Ponyride SOUP Winner – September 2013

“Transformation is possible,” begins the website of author, activist, speaker, and mentor Shaka Senghor.  The Atonement Project was started as a means for beginning conversations about reconciliation among those who have committed crimes and those who have felt the impact of crimes.  As a partnership between Senghor, the University of Michigan Theatre Department, and the MIT Media Lab, the Atonement Project is brought both to university students, as well as the incarcerated via multiple avenues.  For example, through the University of Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts Project, students may enroll in the course which Senghor teaches, while learning the principles of restorative justice.  Students then conduct atonement-focused workshops at prisons, juvenile facilities and with victims’ rights groups.

A decade ago, Senghor was imprisoned himself.  Over four years of his 19-year sentence was served in solitary confinement. He, according to the MIT Media Lab, “gave birth to the idea of The Atonement Project because once upon a time, he was the guy who murdered a mother’s son.” While in prison, Senghor came to understand that feelings of guilt, shame, anger, and self-doubt resulted in an inability to progress beyond these emotions and succeed in pursuing ones goals.  At that point, he began to write as well as conceive of the basic principles of The Atonement Project.    

The Atonement Project is a major, much-needed undertaking, particularly in the wake of increased awareness of, and public discontent with, police violence.  SOUP’s financial contributions are as significant to the project as are its social connections and resulting support.  Since the project was in its early stages at the time it was presented at SOUP, the resulting support and recognition were critical to getting the program off the ground.

Now, the project is moving into its next phase, with a national scope.  This will involve a soon-to-launch website, as well as dialogues which are inclusive of community members as well as prisoners.  Both will be engaged in conversations regarding social justice and reconciliation, using multiple art forms creative writing, theatre, visual art, and more as ways to share stories and embark on difficult, painful conversations.  The goal, as Senghor says, is to “flip that cycle” of violence, and move toward reconciliation and atonement.

To learn more about Senghor’s writing, speaking, and facilitation services, and to watch his TED talks, visit his website: www.shakasenghor.com

– Shannon Saksewski