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The past two years have presented major challenges for everyone. At a time when community bonds and resources are frequently stretched thin, it can be difficult to heal from past trauma and care for our friends and family. This can be even more difficult for people with involvement in the criminal legal system, a system that can threaten the well-being of even the most resilient among us. To address this, my work at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CFSY) centers on promoting self-care and community care for individuals who were incarcerated as children. With the help of the legal community, we can ensure that everyone in this movement has access to support and the proper resources to heal together.
Since my release from prison, it has become clear to me that working as individuals or a collective requires a focus on mental health, self-care, and community care. These principles are at the core of my work as a leader in the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network (ICAN), a first-of-its kind national network of formerly incarcerated adults who were handed extreme sentences as children. With more than 200 members across the United States, ICAN is a unique group of people who know the challenges of surviving trauma and incarceration from a young age and finding ways to thrive in the free world as adults. Many ICAN members spent several decades in prison without the hope of parole, and that’s why it is so important that they have a space to feel safe and supported in a world that too often dehumanizes people who spent time in prison.
Together, members of ICAN consistently support each other through regular check-in calls and groups, including a support network for beneficiaries of the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act in Washington, D.C., and for female ICAN members through our “Heart to Heart” program. In addition, through our Emergency Assistance Grant program, we’re able to provide material support for ICAN members with rent, groceries, transportation, and other needs as they arise. These are just a few of the ways that we seek to build each other up and remind ourselves that we are part of a community that cares about our collective well-being.
Over the last five years, we’ve also created opportunities for ICAN members to rest and renew through ICAN Self-Care Retreats. This past year, we brought together more than 30 ICAN members at the University of Scranton’s Retreat Center at Chapman Lake to offer an opportunity to slow down from daily stressors while also developing and deepening personal relationships. Retreat programming is entirely developed by CFSY staff members who were directly impacted by the legal system in order to provide the most healing and nurturing environment.
Perhaps most importantly, we are able to provide the retreat experience without any cost to our ICAN members. This is only possible through our partnerships with funding partners who recognize the value in healing and restoration. We are incredibly grateful to our partners at the Tow Foundation for their support of this most recent self-care retreat and for their devotion of resources to our community. I can’t begin to express the value in having a space to laugh, cry, smile, and uplift each other, and even just to unplug from the daily grind. The best way to help people heal is within a community, and I’m grateful to play a role in the healing of my brothers and sisters in ICAN.
For an organization that works with directly impacted people, providing space for healing is not just aspirational—it is essential. Not only do we have an obligation to ensure that our partners in this work have space to heal from the systems that caused them direct harm, but we must understand that the work itself can cause additional trauma. When we fight for a long time, it can drain us and even put us in a place of burnout—no matter our background or our current place in life. We have to make sure that we take care of ourselves and lean on our support systems to encourage us, because we shouldn’t have to do it by ourselves. I know it’s hard for many of us to lean on our community for support for various reasons, but we have to keep in mind that we don’t have to shoulder our burdens alone. In the spirit of acknowledging the importance of community, both immediate and extended, here are some tips that I hope everyone can use in caring for oneself and each other:
- Take time to reflect. It’s important to take a step back and check in with yourself and see how you’re feeling. For me, it has been helpful to think about the things I can control around me so I don’t allow myself to focus on things in my life that I have no control over and that take away from my joy and peace.
- Get outside. Spending time outside can help boost your mood and increase your energy. Whether that’s going for a walk, going for a bike ride, or even just enjoying the beauty of nature, getting outdoors can be beneficial.
- Focus on health. Listen to your body and mind, and go to the doctor when you need to. Staying healthy can also be as simple as cooking a healthy meal.
- Enjoy hobbies. Finding new hobbies or rediscovering old ones is a great way to keep your mind off of negative thoughts and to connect with others who share your interests.
- Seek community. All of us need human connection, and we need to give and receive love. This can be as simple as checking in with friends and family and empathizing with what they’re going through.
At the CFSY, we are committed to supporting our entire community, and we invite you to be part of the conversation on how we can best support each other. Please feel free to reach out to my colleagues and me—together, we can power this movement forward!
Eddie Ellis is co-director of Outreach and Member Services at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth in Washington, D.C.
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