Every six months, new relationships are forged and the power of community becomes renewed through San Quentin’s Coalition For Justice (CFJ).
The self-help program’s latest cycle produced 23 graduates. These men gathered on Feb. 13 alongside their volunteer facilitators and incarcerated mentors to receive their certificates, celebrate together, and reflect on their personal transformation.
“We don’t just teach social justice here,” said CFJ President Darnell “Moe” Washington. “What makes this group so different is that we go further and teach about going back to your community and building that community up. That’s the best part of what we do.”
The graduation ceremony gave every member a chance to speak about what CFJ meant to them. “It’s a long, tough process,” said inside mentor Royce Rose. “I like to see how it starts off and then see how we came together and became a community—then I can say, ‘I watched it happen.’”
“I take away countless things from being involved with you guys,” said outside volunteer Nathaniel Moore. “Together, we all get a better understanding of why people think and do the things that they do.
“I’m always learning and building from what you folks say. There’s a real reciprocal value in it for me, and I appreciate that.”
CFJ’s curriculum focuses on seven key forms of justice: procedural, retributive, distributive, transitional, community, restorative, and transformative. Three days each week, volunteers, students and mentors work together to understand how these things connect and define communities as a whole.
Moore chose to speak about “ a type of justice which often gets pushed aside—transitional justice.” He described how governments, city groups and individuals can all come together to lift and repair society – even after traumatic events, such as a violent race riot, leave a community in social disarray.
“Things that initially seem like far off pipedreams … can actually happen,” stressed Moore.
Maryann O’Sullivan came on board CFJ for this last six month cycle. As a social justice advocate and volunteer over the years, she continues to address her own personal transformation. “I’ve learned to face my own racism,” she said. “I’ve seen the layers—it doesn’t go away.”
“I realized I wasn’t listen- ing to people who don’t sound like me — you know, ‘White and educated’ — and I’m embarrassed by it.” O’Sullivan gestured toward herself, “I’ve got all this gray hair, and I’m just learning this now.”
Volunteer Bill S. said, “Seeing and hearing you guys reach deep down into your experiences—there’s so much wisdom and great inspiration there. Every time one of you shared, I could see it affecting the other people in the group.”
Paloma Mathern thanked CFJ for “welcoming me into your community. I feel like I’m living a whole new life by coming in here.”
Karen Lovaas has been a driving force behind CFJ for years. “Most prisons do not allow people to sit together and talk the way we talk,” she said. “We have to give credit to San Quentin for that, but I want you guys to know—I’m not here to support prison, I’m here to support you.”
Lovaas teaches an under- graduate class, Rhetoric of Criminality and Punishment, at San Francisco State University. Her curriculum includes bringing her SFSU students in to sit and experience CFJ for themselves.
“I was so messed up, I had to be removed from society.
“I was teaching yesterday, and we were talking about you guys,” Lovaas said. “You are alive and in the hearts of the people who’ve met you.”
Graduate James Vick proudly held up his certificate for all to see. “This is something I can actually say I’ve earned,” Vick said. “No one can take this away from me.
“I was so messed up, I had to be removed from society. Now I can go to any community and they’ll welcome me because I know what to do to be a part of that community. This group taught me how to do that.”
Emonte Johnson seemed a bit uncomfortable as he accepted his certificate and faced the room. “I might be the only young one in here,” said the 22-year-old. “I didn’t like talking and only started talking near the end. I appreciate all the hard work y’all gave me. I need that.”
Henry Gonsalves said, “Now I got the itch to try and make a change. I see now that if it doesn’t affect your family, it affects your friends.”
Chan Park said CFJ be- came “the one place I really looked forward to every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. I see you guys on the yard,” he used Vick as an example, “and I say ‘Hi’ in a different way than I did before.
“It took me 27 years to find my own humanity—it’s something I had to earn. I had to be willing to admit that for a long time during my life I was not a human being.”
Kenny Vernon has been a part of CFJ for the last four years and now co-leads a team of 10 incarcerated men- tors. Each mentor is responsible for following up and being available to two or three CFJ students during the six-month course.
“Mentorship is all about developing a relationship with these guys and building a friendship along the way,” Vernon said. “That’s community.”
Bruce “Brother J” Bowman recalled his own journey through CFJ. “When I first decided to become a mentor, I wanted to try and give back something,” he said. “But I had no idea how much I was gonna receive.”
Mentor John “Yah Yah” Parratt shared this with the graduates: “Life becomes worthwhile when you have worthwhile goals.”
Mentor Kahlil Dallas noted that, “I’ve seen everybody in here make personal progress. Whoever came up with this format—where we cross- check and reference each other’s experiences and get to know each other—it’s a great idea.”
In closing, mentor Richard Zorn said, “Look at it this way, guys: We gave you a little knowledge to go with the wis- dom you already have.”
CFJ’s 2019 graduating class also included: Manny Archibeque, Ralph Arreguin, Armondo Hernandez, Brian Holliday, Arthur Jackson, Joshua Jeffords, Johnny Johnson, Don Leschke, Anthony Marzett, Daniel McCoy, Loren Mears, Matthew Medina, Raymond Mosier, Christopher Rigsby, Aron Roy, Anthony Satriano, Benjamin Tobin, Cedric Webb and Richard Williams.