Meryam Bouadjemi was just 10 years old when her father went to prison for seven years—a traumatic time for her and her family.
“I saw firsthand how the stigma of incarceration extends not only to the individual but to the families, too,” Bouadjemi says. “I was a straight ‘A’ student, but overnight I was perceived to be a bad influence on people.”
The prison term also “imprisoned” Bouadjemi’s father well after he was released, she says, as he struggled to find work.
The formative experience deeply affected Bouadjemi, now a documentary filmmaker living in Mount Vernon, and as an adult she is now determined to use creativity to help change the outlook for returning citizens looking for work.
“Thousands of men and women return home to Baltimore every year. Millions return nationally,” says Boaudjemi, 27. “And once they serve their debt to society, they’re faced with myriad challenges, including barriers to affordable housing and meaningful employment opportunities. We know that meaningful employment is the most significant deterrent to future arrests and yet we deny people the opportunity that is most likely to get them back on their feet.”
Bouadjemi wants to use her OSI-Baltimore fellowship project, Make Moves Media, to leverage creative content to create campaigns around issues of returning citizens. By tapping into the talents of artists, advocates and other creatives, Bouadjemi hopes to change attitudes and beliefs about those directly and indirectly affected by the criminal justice system.
“Baltimore City is the most heavily incarcerated major city in the United States,” she says. “And Baltimore’s community of artists and storytellers has the potential to drive a new narrative about those currently and formerly incarcerated and reframe our role as city residents supporting this population.”
Make Moves Media will work with organizations to curate stories that highlight and humanize issues around returning citizens. With the help of local artists, storytellers and creatives, Bouadjemi will turn these stories into videos, audio clips and other creative content and will work with partners to distribute the content to those who have the greatest ability to help people getting out of prison: employers.
The social action campaign will challenge the hiring practices of local employers to include more returning citizens, offering a variety of resources and tools to define best practices.
Make Moves Media will use screenings, social media, press outreach and other strategies to distribute and market content. Bouadjemi also will construct an online platform to house content and resources in an organized and easily accessible way.
“The online platform will provide many of the materials and tools needed to leverage stories in a way that builds awareness, facilitates engagement and ultimately creates a sustainable movement for social change,” she says.
Bouadjemi’s father is now 65 and with the support of family and others, he eventually was able to start life over. But Bouadjemi says not all returning citizens are as fortunate.
“People shouldn’t be defined by their mistakes,” she says. “Everybody deserves the opportunity to provide for their families and to lead meaningful lives.”