The Healing Journey: from Incarceration to Healing Artist with Alex Anderson

Join us to hear the personal story of Alexander Anderson: his time spent incarcerated, his journey to becoming a Social Worker, to finding the profound work of Ritual 4 Return, and becoming their Executive Director.

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“I have lived experience. I’ve been incarcerated since I was a kid.” At age 15, police arrested Alex for a robbery and, to teach him a lesson, lied about his age. As a result, the state charged him as an adult. “It wasn’t until my mother brought the birth certificate to show how old I really was.” No one did anything to hold the police who had lied about this age to account. “That was a right of passage for me; from there, I did two more rounds in prison.”

While serving his sentence, Alex received a high school diploma and a Bachelor’s degree, and after his release, he enrolled in a Master’s program to become an LMSW. He devoted his new lease on life to supporting those like him and his community. But Alex found that people would run in any interaction where we mentioned he was a social worker. 
“I was so frustrated. I saw that I was facilitating the status quo. I was supporting white supremacy through my pursuit of being a social worker. I’m working on diagnosis in the DSM 5 when what we’re really dealing with is trauma!”
Alex ultimately found Ritual 4 Return, an organization that supports re-entry. Ritual 4 Return guides participants through a 12-week program to examine their personal history and rewrite a new narrative for themselves, healing stigma and trauma reinforced by the community’s support. With radical forgiveness and empathy, the men/ women work together to create and restore themselves. 
When the program completes, participants have an opportunity to be witnessed in a ritual they have created for themselves as a group. Alex says, “That’s how we come out of prison, locked in coffins but still alive. Locked in this space, and when you are open and freed, you are cursed. That’s how we are, labeled as cursed people.”

Ritual 4 Return offers therapeutic storytelling, and that pulled Alex into this work even further. Alex saw that he could have more impact being an artist than being a social worker. 
“As a social worker, I was taught to ask what’s wrong with you vs. what happened to you! What’s the narrative of what happened?” states Alex.
Alex’s co-artists can get to the heart of the matter using clinical tools like mask-making and expressive arts therapy like describing and drawing your life as a river, “I always tell them, use what you’ve got! That creates resilience and opportunity that they are enough and they have enough.”

“When I talk about ending mass incarceration like closing jails, I also am talking about people’s lives inside and how people perceive them. People who go through that process of incarceration are changed, mentally and physically, and to undo that damage and their social identity is also ending mass incarceration. When you go into incarceration, you don’t come out as a citizen. Its process is to end mass incarceration with the individual just as much as the system.” 

“I want to change mindsets, souls, and spirits and see higher and undo the violence and degradation. Undo the disease of dehumanization, the inability to see other people as human. Undoing mass incarceration, the whole idea of punishing people as social degradation starts with the individual and helping individuals achieve human potential. I was in prison for 15 years; I’ve never heard someone say, ‘I’m going to do more harm.’ Upon release, they say, ‘I’m going to get a job!’ but I see a lot of people come right back. It’s how we’re treated when we come out. When we celebrate the individual when they come out, we are welcoming them back into society.”

When asked what we can do, Alex responded. “Having compassion and listening to these stories.” Compassion is something Alex practices in his everyday life. “I see myself as part of the global community. I make it my business to get on a small elevator in my building and connect with my neighbors. I honor the dignity of all humans.”

We are so excited to host Alex in the conversation of Healing Harm, where we focus on transformative justice work worldwide. 

Bio: Alexander Anderson experienced a moment of clarity during his incarceration. In 1981, he decided that to improve himself he needed to better his education. Alex obtained a high school diploma and later a BA degree from Syracuse University while incarcerated in Auburn Correctional Facility, a New York state prison. After his release, he decided that the best way to make restitution was by living a productive life and assisting others. He obtained a master’s degree in social work from the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, a CASAC certificate, and later a Restorative Justice certification. In 2009, he joined Ritual4Return as a participant to heal from the trauma and stigma he experienced before, during and after incarceration. Later, he became the Executive Director to help create a safe and creative space for anyone seeking a transformative life after incarceration.