Rahsaan Thomas

California (Operating nationally)

Project Overview

Empowerment Avenue seeks to break down barriers for aspiring creative professionals within prisons by playing an intermediary role between incarcerated artists and writers and the publishers, editors, and galleries that might be interested in featuring their work. By ensuring that incarcerated artists and writers are recognized, credited, and fairly compensated for their work, Empowerment Avenue contributes to a narrative shift that hastens the reform of the carceral system.

Five Questions

1What needs does Empowerment Avenue address and how?

People in prison are isolated from society, deprived of opportunities to generate income, misrepresented in the press, and lack the ability to fully participate in journalism or artistic careers. Editors and galleries lack the know-how and connections to work with people in prison. Empowerment Avenue bridges the gap between incarcerated creatives and their industries by pairing our writers with volunteers on the outside that are often professional writers willing to transcribe, edit, pitch, and facilitate the payment for the work. Additionally, we bridge artists to museums and galleries and sell their artwork, giving them 80% of the proceeds.

2Tell us about a moment that helped inspire your idea.

Empowerment Avenue was created by Rahsaan while he was incarcerated because he needed it. He had been writing for seven years on his own and only managed to publish 8 stories for $400. He longed to make enough to pay his restitution debt to his victims, take care of himself and help his children. He also longed to be heard by more than just other people in prison; he wanted the world to hear his ideas for achieving public safety without violence and incarceration, he needed access to submittal, email, calls for submissions, etc. He needed Empowerment Avenue to be the bridge over his obstacles.

3What is the biggest challenge you face right now?

The biggest challenge we face right now is funding. We need more funding to meet the higher demands for stories written by incarcerated people and expand the program.

4What other leaders have informed your work?

Mariame Kaba informed our work with a book called, We Do this Until We Free Us. In that book, she spoke about how people can’t imagine a world without prisons because they have never seen it. With Empowerment Avenue, we can show the world what a difference inclusion, connecting someone’s voice to mega platforms, and economic empowerment can do to achieve public safety without causing more harm.

5Describe a participant, client, community member, or someone else who represents what your project is all about.

Empowerment Avenue empowered Tomiekia Johnson and another woman incarcerated in Chowchilla to curate an art exhibit with the Museum of African Diaspora and Fly Away Production. The program not only empowers them economically, but it also gives them a chance to be seen and achieve their ultimate goal: freedom. Here’s a quote from Tomiekia:

“One of my friends went to the show and just sent me video clips! Amazeballs! I love it! Ate it all up. I see why you went 3 times. Very elegant and sensory evoking. This is so good.

And someone text me this morning out the blue confirming what you said, my petition signatures were up to 22,696.

My sponsor text me, she sent the links to Governor Newsom, and said she heard back from his office and they like what they saw. They are taking my work into consideration along with the fact women who are already rehabilitated are overly incarcerated and should be released.

You were right again, the show gave me exposure where it counts the most. I need to go home so bad.”

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