Mass Incarceration: Lessons Learned from Ava DuVernay’s 13th

As part of our efforts to deepen understanding and conversations around our racial justice work, the Action Alliance held a staff screening in November of Ava Duvernay’s documentary, “13th”. DuVernay, who directed the award-winning movie, “Selma”, created “13th” to examine the ways in which state control over African-Americans in the U.S. has changed shape since the 13th amendment was passed to abolished slavery. Action Alliance intern, Ki’ara Montgomery, shares her reflections on the film.

I was at my internship at the Action Alliance when I received the invitation: Join us for the showing of the documentary 13th. I heard about the film for the first time the night prior to receiving the invitation and I immediately knew that 13th was a film I didn’t want to miss.

As I watched 13th I was surrounded by troubling truths that I assumed true, but never had the information to fully believe because it was based on a history that wasn’t taught to us in school. Despite the feelings that were building up inside me as I continued to watch, I held myself together… until a little over halfway through the film.

I couldn’t control myself any longer. What started as a few tears falling down my face turned into uncontrollable sobbing and me fleeing the room in anger. It left me angry and confused. How could we let ourselves go back so far? Why are we accepting a new-age form of slavery? Why are we repeating the history that our ancestors and many of us have been fighting so hard to reform? I didn’t understand and honestly, I still don’t.

This film shows how the adoption of the 13th Amendment transitioned African-Americans from being enslaved in a historical context, to a new-age slavery due to a loophole that abolished slavery for everyone except criminals. This new-age form of slavery includes Jim Crow, lynching, and criminalization. Director Ava DuVernay gathered a unique group of people from various backgrounds to talk about these issues, including a representative from ALEC, a group that was heavily criticized in the film for their contributions toward laws that only worked to increase incarceration rates. That aspect is one that makes this documentary notable, in my opinion. Much like DuVernay’s use of words.

In 13th, not only do we hear the words that are used to criminalize black people in America, but DuVernay constantly shows us those words. The word CRIMINAL appears on the screen each time it is verbalized in the documentary. For me, each time this word was said and showcased, it invoked a deeper level of emotion than the time before. We hear and see the use of words such as super-predator, wolf pack, and gang on the news, in newspapers, and even from political figures. These words instantly lead your mind to the word CRIMINAL and some associate them all to the word Black.

History has played its part in this word association and the word choice. The documentary takes you back to 1915 and the release of The Birth of a Nation. This movie glorified the Ku Klux Klan, portraying them as heroes for ridding the nation of the ”black beasts.” These “beasts” would rape your wives and kill you if they weren’t tamed. These “beasts” were Black men. This was the beginning of criminalizing language and depictions of Black men.

Do you understand the architecture around an idea that you hold in your head? The design of it, the very construction of it is most likely not truly yours, but something that was given to you. The idea you have in your head was not built by you per se, but built by preconceived notions that were passed down generation after generation. – Ava DuVernay

Leon Neyfakh made a great point in his article covering 13th. “Ava DuVernay’s new documentary about mass incarceration made me feel ashamed[1],” the article began. “I thought about how much I’d gotten used to in just under two years of covering the criminal justice system.”

Neyfakh not only recognized his gradual blindness to mass incarceration, but he also tackled a communal ignorance to the situation. “How it could be that so many people could have ever grown used to the moral catastrophes that were slavery and Jim Crow,” he states. “How did they not wake up every morning, nauseated and panicked about what was happening? The same way people like me wake up in 2016 and take it as a given that there are 2.3 million people living in cages, a third of them Black.”


Image source: Ki’ara Montgomery

Not being aware of these harsh realities and not taking the time to educate ourselves on the injustices that people in our society face daily, only makes us part of the issue. If more people were aware of the actual truth, would take advantage of the opportunity to view and analyze this information, and realize that we are living in a cycle that will never end until we end it ourselves, this film could be beneficial to most of our society. But if we don’t take the time to educate ourselves or we refuse to believe the truth that is constantly staring us in the face while stabbing our communities in the back, we will continue to be stuck in this vicious cycle.

Have you seen the documentary 13th? What are your thoughts on mass incarceration? Let us know in the comments!

Ki’ara Montgomery is a Senior at Virginia Commonwealth University with plans to graduate in May 2017. She is obtaining a bachelor’s degree in public relations, and minors in business and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies. While in school, she has had opportunities with VCU AmeriCorps, Culture4MyKids, VCU School of Education, and the Richmond Raiders. She is currently interning with the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance with a focus in development, policy, and communications.

Featured image source:

[1] Neyfakh, Leon. “I’m a Criminal Justice Reporter, and Ava DuVernay’s New Doc About Mass Incarceration Shocked Me.” Slate Magazine, Slate, 6 Oct. 2016,


 This article is part of the Action Alliance’s blog series on Virginia’s Trauma-to-Prison-Pipeline.

The Trauma-to-Prison-Pipeline (aka “School-to-Prison-Pipeline”) fails young people who are experiencing high levels of toxic stress and/or trauma by responding in overly punitive ways to youth who exhibit normal reactions to trauma and toxic stress.

Youth of color and youth with disabilities are particularly targeted for disproportionately high levels of heavy-handed, punitive responses to vague and subjective infractions in school, such as “defiance of authority”, or “classroom disruption”. Viewed from a trauma-informed lens, these same behaviors may signal youth who are suffering and struggling with ongoing effects of trauma.

 The Action Alliance believes that everyone deserves racially equitable responses that are compassionate and trauma-informed, and which build individual and community assets.

Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call 804.377.0335. 

Hybrid Courses, Micro-modules, Video-streams, and Retreats…Oh My!

Training Institute 2.0: We’re Mixing Up Our Learning Strategies in 2017

The Action Alliance Training Institute has been responsive to the needs of our field for 20 years and was developed through thoughtful leadership and deep listening to our members and allies. That listening has found us traveling all over Virginia to provide practical information and build advocacy skills; to host critical conversations about changes in our field and how social justice and anti-oppression approaches impact our work; to strengthen relationships between local partners in regional and community-based learning environments; and to respond to emerging trends in survivor advocacy while addressing growing diversity in size and scope of staff at the local and state level. The Action Alliance’s commitment to experimentation has brought us to Training Institute 2.0 which will launch in 2017 and will include more opportunities for engagement using various methods and technologies.

In 2016, we utilized webinar technology to provide opportunities for experts from across the country to join advocates in their offices and for advocates to engage directly without having to travel to a conference or session in another state or county for that matter. We hosted Lunch ‘n’ Learns to give SDVA staff a chance to dig into specific concepts and have conversations over lunch whether they were in Richmond or Radford. We began the development of online courses that will become the backbone of our hybrid class model which includes in-person and online learning opportunities. These courses will include synchronous classes (real-time virtual or in-person classes that occur at a specific time and are led by Action Alliance faculty/staff) and asynchronous classes (self-paced work moderated by Action Alliance staff).

We are excited about being able to provide critical information to advocates and staff across Virginia in ways that meet the needs of our members and help to ensure survivors are able to access competent, consistent services regardless of their location. We will be launching online courses throughout 2017 and we will also be launching several online communities of practice for individuals who are interested in learning more from peers in similar roles at other agencies. We envision space for SDVA staff to share tools, problem-solve together, learn from each other, and build relationships across geographic barriers. Directors will have a space, prevention staff will have a space, legal advocates will have a space, and more! If you are interested in seeing an online community of practice around a particular role you have, please let us know. Email us at; we’d be happy to discuss the variety of cohorts we can create together!

Staff have been hard at work testing our live-stream options for meetings and trainings this year. We look forward to being able to offer more opportunities for live-stream and to increase the ability for individuals to actively participate in training activities from their desk. The Action Alliance launched its Training Institute Micro-Site this year and will continue to use this platform for all training registrations, materials and resources from trainings, and as a portal to various communities of practice. You can view the site by clicking here. We aren’t the only ones who continue to experiment with how we deliver training and information to the field and anyone interested in this work. We learned a lot by watching how the School of Social Work at SUNY Buffalo developed and launched its MSW Online Program. We’ve seen the explosion of online learning in recent years related to everything from first grade mathematics to graduate level physics.


Action Alliance Training Institute Microsite

We also recognize that for a lot of our work and critical conversations you just need face to face time. That’s why we remain committed to offering a robust calendar of basic and continuing advocacy trainings, advanced topic summits and conferences, and of course our Biennial Retreat which is on deck for June 2017. Our staff and faculty are also available to provide customized trainings on request across Virginia. We encourage our members to work regionally to identify needs and submit training requests together for maximum impact. Interested in learning how to bring a training on request to your organization or community, visit our microsite here for details.

The Action Alliance Training Institute consistently seeks to experiment with new ways to offer invigorating and exciting learning opportunities in person and online in order to deliver forward-thinking and accessible education, training, and resources to SDVA staff, allied professionals, and members of the community who work on the front lines to address and prevent sexual and domestic violence. Our offerings, whether virtual or IRL (in real life), are based on 3 “lenses” – Racial-justice; Trauma-informed; and Asset-building and focus on enhancing the experience of training participants regardless of the topic or modality. We are excited to learn and grow with you and hope to be in community with you either in person or while you’re at your desk next year!


Staff from Project Horizon, Safehome Systems, and New Directions discussing trauma-informed advocacy at a recent on-site Training on Request



Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call 804.377.0335. 

To inquire about submissions for blog, please check the submissions page for requirements or email






Are You Governed by Your Intake Form?

How did you learn your technique for interviewing?  Did it come naturally, did you learn it from an experienced mentor, or did you stumble into it, making it up as you went along?  I remember when I was a law student, interviewing my first clients in a legal aid clinic, I was petrified that I would “miss” something, so my interviews were epic, two-hour-long ordeals. It never occurred to me until years later that I was probably re-traumatizing clients by marching inexorably through my exhaustive list of questions, crossing the line from interview to interrogation. Yes, I got what I “needed” to fill out the forms, but was there a better way?

If your job description includes interviewing trauma victims in order to obtain critical details, you need to know how to sensitively ask for information in a way that does not re-traumatize the victim AND that gets you the essential facts you need to do your job. What are best practices for working with a client whose responses to trauma may vary?  I have come up with tools and techniques that help to resolve that conflict between relentless pursuit of the facts of the case on one hand and an understanding of the needs of the traumatized client on the other hand.

The Action Alliance’s conference, Trauma-Informed Approaches to Sexual and Intimate Partner Violence (May 4-5, 2016, in Charlottesville ) will include a workshop I developed to help professionals and volunteers identify the best techniques for working with traumatized victims in an interview. Whether we are social workers, shelter staff, attorneys, law enforcement or medical professionals, we need to fill out intake sheets and learn about the facts surrounding the victimization so we can offer tailored service, advice and referrals.

pixabay free image of intake form

photo credit: Pixabay

But what if our own interviewing has unwittingly become part of a long process of victimization? It is possible to consciously equip ourselves for those interviews with specific tools for working with a traumatized person.  You can learn how to create an atmosphere of safety and security; which techniques work best with angry, combative, fearful or disoriented victims; and what to do at the end of interviews to help the victim with next steps. Have you ever wondered how you could best work through an interpreter, handle sensitive issues regarding sex and drugs, or prepare for the next steps in the victim’s journey? And just as important as our awareness of the potential of re-traumatizing the victim is the critical but often overlooked topic of the interviewer’s self-care and vicarious trauma.

When you attend the workshop, you will learn:

  1. The three essential techniques for conducting an interview with a traumatized client
  2. How to set up your office or work space with a victim of trauma in mind;
  3. How language you employ in interviewing can hurt or heal; and
  4. The healing power of choice for a traumatized interviewee.

Ann H. Kloeckner, Esq., Executive Director of Rappahannock Legal Services, has spent over 30 years working with survivors of intimate partner violence.

The Heart is a Muscle: Trauma-Informed Approaches to Sexual and Intimate Partner Violence Conference will be held May 4-5, 2016 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Find keynote and workshop descriptions hereRegister here.


Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call804.377.0335

To inquire about submissions for blog, please check the submissions page for requirements or email

An Intention Toward Wellness, Self-care, and Community in the Workplace

“What could be wrong with giving myself my full attention for 15 minutes? Turns out, nothing. The very act of not working has made it possible for the hum to return, as if the hum’s engine could only refuel while I was away. Work doesn’t work without play.” – Shonda Rhimes, TED2016 

There have always been individuals at the Action Alliance who took special care to infuse our halls with magic and play, music and kindness. Some of these people took care to notice when a colleague had a particular obsession – bacon, Nintendo, chocolate crème eggs, or ceramic elephants to name a few – and offered tokens of love and appreciation in these tastes and shapes. There have always been staff who took pride in knowing the names of each other’s children and grandchildren, no matter the number, and asked each other about them with genuine curiosity. The Action Alliance has been a place where relationships are valued and we are encouraged to invest as much in each other as in the practical day to day work of the coalition. These individuals have always floated about spreading good cheer on their own and in 2013, after a particularly challenging year of change, the random encounters of positive influence became an institutionalized practice within the Action Alliance organizational culture and the Wellness Fairies were born.

care cup


The first iteration of Wellness Fairies was a trio of staff committed to creatively bringing wellness and self-care to the office environment. Self-care may be on its way to cliché status in the grand scheme of things but it is still a revolutionary act in our work. Carving space to celebrate each other, to play and dance together, to eat good food in the company of friends is not always easy. Encouraging a diverse set of introverts, extroverts, and everything in between to get involved in games and embrace this commitment to staff wellness can be a challenge too. The Action Alliance sees the importance of these strategies nonetheless and commits staff time and financial resources to this greater purpose of supporting self-care and sustaining a culture of wellness. And for the staff who volunteer to become Wellness Fairies the challenge and the creativity becomes part of their self-care too. Designing scavenger hunts, decorating the office, organizing bubble wrap dance parties, bringing in massage therapists, and creating small gifts for every staff person are just a few of the endeavors keeping our Wellness Fairies busy each year.


credit: Portland State School of Social Work

I joined the second cohort of Wellness Fairies after experiencing a year of being on the receiving end of so many awesome adventures thanks to the first cohort. I joined as a member of the Management Team to exhibit my full commitment to celebrating staff and supporting work-life balance. I joined to have fun and bring good food for my friends. Ahhh, the food. So much good food has been part of the Wellness Fairies events that we even released a staff cookbook highlighting recipes that had been shared at potlucks. We are potluck goddesses at the Action Alliance. Sharing food is a quick way to share a bit of one’s self, one’s history, and one’s desires. Sharing food builds resilience and relationships. Building resilience and relationships ensures that our team has what it needs to show up every day in this space – talking about trauma, working on tight deadlines, answering the Hotline, navigating dicey political environments.


credit: Quillin Drew

Some suggest that if it is not hurting, if you are not stretched to the point of pain, then you must not be working hard enough. That may be a fine assessment of the gym, but that is not the environment where I want to spend my energy during my career. Non-profits are often limited in the resources available to support staff retention and sometimes do not have access to the most enticing salaries or most robust benefits packages. The Action Alliance has made commitments to pay living wages and to offer other regular benefits. We make staff development opportunities available because whether someone has been here 20 years or 5 minutes, we all have more to learn. And we use out of the box tools like the Wellness Fairies to create a workspace where people feel supported, loved, valued, and able to have fun while digging into the very hard work we do each day. The Wellness Fairies are a strategy for helping some of us get through the day and helping all of us stay in the movement to end violence a bit longer. The Wellness Fairies are a vaccine and an antidote – this organizational practice inoculates us from certain despair and cures us when the pressures of life and work become too great. Now in the third year and with a new set of fairies at the helm, the practice of cultivating wellness continues, the potlucks continue, the celebrations continue, and we are able to continue.

If you would like to learn more about how you can incorporate an organizational wellness practice like this on a shoestring budget, we will be glad to help you think it through. Get in touch with us!

Quillin Drew Musgrave is a Programs and Services Manager at the Action Alliance, a Board member of the Virginia Anti-Violence Project, and operates Harrison Street Café with their partner. Quillin is learning to engage the world from a place of connection and gratitude and gets great joy from seeing their child, StaggerLee, learn to navigate life as a four-year old.


Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call 804.377.0335.

To inquire about submissions for blog, please check the submissions page for requirements or email

Interconnected Without Falling Apart: A Tale of the Rubik’s Cube & The Future of The Training Institute

Alice in Wonderland

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’ asked Alice. “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
~ Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Do you remember playing with a Rubik’s Cube when you were a kid? I don’t know about you, but trying to solve that puzzle frustrated me to no end.

Rubiks cubeThe Rubik’s Cube has an interesting backstory. The creator of the cube did not set out to make a best-selling toy. His actual intent was to create a teaching tool for students to solve the structural problem of moving the parts independently without the entire mechanism falling apart.
The cube is made up of nine colored squares on each side that can be moved on their own, yet are still interconnected. The puzzle can be solved  in 43 quintillion different ways.  !!!

My approach was to focus on individual pieces and not the whole (“solving for pattern”, as the expression goes). As you can probably guess, I never did solve the darn thing.

What does all of this have to do with the future of the Training Institute (TI) you might ask?

In my fairly new role as the TI Coordinator, I’ve had the privilege of participating in intense discussions and strategic planning around the future of the TI. These discussions centered on the concepts of interconnectedness, strengthening existing partnerships/creating new ones, social change, and digging down to the roots of WHY we do what we do.

Stone pileAnd then there were conversations about striking a balance between the need to deliver knowledge/skill-based, evidence-informed training and the need to effect change, dismantle oppressive structures, and mobilize communities. Within the TI how would we do both? Could we do both?

Where did we want to go?

I began to see the decisions we needed to make for 2016 and beyond as a puzzle. As is my habit, I initially focused on the individual pieces – what webinar do we need next? Which dates were available for which training? Who will present at the conferences?

You get the idea.

Lightbulb idea drawingDuring one of our conversations, something clicked for me (for you Oprah fans, an “aha moment”, as it were) and I was able to understand what my supervisors were saying – to back up and look at the big picture – to think of all the individual parts in the context of a larger pattern, and to realize that, like the Rubik’s cube, the many moving pieces that make up the TI could be moved, yet stay interconnected, and that the whole structure would not fall apart. As we wrapped up our multi-year plan for the TI, I felt inspired.

2016 holds what you would normally expect from the TI, but with some new twists that we think you’ll love. We are updating and revising all of our curricula and adding new curricula that will include information from the field about how you can engage in social justice movements in your communities and beyond. We are building a training microsite, virtual peer communities, online training platforms, and more. And we are hosting TWO major statewide conferences.

In a nutshell: we will be busy. And we can’t wait.

TI logo-blue black4-shadow



Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call 804.377.0335. 

To inquire about submissions for blog, please check the submissions page for requirements or email