On a quiet campus nestled among verdant hills in Marin County, California, a tight-knit community of high school students and teachers engages in a world-class education at the Branson School. Branson’s mission is “to develop students who make a positive impact in the world by leading lives of integrity, purpose, learning, and joy.” We take seriously the charge to “grow good humans” with a broad worldview and deep understanding of their own humanity.
Just six miles away, San Quentin State Prison stands prominently on the shore of the San Francisco Bay. The austere buildings, barbed wire fences, and searchlights of California’s oldest correctional institution contrast starkly with the otherwise idyllic surroundings.
“We all drive by San Quentin multiple times each week,” notes Branson Head of School Chris Mazzola. “We don’t think about it. It is important to me that we bring it to kids and make our students aware of it.”
In 2017, Mazzola was invited to San Quentin to attend a performance of the Shakespeare at San Quentin program. In this oppressive place, as incarcerated men performed Shakespeare plays alongside “parallel plays” of their own stories, there was a sense of belonging and vulnerability among these men that she never expected. “It changed me,” she recounts. “I had to get involved.”
In 2019, she and English Department Chair Giles Scott launched Branson’s first “Shakespeare and Social Justice” course. Collaborating with Shakespeare at San Quentin, Branson students gained a unique perspective on social justice, incarceration, and – most of all – our shared humanity. During this collaboration, two incarcerated men, Antwan “Banks” Williams and Eric “Maserati-E” Abercrombie, shared their artistic talents and formed a strong bond with both students and teachers. Within weeks of their release from San Quentin, Williams and Abercrombie visited Branson as returning citizens to share their message of social healing and reconciliation and performed their music at a student assembly. As you’ll see from the testimonials captured in this video (filmed at Branson and other Marin schools), the impact was profound.
As Branson students subsequently wrote in their grant proposal to the Edward E. Ford Foundation, “We believe that the most powerful path to change – both in the criminal justice system and in our misperceptions of incarcerated people and their crimes – is to bring our communities together for mutual sharing, learning, storytelling, and teaching. We have found through our work with the men in San Quentin that these simple human connections bind us to one other in powerful ways that change each of us.”
The E. E. Ford Fellows Program
Today, the E. E. Ford Fellows program at Branson doesn’t just talk about social justice as an intellectual abstraction; it makes it real. It demonstrates how social justice impacts people – all people. It’s about embedding it in a privileged community. It’s about embracing our shared humanity – the things that make us more similar than we are different – and recognizing that the distance between two paths in life is not always as vast as we’ve been conditioned to believe. It’s about empowering returning citizens and supporting them to reach their potential. It’s about belonging. And ultimately, it’s about healing.
“All of this is critical because it changes the narrative around people who have been in prison – that they can’t make it, or can’t be forgiven, or are bad people. It contextualizes – how did this come to be? And it encourages both students and returning citizens to engage in social justice work in an entirely different way,” – Chris Mazzola
Branson’s two inaugural E.E. Ford Fellows are deeply engaged in and committed to this work, through the lens of art, music, and human connection:
Antwan “Banks” Williams is one of the founders of Ear Hustle, a podcast centered on the daily realities of life in prison and stories from the outside, post-incarceration. An accomplished actor and dancer and talented visual artist, his fellowship includes teaching studio art, acting, and music in collaboration with Branson arts teachers. See his artwork here and preview his music.
Eric “Maserati-E” Abercrombie is a songwriter, pianist, guitarist, and musical producer. As a Fellow, he is working alongside Branson’s music teachers, teaching digital music/audio production, jazz, and rock. Sample his music here.
Both speak passionately about their experience collaborating with Branson students so far – as well as their continued work with San Quentin and in support of incarcerated and returning citizens:
“I am an artist. And together, our work is all about social healing and social understanding,” reflects Williams. ”What I have experienced might be different but it will still parallel the experiences of students on campus in some ways. Together, we find common ground to work through things together with the core values we share.”
“Art has always been a huge part of my life, at the forefront for me,” says Abercrombie. “It’s about creating a bridge of communities, a bridge of system-impacted people. We’re allowing them the platform to assist with their re-entry, encouraging each to use their abilities (mentoring, coaching, audio engineering) and utilizing this to better the community.” He continues, “These are things that can alter a narrative for marginalized people. It goes to show what can come from being afforded the opportunity.”
The E. E. Ford Fellows program is an important manifestation of Branson’s strategic plan, which states: “We believe that voices informed by different experiences, backgrounds, and points of view enhance the quality and depth of our student learning, both in terms of classroom conversation and moral and ethical development. Our students cannot meet their potential as empathetic and ethical leaders without experiencing authentic connections with people from different backgrounds. We aim to embed students in contexts where transformative moments are possible.”
Some might see this program as a risk; no other independent school is working with formerly incarcerated people in this way. “I think it’s completely understandable to have preconceived notions or implicit bias toward anyone who comes from my experience, says Abercrombie. “I want Branson parents to have an understanding of who I am and why I’m there – and the takeaway of knowing that their children will be in a safe – and inspiring – place.”
Mazzola reports, “What a wonderful feeling to launch this potentially ground-breaking program that has captivated my imagination and sunk into my bones for the last six years. We are grateful to the Edward E. Ford Foundation for their unprecedented support of this project. I am eager to scale this program to other schools after we get our sea legs, as I believe it could be a transformative program in other independent schools.”