SQNEWS HONORS JOURNALISM GUILD GRADUATES IN CEREMONY FULL OF HEADLINERS
The San Quentin News Journalism Guild graduation took place in the Garden Chapel June 16. Fourteen English Guild and eleven Spanish Guild student journalists made up the 2022/23 graduating class.
The ceremony featured caps and gowns, guest speakers and refreshments. The newly-minted journalists expressed how being in the Guild positively impacted their lives.
Guild graduates Stuart Clarke and Rahan Asaan received awards for outstanding participation, and graduate Patrick Demery delivered remarks.
“When I came to prison, I belonged in prison. I felt hopelessness; bought into the narrative that I am trash,” said Demery. “But then I realized something — things can be recycled and formed into something new and useful.”
San Quentin News Editor-in-Chief Steve Brooks opened the ceremony, noting that the graduates will use their new skills to help humanize incarcerated people with the power of their pens.
Attendees included CalMatters investigative reporter Byrhonda Lyons, UC Berkeley journalism professor Andres Cediel and Harvard social justice professor Dr. Kaia Stern.
Also present were San Francisco Standard r eporter J ulie Z agori, S Q Psychologist Dr. K. Rosenberg, Warden Ron Broomfield, and former editors of SQNews.
Alumnus Jesse Vasquez recalled his transition to freedom when he paroled after serving as SQNews editor-in-chief. “Some life lessons I learned included understanding that you can never outrun your past. Someone’s always there reminding you, so re-write your own story,” Vasquez said.
Another former SQNews editor-in-chief, Richard “Bonaru” Richardson, spoke after Vasquez.
“At SQNews, I‘ve done it all, but I can’t thank [adviser] John Eagan enough for thinking ahead by starting the Journalism Guild,” he said.
“The Guild creates the SQNews team. You are the lifeblood. Go tell your own story,” Richardson implored.
Brooks reminded everyone of the importance of volunteers like Eagan who mentor the incarcerated journalists as professionals and as people.
Eagan shared his joy in assisting the Guild. “Trust me; we are proud of what you do for the newspaper,” he said.
Brooks thanked SQNews adviser Jan Perry. “Jan is our Steph Curry. Without her, we could not survive as the voice of the incarcerated,” Brooks said. Perry and Eagan received a standing ovation.
Byrhonda Lyons was the keynote speaker. She spoke of how she “got my spark back because of SQNews. The men of SQNews, like my grandmother, had no voice. Her life, like theirs, was [allegedly] not worthy of chronicling,” Lyons said.
Lyons started her investigative reporting career trying to find information on the lynching death of her uncle in her home state of Arkansas.
“My love for journalism started as a child,” she said. “Grandmother spoke of my Uncle Jeff’s murder outside our church — they hung him. I wanted to know his story, so I searched libraries to find microfiche to corroborate my grandmother’s story. I couldn’t find anything.”
“I became editor-in-chief of my high school paper and continued searching. I learned I would never find his story because he and my grandmother were considered Black, illiterate and they didn’t matter.
“So remember, speak your truth,” Lyons said.
Lyons reminded the graduates that their newsroom is one of the most diverse in the country, but advised them to read from journalists who are not like them.
Warden Ron Broomfield attended the event for the first time. He said that graduating from the Journalism Guild is a “powerful accomplishment.”
“My challenge to you is write as much as possible and sharpen the tool. If you’re writing for the public, write with integrity as your words will have a powerful impact. No matter what you write keep your integrity so you can sleep well at night,” said Broomfield.
The warden acknowledged the engine of the rehabilitative model — volunteers. “It’s volunteers that bring humanization, encouragement, knowledge, passion, and transformation to the lives of our population,” he said.
Dr. Kaia Stern came from Boston to attend her second Guild graduation. “I came again because you all give me hope,” she said.
Dr. K. Rosenberg spoke of how SQNews helps create a sense of community. “The newsroom is an incredible community where very talented people supply courage to tell their own stories without victimizing others, tell people’s stories who haven’t mattered before. SQNews i s v ery i mportant i n H-unit, helping residents stay connected to the prison.”
Spanish Guild Chair Edwin Chavez and English Guild Chair Jerry Maleek Gearin introduced their respective graduates as they took the stage to receive their certificates.
“I was privileged to graduate myself in 2018,” Chavez said. “I learned of the importance of SQNews during the pandemic. Imagine not being able to understand what was going on and not getting any information [in your language]. We provided this, that’s why I’m here and the reason you should want to write for our audience.”
Gearin, a 2017 graduate, spoke about the perseverance of his Guild students. “My guys, this 2023 Guild, you showed up, you did the work. During lockdowns, they took source material through the fence,” Gearin said.
Demery, one of the Guild graduates, recalled that when he came to SQ, his family asked him what he had done wrong because of the prison’s reputation from the past. He told them, “No, I got sent here to go home.”
He toured the newsroom and met Brooks, thinking, “Man, I got to be a part of this.” He loved the way the guys carried themselves, as well as the work they were doing. So he joined the guild and started writing.
When his first article appeared in the paper, he sent his family a copy and then they understood.
“Wow, you guys are doing all that in there!” they said.