Since Christopher Blackwell joined Empowerment Avenue in May of 2020 — the first writer we onboarded into Writing for Liberation! — he’s been widely published in publications like the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe and the Appeal. In 2022, Chris pitched Empowerment Avenue on building a writing mentorship program inside his Washington State prison, which did not have any formal writing or journalism programs.
Under the Writer's Development Program, Chris works with both writers and artists, with artists creating illustrations to accompany their articles in newspaper and journal publications. In the first year of implimentation, six writers published over 110 stories in publications including Slate, the Seattle Times, The Stranger, TruthOut and Filter Magazine, collectively earning over $10,000. Empowerment Avenue supports the outside volunteer infrastructure and compensates Chris to spearhead the program’s growth. The program receives additional funding from The Seattle Foundation.
For most of 2021, Empowerment Avenue collaborated with Scalawag Magazine to develop the Press in Prison Guidebook, a practical, abolitionist guide for outside journalists and editors to center the journalism by incarcerated writers. The guidebook covers topics like how to source and pay writers, how to mitigate retaliation, how to co-report and how to increase newsroom capacity for this work. In January of 2022, we held a day-long virtual convening to introduce the guidebook. The event included recordings and call-ins from currently-incarcerated writers.
In July of 2022, we presented the guidebook again at the Allied Media Conference. In August of 2022, Haymarket Books published The Press in Prison Guidebook, a book we now send to all Empowerment Avenue writers. The e-book remains free to download here.
Rahsaan wrote five letters, all to literary editors, challenging them to include incarcerated writers in their publications and telling them about Empowerment Avenue. Alexandra Watson, of Apogee Journal, wrote back, and the result is Inside Out. Inside Out was a year-long collaboration between Apogee Journal and Empowerment Avenue that was published in early 2022. The issue featured the work of 35 incarcerated writers and artists, all of whom were compensated.
This project inspired the Apogee team to dedicate a section of Perigee, its online blog, to showcasing and compensating incarcerated writers. To do this, the Apogee team hires “inside editors” to collaborate with in selecting stories, editing and determining the creative direction of the blog.
As Empowerment Avenue writers began selling their stories to outside publications, we hit a hurdle: editors often request photography, but most incarcerated writers do not have access to cameras. With Empowerment Avenue’s support, writers partnered up with artists they knew at their prison to illustrate their stories, and the incarcerated artist earned income as a freelance illustrator. We are now piloting the journalist/artist partnership within Chris Blackwell’s Writing Development Program. Examples of this partnership work can be seen in El Tecolote, The Kitchn, Jewish Currents and Type Investigations.
Empowerment Avenue had identified numerous challenges producing investigative journalism from inside prison, including the lack of internet and research materials as well as risk of retaliation. We provided guidance and insight to Type Investigations, a nonprofit that supports investigative reporting, which ultimately resulted in Type’s Inside/Out Journalism Project, an initiative to work with incarcerated reporters to produce feature-length investigations. Empowerment Avenue connected Type’s editorial team with inside writers, who have gone on to produce several investigative features under the initiative. Type compensates writers for research and reporting, then the writer is compensated again when their story is published.
In 2022, Empowerment Avenue partnered with Study and Struggle to support book reviews of radical and leftist texts written by, edited by, and meant for incarcerated people. Led by incarcerated organizer and editor Stevie Wilson, we provide logistical support as well as review opportunities to Empowerment Avenue writers. You can read the resulting reviews here.