Telling our stories can help stop violence, one word at a time

Participating in a writing program helped me transform my life, a formerly incarcerated man writes. I first noticed how things had changed when a rival gang member told me to focus on my homework in jail instead of playing cards.

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Chicago police investigate the scene of a shooting in Washington Park in January. Learning to tell our stories can be part of the solution to gun violence, a participate in the Contextos program writes.

Chicago police investigate the scene of a shooting in Washington Park in January. Learning to tell our stories can be part of the solution to gun violence, a participate in the Contextos program writes.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

I grew up on the East Side of Chicago and, like so many others, I got caught up in the street life. Eventually, it led to prison. Everything changed for me, however, when I discovered the power of the written word.

I was in the Cook County Jail awaiting trial on a variety of charges, when I attended a program called ConTextos that invited us to write down our thoughts and our stories. I was nervous and unsure what to make of it, but the staff was patient and encouraging and eventually chipped away at the walls I had built up around myself.

In time, the other inmates and I became comfortable speaking freely and engaging in conversations about the issues in our lives. We talked a lot about solving gun violence in our communities. We did not want our children or the young kids from our neighborhoods joining us in jail or prison.

Over time, we became more engaged and started to focus on homework even if it meant that we had to miss dayroom hours. Our tier went from being one of the worst in the jail — where fights and stabbing were an everyday occurrence — to being one of the best. We went from having gang meetings to having homework study sessions.

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One day, a detainee from a rival gang came to my cell and asked me about my homework assignments. I told him I was a little behind. He suggested I take a break from playing cards and talking on the phone and focus on my work.

At that moment, I did not realize the significance of that event. Rather than fight each other, two rival gang members were helping each other study. We never would have thought that possible.

I earned the nickname “Dr. Hamilton” because of my drive. I found my love for education and promised myself as well as the staff at Contextos that I would finish college and eventually earn a doctorate degree.

‘Writing has changed my life’

When my case finally came up, I was sent to one of the most violent and dangerous prisons in Illinois. I stayed out of trouble and eventually was released. (Editor’s note: Hamilton was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and unlawful use of a weapon.)

The transition wasn’t easy. Due to my background, I was turned down for work multiple times. But I found janitorial work in a friend’s cleaning company and then I worked with a packaging company. Today, I am a drugstore manager.

More important, I never abandoned my promise to myself. I enrolled in community college. I am now set to graduate in the fall of next year with an associate’s degree in bio-anthropology. I plan to go on to a four-year university afterward and eventually enroll in graduate school. My goals are to teach history and work as a curator in a museum.

The power of writing as a therapeutic tool for transformation isn’t new. Telling stories to make meaning of the past and create direction for the future are age-old practices.

Writing has changed my life and the lives of many others, and it has not stopped at the jail or prison walls. ConTextos highlights authors from around the city and the world. We recently hosted an international delegation of government officials exploring the effects of mass incarceration.

We also work in community-based violence intervention programs and stage weekly writing and storytelling events. We host gatherings for the families of the incarcerated to build healthy relationships to support each other and their loved ones. The process of writing fosters redemption, forgiveness and understanding. Through this work, we have built bonds that cannot be broken by hate or aggression.

There’s been a lot of focus on reducing homicides in Chicago, with many people calling for the traditional approaches: tougher laws, more police, longer prison sentences. We should be honest with ourselves and recognize that we have been relying on these methods for decades, but they have not really worked very well.

My experience suggests that writing down our stories, sharing them with each other, and validating our lives can also be part of the answer. We owe it to our children, neighbors and ourselves to give it a try.

Justin Hamilton works with ConTextos, an organization that uses literary arts and education to help interrupt the cycle of violence.

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The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

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