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by Peggy Lamb, Exploring Creativity Coordinator for Truth Be Told
Rca, Krystal, Brandi, Kathy, Linda, and Nancy: six women in the white garb of inmates and I sit in a circle in the spacious chapel at the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville, TX. They are in the Female Sex Offender Treatment Program. We are here to do a deep dive into creativity – to collaboratively create Journey to Self, a dance/theater piece they will perform in Truth Be Told’s Miracles in Human Form show for their fellow inmates.
I look at their nervous and expectant faces. These six women have been chosen to participate in this project by their therapists because they have demonstrated a commitment to their recovery.
I reassure them that my intention is to create a divinely inspired, perfectly-imperfect piece. I see their breathing deepen and faces relax a bit but still they are nervous and insecure. They are not professional dancers and have never performed. Who wouldn’t be nervous?
It’s time to move, to quiet the monkey-mind, and to feel our feet! We start with saying our name and doing a movement, then Whoosh-Bang-Pow (a movement game that gets even the most uptight person laughing.) After Whoosh-Bang-Pow I lead them in Flocking, an exercise that culminates in the group walking together at the same tempo (which is harder than it sounds.). We’ll use this in the final section of our performance when the women-in-white form a procession and walk slowly downstage to Alison Krause’s Down to the River to Pray.
We gather again in a circle — now we are a much more relaxed and embodied group of women. We read a couple of poems I’ve selected: Wild Geese by Mary Oliver (tell me about despair, yours and I will tell you mine), The Healing Time by Pesha Gertler (the old wounds, the old misdirections, and I lift them one by one close to my heart and I say holy holy), and that powerful quote by Maya Angelou, “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.”
I ask the group if they are familiar with Maya Angelou. Most of them are through her Phenomenal Woman poem. Brandi, a white thirty-something mother of six says, “I named my daughter after her.”
Through writing prompts such as “Write a ten-word memoir,” we create the written material that serves as a springboard for dance material. I ask the women to create three movements that symbolize the parts of their lives they chose to write about. This is the hardest part for most of them. They want to do pantomime. Eventually their robotic, pantomimic movements slowly become imbued with the core of their being, as much as these deeply scarred and wounded women can deliver at this time.
I call this section of the piece “I could tell you a story” and it is the heart of Journey to Self. The body, in its cellular wisdom, can express that which we do not have words for.
One woman’s movement is simply opening her mouth and arms wide. She has been in prison for over 20 years for molesting her children. Another woman’s movement is simple side-to-side sways — a beautiful movement. For her it meant how she was influenced by other people and did not have her own sense of self.
The warden has allowed us two three-hour slots of rehearsal time — a miracle in the world of TDCJ. By the end of our second rehearsal, these women and I have created a beautiful heart-felt dance. I am stunned and awed by their courage, their willingness to step outside their comfort zones, their vulnerability and discipline.
As one woman said during our debrief, “In the free world I dressed in wigs, make-up, heels and sexy clothes. I didn’t know how to be just me. In this piece I was more naked and vulnerable than I’ve ever been. And yet, I feel more peaceful than I’ve ever felt.”
As for me, this deep dive into the holy water of dancing with incarcerated women leaves my body heart and spirit vibrating with gratitude. I shake my head in wonder and awe at how I stumbled into this divinely choreographed and divinely designed volunteer work.
by Lindsey Lane
In January 2016, I travelled to the Gatesville Prison with Carol Waid to be a facilitator in training for Truth Be Told’s Talk To Me Writing Class. I was familiar with the prison system as I had gone behind the fence as a journalist and novelist, but this time, with TBT, I would be in service to the women of the Lane Murray Unit by helping them tell their stories. (In the classroom next to ours, Christina Wisdom and Julie Wylie were facilitating the Talk To Me Speaking class.)
Because I was completely new to TBT, Carol asked me to experience the class as a newcomer, like the women did: Doing the homework, telling my story, sharing my life. At first, I felt like I didn’t belong. I’m outside the fence. I have freedom. But I am also a woman an a mother and, just as I was hungry to hear their stories, they were eager for mine. We wanted to connect. We wanted to understand one another. We wanted to share. We wanted to heal through telling the truth about our lives, however different they are.
One of the most beautiful parts of the Talk To Me Writing and Speaking classes comes near the end of the eight weeks. Our homework is to write one or two sentences about each member of our class and how we see them. It is an opportunity to reflect on how each person has revealed their hearts over the last eight weeks.
This is what I said about one class member named LaVerne:
I can imagine coming to Miss LaVerne’s home (that’s what I would call her: Miss LaVerne) and drinking slightly sweet tea with a hint of lavender, I think. I try to get her to tell me what the secret ingredient is but Miss LaVerne only smiles. We talk about the weather and other sweet things, “The Blessings,” she calls them. Miss LaVerne knows there is plenty of meanness in the world but she likes to talk about “the blessings that bind us.”
After the Speaking and Writing classes were complete, we joined the two communities together. In the first eight weeks we were looking into our pasts and focusing on how we got to our levels of incarceration. The next six weeks is called Discovery – discovering the women we want to become. Near the end of Discovery we began planning our graduation. Each of us would share something we created as a result of being in the classes. LaVerne was stumped about what to contribute. Someone in the class suggested she write a poem. LaVerne said, “Can it be about lavender? I like what you said about lavender.”
Here is what she wrote and shared with us at graduation on May 26, 2016.
by LaVerne F.
True happiness only comes from fearing God and keeping His commandments. Our happiness depends upon the habit of mind that we cultivate. I say let’s practice happy thinking. Every Day. Again I say let’s practice happy thinking every day. Let’s cultivate the merry heart. Let’s develop the happiness habit, and I believe life will become a continual feast for us. Lavender, to most people, is a color. To me, Lavender is beautiful and fragrant, and it is widely known as an essential oil that brings about calming and restful energy as well as evoking a feeling of happiness…Lavender, again I say Lavender.
As a result of experiencing this work, I signed up to return to the Lane Murray Unit with Carol Waid to co-facilitate Living Deeper and Freer, which is a continuation of TTM Writing and Speaking classes. Twelve women from the original twenty-eight (some were released, some were transferred to other prisons, and others went to the faith-based dorm) continued on with us. We are a tightly woven community committed to exploring how to live deeper and freer on both sides of the fence.
There is so much beauty behind the fence. Truth Be Told allows the women to become more than the crime that put them there.
And the next time you smell Lavender, think of LaVerne and cultivate the happiness habit.
Please join us Thursday, October 27th, as we Celebrate and Witness stories of women who, through vulnerability and self-awareness, have transformed their lives.
The evening will be emceed by Shayla Rivera, and Austin’s own Sara Hickman will give a special performance as we honor Nathalie Sorrell, Co-Founder of TBT, and the many women who transformed their lives by participating in the behind and beyond bars programs.
Come and join us as we honor the impact of Truth Be Told’s Work!
When: October 27, 2016, 6pm – 9pm
Where: Asian American Center – 8401 Cameron Rd., Austin, Texas 78754 (open in Google Maps)
Have you ever asked the question, “Do I matter?”
These thoughts roamed fiercely through Shana, a participant in our class at the Lane Murray Facility. Shana joined the Talk to Me Speaking class in 2013 and is currently participating in her 5th class with us. She has been a Mentor for 3 of these classes and through these last 2 ½ years she has grown more comfortable with a deep knowing that she matters.
Here is her poem:
by Shana H., Mentor
Way back when, in Yesteryear
I lost all the things I held dear
Full of hate and lies and fear
Pushed all back, not one came near
Holding both my fists real tight
I’d scream, I’d yell
“Can’t break me, not tonight!”
I ran from you and I ran from me
My pain running deep
But you never would see
So all alone, I was running scared
Didn’t realize people still cared
Little did I know
the things we all shared
Low self-esteem, low self-worth
thinking I’m nobody,
ever since birth
After all was said and done
Thinking my wrecked life was no fun
Took a life to save my own
Could not understand
Could never have known;
The torn part of my heart inside
That fought so hard, had also died
Received a term behind bars
No more moon, no more stars
How do I live inside this place?
I cannot stand my very own face
something I’ve not seen before
Right over there,
on the board, by the door
I know that signing up is
What I need to do
Change my life and
Become brand new
It’s Good. It’s Real. It’s Bold!
Yep, you guessed, it’s Truth Be Told
How awesome it is to know it’s true
I can change and so can you!
Give it a chance and you will see
Forgiveness, love and community
Growing strong with new friends here
Showing me what’s real
Teaching me what’s dear
I can live in the now
Not scared and alone
Not stuck anymore in
Written by Leigh Camp
I attended Truth Be Told’s most recent graduation as a respectful witness. It was my second time to be a respectful witness with Truth Be Told, and my second time in a prison, ever.
Both events took place at Lockhart Correctional Facility. When I went to the first graduation, the prison had just undergone a management change and was in the process of receiving a major facelift.
At this second graduation, the improvements were markedly visible — inspirational quotes cover the freshly painted walls, creating a warmer, more cared-for environment than the prison I’d entered on my first visit.
Lockdown lifted just in time.
The prison had been in lockdown the past few days. Lockdown is a “surprise” routine procedure that happens a couple times a year. During lockdown, the inmates have to remain in their cells (except to shower) while the officers search the entire facility for contraband.
We’d been in limbo about whether or not the event would take place for a couple of days. As co-founder Carol Waid pointed out via email, it was a great exercise in experiencing some of the uncertainty and lack of agency the women who attend TBT classes face every day.
We received word from the warden around 1 p.m. — Lockdown was over and graduation was a go!
Settling in and making introductions.
About twenty-five witnesses attended the graduation with me. We waited for the graduating classes in a room usually used during visitation hours.
Katie Ford, a longtime TBT volunteer who taught one of the graduating classes, instructed us to leave empty chairs between us so that the women could sit with us in the audience. That way we’d all be in it together, experiencing the moment as one group.
The woman who sat next to me told me that she was nervous. Because of lockdown, she and her reading partner hadn’t had as much chance to practice. Her partner walked in about then and sat down in the chair in front of me.
“Can you copy this out?” she asked my neighbor.
“Yes, now, I want us to both have a copy to read from! Please.”
It was clear they were close friends. The woman sitting next to me just rolled her eyes, grabbed the sheet of paper, and started writing. When she was done, I asked her if she’d known her friend long.
“Oh, yes. We’re both diabetics, so we go to a lot of stuff together.”
Katie announced it was time to start and the sound of conversation was replaced by a silence filled with a combination of anticipation and nervous energy that was palpable.
The pair in front of me were fifth on the list, but the time passed quickly and before they knew it they were up! I patted my neighbor on the back as she walked by. “You’ll do great!”
And they did. Theirs was a side-by-side titled “Letting Go.” In it they alluded to the painful experiences they had endured that eventually led them to prison, and described the freedom they had found by accepting those realities and moving past them, into the present.
Other stories had titles like “Live Day by Day,” “Shy No More,” “Fear,” “End of the Road,” and “Phoenix Rising.” Each described the women’s personal journeys of reflection and growth through creative expression and connecting with their fellow inmates in a way that was vulnerable, and inherently not how relationships in prison typically work.
I was in turn moved, saddened, and strengthened. One woman chose to sing her story, taking the mic and belting it out with true feeling that I’m certain reverberated in each of our beings.
The audience punctuated the end of every reading with resounding applause and the women returned to their seats with sounds of “good job!” “well done!” “way to go!” echoing in their ears.
At the conclusion of the stories, the women lined up to receive their certificates. Every one of the women had completed all sixteen-weeks worth of classes, along with extensive coursework after hours.
That coursework included the very difficult task of self reflection, digging up painful past experiences, examining them, and acknowledging them while not letting them define the course of what happens next.
To graduate was truly an achievement, and the pride showed in their eyes as they returned to their seats with their certificates in hand.
At the end of the graduation, the respectful witnesses are invited to share how the women’s stories have affected them. We circle up, and one volunteer stands in the middle of the circle at a time and talks into the mic.
We took turns talking about how touched and humbled we felt by the women’s stories and commended them on the bravery required to share such deeply personal emotions and experiences.
Once it was our turn to be on the mic, we experienced some of the same jitters and butterflies the women had had to overcome as part of their graduation ceremony.
It takes guts to speak to a crowd of strangers. If, as volunteers, we didn’t fully realize it while the women were performing, we were made aware of it while we ourselves were the focus of so many eyes.
What they gave to me.
The graduation ceremony is for women who have made a commitment to complete a course that’s not only difficult, but darn near impossible. They’re asked to be open fully with one another, to expose their deepest fears, lowest moments, greatest hopes…all in an environment that’s constantly telling them to let no one in, to keep their heads down and their guard up.
As a respectful witness, my job was just to listen to the product of their journeys and demonstrate my support of their efforts to become the greatest version of themselves. But in doing only that, I gained so much that I feel guilty it may not have been a fully even trade.
Meeting these women and hearing their stories gave me a deep appreciation for everything I take for granted. We’ve all made mistakes. We are imperfect people. The difference between their mistakes and my mistakes is that mine have not yet taken away my freedom.
On the drive back, I thought about how nice it was that I could drive from Lockhart to Austin, listening to whatever I chose, and arrive at my apartment, and take a bath or read a book or do laundry or do all three without asking anyone’s permission. And all of those ordinary things became extraordinary to me.
I was both humbled and inspired by the women who graduated. Humbled by their bravery, and inspired to dig deep into my own story and come out more whole on the other side.
Interested in being a respectful witness?
If you would like to attend a Truth Be Told graduation as a respectful witness, please contact Carol Waid at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please stop for a moment to ask the following 3 questions: Who has or is currently impacting you? What has or currently is impacting you? Who have you impacted or are currently impacting?
The concept of impact seems to be at the forefront of our nation. Thus, I thought it was fitting to write my first blog on it. Impact as a verb, is defined, according to Merriam-Webster dictionary as “having a strong effect on someone or something” or “to hit (something) with great force.” How true the definition is; at least for me. The synergy I experienced during my first 3 weeks with Truth-Be-Told (TBT) was meaningful and eye-opening!
I was deeply honored and humbled to listen to the stories of both incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women. I was touched by their willingness to share openly with a complete stranger. They are acutely aware of the stigma, negativity, and judgment associated with incarceration. I witnessed their courage, strength, resilience, creativity, and talents in addition to their pain and sorrow. They owned the decisions they made that led to their sentences and began making amends with their pasts while sharing hopes for their futures. I also witnessed their gratitude and respect for the program facilitators who played a pivotal role in guiding them to speak their truths and reclaim who they are as women and human beings. Support both behind and beyond bars is pivotal for the women. They learn to trust and rely on each other. Successes are celebrated and challenges especially with re-entry are shared. The women possess a determination to succeed even when they experience frustration, disappointment, and struggles. I learned some will experience re-incarceration while others persevere like the graduate of the TBT program whose college graduation I attended. This is the impact TBT has on them and the impact they have on us.
On October 27th, TBT will hold its fundraiser. During this event we will be honoring co-founder Nathalie Sorrell for her instrumental, profound, and continual impact on the organization. Her desire to actively minister to women created the momentum that established TBT with her co-founders Carol Waid and Suzanne Armistead. The impact created, I believe, will resonate in the responses given if you ask individuals who served as respectful witnesses at graduations, the staff at the facilities in which the programs are held, and the program participants, themselves.
A friend posted to Facebook a photo that had a male wearing a graduation gown and cap holding a sign that read “California spends $9,100 per year to educate me.” Standing beside him is a female wearing an orange jumpsuit holding her sign that reads “California spends $62,300 per year to lock me up.” I wonder how much Texas spends on education and incarceration. According to TDCJ, as of March 2016, TX facilities are comprised of 11,631 (8.1%) female inmates. I wonder what the overall impact would be if the focus centered on education, empowerment, and successful re-entry for the incarcerated population. TBT has begun this work and seeks allies and supporters in continuing the impact.
In closing, please consider how you would like to be involved with TBT. Do you enjoy writing and want to be a blog member? Do you enjoy interacting with others in group formats and want to be a program facilitator? Do you enjoy serving on boards and want to be a board member? Do you enjoy sharing information and want to help bring awareness to TBT in our communities? Do you enjoy fundraising, marketing, and/or social media and want to help in these areas? Do you want to give? Do you know others who have the talents, desires, and passion to be involved? Your involvement, in whatever form, will be impactful. Thus, I invite you in joining TBT in creating a long-lasting and meaningful impact on the women we serve and the communities in which we are members.
I may be reached at email@example.com. Don’t forget to follow us on both Facebook and twitter @TruthBeToldnews.
“Loving ourselves through the process of owning our story is the bravest thing we will ever do.” ~ Brené Brown
Thank you for being a part of our Truth Be Told family! Your commitment to our work enables us to change the lives of incarcerated women, their families and their communities. We thank you for your generous contribution and encourage you to read the powerful statement of one of our graduates, so you can feel first-hand how your support impacts these women.
by Donna Norman
Almost five years ago, I was lost and broken. I was facing my freedom, and it was coming fast. I was so hurt and so angry with everyone and everything, but most of all myself. The choices I made cost me my freedom and the loss of everything that meant anything to me – including and most importantly, my children. I wasn’t ready for my freedom or to face the memories I had to go home to, memories I ran from for seven years. What if I made the same mistakes? What was my purpose going to be now? What did I really have to live for anymore?
Then I saw the posters for the Truth Be Told class. I even knew some of the people who had taken the previous class. Everyone loved it and talked about how it made them feel. I didn’t want to open up to strangers, but I was still facing going home with no answers and a broken heart. I thought that this might be my last chance, so I signed up.
I was touched by how loving the women of Truth Be Told were; I just wasn’t ready to let them in. I was in Ms. Nathalie’s class, so I had to give a speech on my story. I was dreading it and even thought about dropping out, but that would leave me with my broken heart.
I asked myself, “What did I really have to lose by telling my story?” So I started working on it, piece by piece. Surprisingly, I started understanding myself by looking in from a third party perspective.
Then the day came for my speech. Ms Nathalie brought some Toastmasters in to critique our speeches, and one of them happened to be her husband [Jim Walsh]. I wasn’t comfortable with a man being there while I was so vulnerable, but I had already come this far. I stood up and started telling my story, although it took every piece of strength I had.
Ms. Nathalie’s husband then had the honor of judging my speech, but I feared he was really judging me. I could feel the defiance boiling up inside me, not wanting to hear a man tell me I’m not good enough after hearing me talk about all the other men who have hurt me in every way possible.
But to my utter disbelief, he stood up in front of me, looked me dead in my eyes, and apologized for everything those other men had done.
Hearing that touched me deep down in my soul. The wall I built so strong to keep everyone else out shattered and the tears wouldn’t stop. I wasn’t being judged… I was being heard.
That was when the healing began. Truth Be Told gave me my life back. They helped me understand why I made the decisions I made, not blaming others but understanding them. They helped me change my thinking and be a better, stronger person.
I have been home for four years now. I use the tools I learned from Truth Be Told in my everyday life. Although things are hard at times, I haven’t failed or given up, because of what the women of Truth Be Told have given me…my truth. We are a true community of women. In my times of weakness I reach out to them, and they never let me down. I keep my three-year quilt close. Anytime that I need to feel supported I wrap it around me and I see all their smiling faces.
The world needs more selfless people like the facilitators with Truth Be Told. They are my angels.
Thank you so much, Donna, for sharing your beautiful story, and thank you, Jim Walsh, for being the kind and loving man that you are.
Readers, we thought you might want to see a poster that Truth Be Told used to invite women in prison to learn about and sign up for Talk To Me classes.