There are no privileges in mass incarceration, but there are biases drawn across gender lines. Women represent a fraction of those incarcerated nationwide; however, since 1978 women’s state prison population grew 834% over about 40 years. That’s more than double the rate of men’s prison population growth.
For Circles and Ciphers, a Rogers Park-based community organization, fighting such an unbalanced, wide reaching system begins with honoring the trauma inflicted on the individual. Their Women of Color Healing Circle offers women and femme-identified people of color space to heal from the systems disproportionately affecting them and their families.
“I think society shuns people that have been in systems because they’re afraid of them and they think that you’re a lost cause after the fact. What we do is the opposite,” said Circles and Ciphers Hub Director AnnMarie Brown. “We really take the people in the community who are shunned and who are the outcast and we do a really good job of just being in community with those people. It’s hard but it’s definitely worth it because it’s at the core of everything we are here.”
Every other week women in the circle meet to share their lives and explore topics related to healing in all its forms. In partnership with Envisioning Justice during the last year, the WOC Circle discussed themes related to the criminal justice system and the ways it affects them specifically. They spoke of everything from triggering moments related to their past experiences, to how envisioning one’s future can help heal past issues.
Now a co-leader of the circle, Priscilla Bahena first came to Circles and Ciphers during the beginning of the Envisioning Justice programming. Through dealing with the criminal justice system at a young age due to domestic violence, Priscilla is fully aware of how the system impacts family wellness. As a facilitator she honors her and others’ lived experiences with conversations that often can’t take place outside of circle.
“First of all, I think it’s about open discussion and talking about our experiences with the prison system. You can’t talk about it at work and you can’t always talk about it with friends either because then you might get judged,” Priscilla said. “But that’s the point of Circle. It’s like we’re our own family, the Women of Color Family. I think just opening that discussion and being able to have an actual place to talk about those things is part of the healing process.”
Priscilla and her co-facilitator Alicia Brown cultivate a safe space for these talks by following Circles and Ciphers’ ideals for what they call “circle keeping.” Light a candle for ambiance, bring a talking piece representing the power to both talk and listen, order takeout and above all, nothing said inside the circle is repeated outside the circle. Each of these steps are important in creating a circle in which people feel comfortable sharing.
At Circle and Ciphers healing means taking care of someone’s needs mentally and physically. In keeping these practices, Alicia and Priscilla connect with the members of their circle and Circles and Ciphers creates sustainable bonds within the community.
“Speaking for myself as a black woman, you can’t do anything while being in the system. I’m still on probation and I can’t do anything. But working at Circles and Ciphers, I’m given the opportunity to do everything I can do plus more,” says Alicia. “A lot of our leaders and people that come here are in the system and can’t do much within the community otherwise. That’s what [circles] are for. Come in, have a hot meal and come talk about social issues.”