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Food Trucks Give a New Future to the Formerly Incarcerated

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A high school English teacher quit her job to run a food truck. But this isn’t an ordinary one, reports Upworthy.

What if we could help people who have been released from prison actually stay out of prison?

Jordyn Lexton, founder of a nonprofit called DriveChange, used to teach high school English to incarcerated 16-, 17-, and 18-year-olds — all of whom were convicted as adults — at Rikers Island in New York. When she saw how bleak the future looked for them once they were released from prison, she decided to do something about it.

She left teaching behind and started the nonprofit. What makes the organization special is that it hires formerly incarcerated youth to operate the trucks, giving them an opportunity to earn money and gain job skills. Both of these things help keep people who have been incarcerated from returning to prison.

The Snowday food truck, Drive Change’s first, makes $15,000 a month.

The profits are put right back into Drive Change, which hopes to expand its operations to help more people. Drive Change’s eight employees, all of whom start at $11 an hour, operate the truck, selling food inspired by maple syrup. (Yum!)

Awesome, right?! This is a case of someone seeing a problem, coming up with a solution, and taking action.

“Our plan is hopefully to make this a national model … because unfortunately, there is not a shortage of formerly incarcerated youth across the country.”
— Drive Change head chef Roy Waterman

Read the entire Upworthy story here, or watch the video below to see how Drive Change is making a difference.

My Day in Prison

Note from Carol Waid, co-founder:

Jenny attended the April 17 graduation at the GEO Lockhart facility. She was one of 20 respectful witnesses to hold the space for the 24 women that graduated from the eight-week Talk to Me classes. All 24 went on a journey of discovery looking at what led them to be incarcerated. This focus isn’t honed in on just their crimes, it’s looking at their individual lives to discover what events and experiences happened to them and what choices they made that led them to be incarcerated. This work is intense, courageous, vulnerable, brave, and so often freeing. To be a respectful witness holding the space with kindness, gentleness, and respect is a landmark in time for these women and most often for those that are willing to come in and share the gift of their time on this huge celebratory day. Read more about Jenny’s experience.
We have three more graduations on May 6, June 4, and June 5, but all of these are full and have waiting lists.  We hope you will want to join us for our fall graduations. Watch this blog for announcements.
From all of us at Truth Be Told, we thank you for helping to make a difference.

My Day in Prison

by Jenny Robertson

“Have you ever been to prison before?”

Tall, quiet but confident, Lisa asked me this as we sat talking before her graduation ceremony started. Dressed in navy blue prison scrubs, she smoothed the notebook in her lap and chuckled when I confirmed this was my first time in a prison.

“Everyone stared at you as you walked in, right? It’s so bad — we all stare, but we can’t help it. Everyone wants to know who you are and why you’re here.”

On a stormy Friday about an hour outside Austin, Texas, I and a group of 20 other volunteers spent an afternoon in the GEO Lockhart Unit with Lisa and roughly two dozen female inmates: listening to their stories, sharing our responses, even dancing with them. (Well, okay, others danced. I stood frozen awkwardly in place, because it turns out public dancing is just as uncomfortable for me inside a prison as it is in any other venue).

The day was organized by Truth Be Told, an Austin nonprofit that provides tools of community building, communication skills, creativity, and self-care for incarcerated — and formerly incarcerated — women. The idea is that, through writing, public speaking, and movement, these women can begin the healing process by confronting what has led them to prison. They explore the dark places — who has hurt them, whom they have hurt — in an honest, judgment-free zone.

women writing with katie and carol

They were graduating after eight weeks of class, and we served as an audience of respectful listeners. The stories they shared weren’t necessarily surprising, but were nonetheless horrifying and sad — stories of sexual abuse, drug use, of continuing the cycle and inflicting trauma upon their own children. One woman robbed several pharmacies in hopes of being arrested and finding a safe place in jail. Another spoke of her father plying her with alcohol to the point of blacking out the night of her high school graduation; as she crossed to the dais to pick up her Truth Be Told certificate amid standing applause, it occurred to me how different and positive this graduation must feel to her.

Despite the dark subject matter, a palpable sense of joy permeated the room. Here we were, a group of participants and volunteers, illustrating the gift of thoughtful, open listening. I forget sometimes how powerful that gift can be in a world of texts and tweets.

I was able to attend the ceremony thanks to a new AT&T initiative providing paid time off for the volunteer project of my choice. In my daily job, I talk so much about communications — machine-to-machine technology, petabytes of data over our network, call quality, and download speeds. It’s easy to lose sight that at the center of all this activity, our business is still inherently about people making connections.

Laughing with Lisa about how, indeed, everyone stared as I walked the gray line painted through the prison halls, I made a connection I would never have imagined a few days earlier. It was short, but it mattered, and I’ll carry it with me.

Truth Be Told Spring Semester Graduations

Please join us as a respectful witness to a prison graduation. At the end of the fall and spring semesters we take about 20 guests into the prisons to serve as an audience of respectful listeners. It is so meaningful to the women who are graduating that a group from the “free world” spends the time to hear their stories and appreciate their performances. It is a powerful experience that gives attendees a glimpse of our behind bars programs and the lives of incarcerated women.

We need more attendees for both of our June graduations. Please respond by May 1, 2015 to Carol Waid at office@truth-be-told.org or 512-292-6200.

  • June 4: Graduation at the Lane Murray Facility in Gatesville. We leave Austin in a carpool caravan at 2 p.m. and arrive home at about 10:30 p.m. Please forward this to anyone you know in the Temple, Killeen, Waco, Gatesville area to help us grow our volunteer base there.
  • June 5: Discovery Graduation at Lockhart. We meet in Lockhart at noon for a barbecue lunch and are back in Austin around 5:30.

Feel free to forward this to anyone you know who might be interested in learning more about our programs.

The Participants’ Feedback

305890_10150343354189679_367013015_nKatie Ford has been facilitating the Talk to Me Circle class for the last five years. Towards the end of the eight-week class, she asked, “As a volunteer who comes to the prison for two hours once a week, I know my view of prison life is limited. I’ve always wondered what it feels like to enter and leave our classroom. How ‘big’ is the transition? How does it feel to do what we do in here (expressing our emotions and sometimes they are very strong emotions) and then to go back?”

The women responded with the following:

  • I feel free in here.
  • I never want to leave this class. I hate when it ends.
  • I look forward to this class because I can think in here. Out there it’s always so noisy you can’t even hear yourself think.
  • I am able to cry in here.
  • It’s exhausting. My friends tell me I look tired and I tell them it’s because I just came from this class.
  • I can breathe in here.
  • This class is a highlight of my day. It’s like when I get mail.
  • I have a private face and a public face. They’re not dramatically different, but they are not the same. I wear my public face out there. I can wear my private face in here.

Often the women tell us that our programs are different from other programs. One women expressed:

“Y’all let us heal ourselves instead of telling us we need to heal.” Then another said: “Yeah, we don’t like it when people come in here and start telling us what they think we need.”

Special Graduation for Nathalie

IMG_0292On April 17, Nathalie Sorrell joined a group attending the Talk To Me graduation at Lockhart and came full circle from fifteen years ago. In February 2000, Nathalie stepped into the Lockhart facility to begin a program called Telling Your Story. She advertised this program on a handmade poster that offered to guide the women through a process to share their story with juveniles in an effort to prevent the juveniles from following in their footsteps.

This program was effective and the probation officers reported that the youth spoke about the impact on their way back to their facility. However, the program was cut within a year, because of changes in the TDCJ system. But the Warden supported the program and asked that we find another audience to support the women and their stories.

The participants of the new class named the program “Talk to Me.” We now have Talk to Me Speaking, Talk to Me Circle and Talk to Me Movement – offering three modalities of the curriculum. Each semester brings a different group of faces, but the same longings…women wanting to be seen, to be heard, and to be loved. We witness courage and bravery as each participant shares the vulnerable story of her journey that led her to incarceration.

On April 17, Nathalie came full circle as a respectful witness. She shared that she had no idea that her first tentative steps would lead to fifteen years of programs that are now offered in five facilities. One woman’s journey has sparked a transformation in many facilitators and participants. We are grateful when the women in our programs share why the programs are important to them and that this work continues to make a difference.

Reading and Writing as a Ticket Out of Solitary Confinement — and Prison

This week, Huffington Post published an essay by a young man who left prison at 27 after being incarcerated for 10 years. The story is part of their What’s Working series that came out of the Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform. Phil Mosby credits a book club and writing workshop with changing his perspective and introducing him creative self-expression.

In our weekly sessions, I felt comfortable enough to take off the hard mask I wore and show my true feelings. Our small group became a brotherhood as we left the street beefs behind to discuss books. The authors were people that looked and acted like us. I will never forget the first book that really hit me, “Makes Me Wanna Holler,” by Nathan McCall. He was a young guy who was incarcerated and became a journalist at the Washington Post. I thought, “If he can do it, then maybe I can.”

His story of a small nonprofit program that set him on the first steps of a winding path to change sounds so much like the graduates of our Truth Be Told classes. Read Mosby’s inspiring story: Reading and Writing as Ticket Out of Solitary Confinement — and Prison

Writing Your Way to Happiness

A New York Times article, Writing Your Way to Happiness, collects recent research on the powerful effects of writing personal stories and journaling. Truth Be Told programs have always incorporated these tools, so we love seeing the scientific validation. Talk To Me, our basic eight-week prison program, leads the women through a process of understanding, owning and sharing their stories.

Photo credit: Chris Gash

The article quotes Dr. James Pennebaker, a University of Texas psychology professor who has led much of the work on expressive writing, “The idea here is getting people to come to terms with who they are, where they want to go. I think of expressive writing as a life course correction.”

The article continues…

The scientific research on the benefits of so-called expressive writing is surprisingly vast. Studies have shown that writing about oneself and personal experiences can improve mood disorders, help reduce symptoms among cancer patients, improve a person’s health after a heart attack, reduce doctor visits and even boost memory.

Now researchers are studying whether the power of writing — and then rewriting — your personal story can lead to behavioral changes and improve happiness.

The concept is based on the idea that we all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes our inner voice doesn’t get it completely right. Some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health.

Why Your Worst Deeds Don’t Define You

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In 1991, Shaka Senghor shot and killed a man. In this 12 minute TED Talk he says he was “a drug dealer with a quick temper and a semi-automatic pistol.” Jailed for second degree murder, that could very well have been the end of the story. But it wasn’t. Instead, it was the beginning of a years-long journey to redemption, one with humbling and sobering lessons.

He describes the four things that aided his personal transformation: mentors, literature, family and writing. This journey led him to understand the three things he needed to do, the things he now shares with other former offenders: acknowledging the hurt he had caused and that which he suffered, apologizing to the people he harmed with no expectation of acceptance, and atoning through service work. The beauty of this brief talk is surely an act of atonement.

Watch the full TED Talk video here

The Invisible Population and Their Children

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Women prisoners are called the “invisible population” because they aren’t what comes to mind when most people think of prison. But they aren’t invisible to their families. The Sentencing Project reports that 64% of women under correctional supervision are the mothers of minor children. About 12,000 women are in Texas state prisons and jails. This doesn’t count the Texas women who are in county jails and federal prisons. The trend is disturbing; the female prison population is growing at twice the rate of the male population. We are grateful for other sources that bring attention to the stories Truth Be Told hears in every class.

In A Nation of Women Behind Bars, ABC News Anchor Diane Sawyer takes you on a journey into the world of women living in America’s prison system today. She visits four maximum security prisons, including an interview with the two youngest women on death row. She reports, “The U.S. is incarcerating more people than any other country in the world, people serving long sentences. And women are coming into prison at a faster rate than men.”

photo credit: Thomas Hawk

In Sesame Street’s Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration, Alex talks with Abby Cadabby, Rosita, and Sofia about his dad’s incarceration, real families with young children share their own experiences with parental incarceration, and an animation shows a family’s trip to visit a parent in prison.

Margaret Mead so wisely stated,  “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  Thank YOU all for being in our community, helping to change the world.

 

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