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What I learned from Liberation Summer Advocacy Camp

Photo: AFSC/New York

Over the summer, high school students impacted by the criminal justice system and immigration system took part in Liberation Summer Advocacy Camp, run by AFSC and Echoes of Incarceration in New York City. Participants learned about the roots of injustice in these systems, strategies for advocacy, and how to use filmmaking for change.

Three students — Kharon Benson, Somalia Bryant, and Elani Reyes — shared their reflections:    

 

Kharon Benson 

Kharon Benson 

I learned at age 14 that my dad had been in prison my whole life and that he could spend the rest of his life there. When my uncle took me to meet my father at Sing Sing Prison, I was overwhelmed. I didn’t know what to say or how to feel. I left angry that he was there, ashamed that I had a father in prison, and afraid for my future. 

During that visit, I learned that my father’s father went to prison also, so I knew that I had to break the cycle. 

Shortly after that visit with my father, I was introduced to a program that helps children of incarcerated parents and that’s where my advocacy began. I met so many kids like me – scared and ashamed – that I knew, together, we could support each other and make a difference in the world. 

Shortly afterwards, I joined Echoes of Incarceration and became part of the Liberation Summer Youth Advocacy Training Camp with AFSC. Each of the last four years in the camp has inspired me to continue advocating for young people facing pain caused by family incarceration or deportation. 

Working as a counselor in the camp is an amazing experience. Each year, my commitment to advocate for reforms to the criminal and immigration systems grows. Helping young people better understand the injustices of these systems and helping them to use film and photography to make change is my way of making a difference. 

My work with Echoes and AFSC has given me many opportunities to be an agent of change. I’ve spoken about needed changes at the White House, across the country, and in other countries like Spain, Great Britain, and Dominican Republic. I’ve also produced films and took storytelling photos to change the narrative about those in prison and their families. I am determined to continue this work so that my children and all children live in a better world.

 

Elani Reyes

Elani Reyes (far right)

This past summer I participated in Liberation Camp, sponsored by American Friends Service Committee.  During the course of the summer, I learned many things, including issues related to injustice, police brutality, people wrong convicted of crimes they did not commit, and immigration.  Many things were new to me.  Most of the things I learned liberated my thoughts. 

A big part of Liberation Camp involved filmmaking.  I especially liked being the person behind the camera, or behind the scenes.  From this, I learned that the arts can be used to help people and communities work for social justice.  Art has the power to stimulate a response on various issues, change opinions, and inspire people to act.

Despite mostly being behind the scenes, I learned how to talk to people about ongoing issues and how to be sensitive about specific topics.  For example, a particular moment that stood out for me was the relationship abuse workshop.  I did not know that action was being taken in schools to try to stop the problem before it starts, with kids.  Additionally, at lunch, just being able to sit and talk with a group of my peers was refreshing.  It made me feel extremely welcome and valuable to the Camp.

There were a number of guest speakers who educated us on a variety of topics.  Yusef Salaam, one of the Exonerated Five, was livestreamed into our Camp.  We also watched the Netflix movie, When They See Us, about the Exonerated Five.  Because the Camp consisted of teenagers, everyone, especially the boys, was very moved by what happened to those young men.

We also had someone come to speak to the campers about immigration.  My mother is a U.S. citizen, but she was born in the Dominican Republic.  I learned that the immigration system will never be perfect.  People, “dreamers,” will always look to come to this country for a better life.  They will risk their lives for a better one by coming to this country.  It made me sick to my bones when I found out about the detention camps that had children in cages, being withheld basic needs.  It made me see the immigration system in an entirely different light.

Liberation Camp liberated some of my thoughts.  I will use the skills that I learned at camp in my ongoing and future efforts by taking the skills I learned, along with newfound confidence, to make a change in the world. 

 

 

Somalia Bryant 

Somalia Bryant (center)

I am 17 years old and in my senior year of high school. 

After attending Liberation Summer Camp, my overall views on many aspects of life changed. Not only did I become more interested in filmmaking, but I also learned a lot of beneficial information about the immigration system as well as the incarceration system. I was surprised by how many people are affected by the immigration system. While I knew there were many problems within the system, I had not thought about how close I was to the people being affected. In many cases when we hear about problems occurring in other places, we detach ourselves and disregard the issue because we aren’t close enough to see how imperative the issue is. 

While I couldn’t necessarily relate to all of the topics that we learned about, I realized how much of an impact any of the topics can have on a person whether or not they are experiencing the issue firsthand. While I enjoyed the entirety of the camp, my favorite part was the last couple of weeks. I enjoyed coming together with my group and utilizing all of the information we’d been taught, as well as the tools we’d been given to create our projects. 

Though everyone was nice and welcoming from the first day to the last, I particularly enjoyed the last few weeks, as we’d all come to know one another a little better, creating an even more enjoyable experience. 

This camp showed me that no one is ever too young to make a difference. Through informative videos, we were able collectively share out thoughts and come together to make films that were not only entertaining, but educational, as well. I believe that filmmaking is a very powerful and effective way to make a difference. Sometimes, with the aid of film, we are able to convey our messages and beliefs more effectively than we are able to do so on paper. 

Liberation Summer Camp taught me a lot. I learned to see the world from many new perspectives and gained a lot of knowledge about society and the ways in which I can make a positive impact on the world.

 

Watch a video produced by Liberation Summer participants:

Finding healing: Criminal justice responses to relationship abuse

About the Author

Lewis Webb is the Healing Justice program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee in New York. After graduating from law school, Lewis has dedicated his entire professional career to criminal justice issues. At AFSC, Lewis focuses on decreasing New York’s prison population by addressing paths to incarceration and increasing opportunities for release through sentencing and parole