For the past five years, Dave Inocencio has been coming to San Quentin to lead a writing workshop for The Beat Within publication that he started 21 years ago in San Francisco.
He got involved with San Quentin through Karen Drucker, who, at the time, worked with the KID CAT program and emailed him asking him to be a part of it. The first time he saw the CAT program, Inocencio was blown away.
“[KID CAT shows] all those who are incarcerated that they matter and have a story and a place for them at the table,” he said.
Prior to meeting Drucker in 2013, Inocencio had started The Beat Within after working as a social worker for juveniles in San Francisco’s county jail. He wasn’t afraid to go into jails. It was inspiring for him.
“The system would label the kids, but once I saw them, I found that they had dreams, loves and fears,” he said.
According to Inocencio, the meaning of The Beat Within is to listen and connect with the souls and wisdom of those who often don’t have a voice.
In January 1996, Inocencio had his first workshop. It was the same year Tupac Shakur was killed. The kids began to tell Inocencio stories about Tupac Shakur and how he impacted their lives. Tupac ended up being featured on the first cover of the publication, and so The Beat Within began.
When Inocencio brought the publication to San Quentin, Miguel Quezada, a San Quentin inmate, helped him run The Beat Within workshop. Today, Michael Webb and Michael Mackey help to facilitate and lead the publication.
“The Beat Within has helped me to communicate better with others,” Webb said. “I needed The Beat Within to be a better person.”
Each month four topics are passed out to the group. Everyone has time to write on as many of the subjects as they wish. The subjects range from how to deal with racism, to how an adult has helped you in the past.
“The subjects passed out have a lot of meaning,” Mackey said.
Michael Web spoke about how, even though he isn’t around them, his kids don’t have any resentment against him because The Beat Within carries his voice to them. He added that The Beat Within has given him a voice to help other kids hear his message as well.
When asked about the beginning stages of The Beat Within, Inocencio explained that he had a lot of interest from friends who wanted to help, leading to partnerships with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland and the California College of Arts, to name just a few. Now there are 25 outlets of The Beat Within in the U.S., including Hawaii and New Mexico, with more than 100 volunteers.
“I have pinch me moments, and I don’t take anything for granted because I wanted to learn from everyone and the volunteers,” Inocencio said. “It’s not about me.”
At the most recent San Quentin workshop, one of the prompts was how spending time alone has affected you. Hieu Nguyen, a prisoner in the program, spoke about his experiences growing up without a father and being left home alone. He would watch other kids get picked up after school by their parents, and it bothered him that nobody was there to come get him. To fill this void, Nguyen turned to gangs and looked at the older guys as father figures.
“The Beat Within has helped me learn express those feelings that I had had as a kid,” Nguyen said.
For the future, Inocencio hopes that The Beat Within will get more funding to expand to other prisons and jails.
“I have no plans to retire, and as long as people are incarcerated, I will have The Beat Within,” Inocencio said.