Bakari Atiba lives by the mantra, “Each one, teach one.” He understands the powerful impact of receiving guidance from someone who has walked a mile in your shoes. That’s why, as a justice-impacted Black man from East Baltimore, Bakari has dedicated his life to giving people affected by systemic inequities the peer support they need to transform their lives.
Helping Incarcerated People Work Through Trauma
Bakari’s transformation began in prison when he was taken under the wing of other incarcerated men who could relate to his life experiences. Under their mentorship, he started turning his life around. Bakari earned certifications in welding, barbering, and master gardening and an Associates Degree from Anne Arundel Community College in prison. He also completed anger management, conflict resolution, Spanish language programs and learned to foster healthy relationships. Bakari says, “I began to grow and became less angry. My value system changed. I began re-defining and understanding social concepts and social theory and applying it in tangible ways.”
Throughout these activities, Bakari connected with many young men whose backgrounds were similar. He understood why they felt like the only options they had were the ones that led to them becoming incarcerated. Like them, he had been unable to process his trauma healthily. But now, Bakari knew he had to build a better life for himself and wanted his peers to have that knowledge, too. He explains, “I wanted to be able to help people work through their own social issues and create institutions that people can come into, that facilitate people’s social transformation.”
Bakari started by forming a book club, where he and his peers would read books, write short essays, and discuss them together. That evolved into a Character Literacy Awareness Project, a nine-month intensive program where males aged 16-21 were paired with an experienced mentor to unpack their trauma through literacy. Bakari formalized the project by creating modules and bringing in trained social workers to support the young men. The program was so successful that the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS) started requiring young men to complete it before they went on parole.
Overcoming Reentry Barriers to Live Out a Dream
Despite Bakari’s incredible transformation and positive impact on his peers, he encountered numerous barriers to reentry when he was released from prison. It was challenging to get a job and housing, and he was dependent on public transportation because he was unable to get his driver’s license. Although the Ban The Box law eliminates the requirement that job applicants disclose their criminal record on applications, employers are still running background checks and firing justice-impacted people weeks or months after starting work.
Bakari knew the only way to overcome these barriers was to prioritize caring for his mental health. He stayed connected with the spiritual advisor he had met in prison and continued his path of ongoing growth and learning. Eventually, he started his own cleaning business to employ men impacted by the criminal legal system who were unable to obtain employment elsewhere.
Today, Bakari is living out his dream. As a Community Leadership Specialist at Charm City Care Connection, he oversees the program for people who use drugs and struggle with issues connected to homelessness, poverty, and the criminal legal system. He strongly believes in the program’s operation of providing access to treatment and services. At the same time, they gain job skills, support one another, and eventually become employed to support other program participants.
Additionally, as the Community Liaison/Re-Entry Educator for HOPE Baltimore, Bakari assists incarcerated youth and reentering. The program provides emotional and mental health mentorship; support such as housing, transportation, and applying for jobs; and workshops ranging from goal-setting to conflict resolution. It’s rewarding for Bakari to see young people rebuild relationships with their families and communities and to healthily manage their trauma in a non-clinical setting.
Bakari and his peers are living proof that community-based care is the only way to reduce crime and recidivism. Putting people in cages is not only ineffective; it causes more harm to communities when families are separated, and individuals leave prison even more traumatized than when they entered. Bakari explains, “One or two poor decisions doesn’t eternally define your character. Public safety is not a crime issue. It truly is a healing issue. The more we facilitate the healing of trauma-impacted people into society, the safer everyone will be.”