While serving a life sentence, Reggie Washington developed a program to help prisoners. He is now free, and with some help from TLC Faculty member and Public Defender Zaki Zehawi, they are bringing his program to kids on the streets of San Diego.
Interview conducted by TLC Warrior Editor and Faculty member, Connie Henderson. To read the full interview, subscribe to The Warrior Magazine and read the 2017 Summer Issue.
Reggie, can you tell me when you first got the idea for forming Project A.W.A.R.E.?
Actually, it was while I was in prison still serving a life sentence. I was seeing so many young kids, or young adults, coming into prison and instead of being taught how to go home, they were being taught how to be better criminals – how to survive in prison. A lot of older individuals who were incarcerated were doing what they thought was right, showing the kids how to survive in prison, but those kids were actually being trained how to stay in prison, mentally as well as physically. So the project came about to make individuals aware that they needed to go home. Project Aware was created in prison, not on the street, but it transferred to on the street because so many young kids were being taught by individuals who came from prison.
So by the time you got out, this program was already up and running?
I was serving a life-sentence for my crimes – I went in at 24 and got out at 40. By the time I got out in 2005, I had been working on the program for a number of years. I took lots of classes: life skills classes, anger management classes, parenting classes … and as I grew emotionally inside, I started realizing that so many things I was learning were what I was missing when I was on the streets. I was basically emotionally illiterate. So I developed those skills while I was inside prison. I wrote everything down and actually gave it to someone who word processed it, and she gave it to someone else who took it to Tri City Medical Hospital, to the board, and they actually gave me five thousand dollars and said “this program needs to be in our community.” But I was still in prison so even though they funded the program, even though they saw it as a legitimate project, I was still in prison serving life sentence. I got into a program, a therapeutic community program through MHS that allowed me to learn how to run groups and learn how to be a mentor. So I took the program and began to work with young inmates, as well as older inmates. I went through the process of learning emotional literacy skills, learning how to deal with trauma, learning about peer-on-peer mentorship. I actually had a captive audience where I continued to learn and hone my craft at becoming a facilitator.
Was the fact that you were doing this work in prison a big part of why you were released?
It was a major part of why I was released because I was not only doing the work and going to the classes, but I was participating in helping others. I was involved in a program called CROP, which stands for Convicts Reaching Out to People. It was sort of like a Scared Straight program where kids or young adults would come into the prison, but different because I wanted kids to understand the emotional aspect that goes with being locked up. So I didn’t talk about the violence, I talked about being away from family, being away from society, not having the ability to, you know, pet a dog. All those things hurt more than anything, not being around my mother or being able to hug my father, or being around my daughter. So I spoke about those issues when the kids would come in, instead of talking about staying out so you didn’t get stabbed. See, a lot of our kids are already used to violence so exposing them to more violence doesn’t do anything but give them a goal to reach, to prove they can become more violent and can survive in prison. It’s not about surviving, it’s about living. So I focused on that. I was the president of the program so I had a say about who was there to speak to the kids, because some people have secret agendas. So, I had to oversee that and that’s when I really started learning how to be a CEO: learning how to be a director by having the opportunity to say who could and who could not be in certain programs while I was in prison.
How has the project evolved since you got out of prison?
When I first got out in 2005, I tried at it at a teen recovery center. Kids were dealing with substance abuse issues and doing their time with a twelve-week program. I really focused on not so much the substance abuse, but why they got involved in it in the first place. Because for me, when I got disappointed, I got high and a lot of those kids in the substance abuse program had problems dealing with disappointment and anger. What was unique about my program was I, as the teacher, had gone through those very steps they found themselves in, and the kids were able to learn to work with their peers. There are a lot of teachers in this world but how many are willing to build a relationship before starting to teach? I think that’s the real true connection, building a relationship with our kids and young adults. They’re disconnected from the community and that disconnection might be because they got involved in gangs or in drugs. But it’s hard for them to come back because the community doesn’t accept them. And when an individual is disconnected from their community, they act out. And if you don’t belong anywhere, you will find anywhere to belong. And that’s when you have gangs popping up. It’s really because the community disconnected themselves from them, instead of working with them.
Zaki, how did you become involved in Project A.W.A.R.E.?
I met Reggie in February of 2015. I was defending a documented gang member accused, with a co-defendant, of attempted murder. We had tried the case the first time and the majority of the charges were hung. In preparing for the retrial, the co-defendant’s counsel told me they were working on finding a gang expert to talk about how this was not a gang-related crime. The alleged crime itself was that my client went to a house and basically just shot it up. It was a house of a friend of his who he had known since they were kids. The real story behind the case was that he went over there to collect some money for some drugs he had fronted to this guy. And this other person at this house didn’t like my client being there and was the first to open fire on my client. My client returned fire, so it was a self-defense case that they tried to make into just a random gang shooting.
In comes Reggie. I met Reggie as the co-defendant’s expert, and he was the first gang expert that I had used in a trial or had even seen work in a trial. The jury came back on all the hung counts from the first trial as Not Guilty, across the board. I was completely blown away, obviously by the verdict, but by the way Reggie presented to the jury. I mean, he’s untouchable. His life experiences make up his resume and there is nobody that can testify about gangs like he does. Like Reggie says, “If you don’t belong anywhere, anywhere will do, anywhere you’ll belong.” He was phenomenal.
After the trial, Reggie said, “You know, Zaki, I have this group … why don’t you come by?” There was one in Southeast San Diego, which is predominantly in gang area, so I went and wow, it was just like our Trial Lawyers College groups. We circled up and we dealt with emotions and got to the core of what our issues were and you know, little by little, we were introducing a little bit of the TLC techniques: the doubling, the empty chair, the listening exercise … obviously I’m not a psychodramatist so I stay away from full-on psychodramas with these kids but it’s amazing how they can open up, just like we do on the Ranch. Because a lot of times these kids don’t need to be told what to do – everyone’s telling them what to do – they just need someone to listen to them. And they’re intelligent enough to find their own answers.
Reggie, what’s the first thing we ask the kids when we circle up?
While we do our check in, we ask how the kids are feeling. I created the reasoning for this check in because first of all, I might be the only one ever to even ask them how they’re feeling. It also lets me know how to interact: if they are angry, I know not to play with them and it gives me an opportunity to know how to approach them for them to feel safe and not be judged, by not having to explain why they feel angry. I personally believe everyone should be allowed to have those feelings. A lot of our kids have felt wrong for having a certain feelings because that’s how society puts it, like everyone is supposed to be happy all the time. So I just try to see how we can make our kids more emotionally literate, to help them understand they can be able to have those feelings and work through them them without getting high, without becoming violent. Because they always thought anger and violence went together, they always thought disappointment and depression went with getting high. So we have to learn how to deal with those things without turning to those things that are disruptive.
Zaki, this seems like something we need across the board. There isn’t any part of our country that doesn’t need a program like this.
Yeah, there is a huge need for such a program. There was one time I was in a preliminary hearing on a gang case. One of the criteria that can be used by the Department of Justice and State and Federal Law Enforcement agencies to determine whether someone is a gang member is whether they are found in a gang area. I gave a detective on the stand a huge map of San Diego and asked: “Okay in this area, can you show me one part of this map that is not claimed by a gang?” He looked at me and said, “I can’t.” So they use this against these kids, because they were in the area, boom, that’s one strike against them and soon they’ll be documented. And then if they commit a crime, they’ll have a gang affiliation slapped on them, and now we are talking State Prison. It’s ugly, and so when you ask if we need something in this community? If they are saying that huge sections of San Diego are claimed by gangs then yeah, we need it. If we’re dealing with kids, teaching emotional literacy is in a community’s and society’s best interest. Because sometimes parents aren’t equipped to deal with that. I’m not saying that we can solve all these kid’s problems, but what we can do is just listen to them and hopefully guide them.
About Project A.W.A.R.E.:
Project A.W.A.R.E. aims to educate at-risk youth and prepare them to take responsibility for their thoughts and actions. By becoming emotionally literate, learning/developing basic social skills and through self-examination, our young students will not only better themselves and their school environment, but also become productive members of society and establish themselves as community leaders. Project A.W.A.R.E. provides a healthy environment wherein students can safely process their feelings and learn how to effectively incorporate problem-solving skills that they’ve learned into their daily lives. For more information, visit http://www.projectawareenterprises.org/.
About Reginald Washington:
Reggie Washington is the Founder and CEO of Project A.W.A.R.E. As a young man, Reggie found himself involved in gangs without any awareness of alternative ways to deal with his anger. One night he got in an altercation and shot someone. This resulted in a 15 year prison sentence that would change his life. Currently, he dedicates his life to sharing the lessons he has learned. He has developed emotional literacy skills which allow him to give back to the community as an advocate for change. Mr. Washington has been certified by the CAARR institute and has more than 10 years experience working with teens in San Diego County. He has been trained by the nationally-recognized program called “Hands of Peace” and certified in the Creative Conflict Resolution Program. Reggie is recognized by the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and Probation department for his contributions with the Youth Academy working with young adults. He is also recognized by California Crime Prevention Officer’s Association and Law Enforcement to promote public safety. Today Mr. Washington works with the San Diego County Office of Education and the San Diego Probation Department. He also works with other schools districts such as Vista Unified, Oceanside Unified and San Diego Unified School Districts. Mr. Washington has impacted many youths and has given them the inspiration and motivation to know that they are valuable individuals and to always make positive choices and to never give up on your dreams.
About Zaki Zehawi:
Leaving everything behind, Zaki’s family escaped from Gaddafi’s Libya in the early 1980s. Since then, he has dedicated his life to criminal defense. Zaki says: “The United States holds the dubious title of world’s greatest incarcerator. I hope to provide some humanity to a lost soul in a crushing, punitive justice system which incarcerates more of its citizens per capita and houses the largest inmate population in the world. Eugene V. Debs said; ‘While there is a lower class I am in it; while there is a criminal element I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.'” Mr. Zehawi began his legal career at the San Diego Office of the Public Defender as a misdemeanor attorney. After 2 years he transferred to the San Diego Federal Defenders Office, defending federal felonies. Two years later, he transferred back to the San Diego Office of the Public Defender to defend state felonies. Zaki now works at the San Diego Alternate Public Defenders Office, defending only serious felonies.