If the pen is mightier than the sword, then words can knock down walls. At Hudson Link’s Beyond the Block: Voices From Sing Sing event, the voices of the incarcerated men escaped the prison with the blessings of Superintendent Michael Capra and Acting Commissioner Anthony Anucci. Both sat in the front row to witness the culmination of six months of planning, casting, rehearsing, and coaching as more than twenty incarcerated men took to the stage to lift souls, break hearts, challenge minds, and delight the spirits of the nearly three hundred friends, families, and supporters in attendance.
The standing-room-only crowd was instantly captivated by Paul Cortez’s talk Liberative Justice, which called for a change to the antiquated and ineffective criminal legal system. Hosts Bryonn Bain and Sheldon Johnson set the tone for the groundbreaking event and introduced speakers like Paul Grant, who took everyone on a journey to the kitchen in Cooking with Grandma, a homage to his love of food, which was inspired by his family’s matriarch. Salahuddin Townsley spoke about a new approach to mental health, while Dayvon Underdue closed out the show by asking, What does it really mean to be a father? a talk inspired by his desire to be the father that his son needs and to end intergenerational incarceration.
“Nobody would know that the speakers were incarcerated,” one guest commented. “They sounded and looked like men who give these talks all the time.” This was due in large part to the time invested by coaches Lisa Wells and Miki Shaw, who helped mold inexperienced and first-time speakers into seasoned pros. “In addition to moving your audience to laughter and tears, you may well have planted a seed or two that will grow and change the world,” they added in a joint statement.
The show was conceived as a celebration of Hudson Link’s 25th Anniversary of transforming lives through education. One of the common themes throughout the day was how Hudson Link and access to education had changed the lives of so many of the speakers. Formerly incarcerated scholars spanning more than two decades of the program took the stage took the stage as ambassadors in tribute to the program that gave them the education, skills, and platform to become, and remain, successful beyond the walls.
In attendance were Assembly members Edward Gibbs and Dana Levenberg, who came backstage to encourage speakers and congratulate them on making a positive impact on their community. The two elected officials also took the stage to present Superintendent Michael Capra, who will be retiring in a few short months, with a proclamation touting his decades of service. Additionally, Gary Benloss, an incarcerated leader, gave a moving in-house tribute to the Superintendent, thanking him for taking a progressive approach to programming and rehabilitation.
A group of singers, both incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, gave a moving tribute to Harry Belafonte, a staunch Hudson Link supporter, as the final piece of a biography honoring the famed entertainer and social advocate. Aloe Blacc also moved the crowd, performing four of his most popular songs, including Harvard and Wake Me Up.
The day, however, belonged to the men who put together a “deeply memorable, compassionate, complex, and informative event,” according to one guest. Beyond the Block Creative Director, Michael Tineo stated, “These men have shown what Hudson Link and its partnership with the Department of Corrections is all about, giving people who have fallen short in the past the opportunity to rise above their circumstances and build something extraordinary.” They stepped out of the dark, dank, and drab cells of confinement and brought their voices Beyond the Block.