Telling our stories and writing new chapters

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As many of you know, the inspiration I bring to the expressive writing workshops I host in the "free world" stems from the volunteer facilitating I've been doing in a women's prison since 2010. It may sound ironic, but it was in prison that I found my passion and unlocked my full potential. And the journey continues to take turns that I could not have imagined even a few years ago.

On Oct. 13, 2015, I co-presented a 90-minute workshop at the 16th Biannual Adult and Juvenile Female Offenders (AJFO) Conference in Hartford, Conn., with a woman named Dara Musick. The theme for the conference was “Justice-involved Women and Girls: New Paths to Resiliency.” The conference drew more than 600 professionals from federal, state, and local correctional systems. Presenters and attendees included administrators, program directors, women with lived experience, advocates, researchers, program developers, and experts in re-entry, incarceration, juvenile justice, trauma, and gender studies.

Dara and I presented a workshop titled, “The Road to Recovery Using the 4 Cs,” in which we shared our respective experiences with Truth Be Told and the tools it promotes in its programs: Community building, Communication, Creativity and Caring for Self. Our workshop was unique in that we presented two perspectives on the prison program — that of a graduate (Dara) and that of a volunteer facilitator (me). 

So much transpired in the three days that we were at AJFO. My mind is still processing all the eye-opening statistics and research I learned and how I’ll incorporate that knowledge in my volunteer and professional roles as an expressive writing workshop facilitator. I want to capture some of what happened in writing for posterity, but also for the numerous individuals who made this journey possible for Dara and me.

To be sure, your financial support in covering Dara’s travel expenses made all the difference. However, what really stood out to me was your steadfast belief in us — that Dara and I had a place among all the high-level, degreed professionals at this conference, and that our stories mattered and needed to be heard.

From the depths of our hearts, thank you for that. Your belief carried Dara and me every step of the way. I asked Dara, who unfortunately came down with a cold upon returning from the conference, to write a little something for this blog that captures how she is feeling, now that this chapter is over. You can read what she had to say here and here.

When I think about our time in Connecticut, here are some moments that stand out in my mind…

Moment No. 1

It is 10 minutes before our presentation. Dara and I are trying to dump write to get centered and clear our minds, but it’s not really working. There’s too much foot traffic and distraction in the corridor outside our breakout room. My adrenaline has kicked in, and I’m not feeling connected to myself nor to the story I’m about to tell. I look at Dara. Her eyes keep trailing off the page and following the various people walking by. She has eked out only a few sentences in the past few minutes, and the thoughts I’ve dumped onto my journal page are devoid of any real emotion. I feel mechanical. Rushed.

We decide to find a better place to dump write. We go to our breakout room. Not a good idea. People are starting to arrive. Both of us are curious to see who has come to listen to our presentation. More distraction.
 
“I have an idea,” I tell Dara, shutting my journal. “Follow me.”

We leave the room. At the end of the corridor is the Healing Arts Space, a little oasis where conference attendees can indulge in a chair massage, yoga, meditation, mandala making, and other relaxing activities. We walk through the door and — as luck would have it — we’re the only ones in the room. Soothing music is playing. The lights are dim. Feeling like refugees who have blown in from a storm, Dara and I suddenly find ourselves surrounded by throw pillows, yoga mats, and utter calm.

“Let’s just take some deep breaths together,” I suggest.

We face each other and close our eyes. Between deep breaths, I say out loud what I want for us (and, frankly, what I need to hear to calm down). Our stories are enough. We will find the right words in the moment. The people who have come to listen will connect with what we have to say.

I open my eyes and suggest that Dara and I take a few moments to read over our notes in silence. We do so, but I find myself reading words without taking in their meaning. Scratch this. It’s time to pull out another trick.

“OK, let’s do a power pose.”

Dara and I strike our best Wonder Woman stances, hands on hips, feet hips-width apart, chin up, chest out. It feels downright silly, but so what. This is real science, people — at least that’s what that woman said in her TED Talk. We are raising our testosterone levels and lowering our cortisol levels by striking poses that display confidence and strength. Fake it until you become it, the researcher had said.

After a minute or so, I drop my arms to my sides. “We better get in there.”

Dara smiles and gives me the most reassuring hug.

“We’ve got this, Katie,” she tells me.

And I smile because I know she is right.

Moment No. 2

We are only minutes from beginning our presentation, and I see the new warden of the prison where I volunteer enter the room. He and a few others from the company that recently took over the Texas Department of Criminal Justice contract at the unit have come to Connecticut for professional development and to present on the company’s flagship unit in Florida, where education and rehabilitative programs are a priority. I’m simultaneously grateful and anxious to see that he has come to listen.

The warden walks up to the lectern where I’m standing. He wants to apologize in advance. He and the others from his team plan to make an early exit. There’s another workshop happening simultaneously that they want to attend. They are going to catch a little of both. He wishes me luck and takes a seat at the back of the room near the door. I feel a sinking disappointment, but it only lasts a few seconds. We have a presentation to do.

Moment No. 3

The hardest part is behind us. Dara has shared her incredible journey from childhood abuse, drug addiction and multiple incarcerations to sobriety, higher education and freedom — and how learning to own her life story and practicing the 4 Cs have played a hand in that transformation. I have explained all the intricacies of our prison program and the reasons behind the 4 Cs, as well as how volunteering for Truth Be Told has changed the course of my life.

To conclude our workshop, I ask for four volunteers from the audience. Three women immediately stand up and walk to the front of the room. No one else moves. I mention that we have prizes for our volunteers, and a fourth woman pops out of her chair. A ripple of laughter travels through the room.

“We’re going to do an exercise that is typical of what we do in the classroom,” I tell everyone. “It’s called, ‘I Could Tell You a Story…, But I Won’t.’”

I have Dara and the volunteers form a semicircle that faces the audience. I explain that this is an exercise that promotes community building and evokes creativity. It’s an invitation to begin sharing things about ourselves without having to go into the nitty-gritty details. All we have to do is fill in the missing part of this sentence: “I could tell you a story about …, but I won’t.”

“For this exercise, I invite each of you to think of a moment in your life that made your heart sing. What story could you tell about such a moment?”

I give them an example: “If I were participating, I might say: ‘I could tell you a story about a woman who sailed around the Kingdom of Tonga with seven friends, but I won’t.’”

After giving them a few seconds to think about it, we begin the exercise. One by one, the women in the semicircle share about moments in their lives that made their hearts sing. They could tell us stories about giving birth to twins, about falling in love again when they didn’t think it was possible, about graduating from college...

…but they don’t.

I ask them to do another round of sharing. This time, they are to add a movement or gesture that reflects the feeling they get inside as they think about these moments in their lives. Again, one by one, each woman offers her unique gesture as she completes the sentence, “I could tell you a story…, but I won’t.” For the third and fourth rounds, I invite the women, in complete silence, to do only their gestures. As each woman does her gesture, everyone in the semicircle is to do it with her.

The room gets completely quiet, and the audience becomes the witness as Dara and the volunteers move in synchronicity, mirroring each other’s movements. They make one round and then another, watching each other closely, moving thoughtfully, respecting each woman’s moment and movement. Together, as a creative community, they are engaging in a gesture dance that communicates a variety of life-affirming stories — without saying a word.

In the fourth round, one woman stops mid-gesture, smiles apologetically and shakes her head. The tears welling up in her eyes have caught her off guard. Dara breaks formation and stands beside her, puts an arm around the woman’s shoulders.

And just like that, we are transported to the prison classroom, building trust among strangers and learning how to be vulnerable and share parts of our stories that really matter to us.

When the exercise is over, Dara and the volunteers hug and high five each other. I look at the people sitting in their chairs — our witnesses — and delight in their soft expressions. The energy in the room has shifted. There is a connection running through all of us. I realize how grounded I feel in my body. It’s the same vitality that pulses through me when I’m in the prison, inviting the women I meet to take off their weighty armor and learn to trust themselves and each other again, to start entertaining the idea that it is never, ever too late to begin anew.

Moment No. 3

The workshop is over, and Dara is surrounded by people who want to speak with her and ask her more questions. I’m divvying out prizes to our volunteers — Truth Be Told mementos — when one of the warden’s team members approaches me.

“I left for a bit, but I’m glad I came back,” she admits. “That was a really good presentation.”

“Oh, thank you!” I say.

She leans in and lowers her voice, like a person about to share a secret: “You do realize the warden never left?”

“No, I didn’t realize that.”

She looks over my shoulder and smiles. I turn around to see the warden crossing the room, his eyes on me.

“Y’all are doing great work,” he says, a smile breaking across his face. For a second, it looks like he is going to say something else, but, instead, he pats me on the shoulder and gives it a squeeze. It's then that I notice his eyes are watery, but he doesn't look away. I feel seen. I feel heard.

“Thank you, Warden,” I tell him. “I’m glad you were here.”

Moment No. 4

Dara and I are two of approximately 60-70 people crammed into a breakout room for a workshop called: “Orange is the New Black, Battered and Blue: Transcending the Impact of Sexual Abuse for Women in the Criminal Justice System,” facilitated by Germayne Boswell Tizzano, Ph.D., founder of View from a Treehouse. I’m there because so many of the women I meet in prison are survivors of childhood physical and sexual abuse. These are the stories that come out when we do the hard work of piecing together the past to better understand the present. How did I end up here?

I want to know what that abuse does to their bodies and their minds. I want to better understand the behavior I see in the classroom and where that behavior is coming from. I want more insight on what little things I can do when I’m with the women to plant seeds for healing.

In this session, I learn that 95 percent of women in prison have a history of childhood physical and/or sexual abuse. I’ll repeat that: 95 percent. The workshop facilitator actually maps out a “Pathway from Childhood Abuse to Incarceration.”

Childhood abuse > runaway > homelessness > substance abuse, addiction, sex work > becomes involved in the criminal justice system for drug-related crimes, sex work, crimes against their abusers > incarceration.

I look at Dara, who is sitting next to me. Her reading glasses reflect the glare of the flowchart on the big screen. This is her life — at least 37 years of it — reduced to an infographic.

I lean toward her and whisper in her ear: “Are you doing OK? I mean, is this stuff hard to hear?”

“I’m OK,” she whispers back. Her tone is sincere, so I turn my attention back to the screen.

After a moment, she pats my knee and offers me a smile. “But thank you for asking.” 

Moment No. 5

I see Dara in the hallway. She is talking to two women. One of them is saying: “How can we get you to D.C.?”

I learn that this woman is LaShonia Etheridge-Bey, a formerly incarcerated woman who founded The W.I.R.E (Women Involved in Re-entry Efforts). She works for the mayor of D.C. in the Office of Returning Citizens Affairs and frequently shares her life story as a public speaker. She also was one of the four brave volunteers who participated in our “I Could Tell You A Story…” exercise.

She and Dara exchange email addresses. There is talk of staying connected, of further conversation. They are making plans.

These women aren’t just owning their stories. They are writing new chapters.

Moment No. 6

Another breakout session has ended, and the two women sitting in front of me turn around.

“We loved your presentation yesterday,” one of them says.

“It was the best one we’ve attended so far,” the other chimes in.

Their comments surprise me. I readily admit that Dara and I were nervous about coming here to present. My curiosity gets the best of me. “If you’ll indulge me, may I ask why our presentation stood out to you?”

The first woman answers without hesitation: “It was so raw. You weren’t just talking at us about some program and how it works. You both shared what the program means to you personally and how it has impacted your lives.”

“For me, it was really valuable to hear Dara’s perspective — to hear what wasn’t helping her all those years and, even better, what finally did work for her,” the other woman says. “I’m going to be thinking about her story for a long time.”

“Me too. I feel like a lot of the women we work with probably have similar stories,” the first woman adds. 

“What do you all do for a living?” I ask.

“We’re parole officers,” one of them replies, “in Baltimore, Maryland.”

I feel a rush of satisfaction wash over me. It’s exactly as Dara and I had hoped. Our voices, our stories, do matter.

A fun update: Dara and I are presenting at the 3rd Annual Vision Summit: Looking Toward the Future of Re-entry, slated Nov. 5 in Austin and hosted by the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. The summit, which attracts a national audience, is considered the premier event on issues of re-entry and reducing recidivism. Its mission is to “awaken and ignite communities to attain a unified vision and thriving re-entry process that enables the incarcerated to amend their place in the world by showcasing effective programs, listening to each other, and networking to make future possibilities a reality today.”