A few years ago, actor Jay Ellis visited a writing class that his producing partner, Aaron Bergman, taught at Central Juvenile Hall and was motivated to get involved himself. Ellis went on to teach with InsideOUT Writers, an L.A.-based non-profit that provides creative writing classes for current and formerly incarcerated youth. “I have always been moved by so many of these writers, both on the ins and the outs,” Ellis says on a recent Zoom call. So, he and Bergman considered how they could help introduce these writers to a wider audience.
The result is Written Off, a podcast series from Lemonada set to premiere on July 14, where each episode centers around the work of writers from the InsideOUT program read by celebrities like Randall Park, John Legend, and Issa Rae. The readings are followed by interviews with the authors led by host Walter Thompson-Hernández.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs, co-founder of Lemonada, remembers receiving the pitch last year from Bergman and Ellis, who previously hosted the podcast The Untold Story: Policing. At that point, the podcast company had a 2021 calendar that was filled to capacity. Still, she says, they needed to make room for Written Off. “It’s so in line with Lemonada,” she says of the podcast. “It felt so aligned with our mission, which is solutions. Let’s talk about things for which there are massive systemic issues, but let’s talk about them in a way where it feels like we’re moving towards progress in some way.”
Together, they brought the series to fruition in about six months. There were challenges along the way. “Some of our folks were locked up, so we did have to do some collect calls. Calls dropped a few times,” says Ellis. “Some of our writers don’t have reliable internet or don’t have cell phones. Tracking folks down was tough at times. We dropped a lot of calls with folks. Had to pick it up and start all over.”
A key component to the podcast are the interviews conducted by Thompson-Hernández, author of The Compton Cowboys. On a Zoom call from Brazil, where he’s been working on a film, Thompson-Hernández explains what drew him to the project. “I was someone who was arrested several times growing up. I was a high school dropout for a bit. I went to about five or six different high schools,” he says. “I was one of these young people at one point.”
His interviews are both thought-provoking and emotionally revealing. “I think I was taken back to a moment in my life where each one of these folks that I interviewed with reminded me of someone that I knew deeply, in a very intimate way growing up,” he says.
“I was one of these young people at one point.” —Walter Thompson-Hernández
“In the world that I’m in now, in a lot of the spaces that I’m in, I’m often removed from what I was as a young teenager,” Thompson-Hernández adds. “Being around all the writers at InsideOUT and all the people that we interviewed, I was struck by how incredibly beautiful they were and how inspiring their stories were and how, oftentimes, society wants to write us off and these people have found ways to resist and persist in spite of tough obstacles.”
Augmenting the podcast is visual art from Brooklyn-based artist Russell Craig, who is well-known for Self Portrait, which he made with pastels on his own prison documents. His art for Written Off was inspired in part by a participant in Young New Yorkers, a group that works with teen and young adult defendants in New York. “Something like this provides a look inside other people’s lives, other people’s struggles,” he says of Written Off.
As Ellis points out, the writers are paid for their contributions to the podcast and do retain the rights to their work. Should Hollywood show an interest in any of the stories, Ellis says that they’ll help interested writers find legal representation.
Ultimately, though, Ellis hopes that the podcast moves listeners. “I hope folks are inspired. I hope folks want to hear more from these writers,” he says. “I hope it changes the narrative about how we think about our incarceration system and how we can be of better service to folks who are locked up. I think we can do a better job.”
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