A Blade of Grass Films


Transforming Justice: Courtney Bowles & Mark Strandquist

Collaborating in Philadelphia, A Blade of Grass Fellows Courtney Bowles and Mark Strandquist developed The Reentry Think Tank, an art and advocacy group. By centering the experiences and leadership of the formerly incarcerated to destroy stereotypes, The Reentry Think Tank seeks to transform social services and advocate for policy changes that keep people free.

AIRED: September 14, 2020 | 0:07:50

Woman: All these freaking cases are there.

This is just kind of a nightmare,

in that we can't look at this summary,

and know what the outcome of all these cases are.

So, we have to look at each document.

Man: Incarceration, you don't have problems.

Incarceration, your don't have life.

So, that's what freedom is.

Freedom is being able to have problems,

and enjoy the problems.

People don't see beyond the criminal record.

All they see is a criminal record.

So, you can come out here,

and you can achieve all you want to achieve.

But long as that record's there,

you're still gonna be identified by that record --

whether you're found guilty or not guilty.

And if you don't have the time to spin around these people,

to show them who you are, they'll never know who you are.

If you want to be recognized,

you have to get rid of the record.


Strandquist: In the U.S. alone,

there's 70 million people with criminal records.

Bowles: In a highly policed area, such as North Philly,

the majority of people have been impacted

by the criminal justice system.

The People's Paper Co-op

began as an artist-in-residency program

at the Village of Arts and Humanities.


While the People's Paper Co-op was very locally focused,

initially, specifically working with folks

in this neighborhood, around issues of mass incarceration,

the Think Tank was a way to sort of take that methodology,

and those ideas on a city-wide level.

And so, in 2016, we were able to start the first cohort.


Art sets the stage.

And when the Think Tank fellows

are in the waiting room, with the public defenders,

working with clients in legal clinics across the city,

interviewing people for their reentry bill of rights.

And when that happens, the spaces truly get transformed.


Baker: I was incarcerated for 17 years,

and it's really symbolic that, before I started a journey,

I finished my journey on the streets

right outside this door, in the back alleyway,

buying drugs.

Now, for me to come home, and come here,

it's not only chills, but it gave me

a sense of accomplishment, like I've arrived.

I have a sense of worth, now.

And I think my worth is my voice,

and that my story has given others permission,

and even encouragement, to share to their own.


This is actually...

Their criminal records is made into art,

like a paper mache.


There's a Polaroid on the front,

showing how they feel after the process.


Michael: Just to let someone see, "Okay, this can work.

I understand now."

I look at you, and I could see myself.

I don't see a returning citizen.


Sharon Howe -- "Without my criminal record,

I am no longer tethered to my dark past.

I'm free to run to my future, to live life a lot lighter.

"I'm witty again."


Strandquist: The projects are sort of structured

in concentric circles.

So, Courtney and I are kind of our coordinators

We -- a lot of our work is about developing partnerships

that Think Tank fellows and People's Paper Co-op fellows

can engage with,

like the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund this spring.

And basically, that was, like, a design challenge.

The Bail Fund needed to raise $75,000.

We also want to be raising awareness about how cash bail

affects people all over the city,

but specifically, how does incarceration affect women?

I'm here today because, once upon a time,

I was sitting in jail

on a $260 bail for four months.

I haven't been convicted of a crime as of yet,

but I sit there, wasted away.

The day when People's Paper Co-op ends cash bail...

When I was arrested, and I had cash bail.

I think I sit in jail 11 months before I was bailed out.

it was a $10,000 bail, but they give you 10%,

which is $1,000.

11 months.

That was a long time to sit just to pay $1,000.


Strandquist: Women in Reentry days are really good example

of working with the community members

to design the entirety of it, to bail women out

for Mother's Day needs to be celebrated.

And that celebration can also be an amazing platform

for other women -- women in our program,

women all over the city --

to speak out about what they need to stay free.


Michael: This is a society that is basically non-verbal,

in many ways.

And to be able to reach people through art, through media,

it draws you in in any aspect.

I think we got something that's gonna work.

We can change things.

We need to free our mothers now.

All: Now join us!

Free our mothers!

End cash bail!

Free our mothers!

End cash bail!

Free our mothers!

BOWLES: Consistently, you hear that phrase "giving voice,"

which is terrible,

because everyone has an amazing voice already.

They've just, in a lot of instances,

been systematically silenced.

I feel like our role is to try to create a platform

that amplifies people's voices.

And uses art as almost, like, a Trojan horse

to create platforms and spaces

that strategically silence those voices --

whether that's the Philadelphia Museum of Art,

City Hall, City Streets, like yesterday...

You know, like, yesterday, the art literally was marched

down the street.

I don't want to ever seal it in a frame, and kill it.

All: End cash bail!

Free our mothers!

End cash bail!

Free our mothers!

End cash bail!

Free our mothers!

End cash bail!





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