David Inocencio is the coolest. He’s one of those guys who starts talking about his passion — bringing a voice to the voiceless incarcerated masses — and you think to yourself, “Why can’t everyone be such a badass crusader for human rights and the arts?” But that’s just what David does. As founder of The Beat Within, David Inocencio works to bring a crucial expressive outlet to kids behind bars. The Beat Within is two things: a biweekly publication of writing and art from inside juvenile halls and prisons, and a workshop program inside juvenile halls across the U.S. It all started in 1996, when David started facilitating writing workshops in San Francisco juvenile hall. What he found was staggering, that young people behind bars had so much more to say than was perhaps revealed in a police report or psychiatric evaluation. He found that what he could provide them with, a voice and a place to air it, was critical to their self-esteem and ability to feel connected to the outside world.
A San Franciscan born and raised, David always knew he wanted to make a difference in his community. “In the late 80s/early 90s I saw the drug (crack) epidemic, rising youth violence and the decline of the public schools and I figured that I needed to connect with this population because their truth wasn’t being told,” he said. “I knew it was important to tell their story to their peers and also to those outside the system.”
The writing and art produced by young TBW participants is poignant and tragic. Each piece — be it a poem or a drawing — paints a humanizing and complex self-portrait of a young person’s life history. Oftentimes, that is a history riddled with abuse, neglect, poverty, drug abuse and violence. The writing is also deeply insightful. Every piece I read is a reminder that these children are just that — children, with sorrows and hopes and dreams that need to be expressed and listened to.
Today, 17 years since their humble beginnings, The Beat Within has expanded exponentially to serve over 5,000 youth annually through workshops operated in 13 California county juvenile halls and at facilities in Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, Hawaii, Oregon and in Washington, DC. Good news for you, they are always accepting donations and volunteers! But if you’re not convinced yet, read on. You will be.
Katy McCarthy: So, how did The Beat Within get started?
David Inocencio: I saw a need for it. I was working at the juvenile hall in San Francisco and through that work I recognized a real need to give these young people a voice. They were being unheard in every aspect — everywhere from the courtroom to their day-to-day lives. In the work I did prior to The Beat Within, I did a great job of building relationships. So, when I approached the juvenile hall in San Francisco about starting writing and conversation workshops there was no red tape — with open arms they embraced my visions. I didn’t know I was going to start a publication. This was January 1996. I just knew the importance of listening to human beings and building trust. I saw what you got out of that. You got young people hungry to connect. That there was more to their stories than a police report, a psyche evaluation, etc. Little did I know at that point that my colleagues from Pacific News Service and I, especially Sandy Close (who believe in my work and my vision), were creating the template of The Beat Within, which would become what it is today.
Nine months later Tupac died and around the young people I was working with came an outpouring of response, and it was so moving I knew I needed to publish this writing quickly so that people could know how they felt. It was shortly thereafter, in September 1996, that we committed to being The Beat Within — a weekly publication of art and writing from inside the hall.
TBW is more than a publication. It is truly organic and has organically grown. It has moved beyond the city and state. There is a lot of hunger from other counties to be a part of this form. They see it as truly a lifeline for these young people — giving a voice to the voiceless. I am blown away by how many counties have embraced TBW and our work. We’ve been able to connect with so many institutions. People really feel a connection with the work.
A judge in San Francisco told me once that the TBW publication was a real window into the world of these young people. Young people who are up against it dealing with hard choices and raising themselves. We need to pull them into the conversation. It’s an amazing resource guide if you use it that way, a great indicator of what the struggles are. A lot of the same issues keep popping up. Issues of family, dysfunction, addiction, and above all a hunger to connect and be heard.
K.M: What is the most important issue TBW is working on today?
D.I: Giving a voice to the voiceless. Empowering these young people to realize how important their voices are and that there is a platform and a place for them to be heard. They have to make the ultimate choice — low road high road: do I abuse my body or feed it with knowledge? So we do our program, and they need to realize it’s their choice to change their lives. That’s a lot for a young person. They also have this amazing opportunity to tell the system (and their peers) where it’s broken and what it needs. We encourage them to be teachers and to share their truths.
K.M: I’m sure in your work you have encountered people with amazing/heartbreaking stories about their experience with the juvenile justice system. Can you share one with us?
D.I: There was a fourteen-year-old boy, James, charged with a double homicide for gang related killings. He raised himself in the youth system, before being sent off to adult prison where he would serve 30-years to life. James is someone I worked with closely. The juvenile hall feared him in a sense. They wanted to segregate him from his peers, because of the high profile nature of his case, so they kept him in isolation for long stretches for a couple of years. He should have been put in the maximum-security unit with others, yet they isolated him from everyone, so he wasn’t in our weekly writing workshops, but afterwards I would always stop by his cell and talk to him and give him a prompt and a copy of the beat. The facility administrators kept him disconnected, but they allowed him a pencil and paper. He would give me these amazing writings. He also, at that time, was a new father. Fresh out of 8th grade he and his girlfriend got pregnant. So he’s coming to terms with being a father. I worked with him over time, and he delivered some of the most powerful, eloquent writing I’d ever read at that time. I was able to watch him grow from a 14-year-old wanting to be the biggest, baddest gangster to an 18-year-old realizing he had thrown a part of his life away. It’s the whole idea of seeing him grow and how powerful an outlet The Beat was to him. He ended up with this amazing following because the facility allowed me to publish his work. Writing was his way of communicating with his peers, and it was so respectful that all of us could embrace it, despite the sign on his cell door saying that no one should communicate with this minor.
There are so many stories of young people learning how powerful their voices were after working with us. In some cases there have been lawyers and advocates using TBW as a character witness in helping shed light that this young person, their client, has grown up quite a bit in the system and is not the same person who initially walked in, thanks to their writing. Of course, action speaks louder than words, but these young people have only their words until they are given, if they are lucky, a chance to put their words into action. The Beat is consistent in their lives when there isn’t any consistency, so these kids trust and share with you. There is so much more to them.
K.M: What are TBW’s goals for the future? Where do you want to see TBW go?
D.I: I want to take care of funding for the next year. We still do workshops EVERYDAY, but I had to cut the publications back to two double-issues a month. It’s just a matter of getting the word out, being the face in the community, and building relationships with folks that can share the vision. This year I’m blown away by how many folks in the Midwest want to get involved and get their kids involved — Illinois, St. Louis … We are also connected with a juvenile hall in El Salvador, where two Fulbright Scholars are working so we’ve been able to feature those kid’s writing for the past couple of months. I aim to see that The Beat Within is alive and well in 10-20 years, staying true to our mission of giving a voice to the voiceless.
When the initial workshops happened in 96’ I stressed to the kids that “no matter where you go, just keep on writing—whether it’s prison, a solitary housing unit, or freedom.” We publish works from those who have moved on beyond juvenile hall and want to stay connected and share their stories: The Beat Without. They want to reach out, to donate their words to help break the stereotypes. That prison isn’t cool. These stories speak to the youngsters. It’s important to get the elders to be a part of the conversation and to include that in our publication.
K.M: How is TBW distributed to those on the inside?
D.I: When we had money, we had an out-of-control mailing list of prisoners who wanted it and couldn’t afford it and we would send a copy to them. Now, things are tighter. Everyone who gets published gets a copy of it in the mail, and kids in every workshop take away a copy. At a workshop on Tuesday night, all 150 kids walked away with a copy to read in their cells.
K.M: What does a workshop look like?
D.I: Workshops are all one hour — they all have the same writing prompts, no matter where you are (D.C., S.F., N.Y.). The leaders give the kids the prompts, they discuss them as a group, the leader shares a passage, and then we all share our stories. Once we exhaust the 3-4 prompts we break off into writing groups. Ideally there are 2-3 facilitators per class and we walk around and check in, helping with grammar, sometimes checking in to talk about the stress of court tomorrow and just listening. Maybe there is another kid who can’t write, but wants to be in the publication… we may be helping him or sitting with him penning his story. They know its cool because it gets published and goes to all these interesting institutions — more than 25 — beyond their own. I want them to feel an ownership. The other night I told kids, “I spoke at SF State and told them about the success of our project and your writing.” It takes a whole community to pull it off. At the end we open it up for them to read what they’ve written aloud and we all clap. The counselors and the guards standing nearby are always blown away when they hear these kids talking about longing for the touch of their mothers, the fear of the unknown, saying “all I want to do is be home with my mom and I cry in my pillow.” When these kids write, a lot of pain and weakness comes out. And then we make sure that every young person walks out with a publication. Speaking of the publication, we also make sure that every entry that is published in The Beat Within has a response from us adults. We want the young person to know at least one person is paying attention to what it is they are writing about.
K.M: What is the best thing that a concerned citizen can do today to get involved in your work?
D.I: Donations of any size are always needed and appreciated and can help us with our printing costs for the 60-80 page publication. We are always accepting volunteers. We have monthly training sessions. We have over 200 volunteers, all just trying to touch lives. All it takes is an individual with an interest in wanting to touch lives. All ages are welcome, though you have to be at least 21 years old to go into juvenile hall.
Stay connected with the Beat Within!
Also: through their website you can get access, with a small donation, to most of their publications!