In a criminal justice system that Gabriel Tolliver says encourages people to make bad choices, he co-teaches a journalism class to incarcerated men at San Quentin State Prison.
“I teach journalism to prisoners so that the ‘each-one, teach-one’ philosophy would inspire people to help each one tell another’s story,” Tolliver said referring to the more than half Black class.
“Gabriel taught me how to find my voice,” said Tommy “Shakur” Ross. “I learned how to come from my own perspective by writing an Op-Ed. I’m able to tell readers how I feel about prison because I live it and experience it.”
Ross is serving a life sentence and has been incarcerated for more than 30 years. He produces radio stories that tackle various prison-related issues, such as financial literacy, restorative justice, college, volunteers and sports in prison, as well as individual profiles.
The fact that incarcerated men want to learn shows that they want to improve their lives, Tolliver said. “They are going to have to reintegrate into society.”
Tolliver moved from New York City to Berkeley after serving in the U.S. Army from 2007-2011.
“I see parallels with being a military veteran and transitioning to civilian life and someone getting out of prison and returning to the community,” Tolliver said.
He is the son of an Air Force veteran and said the military was his family’s “life-saver.”
“We still had to deal with racism. At many times, at a duty station, we were the only Black family,” he said.
After Tolliver’s father finished his military duties in 1968, they moved to Shaker Heights, Ohio, a middle-class suburban neighborhood.
It was progressive regarding integration, Tolliver said.
He is the youngest of six children. Watching his sister raise three children without their father had an impact on him. He also realized that growing up in a middle-class neighborhood estranged him from the Black community.
“In elementary school, I was that square kid who everyone thought talked White,” Tolliver said.
He said what guided him into the military, on to college and on to a film career were the examples of family members and friends who’d made mistakes.
“I’ve learned not to snatch failure from the jaws of success,” Tolliver commented as to how he avoided contact with the criminal justice system. “I have seen the good and the bad in how it affected me.”
Tolliver learned about teaching in San Quentin by reading a post by Berkeley Professor William Drummond that sought out University of California journalism students who wished to assist San Quentin News writers.
He ended up taking a position with Prison University Project to co-teach Journalism 101 with Ryan Lindsay. As part of a class project, the students are producing a 32-page magazine that gives readers a taste of what it’s like to eat a meal in prison.
“I’m impressed that Gabriel doesn’t let his success and education go to his head,” said Seth “Venus” Rountree. “He’s humble enough to say that he’s learning things about teaching, like organization and structure from his co-teacher, Ryan.”
Tolliver’s own storytelling style, however, veers toward visual art through documentaries that allow viewers to “bear witness” to people telling their story.
His subjects include Black cultural aspects such as urban farms and employment.
Black Unemployment and Fleecing Led Zeppelin are two of his films.
Black Unemployment takes place in Colonial Williamsburg and is about slavery and its history.
Tolliver says the goal is to give Americans a serious history lesson about what it was like for the person who was enslaved. He accomplishes this by hiring Black scholars who are knowledgeable about every aspect of slavery.
“A lot of people didn’t know about Williamsburg,” Tolliver said. “This film gives them accurate information about what slavery in the U.S. was really like.”
Fleecing Led Zeppelin is a fictional story based on an actual $20,000 robbery of the band in 1973. The story is about a man who finds the money in his mother’s house and begins connecting it to the robbery.
“I hope to become a philanthropist through my creative work,” Tolliver said. “Giving back is worth the effort.”