Nonprofit The If Project asks women who are incarcerated, “If there was something somebody could have said or done to change the path that led you here, what would it be?” A documentary about the program will screen in Seattle March 25.
Kim Bogucki used to glance into the rearview mirror of her Seattle Police patrol car and ask a question of her captive passengers: “How did you get here?”
The answers were sometimes angry, sometimes mumbled. Some people spoke of heroin like they would a lover. Some people knew exactly what they should or shouldn’t have done. Sometimes there was just silence.
But Bogucki kept asking and, years later, while working with a group of women at the Washington Corrections Center for Women, she presented them with pen and paper and a version of that question she used to toss into the back of her patrol car: “If there was something somebody could have said or done to change the path that led you here, what would it be?”
The question — and the answers that flowed from it — are the genesis of The If Project, which Bogucki founded 10 years ago. Co-founder and director Kathlyn Horan has created a documentary about the programand the women who have participated, and changed. The film will be screened at 1 p.m. Sunday, March 25, at the SIFF Cinema Egyptian. A Q&A with Bogucki will follow.
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“I remember walking into that prison with no badge and no gun and feeling very vulnerable,” Bogucki said, “like someone was going to shank me because that was what the media portrayed.”
Instead, she said, “I had my entire world rocked.”
The process of answering the “If …” question was the first time some of the inmates considered what they need to do to move forward in their lives, she said.
“The questions we plant in these women are, ‘If I want to get there, what do I need to bring into my life?’ ” Bogucki said. “What behavior do I have to change?”
In the documentary, If Project specialist Amber Flame asks inmates to “identify the moment when the little you got broken,” or to write a letter of forgiveness to themselves.
It often reveals trauma that was never dealt with. Or they are stuck in poverty, mental illness, chemical dependency and unhealthy relationships.
Bogucki got a lot of help from an inmate named Renata Abramson, who has since been released and returns to the prison to help with The If Project. Early on, when Bogucki was struggling to get inmates to participate, Abramson talked it up and later presented Bogucki 240 responses.
From there, The If Project provides a re-entry and mentoring program for incarcerated women, and workshops and training for incarcerated men and women.
Despite its successes, The If Project has hard work ahead: Women are the fastest-growing segment of the incarcerated population, increasing at nearly double the rate of men since 1985. And 70 percent of women in prison are mothers.
“Some people get judged on the one thing they did for the rest of their lives,” she said, then quoted one of the inmates she has worked with: “I wish someone had told me that 10 seconds would cost me 10 years.”
Bogucki, 52, grew up in West Seattle and later Bellevue, where her church group did outreach work with homeless youth.
“I remember leaving and thinking, ‘What am I going to do to make this better?’ ”
Later, when she was studying sociology and criminal justice at Seattle University, a Seattle Police lieutenant visited Bogucki’s class to talk about police work, which piqued her interest. Around that same time, she visited the Washington Corrections Center for Women — better known as just “Purdy” — for a research paper.
“People are not what I thought they would be,” she said of the experience. “It felt like a college campus until I saw the razor wire.”
Later, Bogucki was asked to work with a group of girls whose mothers were incarcerated. She was interested, but wanted to meet the mothers first, and ask permission — and a version of her question.
The If Project was initially supported by the Seattle Police Foundation, but outgrew it and in May 2017 became its own non-profit. It has been nurtured primarily by Bogucki, who now works full-time in community outreach for the Seattle Police Department. The If Project has been replicated in Arizona, Alabama and Virginia.
“We feel honored and grateful that we get to amplify some of the stories that have been told,” Bogucki said, “and reframe the way we look at people who have been locked up.
“I’m not saying, ‘Let everyone out of prison,’ and I don’t want to take away from a victim’s experience,” she said. “But hopefully, we are preventing future victims.”