Dr. Rev. Michelle Simmons of Why Not Prosper seeks submissions for the blossoming Formerly Incarcerated Renaissance Museum, which will challenge stereotypes of individuals with firsthand criminal justice system experience by showcasing creativity and resilience.

Why Not Prosper’s Housing & Resource Center on Chew Avenue. (GIH | Rasheed Ajamu)

Dr. Rev. Michelle Simmons, the founder of Why Not Prosper and a formerly incarcerated woman, has recently launched the organization’s newest campaign. It seeks items from formerly incarcerated individuals to be put on display in the Formerly Incarcerated Renaissance Museum (FIRM), an initiative that aims to redefine narratives and empower those who have experienced the criminal justice system firsthand.

Why Not Prosper (WNP) is an organization that aims to empower women in distress by providing them with  “A Hand Up, Not a Hand-Out.” It offers a range of programs and services that support women in their transition from prison to the community. These programs include pre-release mentoring for incarcerated women, residential services at Why Not Prosper House, and community services at its resource center.

In alignment with WNP’s mission, the museum aims to showcase formerly incarcerated individuals’ creativity, resilience, and positive contributions, in contrast to the more common negative stereotypes. Dr. Simmons expressed the need for change as someone who has experienced incarceration. She says, “I feel like it’s significant because we got such bad narrative, and we never lift up the work… having it all in one space and just having somebody experience us in a new way is what’s up.”  

Dr. Simmons shares some things the budding museum seeks: “If you wrote a book or got a trophy or a button, and you want it in the library, we got an open call.” However, submissions aren’t limited to these things; folks can also submit writings and artwork.

Simmons shares the museum’s origins: “I wanted to do something for 2026, leaving the legacy. We’re getting ready to celebrate 250 years [of American Independence]. I wanted to do a big part that memorialized us.”

This project is a semifinalist for a grant from the Philadelphia Funder Collaborative for the Semiquincentennial, which seeks to support Philadelphia-area programs celebrating the 250th anniversary of the founding of the United States. Chosen nonprofits will receive financial support to plan and host programs related to the 2026 commemorations, and Simmons hopes to be one of them. 

The project has also applied for an America250PA grant, which funds projects that improve the community and engage volunteers. Simmons says even if she receives neither grant, “[they’re] going to use what [they] got and let the Lord do the rest.”

She shares that while this project initially started as a collaborative “between [her] and the Lord,” she’s relying on community partners and connections to help realize this new space. One partner is Eastern State Penitentiary, which has exhibits around incarceration. She also shares that a sculptor will volunteer to create a statue modeled after their “Hand Up” mantra, which will sit outside the property. Simmons says whether the task is big or small, it’s “all volunteering and donating,” and she appreciates it.

Submissions for the museum are being accepted through June 15, 2024. Folks interested in giving items should fill out this form and mail items to 1026 Cherry Street, Norristown, PA 191401. Folks can also make monetary donations by visiting their website. For any questions, contact Simmons directly at whynotprosper@aol.com or (610) 716-1113.

FIRM will be housed at the organization’s headquarters at 717 East Chelten Avenue, which is currently being renovated to make space for the museum. The organization will turn 23 in August, and Simmons hopes to have the museum completed by then and celebrate with a ribbon-cutting.

Simmons ends by encouraging anticipation: “I’m formerly incarcerated, and I’ve been working 23 years on the ground. We’re some awesome people, and we have some creativity, and I don’t want to die without showcasing it. Stay tuned. Because [people are] going to experience something amazing when they walk through this place.”