—Article by Emilie Menzel
Soteria Shepperson and Emily Baxter understand the transformative power of putting language and visibility into action. They’ve both spent their lives helping others speak up and be seen, showing up in particular for justice-impacted communities.
Emily is a criminal defense lawyer turned public policy advocate turned activist photographer. She’s also the founder and executive director of We Are All Criminals, a non-profit “dedicated to challenging society’s perceptions of what it means to be ‘criminal’” and dismantling boundaries between people caused by hard labels like “us” and “them.”
Soteria is a poet, musician, and teacher, a re-entry specialist for justice-impacted communities and adamant activist for equity and equality. She runs a performance platform entitled I Am Soteria, is the founder of the non-profit Grow Your World for youth-driven community engagement, and is the REAL (Race, Equality, Action, Leadership) coordinator for the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service.
This month, Soteria and Emily are coordinating with the Orange County Criminal Justice Resource Department and the Orange County Arts Commission for “Our Lens, Our Voice,” a program which will lead justice-impacted teens in photography and poetry projects that reframe and refocus the teens’ narratives. Participants will be given fuji film polaroid cameras with twenty shots’ worth of film and asked to return three of these shots. Emily will guide participants in exploring images, colors, and emotions through the camera lens, as well as what images to ultimately select to share with the group. The teens will next work with Soteria to write a spoken-word piece around one of the photographs they took, finding language for what they chose to render visible.
Many teens who pass through the justice system for low-level offenses must complete community service hours as conditions of their probations. If the goal is to create restorative, growth-oriented community service, it’s important for the justice system to offer opportunities for teens that support them envisioning and enacting positive self-narratives and positive connection to the community.
Recently, several organizations have been working to reconsider what forms of community service are in fact effective at rebuilding community and positive personal narratives. In programs like Project Reset in New York, “participants are offered interventions such as group workshops, restorative justice circles, arts programming, or individual counseling sessions.” Such community involvement allows the participants opportunities to “gain a better understanding of the criminal justice system, personal accountability, and knowledge of the resources available to them in the community.” The framing is positive and generative rather than punitive. “I feel like all the attention goes to people after they have a criminal record. I think there are not enough preventative opportunities,” explains Soteria. “There has to be some awareness of our humanity. We all have fallen, we all haven’t been perfect.”
In fact, it’s the Smithsonian Magazine feature “Low-Level Offenders in NYC Can Now Take an Art Class Instead of Appearing in Court” about Project Reset’s innovative art programming that sparked the creation of “Our Lens, Our Voice.” Caitlin Fenhagen, the director of the Orange County Criminal Justice Resource Department, is a long-time and strong advocate for Criminal Justice reform. After reading the Smithsonian Magazine feature, knew she wanted to bring such art programming to the Orange County justice-impacted community. She then coordinated with Emily, Soteria, and Orange County Arts Commission’s Katie Murray to make it all happen.
“I think a really important part of the project,” explains Emily, “is not just helping people find, but also value, their voice, and create a space that demands other people value that voice as well. This program exists within the context of the the youth criminal legal system, a place where your inherent worth is called into question or ignored. Often people in the criminal legal system are reduced to a set of alleged facts on a police report. With this project, we’re giving them the tools to show us their world through their lens, for us to hear their story in their voice. And that’s powerful at any age, but I think it’s really exciting being able to reach teens with that, to work with and to provide those tools to developing minds.”
“We’re always told what to say, you can’t say it like that,” adds Soteria. Teens, especially teens of color, are often tone-policed by adults. Too emotional, too sensitive, too angry. “What I’m hoping is that whatever they see in the photo they take and poetry they write: it’s worthy. If they see frustration, if they see hope, if they see love, if they see sadness, depression, I want them to be able to voice what they see, and I don’t want to take that voice from them. Only thing I want to do is make sure that it’s possible for someone else to hear their message.”
Naming and visibility hold power. We respect that which we see, that presses our visual and verbal worlds daily. As children, we learn to look in our environments for that which we see regularly voiced and visible. What others show and say of us, we learn to believe, and what we see of our communities, we learn to expect. “I want to give the teens that affirmation in who they are, right now, before life tells them that tone can’t be this way, that they can’t say it this way,” says Soteria. “America has taught us to be cold, that when you show your emotions it makes you weak, that it takes your power away. I want to challenge that. Healthy anger is a good thing. Good trouble. There are good emotions, there’s good frustration.”
The program will culminate in a public exhibit at the Orange County Courthouse in Hillsborough, which will display photographs by Emily of the participants holding their polaroids out to the camera. “Oftentimes the students will be taking pictures with the insta-cams where they’re not in frame,” explains Emily, “and I wanted to provide that opportunity for the student to step back into a frame and hold their work out. I also think it’s important that the students get to keep their own work, so rather than put those polaroids up in a place where they don’t have access to them, they get to walk home with them—they get to take their work, their poetry, their photos home.”
Including the photographs of the polaroids also means the exhibit gets to include large prints, and that’s important for more than simple taking up space. “It’s gonna get maximized,” says Soteria. “So much stuff can get unnecessarily blown out of proportion, but what happens when the good thing is blown into proportion? It wasn’t until people started taking photos of me doing what I love that I could see what they saw in me, and for these kids to be able to see what we see—I’m telling you, in and of itself, that does something to that sense of worthiness.”
“I think the primary audience for the exhibit is the students themselves,” says Emily. “I hope that they create the work for themselves. But then the secondary audience is the criminal and legal system professionals, the other people who will be walking through those halls: so judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers, people that I think far too often have become jaded and forget that there is a person behind the case number. And then of course there are going to be other families going through, other teenagers going through, other adults going through who will undoubtedly be feeling that same crush of the criminal legal system, and my hope is that this provides an opportunity to give everyone pause and remember that at the end of the day we’re talking about people.”