At Tikkun Magazine, of the many posters of quotes and inspirational images on the walls in our office, we also find this passage from Exodus. “Do not oppress the stranger,” it says. This passage serves as a reminder that we must work to know and understand the other as our collective liberation is intertwined with others as well. The mission of this series, Embracing the Stranger, is based on the commitment of activists, changemakers, and visionaries across different causes to create a more inclusive and loving world. Through a series of interviews, we worked to explore the personal and spiritual motivations behind their work. With the many issues present in the world, and much to be done, we wanted to know how people became involved in the activism they dedicate their time to. Would there be any connected ideas? Any connected struggles? Would there be commonalities among people even if they differed in identity and origin story? We atTikkunfeel that it is vital to do all in our power to highlight and support individuals and groups that work to heal the World. We hope to further the Movement of healing, repairing, and transforming the world. Through this project, we aimed to paint a picture of the unified human desire to heal pain and turn our world into one of peace, empathy, and love. By discussing the missions of different groups, we hope to discover possible connections across a variety of causes to show where our struggles can be connected, to further the creation of a world influenced by peace, love, and empathy that creates liberation for the diverse world we live in.
Knowing Ourselves to Know Others: Reflections of an Interview with JR Furst
Coming to do the work of social justice is a journey that people travel based on their identities and experiences. It is many individual people that create a community striving for change as they bring their own unique perspectives. However, even within this, there are points of connection and common cause for those who dedicate their time and energy to challenging, systems and norms that maintain deep division. A friendship and a connection between two individuals has been the foundation for the work of Beyond This Prison, a project started by JR Furst and Glenn Robinson to work with at risk youth by developing leadership skills, conflict resolution skills, and positive confrontation.
After this, JR began writing with multiple inmates, but made a particular and long term connection with Glenn Robinson. Glenn has been serving a forty year sentence in a Louisiana jail for a non violent crime since the age of 17. When JR first read Glenn’s response When Glenn first began writing back to JR, “It felt like there was an underlying tone of ‘I’ve been waiting for your letter, let’s gets started, we have a lot of work to do.'” Glenn believed that the connection between these two practical strangers was destiny. Through the development of this relationship, JR began to tell Glenn’s life story to others. “[Glenn said] If he’s going to sit here rotting in a cell he might as well find someway to connect with the outside world and to have his experiences, life, wisdom, and perspective not be in vain.”
Slowly, Beyond This Prison was formed as a way to share Glenn’s words of wisdom and insight. The project, which works with the organization, Youth Spirit Artworks, has developed workshops that have given participants the chance to be vulnerable about their own lives and discuss the metaphorical prisons that they experience and feel trapped by. Using the insight from Glenn’s letters, JR uses the inspiration and wisdom to form workshops for youth who are on the same possible track that led to Glenn’s incarceration. JR stated that these workshops create an opportunity for people to showcase their amazing capability to open up. “Give someone a creative prompt, they can step outside of themselves and their reality. Amazing things emerge just naturally.”
The call for vulnerability in community allows for people to open and eventually come as their full selves. JR explained that initially in his life, he felt that community was not something he could personally be apart of. “But that doesn’t work, that’s not a sustainable model. “As [a] human […] I have needs to be part of community in spite of sometimes wishing that I didn’t have to be. Part of the work is doing the work for myself, and being unapologetically myself, […] [and to] risk not being liked or doing something that is unpopular — being authentic in other words.” The work of being in community lies in having an understanding of oneself. When one approaches activist work, they do so with their own experiences and a possible need for healing in their own life. Again, using prison as a metaphor, JR explained that in workshops with Beyond This Prison, “[…] We talk about all the different kinds of prisons, and there’s lots of prisons of beliefs. Prisons of hopelessness, prisons of resignation, prisons of depression. […] My [personal] pre-existing way of being tells me, and I’m programmed to [believe this] […] I can’t be in groups and be happy. Or tells me you are less than other people. Or you are better than other people therefore you’ll never be happy because you’re conceited and vain and a horrible person. So being able to re envision possibilities [and] being able to envision a reality that is worthwhile living in [is] another element of Beyond This Prison.” Using this metaphor peels back the layers of one’s experience that molds what their life can be like. JR described that part of Glenn’s story is peeling back the layers of self deception. Many of us are born with scripts attached to our identities that dictate how our lives will be lived, but working to build connection despite these predetermined scripts is possible and necessary.
JR described that the work that one can do in community is “doing my best to genuinely care about someone. Being curious — ‘What are you thinking? What are you feeling? Who are you? What are your experiences? Where have you been?’ And to the best of my ability, withholding judgement and really actively being conscious and aware that other people have experiences that are beyond what I could potentially conceive. […] There’s a level of humility in that. And I think there’s a connection between humility and empathy in that way.” Maintaining a level of curiosity about others and their lives to know their core selves is vital as it helps to diminish the experiences that can be put upon us based on who we are born as.
JR explained that much of the appeal and the amazement of Beyond This Prison is based on the possibility of a deep and profound friendship. Two people who may not have met otherwise were able to build a connection despite different religions, races, locations, and life experiences. “The embers of the friendship are powerful. So there’s potential for the creative expression within that. [It is] an ongoing living organism of the story.” This friendship continues as Glenn is expected to be leaving prison nearly twenty years earlier than expected. As JR continues the facilitation of these workshops through music, art, letter-writing, and discussion, the work of Beyond This Prison remains motivated by a foundation of connecting with others who are healing and walking through life.
JR Furst is the co-founder of Beyond this Prison, along with co-founder Glenn Robinson. Additionally, JR works with Youth Spirit Artworks in Oakland, California as their Program Coordinator where many of his workshops take place. For more information on Beyond this Prison, please go to: https://www.beyondthisprison.com/.
Lauren Bodenlos is a sophomore at Agnes Scott College where she is a religious studies major. Some of her academic interests include christian socialism, liberation theology, and interfaith literacy. Lauren worked as a print editorial intern at Tikkun and was also able to work on an interview series focusing on the connected motivations of activists.
Madeline Cook is a senior at Mount Holyoke College, where she majors in Politics and minors in Africana Studies. Her academic interests include investigating the intersections of political, feminist, and critical race theory and the development of social movements. During her time at Tikkun, she has worked on creating an interview series on the connected motivations of activists.