Finding Voices Within: A.C.T. Joins Forces with Community Works

by Livian Yeh

Led by our Community Programs Manager Stephanie Wilborn, A.C.T. has started a brand-new partnership with Community Works, an Oakland-based nonprofit that provides programs for people impacted by incarceration throughout the Bay Area, both in-custody and in the community.

Rising Voices participants share a laugh on a writing project. Photo by Dameion King.

“I’ve always wanted to collaborate with them,” says Wilborn. So when a colleague forwarded an email from the organization, she leapt at the opportunity to connect. The admiration turned out to be mutual. Her counterpart at Community Works, Lynn Aylward, happens to be a longtime A.C.T. fan. The two met for coffee, and Stephanie offered A.C.T.’s support of their theater program.

Rising Voices, the initiative managed by Aylward, is the brainchild of CW Founder and Executive Director Ruth Morgan. It focuses on young women (ages 18 to 25) who are currently or recently incarcerated, and fits within the nonprofit’s broader program for transitional age youth who are at risk of incarceration or in the process of re-entry that is under the direction of Rahkii Holman. The women attend weekly support meetings during the year, and then share their personal stories in two-hour writing sessions. At the end of the year, the program culminates in a multimedia performance at a professional theater, featuring elements of dance, video, and theater. “At Community Works, we believe bringing out the powerful voices inside the women is one of the best ways to heal,” says Aylward. The stories are told through a restorative justice lens, an approach that responds to incarceration with emphasis on responsibility and relationship.

“It’s really great that we can exchange resources and knowledge,” says Wilborn. A.C.T. will support Rising Voices' production needs and offer advice on theater-making, while Wilborn herself has been facilitating virtual learning after her first lesson was canceled due to the coronavirus. In spite of the pandemic, the partnership has grown. Looking for alternative ways to present Rising Voices’ year-end performance, Aylward attended a virtual rehearsal for the MFA show In Love and Warcraft.

Seeing how A.C.T. handled its transition online has been invaluable, says Aylward, though she notes that not everyone has access to technology. Many participants in her program don’t have the option to use Zoom or Google Classrooms, and virtual platforms can be alienating. Wilborn and A.C.T.’s Education & Community Programs department have been exploring options to secure tablets for the women.

Looking to the future, Wilborn hopes to expand the collaboration by providing space, producing materials, and teaching artists for Rising Voices’ curriculum. In turn, Community Works will share its practices of restorative justice and indigenous learning with A.C.T. students, teaching artists, and staff members.

For Aylward, A.C.T.’s support of her program helps make the work more authentic and engaging. “This partnership is very exciting to the women,” she says. “They’ve been let down a lot in life. For them to know that a professional theatera theater that’s in their communityis invested and interested in them, that’s priceless.”

To find out more about Community Works, go to communityworkswest.org. To support A.C.T.’s work in the community, visit act-sf.org.

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