Frequently asked questions
Q: What is Back to the Start?
A: Back to the Start is a new non-profit that produces powerful narratives underscoring the need for critical investments in early childhood and family resources. Co-led by incarcerated individuals at San Quentin and a former Chief Physician and Surgeon of California’s prison health care system, the new narrative series is written by incarcerated persons reflecting on the arc of their lives from childhood to incarceration. The stories highlight the cradle-to-prison pipeline in a way that compels us to rethink the current narrative of "blaming the individual" and focus instead on addressing root causes of systemic inequities. Through a trauma-informed approach, the program also provides a space for healing and processing of past traumas throughout the writing workshops.
Q: How did Back to the Start begin?
A: Back to the Start started as a strategic initiative from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Culture of Health Leadership Program, which focuses on the root causes of health and racial inequities. At the time, Dr. Jenny Espinoza was a fellow in the RWJF Culture of Health Leadership Program and a Chief Physician and Surgeon in the California prison system. She had the opportunity to get to know her patients over several years, and kept hearing the same stories about growing up in environments filled with trauma, violence, and poverty. Inspired by their stories, it became clear that to fundamentally improve health and other outcomes of communities impacted by incarceration she needed to go upstream to address the cycle of systemic inequities that culminate in the cradle-to-prison pipeline. To carry out its work in a way that is equitable and empowering to the community that the initiative serves, there was a clear vision from the beginning that Back to the Start must be a collaboration grounded and co-planned by a leadership team with the lived experience of incarceration. After Dr. Espinoza pitched the concept to incarcerated leaders and journalists in the San Quentin Prison media center, the core group of incarcerated co-leads requested to be involved because the mission is deeply meaningful to them and resonates with their lived experiences, values, and life's work of giving a voice to the voiceless. Together, they planned and implemented Back to the Start, which graduated its first narrative writing cohort in January 2023.
Q: What does Back to the Start do?
A: At Back to the Start, we foster and facilitate powerful storytelling by incarcerated persons to shed light on the profound negative effects of stressful environments during formative years and by doing so, build support for improved early childhood development and family support policies. Our programs encompass a broad body of work which includes: 1.) Prison Writing Workshops - Weekly writing workshop series at San Quentin State Prison. Topics include reflections about their home and school environment, childcare, access to support services, involvement in the foster system, trauma and loss, and first contact with the criminal justice system. Writing is workshopped together in small groups, including a monolingual Spanish-speaking group. Plans are also underway to expand to other prisons. 2.) Healing of Past Traumas - Using a trauma-informed approach, the workshops also include processing sessions to ensure participants have strategies and a space to process emotions that may be triggered by their reflections. 3.) Building Partnerships across silos - We recognize the need for strong partnerships with other organizations that have aligned missions at the intersection of poverty, childhood education, violence prevention, mental health, and public policy. To maximize impact, collaborations with stakeholders must be forged to elevate the stories and synergize with ongoing policy campaigns across multiple silos. 4.) Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Public Awareness - These stories highlight the lifelong impact of trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). 5.) Dismantling the cradle-to-prison pipeline - Advocacy for upstream investments that provide wrap-around support for every family, with the vision of eliminating educational, racial and health inequities. 6.) Media Collaborations - After the narratives are collected, based on the themes and content of the stories, the organizers help participants edit and compile their stories into cohesive, final pieces which may take the form of a podcast, documentary, and/or written publication for public dissemination. 7.) Narrative Change - Stories and narratives are the drivers of social and policy change. Narratives born out of Back to the Start shift the focus to policy and system failures which lack adequate investments in disadvantaged children and families.
Q: How are the “Narrative for Social Change” Workshops run?
A: “Back to the Start” takes the form of a writing workshop series with participation from incarcerated individuals. Participants are given a range of prompts, seven in total, exploring their childhood experiences. Topics from prompts include reflections about their home and school environment, childcare, access to support services, involvement in the foster system, trauma and loss, and first contact with the criminal justice system. Writings are workshopped together in small groups, including a monolingual Spanish-speaking group, over the course of weekly sessions, led by experienced incarcerated writing facilitators/ mentors. Using a trauma-informed approach, the workshops also include processing sessions so that participants have strategies and a space to process emotions that may be triggered by their reflections. After the narratives are collected, based on the themes and content of the stories, the organizers will help participants edit and compile their stories into cohesive, final pieces which may take the form of a podcast, documentary, and/or written publication for public dissemination.
Q: What are the benefits of this program?
A: The short-term benefits of this work are experienced by incarcerated participants who are developing narratives based on their childhood experiences. In the post-surveys, participants consistently stated how cathartic this has been, and several were inspired to learn more about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Participants are coming away empowered by their ability to share their stories, after processing the trauma of tragic circumstances which contributed at an early age to their future incarceration. Our program also offers leadership and facilitator opportunities for incarcerated individuals, including a teach-the-trainer curriculum. An unexpected benefit is that we have also been able to leverage the co-leads’ and facilitators' contributions to help advocate for their early parole. So far, 2 of the 6 incarcerated leads/facilitators serving life sentences have been found suitable for parole. The long-term goal, once their stories are published/produced, is to inform policy and improve lives. Our core mission is to highlight and advance policy solutions on issues that are at the intersection of childhood poverty, trauma, and systemic racism. These narratives are applicable to a range of issues and policies. Specific examples include: violence prevention, subsidies for families living in poverty, universal access to medical and mental health care, affordable quality childcare, safe housing/neighborhoods, and closing the achievement gap.
Q: How do stories influence systemic and policy change?
A: It has become well-recognized that stories drive social and policy change. Rather than data, persuasion, or even logic, stories are what change hearts and minds. We are hardwired to view the world through stories which conjure images that, consciously or unconsciously, inform our beliefs. The most impactful stories are personal narratives that provide memorable first-hand accounts. Successful campaigns have consistently demonstrated this, from the Civil Rights Movement to the legalization of same-sex sex-marriage to the Me Too Movement. Narratives create collective societal memories and beliefs with lasting impacts. This informs our values and what we accept as normative, or “right” and “wrong”. Even in a society that is polarized, stories have the unique power to establish common ground in our collective consciousness—and to disrupt the dominant narrative that normalizes inequities and oppression.
Q: Why do incarcerated people volunteer to participate in this program?
A: If you ask participants why they chose to join Back to the Start and share personal and often painful reflections from the time in their life when they were most vulnerable, you will hear the same answer—they hope their stories will “make a difference so that others won’t have to go through the same thing.” After having been incarcerated and disempowered for years or sometimes decades, participants are discovering that even behind bars their stories are important and have power. Back to the Start gives them a platform through storytelling to be part of the solution in addressing the root causes of health and systemic inequities impacting their community.
Q: What are ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences)?
A: Adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, are traumatic events that occur in childhood (0-17 years). For example: experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect losing a family member toxic stress Also included are aspects of the child’s environment that can undermine their sense of safety, stability, and bonding, such as growing up in a household with: substance use disorder mental health conditions instability due to parental separation or household members being in jail or prison ACEs have significant life-long impacts on physical and mental health as an adult. While most people experience at least one ACE as a child, incarcerated populations, and other vulnerable populations, have a disproportionately high ACEs burden compared to the general population
Q: Why are incarcerated populations considered an underserved population?
A: Underserved refers to a group or population that lacks access to resources, services, or opportunities, typically due to social or economic disparities. These individuals or communities may be marginalized, ignored, or overlooked, resulting in limited access to education, healthcare, employment, housing, transportation, or other key provisions. In America, persons who end up in prison are overwhelmingly from under-resourced communities. Moreover, two-thirds of the incarcerated population are from Black and Latinx communities. These are the communities that are most impacted by incarceration because they are entrenched with the same structural barriers and inequities, including poverty and systemic racism, that are at the root of the cradle-to-prison pipeline.
Q: What are the economic benefits of dramatically expanding investments in early childhood programs? Won’t that be really costly?
A: Children raised in poverty and under-resourced environments experience an accumulation of disadvantages, including higher rates of low birth weight, unstable family structures, trauma, and poor academic performance. According to the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), this places “these children in a trajectory that leads to marginalized lives, imprisonment and often premature death.” As CDF puts it, “They were not derailed from the right track; they never got on it.” Upstream investments in early childhood can change this trajectory, redirecting funds to support children, and their families, to reach their full potential. This can prevent the need for downstream spending, which takes place after a person’s life has already been derailed (such as spending incarceration) and is even more costly. Studies have consistently demonstrated that upstream investments in early childhood development have the highest economic return. Nobel Prize winner and Economics Professor James Heckman demonstrated that investing in early childhood education can result in a 7% to 10% per year return on investment, with a 13% return for programs focused on the first five years of a child’s life. This is more than the average annual return on the stock market. Expanded investment in these programs would actually stimulate the economy and reduce the national deficit by increasing productivity and tax revenue in addition to reducing costs in social services, health care and the criminal justice system.
Q: What is the Cradle-To-Prison Pipeline?
A:The Cradle-to-Prison Pipeline refers to the cumulative impact of multiple factors, beginning before birth and persisting through childhood, adolescence, and the teen years, that disproportionately diverts youth from minority and under-resourced communities toward incarceration. The Children’s Defense Fund originally coined the term, Cradle-to-Prison Pipeline as follows in their original report: “Poor children of color are the canaries in America’s deep mines of child neglect and racial and economic injustice. At critical points in their development, from birth through adulthood, millions of these children confront a multitude of disadvantages and risks including poverty and its many stresses: single, teen or unstable families; no or poor health care; lack of early education and enrichment; child abuse and neglect; failing schools that don’t teach them to read, write or compute; grade retention, suspension and expulsion; questionable special education placements or dropping out; unaddressed mental health problems; absent fathers or incarcerated parents; violent neighborhoods; and disproportionate involvement in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. These accumulated and convergent risks form a Cradle to Prison Pipeline, trapping these children in a trajectory that leads to marginalized lives, imprisonment and often premature death.”
Q: Where can I read or listen to the stories generated from this program?
A: Back to the Start will be publishing and disseminating the stories strategically for maximum impact, typically together with collaborators. This will be across multiple platforms, including written, audio, and film. See our website events page and social media feeds for updates for more information about upcoming launches. In the meantime, Back to the Start has posted some excerpts (excerpts can be a hyperlink) on our website and we are also spotlighting a story of the month as a preview of the compelling series of stories that our program is compiling.
Q: How can we partner or collaborate with Back to the Start?
A: In our ecosystem, there are many organizations with aligned missions seeking to advance the cause. We welcome those interested in partnering to reach out to Dr. Jenny Espinoza at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss further collaboration around shared objectives or click Get Involved below for more information.
A: Yes, we are always looking for volunteers to help grow our nascent non-profit, especially those with experience and skill sets directly related to fundraising, public relations, writing/editing, advocacy and public policy. Please contact Dr. Jenny Espinoza at email@example.com if you would like to join as a volunteer or click Volunteer below.
Q: Can I volunteer? How can I help?
Q: How can I donate?
A: We accept online donations via digital payments or by check. To donate online, please click the “Donate” button in the top right-hand corner. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like information on how to send a check. We appreciate your consideration and generosity.