By Zoya Naqvi
Eight people sit around a table sharing their life stories. A woman longs to be with her incarcerated mother again. A man struggles with his son’s drug addiction. Another woman remembers her hardest goodbye to her deported father.
These are the stories shared at Herstory workshops, a month-long program in March taken place at Stony Brook University. The program encourages participants at all writing levels to turn their experiences into memoirs.
Each week, small groups of writers share a chapter of their lives as workshop members offer their storytelling advice.
“For the immigrants visiting relatives, it’s a very sad experience to see their innocent family members who are being held unfairly,” Duncan said. “It makes so much sense that people in jail have a story to tell, another perspective and reality that no one is aware of.”
Herstory, a non-profit organization based in Centereach, started the workshops in 1996 when Duncan’s mother, Erika Duncan, set out on a mission she describes in a simple phrase: to change hearts, minds, and policies through first-person narrative. The workshops have taken place at senior homes, schools, and jails in Suffolk and Nassau County.
One of their ongoing programs, Herstory Behind Bars, takes members of the workshop inside the Riverhead Correctional Facility, where incarcerated women write memoirs. Stories written in the past become published in a book called, “Voices,” which became a required textbook in criminology classes at Hofstra University.
“Women in jail are probably the most stigmatized, hated, misunderstood group ever,” Erika Duncan, founder of Herstory, said. “People just look and think how could she have chosen drugs over her children or how could she have sold her body. It takes away a lot of the shame and guilt when they write together.”
This year, correctional officers training at Stony Brook attended workshops to become more aware of what it’s like to be an incarcerated family. Stories about addiction and domestic violence are commonly told in jail workshops, Duncan says. Officers who join the circle are offered a new perspective from what they learn at the academy.
“Naturally, being in a jail, women are guarded and they don’t want their personalities to show,” Amber Davis, operations manager at Herstory, said. “They open up and they start realizing you know you’re right, we do have a story.”