Dont Rhine and Robert Sember, artists from Ultra Red, sit in a clean, sharp, minimalist gallery space. There is a long rectangular table positioned at an angle, cutting through the middle of the room. Chairs sit as placeholders in rows on either side of the table. A diverse group of women sit listening to twelve different sounds. After each one, Dont poses the question, “What do you hear?”
As the women hear the sounds, some spring with purpose out of their seats to write and speak their responses. Others sit quietly and reflect. Dont sits at the end of the table, releasing the collection of sounds one by one. He gently repeats, “What do you hear?”
Dont and Robert are working with women from an organization called Prototypes on a project that examines social media as education.
Prototypes is a residential program in Pomona, California that provides services to single mothers with a history of incarceration, mental illness, and substance use. The women were asked to collect and record sounds based on the question, “What are the sounds of alternatives to incarceration?” Dont and Robert collected, composed, and recorded the sounds. Now, they and the women listen and reflect.
April Wilson is the Program Director at Prototypes. The organization’s mission is to reduce barriers for mothers who are traditionally unable to obtain services for a variety of reasons. It was a partnership with a professor at Claremont College that allowed her to connect with Dont and Robert on the sound project.
“We are often considered the last house on the block,” explains April. “We have a full continuum of care on site with everything a woman might need. Prototypes provides residential substance use treatment, a federally qualified health clinic, educational services (including a GED course), and a local community college course taught on site that provides an introduction to higher level education. This helps to reduce fear of what it is like to go to college.”
Prototypes also has a mother and infant program. Twenty-four mothers who are inmates are able to complete their prison sentences at Prototypes while maintaining their relationships with their young children. In a traditional prison setting, a mother and her children would be separated.
The organization’s entire staff has been trained in Motivational Interviewing and Trauma-Informed Care. They have also used the Seeking Safety Curriculum by Lisa Najavits and Nurturing Parent by Norma Finkelstein. Evidence-based practices are critical to the organization’s success, according to April.
The name Prototypes, April explains, came about because the founders wanted to design a program that other organizations could replicate. The women served range in age from 18 to 74, and all are seeking assistance with addictions and mental health issues. In order to enter the program, a woman must have been in prison several times, but with minimal attempts at recovery. Most of the women have experienced trauma, and many have spent more than two-thirds of their lives in prison.
Mothers and children with mental health issues have traditionally been screened out of treatment. But Prototypes was intended to be a program that anyone could join to receive the best level of care.
“We remain a program that admits many participants that other programs will not. Roughly 70 to 80 percent of our participants have been documented as homeless,” says April. “Some women come directly off the streets, some are self-referred through our website, and some are referred from Children’s Court because they have lost custody.”
While April has worked at Prototypes as an employee for 20 years, her own introduction to the program was through the courts in 1989.
“At the time, I was pregnant and an IV drug user, and very few programs were taking women in my situation,” says April. “I did not want to go to prison. Eventually I discovered Prototypes, and they agreed to take me at six months pregnant.”
April completed the program, and, after two years clean and sober, was hired as an entry-level substance use counselor. Eventually, she was transitioned into a role working with families impacted by HIV and AIDS. Nearly 60 percent of Prototypes’ staff identify as being in recovery alongside her.
“Listening is so important,” says April. “Women with trauma have difficulty listening in the fast pace of this world. I see this project as mindfulness. It is really something that asks you to slow down.”
As one woman in the program shares, “I have learned to survive in this world, and to make sure that my voice is heard. It is very hard for me to listen. I have now learned that listening is an act of love. Listening to hear another person is to demonstrate your love for them.”
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