UPDATED OCTOBER 2020:
After many years of promoting peace and justice in Baltimore City and several prison systems, the American Friends Service Committee's Friend of a Friend Program completed its devolvement process to become independent of the American Friends Service Committee and transition into community ownership in September of 2020. The AFSC would like to thank all former staff, participants and supporters of Maryland Peace with Justice and Friend of a Friend for helping to transform the lives of hundreds of individuals who sought a path forward in the spirit of nonviolence.
In 2006, the Maryland House of Corrections closed and the American Friends Service Committee’s prison project relocated to the Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown to begin working with a group of incarcerated men. Their objective: to instill a sense of purpose in young prisoners through a peer mentoring program. For the name of the program, they borrowed the phrase “a friend of a friend” from the Underground Railroad because this term was used as a password to indicate that an enslaved person would receive safe conduct.
Led by Program Director Dominque Stevenson, the project developed beyond the boundaries of earlier work as the Maryland Peace with Justice program. Participants agreed that the prison program should still focus on personal development and conflict resolution, but they added a third element: mentoring.
Eddie Conway, the former Black Panther political prisoner who served 43 years in the Maryland prison system for a crime he has maintained he did not commit, was influential in the formation of the work. Conway organized many campaigns and programs to assist the prison population, including the AFSC’s Friend of a Friend (FoF), and would later become directly involved in the program’s community work upon his release in 2014.
Using a curriculum developed by men who have experienced chaos and violence but have chosen to encourage unity, FoF participants focused weekly meetings on anger management, conflict, and coping skills. They developed conflict resolution techniques and built relationships that supported them in finding useful alternatives to conflict and violence in prison and in their communities when they were released.
Unlocking the Source of Knowledge and Power for Incarcerated Men and Women: A Curriculum Guide contains core components of the trainings used in the program. The guide is a valuable resource for those who want to volunteer to work with prisoners on issues of nonviolent conflict transformation, and helps users understand the journey prisoners experience as program participants through personal stories, plays, and poetry.
Over time the program expanded to five state and federal prisons in Maryland and Virginia, reaching an average of 150 individuals each year. With prisoners participating as both facilitators and mentors, AFSC staff and volunteers also provided consultation, trainings for trainers, and sometimes facilitation sessions.
Reclaiming Our Lives, the program’s reentry component, was established in 2010 to help formerly incarcerated men navigate personal relationships and acclimate to life beyond prison walls. FoF facilitated a reintegration process that provided life skills outside of prison, advocacy training, temporary employment, and a network of former program participants to act as mentors to newly released individuals. Using their mentoring experience in community projects while gaining education and employment skills, an overwhelming majority of mentees who participated in the program have been able to remain free of violence and re-incarceration through employment and/or enrollment in university or trade school.
In 2014, Friend of a Friend partnered with Connexions School for the Arts in Baltimore to build a new library for the high school. Through a book drive and a grand opening event featuring speaker and artist Emory Douglas, the library was established incorporating Friend of a Friend into some of the school’s activities and curriculums.
Following the murder of Freddie Gray by police and the Baltimore Uprising in 2015, FoF used its longstanding connections in Gilmor Homes and Sandtown-Winchester to provide resources to the area during a time when increased police presence and harassment disrupted the community.
Forming the Coalition of Friends in partnership with Homewood, Stony Run, and Little Falls Friends Meetings, a network of volunteers also helped to restore and maintain a basketball court at Gilmor Homes. By bringing together a diverse group of supporters—including Quakers, university and high school students, and families of prisoners—FoF strengthened the neighborhood and worked to decrease violence.
The Fannie Lou Hamer - Sundiata Acoli Farm, the most recent project founded by FoF and the Coalition of Friends’ Tubman House in 2016, currently provides fresh and healthy food, free of charge, to residents of Sandtown-Winchester. By developing an empty lot into a quarter-acre community garden, FoF and its partners expanded on the idea of transformation by helping to offer a physical space for growth and healing that would engage residents, encourage volunteer opportunities for both youth and adults, and help transition the program into community ownership.
FoF’s approach to community organizing was always to start at the base line—helping residents meet basic needs in order to prepare them to become more involved in the processes that govern them. Since its inception the program has worked to foster self-respect, understanding and personal growth among individuals who have since become leaders in their communities.