Interview: Denise Banister, No More Tears
San Quentin News: What is No More Tears, and what role do you play in it?
Denise Banister: NMT is a violence and crime prevention program conceived of by SQ prisoners. It was developed through collaboration between NMT founders Lonnie Morris, Jerry Elster, Bobby Dean Evans, Jr., and Lafayette Nelson, community and staff volunteers Vernell Crittendon, Mick Gardner, Cat Aboudara and Yolanda Najera, of Centerforce. Centerforce is the umbrella organization over NMT. The Muslim Chaplain, R.S. Hassan, is the chief-sponsor of NMT, as well as a founding member. I am a co-sponsor of NMT, serve on the steering committee, perform administrative duties for the program, coordinate volunteer efforts and help implement workshops and events.
SQN : What inspired you to work with NMT? And how long has the organization been in existence?
D.B.: NMT was “born” in 2001. I came on board in 2004. What inspired me to work with NMT was the hope I experienced when I first came to San Quentin to observe the program. Let me say that again; I found HOPE at San Quentin. I almost didn’t come that first day; I was skeptical and expected to find just another group of people who sit around talking about issues of violence in our communities; I was so tried of talk. I grew up in Oakland, Berkeley and Richmond, and was disheartened by the deterioration of those communities due to disenfranchisement, economic disparities, and the infusion of drugs and dwindling of economic opportunities. What I found at NMT was a group of dedicated people working to proactively address all the issues underlying the growing violence in our communities; particularly the youth-on-youth violence. I felt the genius of the program was that men who had once been the offenders were now the mentors for positive change and healing. They reminded me of some very special individuals who took time to mentor me in my youth and turned me from the path of self-destruction. NMT allows me to give back, to thank those who helped me, to serve my community; and as I said, it gives me hope.
SQN: What is the Mission Statement of NMT?
D.B.: NMT Mission Statement: To curb violence and detrimental behaviors within targeted communities by utilizing the specialized knowledge and experience of former perpetrators of violence and crime. These former perpetrators hold themselves accountable to bring solutions to the communities where once they had contributed to the problems.
SQN : And where do you see the group going in the future?
D.B.: I see NMT reaching out into the community, providing mentors who have successfully overcome the negative to model positive change and offer guidance and hope to our youth. Our communities are suffering from a terrible disunity at the core; the result of racism, classism, social injustice, economic imbalance and the systematic destruction of hope. I believe NMT’s greatest value will be in collaboration with groups such as the Healing Circle, partnering our efforts to provide forums for healing, growth and positive change. For any of our programs and efforts to have a lasting effect, we must learn to value each other and work together across all lines, to create a strong, unified, diverse community that fosters and sustains the well-being of all our children and all of our people.
SQN: Who/ How many people are in NMT?
D.B.: Who: Inside: Incarcerated men who, through word of mouth, have been intrigued to investigate NMT and been inspired to work with us. Outside: Various community volunteers from all walks of life. How many: NMT has maintained an average of 55 inside and 15 outside participants over the last four years.
SQN: If someone were interested in becoming a part of your group, how would they go about doing this?
D.B.: Those interested in joined NMT should speak to one of the Steering Committee members. We try to keep a balance of long-termers and short-termers (sentence), so that we know a good percentage of our members will be going home in the next few years to bring what they’ve learned from NMT into their communities.
SQN: What is the Healing Circle and how does it relate to your group?
D.B.: The Healing Circle for the Soul Support (HCSS) is a group of individuals who have lost loved ones to murder; many of them have lost one or more children. The founders of the HCSS, and the chief sponsor – George Jurand, formed the group to provide culturally appropriate and sensitive support to communities of color who traditionally have not had their needs considered by existing services. The format and the methods are so effective that persons across all cultures participate and find solace in the HCSS.
NMT began collaborating with the HCSS in 2007, in a series of dialogs that examine all aspects of violence and its impact. Side by side “victim” and “offender” have found empathy and common ground. We have learned to cross the lines we imagine divide us to create a forum for support, healing, and empowerment. From our initial collaboration we also developed additional workshops such as “Reconnecting the community through Communication” where young incarcerated adults and community members rediscover the value in each other, and explore breaking down barriers and creating solutions in an effort to rewrite the community.
SQN: What do you expect out of a relationship between the two groups?
D.B.: NMT and HCSS are currently working to broaden the scope of our collaboration and develop a solid curriculum, to make this powerful forum available to other communities and venues.
SQN: What are some of the things you would like our readers to know?
D.B.: I would like your readers to know that every one of you is valuable and necessary. No matter what previous experience you have had, what wrong you have done ( and we all have done wrong, sometime), you have talents and abilities that you can develop and use to make your life a good life, to help yourself, your family and your community.
SQN: Are others in training for Leadership positions?
D.B.: Yes, we have other co-facilitators that are connecting with the groups, each in his own, unique way: Marvin Mitchell, Marcus Williams, Eugene “MC” Montgomery and Michael Lewis.
SQN contacted NMT’s co-founder Jerry Elster for comment.
Jerry Elster: “Our original intent at NMT was to expose perpetrators to victims, and victims to perpetrators. And in that way to put a face on crime. It’s a lot harder to commit crime when you put a face on the victim. Our goal is to make everybody accountable for public safety.”
SQN: Could you comment on Denise Bannister’s role at NMT.
JE: She puts in a tireless effort to keep NMT together, no doubt. Denise is the glue that holds it all together. And I’d like to mention Lonnie (Morris), because NMT is his idea. Without Lonnie, there is no NMT. Everybody puts in a good effort to make this all happen, to all come together.
Interview: Denise Banister, No More Tears