Hearts continued to beat and words continued to flow from within as dedicated incarcerated persons bared their souls at the October 30 evening session of The Beat Within.
The program conducts weekly writing workshops that ask participants to write short recollections about their life according to always changing prompts. Their writings may appear in a magazine circulated in juvenile detention centers, jails, and prisons throughout the nation. Besides California, the group runs writing workshops in Oregon, New Mexico, Washington, D.C., and Hawaii.
The nonprofit organization has brought its workshop to San Quentin in collaboration with the institution’s Kid CAT group. The group challenges values and belief systems as well as giving voice to incarcerated persons who consider themselves unheard.
“The Beat Within has been instrumental in my correction and rehabilitation as well as being able to share my experiences through creative writing with at-risk and incarcerated youth with the hope that it will encourage them to make the most of their opportunities in life and never stop reaching for their dreams,” said Brady Godoy, a participant and contributing writer.
Having lost its founder David Innocencio to terminal illness in July, The Beat Within continues its work in recognition of a revered person who gave a voice to voiceless incarcerated persons. Innocencio had founded the program in San Francisco in 1996, after having worked as assistant director of the Detention Diversion Advocacy Program. He had an idea to help at-risk youth to express themselves safely through writing.
The group now thrives under the leadership of Courtney Rein, a dedicated volunteer for many San Quentin organizations. Rein had first heard of The Beat Within 18 years ago from students at her day job as a high school teacher of English and multidisciplinary studies in San Francisco. She also volunteers as a group facilitator at Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla.
Rein said Innocencio’s widow Lisa Lavaysse has stepped up as Executive Director and the publication has gained Simone Zapata and Omar Turcios as editors. “Things are remarkably intact within the organization, given how central David was to every single part of the work,” Rein added.
Teaming up with the Pacific News Service, a nonprofit media and communications organization, had first given the program the ability to offer writing workshops to youth detained in San Francisco’s Juvenile Hall. The program later expanded beyond the Bay Area.
The Beat Within printed its first publication in 1996. The first issue appeared as a six-page magazine; today, the magazine has 60 pages and publishes bi-weekly. For some contributors, seeing their stories on paper meant the first positive recognition they ever received — an affirmation that they, too, have voices worthy of print.
The nonprofit also performs work outside of the juvenile justice system, in collaboration with community organizations and the private sector, to bring resources to youth inside and outside of detention.
“The Beat Within’s mission is to provide incarcerated youth with consistent opportunity to share their ideas and the life’s experiences in a safe space that encourages literacy, self-expression, some critical thinking skills, and healthy supportive relationships with adults and their community. We are committed to being an effective bridge between youth who are locked up and the community that aims to support their progress towards a healthy, non-violent, and productive life,” said Rein.
The Monday session began with the participants checking in. Incarcerated persons of all races, creeds, religions, and origins communicated common human experiences about the writing prompt, “What was your favorite Halloween costume?”
The participants shared fond memories of past Halloween experiences, mostly with laughs and smiles. Writers incarcerated from a few years to a few decades read their just-written stories, some of which recounted shameful acts with pain, sorrow, and regret, to an audience who showed genuine empathy as they listened with a spirit of camaraderie.
“I would love to see The Beat Within gain even more visibility for the work it’s been doing for the last 26 years, especially in juvenile halls across the state. There is a remarkable archive of writings that have enormous value,” Rein said.
“Contributing writing to the magazine is always a great way to get involved,” said Rein about sharing wisdom with the young readers of the magazine.
The Beat Within takes place Monday evenings from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the ARC Building. The group encourages walk-ins, has no waiting list, and does not require an official class assignment.