handwritten letters saying "sending lots of love and hope"
Photo courtesy of Circles & Ciphers

Circles & Ciphers sends care packages to young people who are currently incarcerated in the Cook County Jail in Chicago. They include letters from community members providing uplifting messages of support to the youth.

Circles & Ciphers serves as a connecting point for youth in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago looking for a sense of community and a place to belong.

“We’re a restorative justice-based organization that infuses hip-hop to be able to communicate with young people and offer safe spaces for healing,” explains AnnMarie Brown, director of operations.

What started as one hip-hop peacemaking circle to support young men in a local group home has expanded to multiple weekly circles, educational events, a recording studio and direct aid to youth in the community who are formerly or currently incarcerated.

MCC has partnered with Circles & Ciphers in the past on smaller projects such as a peace room expansion to host the peace circles. Now a larger grant from the centennial campaign is helping to fund their Youth Care Collective and Community Mutual Aid Program for youth under the age of 30 who are currently or formerly incarcerated.

Circles & Ciphers emphasizes the importance of building relationships in everything they do, including as they walk with young people navigating re-entry and community reintegration. 

For Brown, the connection with Circles & Ciphers is very personal. About five years ago her sister came out of incarceration and was lost and looking for community. She found Circles through a mutual friend and invited Brown to come along. “Circles was able to offer her real community. And I was also able to find my own healing, find my own voice,” recalls Brown.

I want those same things of healing and freedom and all these things that I felt through Circles to be given to other young people.

- AnnMarie Brown

Now Brown is working to make sure others can have that same experience. “I want those same things of healing and freedom and all these things that I felt through Circles to be given to other young people,” she said. “Because it’s such a rarity, especially for Black and Brown youth to be able to say, ‘Hey, I feel free. I feel like I’m safe.’”

Chicago Youth Mutual Aid

One of the ways Circles & Ciphers is doing that is by collaborating with other Chicago area organizations. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Circles & Ciphers joined four other local organizations to form Chicago Youth Mutual Aid (CYMA) with the goal of better organizing and mobilizing their outreach to youth.

COVID-19 testing, material aid, mental health support and other initiatives have emerged from the coalition’s combined efforts. At the height of the pandemic, CYMA launched a free online store to provide clothes, hygiene supplies, household items, cleaning supplies, baby items and other materials to meet their physical needs.

“Mutual aid doesn’t happen in isolation,” says Eemanna Rivers, mutual aid coordinator. “The whole of Circles’ intention is to walk with young people as they navigate, not just getting materials, but also navigating other institutions and other systems where they need to access what they need.” This may include finding access to housing and navigating public assistance systems.  

example of handwritten note to an incarcerated young adult at Cook County Jail in Ohio Community members use their creativity to write messages of encouragement to young adults incarcerated at Cook County Jail.Photo provided by Circles & Ciphers

The relational aspect of their work can be just as important as meeting physical needs, particularly for people who may be formerly incarcerated or experienced other trauma.

“We try to make it so they don’t feel isolated in getting what they need,” explains Rivers. “Oftentimes trying to navigate these different systems, different harms or traumatic things will come out for people. We find that we’re able to build close relationships with them and they’re able to find community in what we do.”

Youth Care Collective

Circles & Ciphers also provides direct aid to young people who are currently incarcerated in the Cook County Jail. While mutual aid has been a part of their work since their foundation 10 years ago, the Youth Care Collective (YCC) was formed in June of 2020.

The aid includes not only material support such as care packages and commissary funds for basic supplies, but also community support with letters, encouraging messages, educational materials and journal and song writing prompts.

Circles & Ciphers hosts neighborhood letter writing events where they invite community members to write uplifting messages of support to the youth. Recognizing the importance that music and art play in marginalized communities, they also offer the opportunity for participants to record their original songs and poems through their studio.

stack of letters addressed to Cook County jail A stack of letters from community members are headed to young adults incarcerated in the Cook County Jail.Photo provided by Circles & Ciphers

YCC began with one connection with one individual inside of the jail who had a relationship with Circles & Ciphers. That one person told 15 others about Circles & Ciphers. Once those 15 YCC care packages arrived, news soon spread throughout the jail. Now more than 130 young people have written letters to Circles & Ciphers asking to be involved in the program.

“It’s teaching young folx how to express, how to ask for help,” says Nikia Watkins, YCC coordinator. “It’s beautiful the way that we build relationships and the way that we are in community with folx.”

The program encourages young adults to use their own voices to center their stories. One of the prompts they supply in the care packages asks the youth, “What does freedom look like?”

“We’re asking them to reimagine, to redefine, what is freedom and what are the limitations in this cell that’s no bigger than a bathroom,” said Watkins. “What are ways that we continue to fight the current injustices but also have a platform for people to share and uplift themselves and their community?”

Reimagining the future

Youth get connected with Circles & Ciphers in a variety of ways, but in all cases it’s because they are seeking a sense of community.

We invite people into our space and help them have a new experience that shifts out of that culture of subjugating them and making them feel lesser then.

- Eemanna Rivers

“We invite people into our space and help them have a new experience that shifts out of that culture of subjugating them and making them feel lesser then,” said Rivers. “Radical imagination and how we imagine our world could be is a creative process. It’s the creative spaces and the relationship-based spaces that are going to get us closer to a world where people are not locked in cages. And a world where we can practice better communication and better community.”

Circles & Ciphers is very intentional that their organization is led and directed by young people. “Young people have the answers, because we are the ones being affected the most,” explains Brown. “It’s easier to connect with young people when you see someone that looks like you leading change and pushing for it. We are doing the work to inspire ourselves, inspire our generation.”

At the end of the day, Circles & Ciphers is all about walking alongside people who are sometimes pushed to the margins of our society.

“When we take away all these oppressive systems….what we have is people,” says Watkins. “We have connecting with people. Walking with people and talking to your neighbor. That’s what brings me the most joy is when people’s needs are met. When I see people living joyously, happily.”