Meet the Fort Wayne entrepreneur taking on mass incarceration in the US—one story at a time

RasAmen Oladuwa’s family is no stranger to innovation on the local stage.

You might know that her mother, Clydia Early, and aunt, Sherry Early-Aden, launched the popular Green Hair Revolution, as part of a natural hair movement gaining momentum among women of color.

But what you might not know is that Oladuwa’s father, Ketu Oladuwa, a jazz musician and writer in Fort Wayne, spent five years on death row for being wrongfully convicted of a murder in his 20’s. And you might not realize that 76 percent of people held in jails have not been convicted of any crime—most simply cannot afford to post bail, which is $10,000 on average for felonies. Or that 80 percent of women who are incarcerated are the primary caretakers for their children. Or that more than 2,600 inmates are currently on death row. Or that 10,300 youth are locked up for “offenses” that are not even crimes.

These are the dark facts and figures behind a phenomenon that has become known as mass incarceration in the United States.

Ironically, while the U.S. prides itself on being the “leader of the free world,” it locks up more people per year than any other nation at the staggering rate of 698 per 100,000 residents. By some estimates, the U.S. has about 4 percent of the world’s people, and yet about 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated people, and the problem is getting worse

In the last 30 years, the number of incarcerated people has skyrocketed, increasing more than 400 percent. On top of that, U.S. prisons violate international standards with solitary confinement, and even when incarcerated people do get released, recidivism rates are so high that they’re likely to end up behind bars again.

If you ask Oladuwa, it's all an indication that our criminal justice system is broken, and as the daughter of a former prisoner, she grew up realizing just how broken it is firsthand. More than that, she saw how mass incarceration affects not only those who are incarcerated, but also their families, communities, and country, at large.

“It’s something that affects everyone, and there’s no conversation about it that’s based on people’s stories without it being political,” Oladuwa says. “I’m just saying: Let’s start talking about this and change the idea of how people operate in this system.”

Ketu Oladuwa and his daughter, RasAmen Oladuwa.

In fact, even after Oladuwa’s father was released from prison (when his case was reopened because they never read him his Miranda rights), he still ended up having to pay to clear his record.

It’s these injustices and more that inspired Oladuwa to partner with her dad to launch a collective in Fort Wayne called Death Row Shadows.

While the data on mass incarceration may be compelling to some, the issue is still complicated and controversial. Oladuwa wants the public to be able to see beyond the numbers and hear the stories of those who have been personally affected by mass incarceration, so they get a different perspective and feel the weight of this issue for themselves.

“I want to get down to the nitty-gritty, human stories,” Oladuwa says.

Having worked on several TEDx events in college, she and her father thought having a TED-style talk on mass incarceration in Fort Wayne would be the most effective way to introduce their collective to the community. 

On top of that, they’re hoping to use the event as a platform to collect the stories of anyone who has been affected by the criminal justice system in mp3 recordings that can be shared on their website.

“The main goal of our collective is to create an archive of stories and bring back oral history,” Oladuwa says.

Running her own marketing business, Rass Web Consulting, full-time, she has been harnessing her professional skills to create the website for Death Row Shadows and generate interest in its events.

Aptly so, her first event held at Wunderkammer Company on Thursday, Nov. 21, is called “Let’s Talk About It: The Hueman Stories.” That “e” in the word Hueman is not a typo either. It stands for “everyone,” Oladuwa says, and it was her father’s idea to put it in.

“That ‘e’ makes people stop and think, and it gives us an opportunity to explain what 'hueman' means,” she says. “By spelling it with an ‘e,’ we’re saying that everyone is included, regardless of your race, your gender, whatever; it doesn’t matter. This affects all of us.”

Along with her father, three other storytellers will share personal stories in seven-minute segments at “Let’s Talk About It,” followed by a panel for attendees to ask questions.

While Death Row Shadows is based in Fort Wayne simply because that’s where Oladuwa lives, she also believes the Summit City has something to learn from the stories of its own community members.

She often feels like she’s living in two cities at once in Fort Wayne—the safe street where she was raised and the street a few blocks away where there are shootings. On one hand, she’s had an easy time adjusting to life after college and finding clients and opportunities for her business here. On the other hand, she’s had friends tell her she’s lucky she “got out of town" when she left home for college.

“I’m living in two totally different worlds, and I’m only hearing about some of this because I have friends who are young and black and poor,” she says.

She believes that her storytelling event—and future events by Death Row Shadows—will help break down communication barriers in Fort Wayne and beyond.

If her model is successful here, she hopes to replicate it in cities across the U.S.

“My main goal is to show people that everyone has been affected by mass incarceration,” Oladuwa says. “It’s not just 'a black thing.' I really want to start a conversation. That’s the main goal of this event: To start a dynamic conversation.”

While the subject matter of that conversation promises to be heavy, Oladuwa’s spirit is light and welcoming as she talks about it. She says that while her older siblings were embarrassed about their dad’s past, she doesn’t feel the social stigma of it.

Instead, she’s just determined to get his story—and others like it—out into the world where they can make a difference.

“When you come, don’t feel overwhelmed,” she says. “That’s why we’re having a panel at the end where people can talk and ask questions. I don’t want people to feel like this is a show. At the end of the day, I want everyone to feel comfortable enough to say, ‘Me, too,’ or ‘I have an experience.’”

Attend “Let’s Talk About It: The Hueman Stories”

Wunderkammer Company
Thursday, Nov. 21
6-9 p.m.

Death Row Shadows presents their premier event that features four people’s personal stories on how mass incarceration has impacted their lives. Speakers include: former death row inmate Ketu Oladuwa, Death Row Support Project Director Rachel Gross, former inmate of 21 years Shirley Cooper, and Community Activist Foundation One. Each will present their experiences in a TED-style format that centers around what they have learned from their personal stories and in their ongoing work.

Learn more on eventbrite. Tickets are $10. (Oladuwa says that anyone who wants to attend, but can’t afford a ticket can call her at 260-222-7020 to reserve a seat for free.)

Death Row Shadows is looking for volunteers for its event on Nov. 21. Those interested can contact Oladuwa at 260-222-7020.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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