Don’t worry, the voices you might hear as you stroll through the Boston Center for the Arts plaza on Tremont Street later this summer are not imaginary. Emanating from a series of speakers, they’re real people’s voices and part of a very real societal problem that Rashin Fahandej explores in her multimedia project, A Father’s Lullaby. For the artist and filmmaker’s BCA summer public artist residency, she’s showing how the mass incarceration of minorities affects children and women who are left behind. Fahandej chatted about the problem and how she hopes her project—on display from July 28 to Oct. 26—can increase awareness of it.
How did you get involved in this subject of mass incarceration? With the Fathers Lullaby project, the element I’m focusing mainly on is mass incarceration, but the absence of fathers I came to from a lot of conversation with community members. It’s such a huge issue that everyone is impacted by. Ninety-nine percent of people who have been incarcerated either had incarcerated fathers or didn’t have fathers in their life. That’s true when I’m talking to multiple organizations and probation officers. This is an overarching element that is creating this narrative.
How did you decide to do the Lullaby video installation? That part of the project was about other men making voice for the absence. Basically thinking about the men who are in the community and are responsible for this nurturing voice. … One wall has nine squares, and it’s about the communities of color being the most impacted. One out of every three black men and one out of every six Latino men has an incarceration history. So two squares have men who are absent, and the rest of the men are giving voice to that absence. On the other side, I have two women who are singing in two different styles. One woman is singing a ballet from slavery time, and the other woman is singing a rap song about rising up. These two are female voices, but you can’t hear them in the space—you have to put the headphones on. For me, by silencing or making the men absent, you are silencing the women because they have so much pressure—with lower incomes—to work. Most of the women can’t be around because they have to take care of the finances alone.
What can people expect to hear in the plaza? There will be two sets of speakers. One set of speakers will play lullaby sounds continuously during certain hours of the day. Then there are speakers that will create sounds as you get closer. Those sounds are spoken words and stories that formerly incarcerated men have shared. In the fall, we’ll have a series of workshops for formerly incarcerated fathers and their children.
Is there an incarceration statistic that stands out to you? If you see the racial disparity and it also shows men vs. women. Once someone has experienced jail at some point in their life, it impacts their whole life and their family’s life. And the amount of pressure that it puts on families—most of the men I’ve been talking to, if they had parents around, were raised by single mothers working double jobs. So basically they had a really nice relationship, but their mothers couldn’t be around. I’m looking at all the kids who are being raised with the same issues. This cycle repeats itself and it’s very difficult. Something needs to be done so this does not repeat itself. It’s been repeating itself for the past 30 years.
Is there anything unexpected that you encountered in your research? A lot of it was very much unexpected. I knew there was a problem, and every system has flaws and things that don’t work. But the amount of obstacles that are put in place makes it nearly impossible for people to leave the system when they’re introduced to it. And there’s no support. There’s very minimal support. The odds for people to overcome their history are very minimal, especially with all the mandatory minimum sentences and drug laws.
Is there any specific solution that could really begin to solve the problem? In the system, there are many different laws and policies that could change. It would be hard to pinpoint one. It depends what part of it you’re looking at. If you’re looking at when people are being arrested: A lot of arrests are being done for petty crimes and nonviolent crimes. People get arrested for shoplifting, and that will impact the next time they get arrested. There are many stories of mothers who are shoplifting and they get in jail for a few years and can’t even see their children. For every five people who are in jail, three are for nonviolent crimes. Most of the men I’ve talked to got into the system for very minor drug offenses. With this system we’re punishing the most vulnerable part of our population—the poorest, who need the most support.