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Unbroken by Bars: A Discussion

On the evening of Wednesday, May 1, CoCA hosted a round-table discussion about our current show, (Our Love Is) Unbroken By Bars, led by the show’s curator, Katie Fuller, with panelists Rex Hohlbein, the founder of Facing Homelessness, and David Heppard, the executive director of The Freedom Project. Attendees included Rohena Khan, a local artist, CoCA board members Joseph Roberts, Kayleigh Wold, and Joel Cazares, and our own CoCA staff members, Katelyn Johnson, gallery manager, and Nichole DeMent, our executive and artistic director.


Katie started the discussion by sharing that her own journey started with two sisters who are chemically dependent. She always wondered why, despite their drug use and crimes, they were able to avoid prison. This was thanks to their father, who had in-depth legal knowledge and was able to advocate for his daughters in court. David noted that our society values intent over impact too often. We excuse negative impact when someone had good intentions. This is harmful to people who are triggered: our help might actually be hurting them.

All of the panelists agreed:

It’s important to see others, not just save them. Having a savior complex creates distance between you and the people that you want to help.

Injustice in the Penal System

Katie commented that she’s met a lot of individuals who carry historical trauma from their race and identity. David Heppard noted that people do want to change for the better, but that they are terrified. What they see in the media, as their life after release, is not encouraging. They are faced with debt and difficulties finding somewhere to live. Rental history, or the lack of it, is a form of discrimination, with landlords denying formerly incarcerated or homeless people housing because they have no history to show. And their legal financial obligations (LFOs), owed to the state for legal support, trials, and appeals, stays with them through prison and afterwards, until it’s paid off.

David talked about prisoners making 42¢ per hour for work. Rex wondered if that was the same for female prisoners, and Katie mentioned Stephanie, who is portrayed in the show, making 17¢ per hour. The discussion shifted towards the difference between private and federal prisons: the former treats prisoners like a business, and costs less than federal prisons to operate. Rohena Khan asked whether prisoners should be able to make money, and David asserted that incarceration is punishment enough. “It is a truly traumatic experience” he said.

David asked in return whether we want to punish people or rehabilitate them. He continued: If everything were equal, no race or class distinctions, we could argue that punishment is the point, but the system is not equal. Katie referred to her opening comment, wondering why some people don’t go to prison, to point out the inequalities. Access to lawyers, being white, living in the suburbs: these are some of the factors that help people avoid prison time. “Learning about incarceration” said Katie “has made me a better person.” She learned how to be better at forgiving others, including her sisters, because of what she’s learned.

Problem-Solving Here

What can we do, here, in Seattle, Katie asked. Rex replied that we must tear down the concept of “the other” – the basis for all social injustice. Each of us, he said, must find a way to stop creating that boundary between ourselves and the other, to grow past that, to learn more. “Nobody chooses homelessness or incarceration” he emphasized.

Talking about it is not enough. Doing the work on ourselves, to remove our own beliefs and hostilities, is what’s needed. David noted that for those of us afraid of homeless or incarcerated people: realize that they are also afraid and worried in return, of being judged. As you walk by, Rex commented, you might be thinking intellectually about what led them to this situation. But if you get closer, your observations change. If you can get to the emotional questions, you can reach questions like “Do you need help?” Why do we keep our distance? Because we don’t want to be inconvenienced? Because we feel entitled? What are we afraid of? Katie referenced Brené Brown’s work, in how we move away from need because it makes us fear our own vulnerability. David asked, “If you had something culturally insensitive happen to you today, how you respond to those moments is your work.” Katie agreed that learning to make it past her own triggers is the way to helping others. Starting is small is fine, Rex added – start in the kiddie pool and work your way to the deep end.

The Positive Impact of Art

Katie has seen first-hand how art can help, when she led exercises for dementia patients in an art museum. “Art lives in the body,” she notes. “Our bodies respond to art viscerally” and help us access our emotions. Rex agreed that intellectual experience isn’t enough to thrive; the emotional experience that art allows for is also important. Art can help bridge the gaps in equality, since none of us are immune to being moved by beauty, as Rex stated.  

Katie talked about how Shyama Kuver, featured in the show, draws figures with a third eye, which Katie discovered, symbolizes emotional intelligence. “As art absorbs our responses,” Katie observed, “by engaging through art, we can understand each other better.”

The Gallery as an Agent of Change

Katelyn Johnson asked how the gallery can support social justice. Rex shared the importance of giving a voice, holding a space, inviting people in. Knowing what we’re good at, and passionate about, helps direct the projects that we can support to address social justice issues. David encouraged CoCA to push the narrative, to help people see people rather than “the other” and remove the stigma that creates dehumanization. Rex phrased it this way: “Show up to the dance, and then learn how to dance.”

More Information

Many thanks to our panelists and attendees for a deep discussion. For more information, see the links below or stop by to see the show (Our Love Is) Unbroken By Bars.

Facing Homelessness

The Freedom Project