From re-entry to radical self care: The professional and personal journey of a social justice professor

11 mins read

“What we have to do is radically shift our perceptions of what it means to take care of ourselves . . . let’s take care of ourselves the way we take care of everybody else.”

Stress and trauma. Experiences and words that Rolanda West-Spencer associated with inmates she saw in Venezuela, Cuba and Belize. Definitely, she recognized similar mental health issues in the thousands of men and youth she worked with in countless re-entry programs in-and-around her home of Chicago.

West-Spencer, a social justice professor at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU), also witnessed post-traumatic stress disorder in hundreds of correctional officers and social workers who engage incarcerated populations daily.

With all of the grief and anxiety she encountered in her profession, the Chicago transplant did not understand just how profoundly those words applied to her until she almost died while delivering her second child via cesarean section at age 40, two years ago.

I kept telling the doctors that I was not feeling right and something’s not right. My teeth were chattering so much that if I stuck my tongue out then I would’ve bit it off. My husband was there and he was scared. When he tried to see what was going on, they told them to get back. The doctors would tell us that this was normal, but hours later, I woke up in a room. I found out that I lost so much blood that I had to have a blood transfusion. I was dying there and they weren’t telling me anything.

It is this experience, in a series of dramatic incidents, that changed the trajectory of her career. It transformed how she navigates her life as a Black woman in a country increasingly hostile towards Black life, even if it does come with degrees and upstanding citizenship.

That situation put me more in tune with my woman-ness, my womanhood, what it means to be a woman and experience life in the U.S. as a Black woman who is not heard and not paid attention to.

This Wednesday, West-Spencer birthed another baby, a boy named Pharaoh. Things were much different, but many questions still emerge now as a mother of two boys. Her oldest, a daughter she had early in life, Imani, is completing her doctoral studies in New York.

On paper, things look good, but internally, West-Spencer’s intentions and approaches shifted radically. With the growing racial animosities, she affirms that this country, especially those who are the most oppressed, must be vigilant about mental and spiritual well-being. As well as, creating sustainable support systems that directly connect to the wholeness of the community.

Trauma and assessment

Rolanda West-Spencer. Photo credit: Claire Craigen.

In November 2017, West-Spencer approached the youth services division of the Illinois Department of Human Services (DHS) to provide a radical self-care program to their pregnant and parenting teenaged populations. The response of the staff, who were mostly Black women, shocked her.

They wanted the kids to go through the program, but told me, ‘we need it too.’

When one of the heads of the juvenile center asked West-Spencer to assist DHS personnel, she knew that a critical part in mending some of Chicago’s deepest social issues started with the workers who absorbed much of the pain.

West-Spencer restructured her radical self-care classes to focus on DHS social justice and social service workers who directly deal with some of the city’s most vulnerable youth. During the four week program, she uncovered that most staff were “beat down and traumatized.” They spoke of extreme mental and emotional fatigue, but dedicated little time to recuperate from a demanding job.

Some of these women felt guilty if they took time for themselves. It’s like the world has told Black women that they cannot be happy.

West-Spencer’s radical self-care program emerged out of an epiphany while working in Chicago’s juvenile jail facilities months before.

The [correctional officers] and staff were more of a disruption to the process than the youth themselves. They would come to the classroom and talk louder than the kids. They would try to participate when it wasn’t for them.

Even more jarring was the feedback from her staff who worked with her in the facilities.

They reported depression, physical ailments that they didn’t have before, and more adversarial relationships at home from just working in that environment.

Although men and women expressed ways in which they were affected, the women described deeper troubles.

Their experiences triggered deep-seated issues.

When West-Spencer performed a self-assessment she realized that she too took on more emotional and psychological baggage; although she has been working in jails for well over 15 years.

West-Spencer surmised that the work needed to go deeper than structural adjustments, but more so, cellular.

A woman’s work

For most of her career in the nonprofit sector, West-Spencer focused on curriculum development and assisting formerly incarcerated men to transition back into society. Her book, Examining Reentry: The Policies, People, and Programs of the United States Prisoner Reintegration Systems, spoke in depth of state and federal initiatives guiding populations who attempt to weave their lives together after incarceration.

Behind some of the most progressive re-entry programs in Chicago, West-Spencer developed programs for Project Restored and the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), an organization led by MacArthur fellow Rami Nashashibi. As well, she assessed non-profits like that of Donda’s House, an organization launched by hip-hop emcee and producer, Kanye West (no relation to Rolanda).

West-Spencer would work directly with men in transition houses. She and her team talked to parolees three-to-four times a week. As years passed, she saw that a critical component of re-entry went missing — mental health treatment. Recently released inmates and those about to get out of jail expressed various forms of emotional as well as psychological debilities.

She decided to change the directions of re-entry, focusing largely on acquiring life skills.

I saw that re-entry was more than asking about how were they coping. Like if they found housing or a job. Everyone needs somewhere to live. Everyone needs a job to survive. To me that’s self-explanatory. I took a socio-emotional approach. I started to ask them what they wanted as opposed to concentrating on what they needed to do, or what society expected them to do.

I wanted to know how they were adjusting when becoming this ‘ex-con’ with these new labels after many of them were incarcerated for 15 or more years. So I wanted to develop an empowerment and leadership program.

West-Spencer learned that there was a gap between the expectations of society, where they were to perform those roles, or if they aligned with the men’s personal dreams on life after prison.

I heard a story about a young man who swept floors at a local corner store, but wasn’t paid by the owner. When it came time to give him money for his services, the owner basically told him that he was going to give him money when he felt like it . . . the next day, the guy killed the owner. He wasn’t ready to deal with that type of disappointment. He wasn’t ready to be what society wanted him to be. They didn’t prepare him for that.

When I heard that story, in particular, it just kind of shifted something in my thinking and my understanding in how we re-enter people.

You essentially take them from a position of bondage then you just let them loose. You take them from a situation where everyday they have to survive in a different way in which we are not meant to live as humans. We’re on punishment, right. Everyday you have to fight to live. You may be in solitary for a year. Then, you’re released with a trash bag from 15 years ago. And then you have to come back and compete in a market where if you’ve never been incarcerated, is difficult. So what do we expect when we criminalize a person? We cage them for decades. We beat them down for years and years, with no assistance.

So West-Spencer built a team that understood the inhumanity of incarceration, unafraid in working with the group of men.

I tell my students all the time, what the criminal justice system is meant to do, it does well. It is to incarcerate and punish. When you release a person, you have to deal with that trauma they experienced while incarcerated. You have to deal with PTSD.

To understand how troubling the system was, West-Spencer was part of a program that hosted a team that worked in the criminal justice system in Denmark.

We had taken a group to a Chicago juvenile facility, which was one of the nicer facilities, and a couple of people cried. They felt that we were monsters. It was really kind of telling.

By this time, West-Spencer was beginning to feel the consequences in the heavy lifting of her efforts. She had been at the front lines of many re-entry initiatives in Chicago, but was often overworked and overlooked. Men with whom she worked were awarded accolades and million dollar grants from her curriculum development and assessments. All the while, her organization, Alternative Education Research Institute (AERI), received meager funding.

By shifting her lens to the international landscape of criminal justice, she realized just how rare it was to be a woman, and a Black woman, in criminal justice reform. The uphill battle continued, but became another skirmish.

Next episode

Belize: Crooked Tree Police Station

In 2015, West-Spencer nabbed a professorship at the University of Belize to start a criminal justice program. She garnered the interest of the local academic community because she started research on the country’s criminal justice system.

The way that [criminal justice] work[s] [in Belize]is that they have one prison in the entire country and it is run by a non-profit, religious organization. I was really interested in seeing what that dynamic was because it seemed like it was a more, kind of, humane way to house prisoners.

After relocating for her new appointment, she quickly learned that her assumptions were completely wrong.

It was the worst thing that I’ve ever seen and I’ve been in a lot of prisons.

It was very draconian in the way that they housed the offenders. In the way that they treated the offenders, there was a lot of interesting things. But one thing that was very interesting was that the person who actually ran the prison was given the prison by the Prime Minister. He wasn’t at all versed in working with prisoners. He was an American from Texas who owned a construction company.

As it turned out, the owner of the privatized prison ran one of the the largest businesses in the country. He married a Belizean woman and also purported archaic southern Anglo-Protestant beliefs into his jail enterprise.

They actually carried buckets of water to their cells. There were poisonous snakes in some of the cells. Where they said they had programs, there [was]no evidence of programs. And over the loudspeaker, they would blast [ultra-conservative, right-wing Christian] religious programming throughout the prison for all of the inmates. So, it was no way that you could not be indoctrinated.

And one thing that was very interesting was that it was very anti-gay-and-lesbian. You could receive more time or receive some type of punishment if you were seen to engage in [that] type of lifestyle. In my opinion, it was due to what I would consider religious fanaticism in the prison.

She noticed that the academic community turned a blind eye to the prison.

Once I started teaching at the university and we started talking about the system in the classroom, the students would say, ‘We don’t talk about him or what goes on there.’ Older people did not talk about it either for feat that they would receive some type of punishment.

Slowly, the politics of the country impeded her further studies of the prison and disrupted her professorship. To make matters more complicated, West-Spencer arrived into Belize almost four months pregnant.

Although, she said that she had a “great relationship with my OB-GYN,” her high risk maternity forced her to travel back to Chicago to deliver her child by c-section.

When I came to the US, I started getting sick. The doctors were not listening to me. Everything that I knew about c-section was changed without explanation. I think it was due to the assumption of economic class. Because I had to come back quickly, I didn’t have the opportunity to get insurance. One of the things that I was supposed to do was not go into labor, but they pushed off until I went into that labor.

After her difficult delivery, something in West-Spencer shifted.

It was that experienced that changed the way I was going to work with people. I knew that I needed to change my population. I was going to work with [the] youth population. I needed to work with women. I knew that I needed to curb my work in the prison system. I needed to work in light than the darkness.

As soon as she was better, and her son began to breastfeed and take a bottle, West-Spencer dove back into her profession, but with a new set of eyes.

Break Bread & Build

Chicago, IL: 2015 – Rolanda West Spencer at AERI fundraiser, the Black Pearl. Photo credit: Claire Craigen.

With a grant from the Chicago Teacher’s Union Foundation (CTUF), West-Spencer left adult prisons and began working in juvenile facilities. As part of her vision, she sought to incorporate parents in learning about radical self-care.

One of the ways she thought would be effective in carrying out her revised mission, was to launch an annual conference and a series of workshops that brought together community, academia and artist in a comfortable, engaging space. Her idea, Break Bread and Build, was birthed.

Laviania Owens, the Director of Development, Marketing & Communications at CTUF said:

We understand that education goes on outside of the classroom, so we fund organizations that fill in the gaps that the foundation cannot do in programming to further the mission and provide services to the community. Another thing is that we want to make sure that grantees can carry out their mission and be able to engage their community which is an extension of the foundation.

One of the ways is to have community events that understand our goals. CTUF spans a whole city block and our goal is to keep it active with people and events.

One of the programmatic areas of the Foundation is social justice and to bring people into an intimate space. Dr. West-Spencer’s Break Break and Build fit perfectly into our vision, and so does all of her programs.

In March, the first Break Bread and Build launched. Co-sponsored by CTUF, the three day conference brought in three scholars as panelists (Dave Stovall, Kamay Rashid and Kaia Shivers), two scholar-artists (Amina and Coolout Chris) and hip hop icon, Roxanne Shante, to talk about social justice from the perspective of hip hop throughout the years. The first conference of its kind, West-Spencer described as choreo-lectures.

Said Spencer. The scholars talked about hip hop and social justice over beats and break dancing. It is what I call transformative scholarship, but it was a conference that brought needed healing.

The event united students, hip hop aficionados and community organizers to explore how the evolution of the genre weaves into critical discussions of social, cultural and political reform.

Break Bread and Build is something that I wanted to put forth years ago. It came out of this need, that I think that we need, to support each other, but first there needs to be honest and substantial dialogue. That can come from us, literally, breaking bread through dinner and also, breaking bread through conversation.

The response from the event was so strong that West-Spencer began laying out plans for the next symposium. However, as life showed her, she had to slow down. She had a baby to birth. After school ended in June, she put her feet up and relaxed. One of the promises she made to herself was that as a Black woman, even superheroes take months off.

I define radical self care as self care in a way that is so outside of the norms of what we as Black women and women of color consider to be self care. We might say we’re going to get our nails done or our hair done or a massage. And we think we’re taking care of ourselves. No. What we have to do is radically shift our perceptions of what it means to take care of ourselves. That means our mental health. Our spiritual health. Our physical health. That means being able to take care of our families and our community. Let’s deal with our hurt. Let’s deal with our trauma. Let’s take care of ourselves the way we take care of everybody else.

Today, she and Pharaoh are resting well, but ideas are building in her head.

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Kaia Niambi Shivers covers diaspora, news and features.


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