Summer 2014 Newsletter
This summer started off with a big win as we organized our first Board of Supervisors hearing in San Francisco. After months of research and planning, the day provided us with connections and information to move our campaign forward on behalf of children with incarcerated parents. Additionally, we have been busy every week with summer training. Seventeen youth from the Bay Area have joined our team and have worked hard this summer to write their stories and gain skills in advocacy. As we move into fall, we are excited that Ayanni, Azizi, Daniel, Desirae, Frederick, Isaiah, and Moesha have graduated from high school, and will be attending college. We are so proud of them and are excited for what will be next. A special thank you to all those who supported their college journey by donating to our scholarship fund, and special thanks to Alumni Tony Shavers III for leading a fundraiser at his work place, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, and to Peet's Coffee for selecting us as their charitable organization. Our scholarship fund would not be possible with you.
Families Matter, Hear Our Voices!
Children Matter, Hear Our Voices!

On Thursday June 19th, Tra a former Project WHAT! youth advocate, led a crowd in chants on the steps of City Hall before our hearing with the Board of Supervisors. Project WHAT! worked with the San Francisco Youth Commission to organize the hearing as an opportunity to not only raise awareness around the stories of children with incarcerated parents (CIP) but to also influence the services and policies impacting them.


Although 2.7 million children nationwide and an estimate 17,993 youth in San Francisco have had a parent in prison or jail, there is currently no government agency responsible for collecting data on this population. The lack of data is concerning because it makes it hard for the city to better develop policies and allocate much needed resources for CIP.


Realizing the lack of data, the youth in Project WHAT! conducted over 100 surveys last fall from CIP and hosted numerous focus groups. From their research, Project WHAT! learned that in addition to a lack of transportation to jails/prisons, access to visiting hours, and re-entry resources, many CIP are dealing with feelings of isolation. One of the most common answers to "how do you feel to have a parent who is incarcerated?" was alone. During the hearing, Project WHAT! advocate Azizi shared her own story around feeling isolated; which started in middle when her father was arrested, and negatively spiraled into her high school years. She shared how she was able to get help, including connecting to Project WHAT!, but urged the supervisors to consider how her story is an important testimony to the need to support youth with incarcerated parents as early as possible.


In reflecting on the hearing Azizi, shared that the day was the biggest research accomplishment so far for the San Francisco chapter of Project WHAT!. She went on to say, "Project WHAT! has helped me more than I ever thought possible. It seems rare to find a program that not only fulfills the participant but also has the ability to positively affect so many lives. I'm so proud to be able to call myself part of the Project WHAT! family."


Hearing the voices of Project WHAT! and learning from city agencies about about they are and are not doing to serve CIP  was an important first step for the supervisors of San Francisco. However, it will be crucial for the city to take action by collecting data on youth with incarcerated parents and creating policies to ensure these youth are supported and can continue to be heard.


Sibling Connection
Leila                                                        Tory
Leila's older sister Desirae joined Project WHAT! last summer. Growing up Leila and her sister never talked about their dad's incarceration and how it impacted them. Desirae is three and a half years older than Leila, she has more memories with their dad, which built up a lot more anger when he left. When Leila saw Desirae go through Project WHAT!'s  summer training she noticed how satisfied she was with the experience, and how much it finally helped her open up. Leila was happy to see that her sister finally had someone to listen to her and was in a program with kids who have had similar experiences. This motivated Leila to join Project WHAT! because she wanted to do something with the feelings she had and be able to connect with others.


This summer, Leila has noticed how Project WHAT! has had a positive impact on her, "I learned strength, boosted my confidence and became more outgoing. As a child, I was always quiet and never wanted to share because I felt betrayed and not listened to when my dad was taken away from me. I felt I had no say but now I feel like a whole new person". Leila also appreciated learning about the prison system and the Children of Incarcerated Parents Bill of Rights. At first Leila said she was scared to write her story, especially because she wasn't sure if she had enough memories about her dad since he left after her fourth birthday. But after writing, she realized that it was a weight off her shoulders to talk about things that have been going on for the past twelve years, "I look to Project WHAT! as my friend and therapy, because writing my story made me uncover unknown feelings I've had and made me a healthy person to get everything off my chest. I definitely see Project WHAT! as my anchor that saved me from being in silence." In addition to seeing her own growth, Leila says it's been nice for her sister to notice how she is changing. Leila says that Desirae is gentle with the topic, but has asked how the story writing process is going, and understands how it is difficult to talk about something so heavy.


Leila is really looking forward to helping other kids who have had an incarcerated parent as she continues with Project WHAT!, "I want to help other people be heard and know about the Children of Incarcerated Parents Bill of Rights, rather than feeling helpless and powerless." Although Desirae will be starting at UC Irvine in the fall (Congrats Desirae!) Leila is excited about the opportunity to be an advocate with her sister through Project WHAT!.


For Tory, his older brother Tony joined Project WHAT! three summers ago. Tory was motivated to join Project WHAT! after seeing how his brother was dealing with the absence of their father in a good way. Since joining Project WHAT! Tony got involved in lots of advocacy work; he presented his story to politicians, helped with presentations, and performed at Community Works' fundraiser featuring the award-winning actor, singer, and writer, Daniel Beaty. Tory talked with his brother about what it would be like to join Project WHAT!, and Tony assured him that it would be a good experience to write his story and meet different people.


Since joining, Tory has had a positive experience with the program, "I've grown a lot emotionally since I joined. I think I've come a long way talking about my true feelings instead of telling people what they want to hear, just being more open." Tory said that a lot of this emotional growth came from writing his story, "At first I thought it would be easy, you live through it but then when you sit there and write, and think of what happened, and all the emotions, it's overwhelming at times. It feels good to tell someone instead of holding it back."


Tory hopes his story will help teachers and caregivers keep their eyes open for youth who may need help, "if you see something you should try to address it, even when I said I didn't need help, I wished someone had helped". Similar to Leila, Tory hopes to make a difference for other youth with incarcerated parents so they don't have to struggle. As of now, Tory has not shared his full story with his brother but he says that both of them being in Project WHAT! has been a new level for them to connect.

Checking-In with   

Isaiah                                                              Ayanni

Two Scholarship Recipients


Isaiah Bolanos,  San Francisco State University 

1. How old were you when you joined Project WHAT! and how did you find out about us?

I joined when I was 14 and I found out about Project WHAT! through Project AVARY, which is a summer camp for children with incarcerated parents. Project AVARY revolves around the same stuff as Project WHAT! but you can join when you're eight. It's basically a regular summer camp where you go to have fun and they also have sessions where we get to talk about your life.


2. What is one of your favorite memories from Project WHAT!?

My favorite memory was my first presentation when I was 15 years old. It was at the Teachers for Social Justice Conference in San Francisco. There were a lot of people who came out, including teachers, but it was a mixed audience. There were also people from Project AVARY and my social worker came to hear me speak. I told my story about my dad being in jail and how it caused me to go into foster care and move around a lot. It felt weird to tell my story for the first time and I think I cried when I got to the part about my mom. But since then, I have given over a dozen presentations and I don't feel as weird. I also like tabling at Project WHAT!'s presentations and conferences because I like to use my skills to get people to buy stuff and also be the information station to tell people about what we do.


3. What is one thing Project WHAT! taught you about yourself?

Project WHAT! taught me to be a better writer through the summer training and I also got more mature just growing up through the program. Project WHAT! also helped me be more open minded. Lots of people would come through the program to teach us different things and usually the main point it would come down to was that everyone deserves to be treated equally.


4. What has been your experience in programs that support children of incarcerated parents?

These programs matter because if people don't have other people, the programs can help open people up and give them the feeling that they are backed up and have support behind them. For me, Project WHAT! was a stable place where I knew I had support even when I was moving around a lot.


5. What does it mean to you to receive year-round on campus housing as a youth who's been in foster care?

It means I'll have a place to go and will have housing over the breaks. When you are 18 in foster care your placement can become your school so that means that I'll have my housing at school. I found out about this program through the Guardian Scholars Program, which supports foster care kids going to college. When I get to campus I can meet other people in the program and we all might dorm together so that we connect with each other.


6. What are your goals and dreams for the future?

I want to stay focused on school. It's a little blurry what I want to study right now. I'm planning on taking a bunch of classes and seeing what I like. Right now I'm thinking maybe Communications and then maybe double majoring with Psychology, English, or Ethnic Studies


7. Do you have any advice for other young people in Project WHAT! who are thinking about applying to college?

Stay focused on school and getting good grades, everything is easier if you have good grades. For me, moving around houses in high school made it hard to stay focused on my grades. Also, I would say apply to as many colleges and scholarships as you can. There are scholarships for everything- wearing a duct tape dress to prom, or even being left-handed.


Ayanni, Laney Community College

1. How old were you when you joined Project WHAT! and how did you find out about us?

I think I was 17. One of my teachers at the school told everyone about Project WHAT! and then I went to the presentation and really enjoyed it. The stories that were shared really resonated with me, especially one where a person talked about her dad.


2. What is one of your favorite memories from Project WHAT!?

There are so many memories. I liked summer training a lot because I got to meet a lot of new people. At first I avoided writing my story because I was going through a rough time since my dad passed away but then I just wrote it. I started by saying the last words he said to me before he was incarcerated and then just talked about how his incarceration impacted me. I really liked when we shared all our stories at the end.


I also have done a lot of outreach at my high school. I've helped to talk to students who are interested in joining Project WHAT!. I helped two students who were applying to prepare for the interview. I also made a resource guide for children with incarcerated parents as part of a project for one of my classes. There are a lot of kids at my school who have an incarcerated parent so I always help them connect to Project WHAT!.


Also, I presented at Cal State East Bay to a class of social workers. At first it was hard because when I got up there I read the title of my story started crying, but then I felt good about it because they were all open and gave me a second chance to read it. I also shared with teachers and staff at my high school. I actually had all my teachers in tears. I really enjoyed reading it and I would love to present again!


3. What are you most looking forward to about beginning college?

Meeting new people! For me, I've been with the people in my class since 3rd grade so getting to see new faces will be cool. I registered for classes and I'm planning on taking math, English and a lot of culinary classes my first semester.


4. How do you think your experiences with Project WHAT! will influence your experience in college?

Project WHAT! has helped me a lot with my public speaking. I know in two of my culinary classes I have to do an oral presentation so my experience in Project WHAT! will be helpful. The scholarship will help a lot! The money will help for all the school fees, tuition, etc. It will be good to pay for some of what I need.


5. Why do you think it's important to have programs for children with incarcerated parents?  

Kids don't really talk about it and feel like they are alone and no one has the same problems. Project WHAT! and other programs are a safe place for people like me to talk, say what they are going through, and say how they feel about their parent being incarcerated.


6. Do you have any advice for other young people in Project WHAT! who are thinking about applying to college?

Choose what you are most passionate about. Choose the classes that you most want to do. Also, take some classes now in high school that you think you'd be interested in or would need to take in college.