After having the chance to go into Graterford and meet with some juvenile lifers still in prison, we had the opportunity to sit down with two people involved with Ubuntu: Julie Burnett and Abdul Lateef.
Julie Burnett is a local social justice advocate, who has loved ones on both sides of the system. Julie has had several members of her family incarcerated and has had several members killed as a result of street violence. Julie also attended the last Ubuntu event.
Abdul Lateef, also known as Aaron Phillips, was convicted of first degree murder in 1986 at the age of 17. He spent more than 30 years behind bars and was just released in October 2018 after a moving resentencing. He is also a co-founder of The Redemption Project.
Going into these conversations we were all a tad nervous due to the heavy nature of the subject matter, but like our visit to Graterford, we educated ourselves on our interviewees prior to the interviews. It was truly an honor to hear both of their stories and to have them open up to us so quickly and effortlessly.
Talking to Julie Burnett
Julie Burnett is truly an inspiration. By having family members on both sides of the system, she has seen all that street violence can do to those living in Philadelphia. During the interview, she discussed her cousin, Arthur, who has been in the media a lot due to his length of time in solitary confinement (he was recently released). She brought us through the day she met with him after being released from solitary confinement where he had not had human contact for 37 years. While she didn’t get visibly emotional, we could all see how much meeting with her cousin who was incarcerated meant for her and her family. She talked us through the whole process of going in to see him and the look on his face when they could hug each other. While we were listening, we tried to imagine what it would be like to not have human contact for a time almost double as long as our existence on Earth. We couldn’t even begin to fathom what that experience was like for him, but Julie said he was eternally grateful for being released from solitary and having his moments with his family. It had all been worth it.
This had not been the only time Julie had visited family members in prison. She told us that she had spent most of her life in and out of prison, which is interesting, because that is mainly what you would hear from an incarcerated person; they are the ones who have been in and out of prison. But for Julie, she was just coming in as a visitor, witnessing the criminal justice system at its core and how it was affecting her family. She discussed the effect that street violence had on her family growing up in Philadelphia; she made very sure to stay as far away from it as possible, but she never deserted her family members. That was one of the things she kept emphasizing throughout the interview; the importance of family and never letting any member think they are without one.
She discussed her participation in last year’s Ubuntu event and the importance of healing circles, which made us all very excited to finish the videos in preparation for the event in the spring. When her cousin Arthur had been admitted to prison, she was only a child so she was not really affected by that sentencing. However, she has a grand-nephew who was sentenced to life without parole and it really impacted her because "this was actually somebody I picked up, that I actually fed a bottle to, that I taught ABCs and 123s to," she said. She didn't realize how much the healing circle would affect her until she had actually physically been in it. It made her realize she was “functioning in a dysfunction.”
Julie recently went back to school to study criminal justice and she read us a poem she had written in one of her classes. Hearing her read word after word of her poem was an incredibly powerful experience. She wrote about the pain, the suffering, the hardships those are enduring in Philadelphia right now due to the high levels of street violence and poverty.
Talking To Abdul Lateef
When talking to Abdul, we heard about his feelings on his recent release from prison and it was so moving to see his emotions overtake him as he spoke. He talked about waking up some days and just trying to process how he now is a free man while just weeks ago he was incarcerated. He has been trying to meet with his family first. While talking about his family we could see a pain in his eyes as he mentioned that he had a lot of family reconnected from all the missed years. From there he wants to get a job and eventually go to school at Community College of Philadelphia. He also eventually wants to work with at risk youth. When we asked him about his life inside prison, he told us how his first few years he still considered himself to be a bit of a rebel, but as time went on he became more involved in his faith, Islam. He also became involved with organizations such as the Redemption Project, and of course Ubuntu.
Abdul is a big believer in breaking down the structure of the whole criminal justice system, which is a very divided topic and uses everyone's emotions against each other. We’ve talked to Mike Lyons, Professor at Saint Joseph’s University, co-founder of the Redemption Project and Ubuntu, about this division as well as what we heard when Abdul told us about it in the interview; while in court for sentencing, judges will try to get victims to their most emotional and angry state and use it to be completely one sided. Abdul would rather have people talk to each other, human to human and connect. During his resentencing he got the chance to talk to his offender’s family, with no one else present, and shared a very powerful 10-15 minutes with them, which ended up changing their views on who he was. Abdul did not go into detail about what was said in his conversation with the victim’s family; he told us that he did not think it was his place to share their private conversation, but he did say that by the end of their talk he and the family came out of the room they spoke in crying and hugging each other which is something that is never seen in cases like this.
Towards the end of our talk, Abdul talked about how we should be more aware of those who are in prison and to understand their struggle in the very inhumane setting of prison. When we asked Abdul if he had anything to say to people who were considering attending Ubuntu, he talked about how lots of people who are incarcerated wake up every day and try to make the world a better place even while incarcerated and struggling through their time in prison. Abdul wanted people to be aware not only of those who are sometimes forgotten and incarcerated, but also of those who are affected by crimes and have lost loved ones.
Overall, we were very moved by our interviews with both Abdul and Julie. The process of interviewing can be a very intimidating one, especially when the topic is incredibly personal and emotional. However, it is incredibly important to us and Ubuntu that we will be able to share Julie and Abdul’s stories through the videos we are creating.
While interviewing, both Maureen and Jessica felt as if it was only the them and the interviewee in the room; the discussions were conversations between two people who were interested to hear one another’s story. They both found it hard not to speak out loud to confirm or acknowledge what Julie and Abdul were saying, but they understood the importance of staying quiet for the cameras. Nodding definitely helps. It’s also important to accept whatever emotions come while interviewing. Both Maureen and Jessica found themselves getting emotional at times during their respective interviews, but they both agree that it helped them connect to their interviewee.
Julie’s vibrant spirit and immense enthusiasm was evident, especially as she shared her poem with us. By hearing her story, as well as her experience with the Ubuntu event last year, we were able to gain a better perspective on the healing circles of Ubuntu.
Hearing Abdul’s perspective on the criminal justice system, as well as his motivation and perseverance for the future, was both enlightening and inspirational. By talking with Abdul, we were able to more fully understand his humanity and the essence of who he is.
We are so thankful for the conversations that we have had the opportunity to have, as well as the individuals that we have met through Ubuntu. Going forward, we hope that we are able to create content and videos for #UbuntuPhilly that reflect the words and hopes of those individuals behind Ubuntu, such as Abdul and Julie.