The Belafonte name is synonymous with not only entertainment excellence, but social justice thanks to the family’s commitment to decades of equity work, led by its famed patriarch Harry. Now, thanks to his daughter Gina, their legacy of service is not only continuing on, but evolving with the tech-driven times we’re living in now.
Her foundation Sankofa.org, has developed a groundbreaking program that integrates new VR/AR technologies and the arts to improve the ability of returning citizens to develop the essential core skills necessary to return to the community successfully. According to them, it’s a scientifically validated art-based program that has been used to create breakthrough treatments for PTSD and is showing promise in the treatment of many other mental health conditions. She said the idea to implement the VR/AR element to their programming came from the arts, of all places.
“Years ago, I did a theatrical play with a spoken word artist by the name of Bryonn Bain and decided to do a virtual reality section of it so we could highlight the societal issues stemming from mass incarceration,” she shared. “It was so well received, we wanted to extend it to our foundation to help returning citizens reacclimate to society in an innovative, effective way.”
She went on to explain that Sankofa representatives go into the prison facilities for a week, Monday to Sunday and recreate real life experiences via VR technology to prepare them for reentry into society upon release. This, she says, is critical since they lose daily social touchpoints that the unincarcerated often take for granted.
“We play out real experiences via the VR/AR platform like going to the grocery store and using self-checkout, which is something the long-time incarcerated have not yet experienced,” she said. “I even had one man share that he just wanted to order a burger from a fast food restaurant but couldn’t because everything was automated.”
She says they also work with trained psychologists to help address and treat trauma triggers so the incarcerated individuals know how to cope outside.
“We talk about different trauma triggers the men and women may be anticipating upon their release coming back into the community,” she said. Then we immerse them into different virtual reality experiences that reflect those stresses, like conflict resolution in a crowded street or alone on the street and, we help bring them home. We are aiming to create a deeper, more extensive vocabulary of ways to heal these trauma triggers so it does not always result in bad behavior and subsequent recidivism.”
To move this program forward she recently announced HB95, a star-studded birthday concert for her father Harry Belafonte’s 95th birthday. All monies from ticket sales will be used towards the tech initiative.
The event will occur on March 1, 2022, at New York City’s The Town Hall Theater at 7:00 p.m. ET. It will feature musical performances, video tributes, and testimonials from civil rights and racial justice leaders, elected officials, musicians, actors, and more. Among the confirmed participants are Aloe Blacc, Alicia Keys, Spike Lee, John Legend, Laurence Fishburne, Doug E Fresh, Danny Glover, Bill T Jones, Amy Goodman, Lenny Kravitz, Michael Moore, Q-Tip, Tim Robbins, Rev. Al Sharpton, Bryan Stevenson, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Jesse Williams, and Alfred Woodward.
“I’m so excited and honored that everyone I asked to be a part of this has committed,” she shared. “It’s truly a testament to my father’s work and people’s desire to continue it on for generations.”