Dear Lateefah,

It’s a privilege to share with you that InsideOUT Writers had a beautiful writing circle last Thursday, as we were informed by your mention of Charleston from the night before. I’m aware that the event hit hard at home for you, as so many events these days tend to do for those of us watching closely. In this brief note, I’d just like to offer some of what was discussed at the circle.

We started things off with a poem from yours truly about the temptation to reciprocate violence when it’s directed our way. The piece spoke on the humiliation and anger we feel when we’re betrayed by figures who are supposed to “protect and serve” our communities, as well as the historical context that makes such an abuse of power a true culture in its own right. This sparked some great discussion, during which folks spoke about the constant harassment they face from law enforcement, as well as their beliefs in the right to defend themselves when being attacked.

Here, there was more listening than speaking done. One participant had just gotten back home a few days prior, which made hearing her voice particularly special. Shortly thereafter, our discussion shifted to events in Charleston, where several observations struck a cord in the room.

One homie mentioned that America was founded with violence, and that as hard as it may be to admit, violence has always gotten results in this country. For this, we had a special perspective from one IOW alum that actually participated in L.A.’s hell-raising or uprisings of ‘92.

Our alum spoke on the consequences of violence on a larger scale, as well as the personal impacts it had on him. He shared how the collective expression of violence against ‘the pigs’ showed the world that people won’t always sit idly by while unjust systems are imposed on them. By contrast, however, our alum also shared how participating in this collective expression cost him some real time. Later, when faced with the possibility to respond to violence in a similar fashion as before, he took a different route based on his experience.

I heard this as the description of a point at which people evolve in the way they respond to injustice. As if to catch my drift, Jaki shared how although for years she suffered violence at the hands of law enforcement, she eventually went on to find one particular individual within law enforcement who’s served as a true mentor in the years of her transformation.

The discussion continued this way, with even more folks describing how navigating the political landscape of this country is ultimately a personal journey through darkness and light in both individual and shared consciences.

It was a powerful and uplifting circle for this, but I can tell you that the evening couldn’t have been what it was had you not mentioned the events of Charleston the night before. Your communication at the late hour was a gift, even if the gift was received in the cradle of a tragedy.

For me, landing inside a jail cell at fifteen years old for a crime I didn’t commit was a tragedy. Then, walking alongside herds of black and brown bodies in chains was an even greater tragedy; it was walking through a crime against humanity.

For a long time, I could only mourn in silence. As I’ve mentioned to a number of our friends at IOW at this point, as soon as the chains were unlocked and the doors were opened for me to go, I ran as far away from the cell as I could get, refusing to look back.

I was released in 2007, long before the alumni program at IOW and the ARC were around. In the years that followed, I didn’t feel I had a community to share the post traumatic process with, so I buried the pain of the experience deep inside, at points believing it would never see the light.

Of course, I was mistaken.

I reconnected with the InsideOUT Writers program last year after seven years apart. And while I knew it’d be special, I had no idea that I’d meet so many other great leaders, fighters, and other extraordinary individuals who were similarly transformed from their tragedies.

It was a gift.

In the same vein, by claiming my love and respect for Leo’s passing on Memorial Day weekend, I knew I’d be recognized, but I was humbled by just how many compassionate individuals would emerge from the shadows to show their support. In doing so, their expression of shared pain and humanity gave me strength to carry on.

Time and again, I see that tragedy works in this wicked way: appearing as nothing but ruin and suffering first, but blossoming into light and revelation later.

And now, it’s not my intention to claim the lives lost in Charleston or anywhere else in our country are necessary sacrifices for some greater good, but I do believe that as leaders, fighters, and other extraordinary individuals rose in Ferguson and Baltimore following their tragedies to build new communities in the wake of those lost, they will emerge from Charleston as well, and from all across the world where they’re needed.

Such folks emerged at the writing circle on Thursday, and it was marvelous; you were totally there with us, and it was precious to be alongside you and other brothers and sisters; free, powerful, and resilient because of and for one another.

Thank you for your presence, and please know that the IOW family awaits you again when you’re ready.

With love,

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