Seventeen years ago, I joined the advisory board of the Northern California Innocence Project. Little did I know that this small act of volunteerism would lead to a lifetime of working with exonerees. Over the years I’ve met hundreds of people who were wrongfully convicted and exonerated. Hearing their stories of hope and perseverance was the impetus for the first public speaking workshop with two communications professors from Santa Clara University – Aldo Billingslea and Kimberly Mohne Hill. That was 2012 and here we are, 10 years later, presenting Conversations, a series of discussions with members of The Pruno Fund’s Speakers Bureau.
The stories these people tell are important, not just because they shine a light on the inequities and unfairness in our criminal justice system. No, their message is much more than that. They share stories of hope and perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. A teenage mother wrongfully accused of murdering her infant son and sentenced to death, Sabrina Butler-Smith, found the courage to fight for her life and freedom and she continues that fight for others as she advocates against the death penalty across this country. Sabrina opens our Conversations series sharing her story with Natalie Moore, a Chicago journalist. Each month, from June to October, Natalie talks with ten different speakers, culminating with Fernando Bermudez, wrongfully convicted of a murder that occurred when he was miles away from the scene of the crime. Since his exoneration and release, Fernando has spoken around the world about faith and hope, sharing his story and his art. He created the new cover for our update of Pruno, Ramen, and a Side of Hope: Stories of Surviving Wrongful Conviction. In an upcoming post, we’ll hear from students in the Southwest Tennessee Community College Upward Bound program, who were treated to a graffiti art workshop taught by Fernando as part of a speaking engagement through the Speakers Bureau.
Our goal in creating The Pruno Fund was to help exonerees make the transition from prison to life on the outside. While we and our donors were helping exonerees, they in turn were helping us understand the power of forgiveness, perseverance, hope, and faith. I will be forever grateful to them. I hope everyone reading this post registers to watch at least one of the Conversations episodes and support our wonderful speakers. Even better, book them for your next event and share a little bit of what we experience collaborating with these inspiring people every day.