March 6, 2008
It started with the 1996 murder of gangsta rap legend Tupac Shakur.
Across the nation, Tupac’s death triggered a tidal wave of sorrow and controversy, but in the Bay Area–the rapper held Oakland roots–the response was particularly vivid. Fans wept, held vigils, and blasted his music in the streets. The emotions rang out clearly: disbelief, anger and despair.
At the time, David Inocencio was a social worker in San Francisco’s juvenile probation program. Shaken by the outpouring that followed Shakur’s death, Inocencio asked the youth to write about what the rapper’s killing meant to them.
In response, he got pages and pages–a fierce and raw reaction, unlike any that he’d seen before. The strength of the emotions, remembers Inocencio, begged to be shared. Inspired, he typed up the youths’ responses and distributed them throughout the program.
And thus, The Beat Within was born.
Today, The Beat Within is nationally recognized juvenile hall program that offers writing workshops in over 40 different youth facilities throughout the Bay Area. (Satellite versions of the program have also popped up in Arizona and New Mexico.) According to Inocencio’s founding vision, The Beat Within views writing not only as a form of empowerment and activism, but also as providing a kind of community. Every week, The Beat Within distributes a newsletter that showcases submitted art and writing–some sixty-to-eighty pages of it.
With over 100,000 minors incarcerated nationwide ( PDF)–the highest rate in the Western world–the need for an outlet like The Beat Within, says Inocencio, is urgent. “These kids are hungry,” says Inocencio. “Beyond the maze of counselors, probation officers and teachers, the success of The Beat Within is our consistency, the fact we always want to hear what they have to say.”
For incarcerated youth cut off from the rest of the world, The Beat Within can be something of a lifeline. Every week, says Inocencio, The Beat Within receives some 200 letters from readers and contributors. As one letter from a newly incarcerated female put it:
When I first seen The Beat, the feeling I got was so overwhelming…. I was encouraged by you, truly inspired, to see you all coming to the realization that your lives are worth so much more.
Yet despite the weekly’s immense success in prison, on the outside, The Beat Within is nearly unheard of. “It’s almost like a secret publication,” says Inocencio.
But no longer. With the publication of their first book, Illustrations from the Inside, The Beat Within is challenging a fresh audience to enter into the imaginations, fears and hopes of incarcerated youth. The book is complex, filled with black-and-white pencil drawings that mix shadow, pride, whimsy and vulnerability. Above all, it compels. After all, while the traditional image of someone in prison is a hard-bitten adult criminal, the images in Illustrations from the Inside recall another, forgotten class within America’s 2.3 million incarcerated: the youth.