Do All Lives Really Matter? An Awakening in San Quentin

Fateen Jackson is a spoken word poet, graduate, and co-facilitator of Guiding Rage Into Power (GRIP) at San Quentin, a year-long transformative program that provides prisoners tools to “turn the stigma of being a violent offender into being a non-violent Peacemaker.” Jacques Verduin, founder and director of ‘Insight-Out’ which organizes initiatives such as GRIP, recently shared Fateen’s first spoken word performance, “Do All Lives Really Matter” with us. We loved it and got in touch with Fateen to ask him to share a little about his experience with GRIP and to tell us more about his spoken word piece. (Note: By sharing Fateen’s spoken word piece, it is not our intention to take away from the importance of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Fateen addresses this issue in his spoken word piece.)

An important aspect of GRIP is forming a tribe, a community. What role does community play in helping you navigate daily challenges?
Community is very important when it comes to feeling like one is accepted and included. In GRIP, the tribe we form is a bonded brotherhood. We all have a common interest which is personal healing. Being an incarcerated person, I deal with many daily challenges. I struggle with being seen as inferior just because I am a prisoner and “the powers that be” hold authority over me. But, I mostly struggle with being away from my family; it’s a despairing hardship. And as time continues to tick away, the family disconnection drifts further and further apart. It’s the classic syndrome called: “out of sight and out of mind.” However, I don’t blame anyone but myself, since I took myself away from them. Still, sometimes I struggle with my own sense of self-worth when it comes to my immediate family.

In GRIP, the tribe is like a surrogate family, an inner community, made up of inmates from diverse backgrounds. I trusted my tribe with my most vulnerable feelings about my past hurts and traumas. I felt welcomed and safe once we built that container of trust. We mattered to each other and our voice had some significance within the tribe. This experience transformed me and inspired me to express creatively through spoken word poetry. It is now my passion to give voice for the unheard. It is therapeutic and redeeming to know that I could have a positive impact on other people’s lives, especially the young ones.

Jacques Verduin says of the GRIP Program, “Our methodology does not aim to produce love and forgiveness. Rather, they become natural outcomes of learning how to listen deeply to one another.” How has deep listening changed your interactions?
Listening to someone express deep emotions demonstrates empathy. I’ve learned through the GRIP program that people need to be heard and understood, just like I did. My sense of self-worth was restored just by people listening to me—my story. I used to hold inside my heart a lot of anger, bitterness, and resentment because I felt left out in the world. I used to say to myself: “shit, if no one gives a damn about me, why should I give a damn about them?” This perpetual thought made it easier for me to be apathetic and insensitive toward others, especially those I disliked. My deep sense of resentment started when I was a very young kid and my father abandoned me. I’ve realized that was why I hated liars, and why I had rejection and abandonment issues.

I struggled for a long while as a young man with my true identity. Seeking manhood, I’d gravitated toward the urban gang culture, which had its own established community. However, most of the customs in that culture displayed a misguided sense of manhood. Peer-pressure, over aggression, and approval-seeking behaviors played a major role in character building. I would not be able to share with other gang members the type of stuff I shared with my tribe. Some of them wouldn’t respect it, some may try to question my “hardness” (toughness), and some may relate but because of peer pressure and insecurities, they wouldn’t positively comment on it. I know this because I was like that until I had my awakening. I am now open and willing to listen to others express themselves on a deep level. I would like to add as well, love has always been inside me, like everyone else. But, because of my conditioned state and distorted sense of manhood, I’d buried the love emotion and almost forgot that I still had it. Forgiveness is so closely related to love because without love, we can’t forgive. I’m happy to say that I’ve made them both a healing instrument in my life.

In your spoken word piece, you say, “I am the bad, the good, and the misunderstood.” How do we overcome being misunderstood? Can we?
When I say that “I am the bad, the good, and the misunderstood,” I’m identifying with all of humanity. From the so-called saintly to the most despicable, we all retain that intrinsic human value. No one living on planet earth is perfect, we are all fallible human beings. As gracious as the creator is, it didn’t provide us with an instructional manual on how to be perfect human beings. We had to learn through trial and error, that’s how we were designed.

The circumstances of our birth and environment have the strongest influence on how we interpret the world. This is a nature vs. nurture issue. Because we have complex emotions, I think it’s a natural reaction to lash out in anger from disappointment and discontent. When one hasn’t been properly nurtured with unconditional love, those unregulated emotions can be damaging to self and others. Therefore, I don’t think that people can overcome being misunderstood. It’s others who have to overcome their own prejudices and biases against those who are different and unique. Open-mindedness, understanding, empathy, and acceptance is needed for the misunderstood.

Being an undereducated and impoverished black youth, my social development was severely affected. I’ve always felt outcast by mainstream society. These are some of the reasons why I developed anti-social attitudes and behaviors. In GRIP, there is a saying we use: “Hurt people hurt people. Healed people heal people.” When I was hurting I had no problem with hurting others, but now that I’m healing, I strive to help others heal too. 

You also say, “I am the forgotten, like all those who have been forsaken without compassion.” You point to that as part of an awakening to our common humanity. What is the bridge between those two realizations? 
When I say, “I am the forgotten, like all of those who have been forsaken without compassion,” I’m talking about those who had a blind eye turned away from their suffering. I’m talking about the people who are in constant despair, and believe no one cares for them or about them. I’m talking about the homeless, the oppressed, and the disenfranchised. I’m talking about those who have lost their smile, hope, and faith. I feel their pain. The bridge to this realization, again, is understanding and empathy. We must show compassion by being supportive. That’s the medicine for the forgotten.

Jacques says, “Prisoners are told that instead of being bad people who are to be forever shamed by our judgment, we regard each other as those who forgot who we truly are when we transgressed.” How do you remember who you truly are? 
GRIP teaches that when a person commits a violent crime, or act against others, one acts like they have no relatives, meaning one has lost touch with who they truly are. For myself, I had lost touch with who I truly was a long time ago. Like I said earlier, I struggled with my identity because I didn’t have a positive male role model in my life. I was unconsciously bitter because my father was absent for most of my life. Yet, through a prolonged series of unbiased and honest reflections, I reconciled that hurt and made peace with it. I remembered who I truly was when I got back in touch with the young boy inside of me that genuinely was opened to receive and give love.

Who taught you most about forgiveness? 
My daughter and son taught me most about forgiveness. They are twins, and I’ve been incarcerated since they were a year old. They’re now 18 years old. Several years ago, they both wrote letters to me expressing their deep disappointment in me for not being in their lives. It was a gut wrenching pain for me to read that from them. I burdened them with the brokenness I had with my father, which my father may have had with his father. Unfortunately, they inherited a cycle of brokenness. But, at the end of their letters, they told me that they forgive me, still love me and are patiently waiting until I get out of prison. That broke me down. Although I was relieved to know that, I still felt a deep sense of shame, guilt, and grief. I felt bad because to some degree, I still blamed my father for how my life turned out. But after some serious soul searching, my children’s forgiveness opened my heart to forgive myself and my father. I had to forgive myself first because I couldn’t truly forgive anyone until I’ve reconciled, and found peace with my own wrongs and shortcomings. Therefore, I had to offer empathy for my father’s shortcomings and forgive him. My children are my saviors.

Fateen with his children

Is there anything else you’d like to share?
My transformation has been an enlightened journey that continues to teach me new things about myself and the world in general. I was tired of being tired, and I came to a point where I really wanted to become a better person. I owed it to those I’ve harmed, myself, my children, and to my loving mom who passed away, to be a better person. I promised my mom before she transcended this life, that I will redeem my wrongs. I want to show her, in spirit, that she didn’t fail me as a parent. She deserves to be proud. I recognize and appreciate that she was the best mother she could be with what she knew and had. I must honor that with my redemption.

If nothing else, I want your readers to know that nobody is so bad that they don’t have any good in them, and nobody is so good that they don’t have any bad in them. Excuse my language, but “all of our shit stink.” We have to do our best, I mean our very best, to be the decent people we know we can be, with all due respect to other’s belief systems, this is the only life we know for sure that we have. And it is short; only but a brief moment in comparison to the age of the universe. We should strive to live the most joyful and fulfilled life as possible, being grateful for every moment; knowing before we transcend from this life that we gave and received love, genuinely.

Thank you for the opportunity to share my viewpoints with you all. I wish all of you well and God bless.