On Aug. 18, to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance,” cap and gown-decked graduates marched to cheers and applause marking their graduation from the San Quentin News’ Journalism Guild.
“This is the first time I ever wore a cap and gown,” said graduate Raymond Torres. “I dropped out of Seward Park High School in Lower East Side Manhattan in 1970, and now I have completed something on time. I am grateful to participate as a journalist for SQNews.”
Torres completed both the Spanish and the English language Journalism Guilds as the ceremony honored a class of 26 graduates in the Education B building.
“It took a long-time to get here and the ceremony was almost lost, again,” said Journalism Guild Chair Steve Brooks, referring to COVID-19-related quarantines that caused frequent delays and interruptions for the most recent guild classes. The last graduation was in 2020.
On the morning of the graduation, parts of the prison were medically quarantined for “viral infections.” Some SQNews staffers, including Editor-in-Chief Marcus Henderson, and several guild students, were unable to attend.
“We cherish recognizing our future journalists and giving them opportunities to find their own voice,” said Brooks, who addressed the graduates on behalf of Henderson.
The guild teaches students how to write news articles, including interviewing techniques, fact checking, and other fundamental elements of journalism.
“I am appreciative to have been a small part in the growth of the concept,’ said Lt. Sam Robinson, San Quentin’s public information officer. Referring to the wide latitude that prison officials give to the incarcerated journalists, he added, “We must remember — and remain humble.”
Jesse Vasquez, past editor-in-chief of the newspaper and currently head of the affiliated non-profit Friends of San Quentin News, also spoke at the ceremony.
“The Journalism Guild is where I started,” he said. “I didn’t know I would be editor-in-chief, or go home for that matter. I had three life sentences when I was in the Guild and then I was home in [three] years. I represent all of you guys.
“We need to accept three responsibilities as journalists — we must change the narrative, change people’s impression, and change recidivism rates. The Guild and you guys make a difference in California,” Vasquez added.
Robinson said he enjoyed watching “People grow, like Jesse Vasquez,” and then give back to the San Quentin community.
To demonstrate the impact of SQNews on the incarcerated population in California, Brooks read several powerful letters from incarcerated people addressed to the newspaper’s editor.
Harvard Professor Dr. Kaia Stern was the ceremony’s commencement speaker.
“We need all of your wisdom for our collective works regarding justice,” said Stern, who is also an interfaith minister.
“San Quentin is a global leader, a shining example of programming in prison and SQNews is a shining star,” she said.
Stern stressed the power of intergenerational dialogues, and the need to discover and address traumas. To help accomplish this, she asked the graduates to walk with integrity and with “… all of our wounded parts. Each of us keeps secrets, which leads to violence. The world has too much brokenness; we need to find human sunrises.”
She closed with, “What SQNews does is truth-telling and we all celebrate the Journalism Guild shepherding stories by speaking truth to power and sitting in the pain.”
Vasquez, Brooks and SQNews staff writer Carlos Drouaillet presented certificates to the graduates.
“Without the guild, we couldn’t do what we do,” said Vasquez in recognition of the fact that the guild produces 35- 40 percent of the newspaper’s content.
Drouaillet spoke of the Spanish Journalism Guild, saying, “Special mention goes to Spanish Guild Chair Edwin Chavez. He led the Spanish Guild class and crossed over to the English section as a feature writer who designed SQNews’ art section.”
Drouaillet added, “To see Edwin become an award-writing writer, leading the guild and directing the Spanish [edition of Wall City] magazine is rewarding. Through his trust, I proudly assist him in representing the Spanish community.”
Graduate Joshua Strange spoke as the Guild’s first Valedictorian. Strange accepted a full-time job assignment at SQNews 10 months earlier.
“It felt like 260 weeks to get to graduation,” said Strange, regarding the protracted 26-week guild class. “At the Guild, finally, I felt I was serving my sentence and doing something to make amends rather than just suffering through my sentence. Becoming a staff writer is a privilege. We’re one of the few prison newspapers in the world that allows us to speak our own narratives.”
Brooks introduced guild instructor and SQNews adviser John Eagan, who had a long career as a reporter and editor, including for The Associated Press. Eagan formed the Guild more than a dozen years ago.
“The guild signifies you guys have a lot to say,” said Eagan. “You’re doing a great job. And when was the last time anyone said they were proud of you? Trust me, your family and all of us are proud of what you do for the newspaper.”
Brooks, referring to Eagan’s instruction of the Guild class since San Quentin reopened from its 14-month long COVID-19 lockdown in 2021, added, “John is our saving grace.”
Brooks also presented two awards on behalf of SQNews. Tare Beltranchuc, who was not present at the ceremony due to West Block being on quarantine, was awarded for his dedication and assistance to the newspaper.
Juan Haines, the newspaper’s senior editor, was given the second-ever Arnulfo T. Garcia Award, which recognizes one individual who lives up to the beloved late editor-in-chief’s motto of “moving forward,” regardless of obstacles faced.
“I didn’t see this one coming,” said Haines, who was assigned to the newspaper following his graduation from the guild in 2009. He said the newspaper, “Expanded my voice. It helped me change my life.”
He thanked his mentors such as Lt. Robinson, Vasquez, advisers Jan Perry and Eagan, and staff. “I am humbled. The success of the newspaper, it’s not me, it’s all of us together,” he said.
Brooks showered praise on adviser Perry, who received a standing ovation for her hard work and dedication to the newspaper.
“We are the voice of the incarcerated. We must continue to develop new writers to share our vision of social justice,” said Brooks.
Dr. Stern’s last instruction to the graduating journalists was, “Keep being the human sunrise.”