Jan 5, 2022

Transforming the Narrative for Justice-Impacted Women

by: Chad Eric Smith

Last year, Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Restorative Justice Program launched a new Women’s Re-Entry Pilot Program (WRPP). Modeled after The Guild, the arts and wellness-focused paid re-entry program served justice-impacted women and their families’ unique needs. Through mural making, carpentry, and other creative projects, participants are guided by artists and other skilled professionals to transform their neighborhoods and themselves. Job readiness was an essential element of the curriculum. Participants worked on communications, teamwork, critical thinking, problem-solving, digital etiquette, and soft and hard skills to help them secure employment following the four-month program.

WRPP participant works on the mural The Future Is Worth The Fight, Just Hold On & You Will See in Harrowgate. May 28, 2021. Photo by Steve Weinik.

The pilot program held a graduation ceremony at the Philadelphia Municipal Services Building on September 24, 2021. “The women who stand before you represent the strength, courage, and dedication it takes to adapt to changing circumstances,” declared Jane Golden, founder and executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia. “We shouldn’t overlook that these women accomplished great things while still being in a global pandemic. We are so proud of our graduates today. You have truly beautified the city, inspired change, and empowered one another to keep fighting.” 

Women's Reentry Pilot Project graduation ceremony at the Municipal Services Building, September 24, 2021. Photo by Akeil Robertson.

If you change your way of thinking, you can change your circumstances.

- Rasheeda Bagwell, Women's Guild Coordinator

The second cohort of the Women’s Re-entry Program begins on January 10, 2022, and Rasheeda Bagwell, the Women’s Guild Coordinator, is excited to support the new participants. “If you change your way of thinking, you can change your circumstances,” says Bagwell, who spent several months volunteering for the co-ed Guild program last year. Born and raised in North Philadelphia, Bagwell is justice-impacted, too. She empathizes with the women she works with, many of which are returning citizens, a term meant to replace the stigmatized words “ex-con,” “ex-felon,” etc., when describing individuals who return home after being in prison. She loves that she is in a leadership position where she can support individuals who have been through similar situations and believes her experience makes her more effective at her job. When asked what her hope is for the women in the program for the new year, Bagwell replied, “To see them all succeed on their individual journey through re-entry.”

Rasheeda Bagwell Self-Portrait.

“Rasheeda is passionate with a keen insight rooted in personal experiences and a storyline that only destiny could create,” says Restorative Justice Director Greg Corbin. “She is talented and has this amazing ability to speak life into our participants while modeling the leadership it takes to truly make an impact. As a life coach, her desire to learn, grow, and develop will continue to be a roadmap for her success as she helps the participants of the Women’s Re-Entry Program transform their lives.”

Bagwell also had the “gratifying and extremely motivating” opportunity to participate in the narrative-shifting campaign entitled Transformation, the creative brainchild of Corbin and internationally known, award-winning photographer Ken McFarlane. The campaign explores the deficiencies in the storyline impacting returning citizens while uplifting the assets, gifts, and talents of those impacted by the criminal justice system. Through photography workshops led by McFarlane, Guild members and Women’s Re-entry Program participants curated nine portraits that have become a showcase on ClearChannel billboards throughout Philadelphia.

Bagwell understands that she can not always help everyone the way she wants, but what gives her much satisfaction is “seeing some of the participants who struggle in different ways grow mentally and emotionally.” When Mural Arts talks about the transformative power of art, this story is an excellent and heartwarming example of what we mean.

“The transformation of the world is brought about by the transformation of oneself.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti

Last updated: Jan 7, 2022

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Jovanda Irving says

My name is Jovanda Irving and I am contacting you because I am a woman who has been impacted by the justice system. I am 38 years old and spent 13 years incarcerated and am now on the path of transitioning. I would greatly enjoy being a volunteer at your organization.

I am currently a third year Psychology student as well as a member of AllofUsorNone, GCHEP, organizations that contribute to the abolishing of the Prison Industrial Complex. I am personally creating a nonprofit organization called Building through Barriers that will help women who have been released with counseling services, reentry, and personal balance.

In my journey, I have experienced and been made aware of the disproportionate help afforded to women like me. Along with social challenges, women like me face a different set of issues characterized solely to women who have experienced incarceration. I am asking to be contacted to offer more insight into this issue in hope to bring awareness to a seemingly unnoticed problem area.

With mass incarceration for women growing 6x more than men, this also presents a communal and social problem. I would love to be contacted with your thoughts and consideration of my involvement with your organization.

Thank you for your time and consideration in this matter. Hope to hear from you soon.