Millions of children live with one incarcerated parent. We don’t see what’s missing in their lives. We don’t hear what they need from the adults around them. Until, Project WHAT! (We’re Here and Talking), family members, teachers, lawyers, social workers and doctors lacked the children’s view of how best to support their specific needs. I sat down with Project WHAT! alum and Program Associate Alisha Murdock to learn more. (Photos by photographer Ruth Morgan from the Sentence Unseen exhibit, running through January 23rd at the African American Museum and Library in Oakland)
How did Project WHAT! come to your attention?
Alisha Murdock: Both my parents were in and out of prison a lot. My friend told me about it because she was in the program, and she learned about it at school. She was going to El Cerritto High. From being in the program, I hear that people find out about it from school counselors or word of mouth. For me, staying connected with Project WHAT! has meant a lot because it is a family. When we go into the jails to do presentations we always make sure to tell parents in there about Project WHAT!
What should we know about kids of incarcerated parents?
That we need to talk about it. I was 19 when I joined, and it was the first time ever that I’d talked about my mom’s incarceration. I never talked about it, and she had been in and out my entire life.
So when I was in middle school and she went away and people would ask, where’s your mom? I’d say – oh, she’s just not around. Because as a kid, unfortunately there’s this negative stigma that goes with it. And it’s true, she messed up and now she had to deal with the consequences, but it doesn’t make her a bad person. But as a young person you’re stuck with that stigma.
People should also know that we’re fighters. The word that I love about Project WHAT! is resilience. Instead of “oh, poor babies” – we’re strong, we try our best to make a bad situation into a good situation.
Where does that resilience come from?
I think a lot of it comes from the support that you get. For me, I didn’t get support until Project WHAT! so I just ignored the problem. It wasn’t the best way to deal with it, but my mom was incarcerated and it was just me and her — I didn’t have anybody else. My dad wasn’t in the picture. So, what do I do?
Project WHAT! gives you not only the support of adults who have been through it but also peers your age who are going through it. When I went through the program our leader at the time had grown up with an incarcerated parent, and seeing her living her life and being good at what she does, you have that person to look up to.
Tell me how Project WHAT! works
You first get hired (as a youth trainer) in June, and we have an eight-week training program. You write your personal story. Our stories are what we share throughout our time with the project, when we do presentations. I did a lot of jail and prison presentations because I was older. But we also go into schools, we speak to police officers, we speak to caregivers.
After writing our stories, we work on our facilitation skills, public speaking skills. And as we go on we learn a lot more about the facts, like learning how many children of incarcerated parents there are (2.7 million in the U.S.). A lot of it is very educational, and people may not know that about Project WHAT!
We also go up to Sacramento and lobby. We are active, and with our new San Francisco group they do a lot of campaigning. It’s awesome for the youth. I remember my first time it was amazing – I thought “so this is how this works!”
A lot of times, people just don’t know what it’s like for us. So, for us to go in a jail, they can hear us and imagine, wow, now I can imagine what my daughter is thinking. Or, they ask, “My son hasn’t written me in weeks, should I keep writing, should I give up?” For the inmates, it’s almost like they come to us for advice which is really refreshing to us, because it’s like talking to our parents.
My first presentation was in SF County Women’s jail and I hadn’t seen my mom in years, and so going in there I was thinking, “now I’m going to talk to my mom.” That was my mentality. I was really emotional.
I find every time I go into a facility, it’s very healing. It goes both ways. They see it and we see it. We get excited to see the light bulbs go off in their heads.
What do teachers and schools need to know?
A year ago I went to a career day with my mentor to my old high school and ended up talking to one of my former teacher’s classes. He was my favorite teacher. In my talk, I went into what I was going through in high school, having a mom incarcerated. He mentioned that he didn’t even know back then what was going on, he just thought I was distracted. My advice to teachers would be to ask questions. If they do, then they get a better result from their students.
Especially for children of incarcerated parents, or any child that is going through difficulties, it’s always hard to know who cares and who doesn’t. Because, I know for me, it was, “well people come and then they go.” Because that was my struggle with my mom, she’d be home for a little while, then she’d be gone. So who do you tell? Who do you trust? (It would help) if teachers would just ask questions and pay attention to the kids who can’t stay focused or who are by themselves. We need to know that you are there and that you actually care.
Community Works runs a number of programs from restorative justice to programs for affected children, and social justice and the arts. They run an annual scholarship fundraiser (in March) that Alisha helps with as a volunteer, in addition to her focus on social media outreach.