Being There: How Mass Incarceration Imprisons Communities by Renata Toney

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Bruce Jackson’s images of prison culture moved and haunted me. As an African American woman who grew up in the mid-1960s, touring the exhibition I thought of the many faces over the course of my life that have passed behind bars and started probing the latest statistics. I assumed the numbers were high but what I discovered was alarming, I fell silent. Among all African American men born since the mid-1960s, more than 20 percent will go to prison, nearly twice the number that will graduate college. One-third of African American male high-school dropouts under age 40 are currently behind bars.

I shared these numbers with my friend and colleague Tamara McMillan who grew up in my community. Tamara highlighted the loved ones and families left behind by incarceration and fully agreed this topic warranted a public discussion. She conducted some research and we found ourselves exchanging daily emails on national articles, books and videos we uncovered on the subject. Together, we would strategize and put our personal and professional resources to work to co-present a discussion on how mass incarceration imprisons communities--a tough topic.

On Thursday, May 16 judges, human service providers, professors, attorneys, activists, parents, students and teens packed the Burchfield Penney reception area. People kept coming and coming to listen to four dynamic panelists share their personal stories on custody and community. (l to r) Umar Adeyola (H.E.A.R.T.), Dr. Ron Stewart (SUNY Buffalo State), Alonso Carter (entrepreneur) and Karima Amin (Prisoners Are People Too) talked about mass incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels. Buffalo News columnist Rod Watson served as an outstanding moderator.

Our hope is that our efforts helped to build awareness and understanding of a largely ignored issue. Our prayer is that we don’t lose yet another generation of young black men.


Renata Toney is a community engagement/public relations strategist at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. She has more than 25 years of progressive experience managing marketing and public relations campaigns, national and local media relations, and coordinating large-scale events.

Renata has managed major consumer and business-to-business accounts at major local advertising agencies designing and implementing strategic solutions for a wide variety of national clients.

A graduate of City Honors School and the SUNY Buffalo State, Renata holds a bachelor’s degree in public communication. Her foray into the public relations practice began as an intern at Bristol-Myers Squibb where she ascended the corporate ladder to publications editor.

She has worked for high profile not-for-profits in Western New York joining the Buffalo Museum of Science as public information officer advancing through the ranks to director of marketing. Renata also served as marketing and public affairs coordinator at AIDS Community Services of WNY during the height of the epidemic in the early 90s.

In her spare time, she donates her skills to a series of community projects. Renata is also the owner of On Message Communication, a results-oriented marketing communications consultancy.