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The Atonement Project

P.O. BOX 23176
Detroit, Michigan 48223

Shaka Senghor

By Tunde Wey
August 7, 2013

In the last seven months, 183 people had been murdered in Detroit. It’s almost impossible to fully comprehend what that means, but included in this statistic are children, mothers, and fathers—real people who have been cut down violently. Even more wrenching is the culture of fear, retaliation, and wariness that immediately sets in on a neighborhood after a violent crime is committed. When your home is no longer safe, and your heart remains forever and furiously attentive to every car screech, loud popping noise, or chilling scream, only then can you begin to understand the world from which Shaka Senghor came.
Senghor has been recognized for his philanthropic work, receiving support and accolades from many organizations, including a $25,000 award from Knight Foundation’s BME Challenge for his Live in Peace program, a program that helps youth resolve conflict through literature, photography, and digital media.  This ostensible recognition belies a story soaked in self-realization.
Shaka Senghor is an impressive man, strongly built with shoulder-length dreadlocks. He is quiet spoken—almost tentative about offering the full weight of his voice lest the combination of assertive speech comingled with a stout physique cause a certain alarm. His manner gives him a polite, non-menacing demeanor, allowing him to offer certain harsh and uncomfortable truths without shocking his listener.
The first thing that might shock you about Senghor is the fact that he killed a man. It is a definitive and incongruous detail about him. It seems almost impossible to believe, and when belief eventually settles in it is a compromised version because you only accept this fact as completely disconnected from the man you see today. You convince yourself that the person seated on the other side of you cannot possibly be the same person who killed a person. 
There is a technicality in the story that supports this cognitive dissonance one experiences when Senghor shares his story. Over twenty years ago, an 19-year-old drug dealer named "James White" refused to sell drugs to a potential buyer. An argument ensued and White fatally shot the man. White spent the next two decades in prison. He came out Shaka Senghor. This technicality is scant consolation to the family, friends, and community of the deceased and admittedly to Senghor himself.
The transformation of James White to Shaka Senghor—author, activist, and mentor—is the basis of Senghor’s work.
"My personal narrative is the essence of the Atonement Project," he says. "We’re going to create an online platform to allow violent offenders and bullies to apologize and atone for their wrongdoings and to also allow victims of violent crime and bullying to share the impact, with violent offenders, of how the actions of the violent offenders have affected them and their quality of life. And we’re going to take those stories and use them in theater productions to further tell that story."
The Atonement Project is a partnership between Senghor, The University of Michigan, Theater Department and MIT Media Lab, "based on the process I felt I underwent during my incarceration in preparation for my transition back to the community."
It is a three-step process that is both internally and externally oriented. This process was the culmination of Senghor’s learning throughout his incarceration, only now formalized amidst the reality of his new status as a returning citizen.
"The first phase is acknowledging who I hurt and who hurt me. We want violent offenders to atone but rarely do we talk about healing. I hurt people directly and indirectly. I also had to acknowledge that I’ve been hurt, I’ve been shot, and I’ve been left for dead, and I had to understand how it made me feel."
For Senghor it became important to recognize the difference between intent and perception; a navigation between personal responsibility and public obligation, in a sense.
"The second phase is to apologize for the harm I had done to other people whether real or imagined. Sometimes your intentions may not be to hurt somebody but they react to it in a way that causes them harm. I also have to apologize to myself for reacting in a self-destructive manner to things that have caused me harm."
Maybe the most important piece of Senghor's ideology is the understanding of interconnectedness: the idea that violent crime does not happen in a vacuum but is rather incubated in community while also adversely affecting that community. Hence the reparations necessary have to start with the individual while being deeply entrenched in the community.
"Atoning through direct action—any time you cause harm to your community you have to figure out a way to help your community heal," Senghor explains. "I found out that I was able to add value to my community by talking to kids about violence. That’s where I was able to add value by giving a real face to what it’s like to grow up in the streets. Atoning with yourself and being at one with yourself and doing things to improve and enhance the quality of your emotional development—cultivating the best in you, demanding the best from yourself."
At 13, Senghor ran away from an abusive home and began dealing crack cocaine. A few months later he was beaten unconscious and left to die inside a crack house. He was robbed at gun point, had two brothers shot, and he was shot three times—and released from the hospital a few hours later into the same neighborhood where the shooting had occurred—all before he was 17 years old. A month after his nineteenth birthday he killed a man, and was released after a 19-year incarceration at the age of 38. This is not the story of Shaka Senghor. His story is the work he is doing presently: his atonement.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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