite part of the experience?
AJ: There was a speaker (see video below) whose son was trying to resolve an incident and a young man killed him. The system got upset with [the speaker] because she forgave the young man. She wants to build a relationship with him and counsel him so that when he gets out at 33 years old, he won’t do it again. And the system is upset at her because they want him to be a repeat offender. She spoke from a place of love, of motherhood. She sent chills through my body when she spoke and everybody couldn’t help but weep because her words were just so powerful. I learned so much from her that I’m bringing back to my community. It showed me that CSSJ is really making good moves and getting connected with the right people. Just like how they had Tamara Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement, last year.
NM: My favorite part was the breakout sessions, which is when I began to hear other survivors from other cities and states, and felt really moved into action. My husband and I have co-created a relationship violence and abuse curriculum called Pave it Forward, and I got excited to get it launched. When I sat down with other individuals and we talked about getting policies changed--not just for myself but for generations to come--that to me was the most impactful. It made me want to come back home and start running. I’m ready to go.
VOTE: Sounds like an amazing experience. Nicole, can you share more about Pave it Forward, which sounds amazing and so needed?
NM: I never blamed my ex for what he did because I looked at the systems and institutions that kept this craziness going on in his life. But I did lose everything from the bottom up, and that’s when I really began to journal. Eventually I told my husband my ideas, we’d just go back and forth, and that’s how the curriculum development began. Once I get it off the ground, I want to teach it myself because I want to make sure that whoever teaches it is coming from a sensitive place--a surviving victor, too.
VOTE: Yes, it’s so important for the most impacted people to be leading the way forward, and sharing how they see things. Speaking of, how do you define violence?
NM: Violence is when someone brings harm to someone else, though I guess I would have to know the magnitude and context of the violence, too. The night that I actually fought back against my ex, I bit him and the police took me away in chains. I called the pastor’s wife and she told me that she would’ve killed him. I think about all of the incarcerated women who are in there for killing their abusive partners. No, that’s not violence. I’m not saying it’s right, but I don’t see it as the same.
AJ: Violence is when you intentionally want to cause harm or inflict pain or abuse on a person, whether mentally or physically. I agree with Nicole that self-defense is not violence, even if the system looks at it that way. That’s why a lot of people who were trying to protect themselves against abuse are looked at as violent offenders.
VOTE: We totally agree that self-defense is something completely different, and hope that our work and your work will both continue to help people see that difference. What are other things that need to change in order to build a world where people are accountable to harm?
NM: I’m not fully sold on the restorative justice piece yet, but I’d say restorative healing. That’s just restoring humanity. If people [who cause harm] don’t even know what the person they are hurting is feeling or going through, then they won’t understand the acts or harm or change.
AJ: They have to want to change. They have to want to become accountable for their own actions and to stop creating situations that hinder other people’s freedom. People need to just have more love in their hearts and value life, freedom and everyone else. Since so much has happened throughout history, now is the time to change, and more people need to get involved.
VOTE: Very true. What about building a world where people don’t cause harm in the first place?
AJ: People first need to be able to live without any type of fear. The other day I was scared to open the door for the AT&T guy because I was panicking that it could be my probation officer. It doesn’t matter how straight of a line you can walk. Being on probation is just a scary feeling that you could get screwed over by the system at any minute.
NM: We need equity and equality. We need everybody having the same of everything, whether it’s corn, the air we breathe, water, neighborhoods. I don’t know where else violence truly stems from besides the trauma our ancestors experienced during slavery. That is a form of abuse that’s been passed down through generations. So equity and equality--that would be part of the key. Not all of it, but a big part.
VOTE: What feels like your greatest accomplishment in life so far?
AJ: I feel like I haven’t reached it yet.
NM: Having two sons go to college this year, a son a Lusher that is an A student, three- and five-year-olds that are brilliant. Starting Pave it Forward, seeing the impact I have on my community, my friends, and anyone that I meet. Marrying the love of my life, of course, even with his circumstances. And finally I would say healing, but healing from a place of not victimizing myself, but knowing that I’m victorious and I can help others overcome this.
VOTE: Yes! Victorious not victimized. Love it. What’s your greatest dream?
NM: To have my husband released from prison, and have this super big house where all of my kids, daughter-in-laws and (future) grandkids can live.
AJ: Just to accomplish everything it is that I’m fighting for to help heal my community, through CSSJ and the base that we’re building across the country through chapter leaders. Ending the cycle of gun violence, mass incarceration. The creation of trauma centers that focus on prevention over incarceration.
VOTE: We can see it! What does peace look, feel, smell, sound and taste like to you?
AJ: I taste fresh air, and hear kids running, playing, laughing and cheering. I smell roses and other flowers. I feel hugs and embraces of love. I see healthy living conditions, smiles and successful people who are happy.
NM: I see blue skies, blue water. Trees, dirt, sand that my feet are planted in. I hear birds chirping, I see people laughing, talking, singing, dancing. I smell fresh crisp air and feel it against my skin. The foods that we’re eating are vegetables and fruits such as berries--things that grow from the earth. I see people in their nakedness. I feel happy, peaceful--no worry, stress, or anxiety. Just joy and comfort. A peaceful world looks like everybody just loving each other.
In order to navigate through the jungle you need a tour guide. Born a Leo, I found out that not only did I not need a guide, but, like the king of the jungle, I have a natural instinct for survival.
My professional football career started in a pee-wee league at a park across the street from Old Dominion University. It seemed like a million kids showed up for tryouts, and the odds of me making the team were not good. On the other hand, I was a small kid, but fast, which made me the next Barry Sanders meets Jerry Rice. Since there were so many kids, the coaches decided to make two teams--the Dukes and the Lions, which was my team.
I told you I started my career as a lion, king of the jungle, right? Mufassa we were not. We were more like Scar--not evil, just sad.
I guess I considered myself the star of the team. I was the fastest, playing running back, wide receiver, linebacker, cornerback, and safety. I went home and studied how quarterbacks like Warren Moon, Doug Williams and Randall Cunningham played. When Cunningham scrambled he was like a throwing Barry Sanders, and that was going to be me.
The next day I went to practice and I said, "Coach, I am the starting quarterback." He said okay and we went in front the defense. I call my signals, got the snap, dropped back to pass the ball, and then somebody hit me harder than I've ever been hit in my life.
I got off the ground and told the coach, "I'm your starting wide receiver." He said okay.
The next year tryouts weren’t as crowded, maybe 40 or 50 kids. We only had enough for one team, which ended up going 10-0 and winning the city championship. I wasn't the fastest kid on that team, but I was still the starting wide receiver. I was getting ready for high school, and being on the city championship team put me on the top of the depth chart.
Then one day my father came home and put a monkey wrench in everything by announcing that we were moving back to California. That’s how I found myself at Palm Springs High School in my 9th grade year. I established who I was, and took the starting job as wide receiver. I made every catch, including ones going to other people. I was cocky, telling the prettiest girl in school to come to the game because I was going to catch a touchdown for her.
My first game everybody I knew was there because I told them I was going to show up and show out. Coming out of the tunnel into the stadium for the first time, I realized there were hundreds of people there--a lot for a high school game. A nervous energy surged through my veins. The first pass of the game came to me, and why not? I was unstoppable in practice.
There is a saying in football: you practice how you play. I've made it my life's mission to dismantle stereotypes, however, and I started with this one. I did not practice how I played because in practice I was unstoppable, unbeatable, invincible. In the game I was debilitated, irresolute, capitulated. The pass was perfect and hit me in the hands before it hit me in the face. One drop doesn't affect a whole game, but in my case it was the initial episode that told the whole show. I commenced to drop every pass thrown to me. I should have lost my starting job, but in practice I was phenomenal, so I kept my job and continued to drop every pass that was thrown to me that season.
The next season I was back in Louisiana. My grandmother lived in South Terrebonne's district, but all my cousins was going to Ellender Memorial, and that's where I wanted to go, too. Unfortunately, my grandmother was a by-the-book person. The first day at the new school, I spoke with the head coach, who wasn't interested. I vowed I'd never play for him, and wanted to switch schools, but my grandmother wasn't hearing it.
In order to survive in the jungle you gotta do what you gotta do. A week later I skipped school, went to the school board's office where my cousins went, sat next to an elderly Black lady, and struck up a conversation with her. I then went to the desk, got the paperwork to enroll in school, and filled it out. Every time the lady behind the desk looked up I would talk to the elderly lady and she thought this was my grandmother. I switched schools that day.
My first day at Ellender, I talked to the head coach and he told me to come to practice after school. It's no surprise that I did exceptional in practice, and took the starting spot. My grandmother discovered the switch but said if the people were stupid enough to let me switch, oh well. I was starting on the junior varsity team when game day came. The game was going well until it was a pass play. I had to run a 5 and out. I ran my route and completely lost my defender in my break. When I turned around, the ball was right in my face. Instinctively, I put my hands up to catch the ball and actually caught it! I just stared at the ball. The defender hit me right in the face and flipped me into the air, but when I came down I still had the ball.
Everybody congratulated me on the catch, but wondered why I just stood there and got flatlined. To me that was cool, since I had conquered a fear I never knew I had. With my head in the game, the gridiron jungle was easy to master.
Stay tuned for Part II, which will be published two weeks from now!
This is the fourth contribution to our new, bi-weekly blog post featuring creative content made by currently or formerly incarcerated people! If you or someone you know is a currently or formerly incarcerated person with creative content to offer, please submit your materials to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll be in touch! We'll share the content on social media and always give credit to the artist(s) involved. Any type of submission--whether stories, poems, illustrations, music, videos or something else--are welcome! Today, we're sharing the first in a multi-part story written by Eyba Brown, who is currently incarcerated at Raymond Laborde Correctional Center.
As of yesterday, the 2019 Louisiana Legislature is in session, and we're ready to rock. In other words, we've submitted a long list of criminal justice reform bills, and we're getting our ducks in a row so that as many as possible become laws this year. Head over to the Legislative Corner on our website and check out:
We need your help to make this year as successful as possible! If you or someone you know has been affected by one of the proposed bills, we will need you to testify! If you can join us for Lobby Day at the State Capitol on May 6, we will need you there! If you have just 5 minutes to call your Representatives and Senators at different times throughout the session, we will need you to make those calls! There are endless ways to get involved. Subscribe to our newsletter to stay up to date with the most recent information.
This is the third contribution to our new, bi-weekly blog post featuring creative content made by currently or formerly incarcerated people! If you or someone you know is a currently or formerly incarcerated person with creative content to offer, please submit your materials to email@example.com and we'll be in touch! We'll share the content on social media and always give credit to the artist(s) involved. Any type of submission--whether stories, poems, illustrations, music, videos or something else--are welcome! Today, we're sharing a poem written by Reginald Dwayne Betts, a husband, father of two sons, poet and memoirist. Betts spent 8 years in prison and is now a PhD student at Yale Law School.
Your father watches the flecks add up.
He says the wind-blown dead insects
against the window conjure ghosts:
tossed dice, the South, and his regrets.
You’re driving north on roads that glow
with high beams searching night. You cuss
and think about the wheel’s curved bone
pressed on your palms. The hard callus
burns and you curse the time--eight years
these towns on green billboards were home--
Greensville, Nottoway, Sussex. Names
of prisons, dark restless tombstones.
Words swallow air between you two
as a Newport lights the car’s inside.
Your father has listened and now wants
to talk. He pauses to glare wild-eyed.
His voice is broken bottles, smoke,
flesh. He knows you burned his letters.
In the back, your younger brother sleeps
between your wife and child for hours.
Outside, a storm begins with rain.
Your father sips his third straight beer
and you remember prison’s night.
He never mentions love’s austere
and lonely offices. And now--
when your son wakes--what will you say
about fathers? What will you say
about a voice cuffed to mistakes?
This poem comes from the most recent of Betts' three books, Shahid Reads His Own Palm. To get a FREE copy of the book, stop by our office M-F, 10am - 4pm.