Our History

Rahsaan’s vision emerged inside San Quentin, from a need to develop programs that centered incarcerated people and change the model of prison programming by demanding the leadership belong to the people most impacted by them. Prison bureaucracy and rules limit empowerment potential. He realized he needed an organization that helped incarcerated people from outside its walls and red tape. Through Empowerment Avenue, he envisioned better frameworks to support and empower incarcerated people within the creative economy. 

From Rahsaan’s own experience as a writer facing barriers posed by prison, he knew that outside organizations and individuals often lacked the know-how, political orientation, organizational framework, and relationships required to collaborate with and hire incarcerated people. Likewise, he saw that incarcerated people lacked knowledge of and access to outside networks and opportunities. Even when incarcerated people were aware of existing opportunities, they often lacked the support needed to comply with common requirements such as digital submission, e-mail communication, and compressed deadlines. 

In May of 2020, we founded Empowerment Avenue in hopes to establish the framework to facilitate and support inside-outside partnerships and reduce the barriers to collaborating with and compensating incarcerated people. We piloted the idea under Prison Renaissance, a nonprofit that Rahsaan co-founded at San Quentin.

In the second half of 2020, we supported the publication of 20 articles — much of it about the COVID-19 pandemic raging inside San Quentin and other U.S. prisons — with writers earning nearly $5,000. We also partnered with Flyaway Productions and the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) for the project Meet Us Quickly: Painting for Justice, which featured the work of twelve currently and formerly incarcerated artists. MoAD compensated every artist for their participation, earning them $600. Additionally, eight paintings were sold through an online auction and in-person sale, generating $3,500 directly to the artists.

By 2021, we supported publication of over 100 stories, earning writers over $20,000, and co-edited the Press in Prison guide with Scalawag Magazine. In early 2022, after a year of inside/outside collaboration, we co-published Inside Out with Apogee Journal, which featured and compensated 35 incarcerated writers and artists.

2022 was a transformational year for Empowerment Avenue. In January, the governor of California commuted Rahsaan’s sentence, beginning a one-year process in which he would ultimately return home. We moved from Prison Renaissance to Empowerment Works, our current fiscal sponsor, and received operational funding from the Mellon Foundation’s Imagining Freedom grant initiative. Our writers earned nearly $100,000 in income, and we began working again with Flyaway Productions and the Museum of the African Diaspora to produce an exhibition curated by incarcerated women, which once again compensated each artist and two curators for their participation.

On February 8th, 2023, Rahsaan came home. A few weeks later, we hosted our first Empowerment Avenue retreat in Oakland. Finally working together without the barriers of prison walls, we are leading Empowerment Avenue’s growth in a way that continues to center the leadership, creativity, and professional goals of currently-incarcerated people.

While incarcerated, Rahsaan appeared in several documentaries. After one did harm, and none financially enriched Rahsaan, he took charged and started making his own from San Quentin’s media center. On June 3, 2023, just four months after Rahsaan paroled, Friendly Signs, a short documentary he directed, wrote, and produced while in prison, premiered at the San Francisco Documentary Festival. Additionally, just a month before, What These Walls Won’t Hold, a film made in collaboration with director Adamu Chan after he paroled from San Quentin but while Rahsaan was still inside, using footage from both sides of the wall, won the San Francisco International Film Festival. Now Rahsaan seeks to expand Empowerment Avenue into film, working in collaboration with system impacted people to tell their stories.

He credits The Marshall Project, Sundance Documentary Institute, and the Berkeley Film Foundation for providing the funds to make Friendly Signs and amplify its impact.

Artwork Detail: Manifesto, C.K. Gerhartsreiter AKA TAFKA Clark Rockefeller , 2022