Lisa D. Daniels wants people who are incarcerated to remember that forgiveness and healing from a traumatic past is possible. Daniels, executive director of the Darren B. Easterling Center for Restorative Practices and a strong activist for restorative justice, was part of an inaugural event series that highlights empathy, humanity and forgiveness to men behind bars in order for them to heal from their past and move on from their mistakes.
The Shared Humanity event was part of the Community Anti-Violence Education (CAVE) program. The program, began in 2010, spearheaded by incarcerated men in Danville Correctional Center who were also students of the Education Justice Project, a college-in-prison program created by Dr. Rebecca Ginsburg, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Shared Humanity was a recorded video conversation between Daniels and author and journalist Alex Kotlowitz, who recently released his new book “An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago.” They discussed the book, the CAVE program and the ability to heal from community trauma that can lead individuals to become incarcerated.
The program was one-of-a-kind as the conversation was broadcast to the Danville prison for inmates to listen and learn from, a new concept that Daniels hopes will continue.
“You as the viewer, being someone who is currently incarcerated, and has more time than you can possibly imagine to think about the experience that got you there, you can take away from this that you are more than just that thing,” Daniels said of the video broadcast. “Your life still has meaning beyond that experience.”
She visited the inmates at Danville in May of 2019 and in 2017 to speak about forgiveness and moving on from a violent past, which Daniels relates to personally. She lost her son, Darren, in 2012 to gun violence. When she could have chosen vengeance and anger, she chose forgiveness and peace, pleading leniency for her son’s killer during his trial so he could get a second chance at turning his life in a positive direction.
To honor her son and to help others in the community deal with trauma and tragedy, Daniels founded the Darren B. Easterling Center for Restorative Practices to redefine Darren’s legacy and the legacies of many young men like him.
She said she planted a seed of hope when she visited Danville and talked to the young men there, and hopes the seed grows as the Shared Humanity program blossoms into a more comprehensive, interactive teaching tool to manage anger and help men reenter society once they are out of the prison system.
“The idea of forgiveness is possible and being seen as a human being [again] is possible,” she said.
Dr. Elena Quintana, who also visited Danville in 2019 with Daniels, is the executive director of Adler University’s Institute on Public Safety and Social Justice, which partnered with CAVE to present the video. She has been involved in the restorative justice program since 2012 and has a mission to advance social justice through community wellness and health, she said.
“The CAVE program is the perfect example of Adler University’s commitment to working with community partners to create a more just society,” Quintana said.
After 2012 and her experience engaging with the men at Danville, Quintana became a regular facilitator to the CAVE program and has seen the participant’s improvements, she said. She noted that one of the program’s strengths is that it is solely led by incarcerated men. Supporters of the program encourage the men’s leadership.
“Not only are these participants learning ways to better themselves mentally, they’re being educated on how to react to high-stress or potentially dangerous situations in ways that won’t result in violence or loss of life,” she said.
Quintana said Adler is hoping to expand the distribution of the conversation with Daniels and Kotlowitz beyond Danville. She said she would like to share the footage with other correctional centers across the state to broaden its impact.
“Ms. Daniels and I are interested in lifting the stories of those who have been marginalized, whose contributions have been erased, or who have made vital contributions in the face of adversity,” she said. “When incarcerated people, or black people, or silenced people tell their own stories in all of their complexity and nuance, we begin to hear the truth. This program is unique because it is focused on healing individuals and restoring lives so they have the tools necessary to live better lives when they return to their Chicago communities.”