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Television Personality W. Kamau Bell Visits SQ to Collaborate with Back to the Start

Updated: Jun 29

Originally published in San Quentin News

By Michael Callahan, San Quentin News Staff Writer


Television personality W. Kamau Bell came to San Quentin this summer to collaborate on a new program called, Back to the Start: Reflections Behind Bars. The program conducts a narrative writing workshop centered on the impact of adverse childhood experiences on development and incarceration.


Bell spoke to the group about ways to package their childhood stories for an outside audience in video or audio. Bell is the well-known host and producer of the hit CNN show, “The United Shades of America.” One episode features San Quentin’s rehabilitative programs and its media center.


Bell said that he felt encouraged by the accomplishments of the writing workshop so far. “Storytelling is what I do, and I look forward to collaborating with them and sharing their stories with the world,” Bell told SQNews. “I’m excited to be welcomed by Dr. Espinoza and the men from Back to the Start.”


Bell’s experience with documentaries was appealing to Dr. Jenny Espinoza, executive director of the program, and the group’s incarcerated facilitators. In Dr. Espinoza's previous job, she provided healthcare to residents at San Quentin, but felt she could more effectively "move the needle" on the school-toprison pipeline by providing the incarcerated community with an opportunity to tell their stories.


Dr. Espinoza said she was moved by the stories she heard in the prison, and the ways in which they make clear that upstream interventions are needed to support children and families before their lives are unraveled through abuse, poverty, and crime.


The goal of Back to the Start is to produce these stories through anthologies, videos, or podcasts and get them out to the public. Dr. Espinoza says that the group also wants to put their stories in front of politicians and policymakers to encourage systemic-policy change that will benefit families and children.


“When I first asked the incarcerated co-leads of Back to the Start who we should reach out to in the media to help us strategize about who to produce our stories for maximum impact, Kamau Bell immediately came to mind,” said Dr. Espinoza. “They explained that he has a genuine interest in the population at San Quentin.”


During the meeting at the media center, some of the cohort’s participants and facilitators spoke with Bell about the positive impact the program has had on them, as well as their reasons for joining.


They shared excerpts from their written narratives, which were developed through a series of thought provoking writing prompts — from describing their home environment to their most traumatic childhood experience to what brought them joy and happiness as a child.


Participant Donald Thompson appreciated that Bell took the time to meet with them. Prior to the visit, Thompson went to the MediaCenter to record some of his stories in audio, which he shared with Bell in podcast form.


“It gives value to my stories, and there is a hope that it will impact other’s lives in a beneficial way,” Thompson said.


Senior Editor Joshua Strange contributed to this story. He is also a facilitator for Back to the Start.

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