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Back to the Classroom

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We have started our 2015 fall semester in the prisons, so it is a good time to answer questions we get asked frequently. “Are there differences in the prisons you go to?” “Are the women the same wherever you go?” “How is jail different from prison?”

Truth Be Told provides programs for women behind bars at five correctional facilities and each one has unique features and different offender populations. Even though the women we meet are living in different environments and facing diverse futures, from an upcoming release date to a 30 year sentence, they have similar needs. We all share the need to be seen, heard and loved. We strive to make meaning of our journeys through self-reflection and sharing our stories. We heal by being authentic and vulnerable in a safe community.

Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) gives every inmate a custody designation and each prison houses certain custody levels from the least restrictive at G1 to the most secure at G5 and then Administrative Segregation. The TDCJ Offender Orientation Handbook explains:

“On the unit of assignment, an offender is given a custody designation which indicates several things. It tells where and with whom he can live, how much supervision he will need, and what job he can be assigned to. An offender’s custody level depends on his current institutional behavior, his previous institutional behavior, and his current offense and sentence length. If the offender violates any rules, he may be placed in a more restrictive custody. If the offender complies with the rules, he may be assigned a less restrictive custody level.”

Lockhart Correctional Facility is the only privately run prison we work in. At the end of August, the Management and Training Corporation (MTC) will assume administration of the prison. In 2015, the Lockhart Unit was converted to an all-female facility that houses 1,000 inmates. We look forward to working with MTC because of their emphasis on education and training and the use of Gender Responsive practices. The Lockhart Unit is where Truth Be Told began fifteen years ago and where we have always offered the most programing. Lockhart houses the least restrictive, G1 and G2, custody level inmates and has an onsite prison work program in partnership with a private company. This is the only facility where we offer Let’s Get Real to help women with a release date of nine months or less prepare for returning to the community.

TDCJ Hilltop Unit is in Gatesville. This is a smaller facility with about 500 inmates with G1-3 custody levels. Our monthly Exploring Creativity Workshops are provided for the 28 women who are housed together in the Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP). These women really appreciate the creative aspects TBT brings to promote healing, such as writing, movement, and improvisation.

TDCJ psychologist, Anne Mooney, LCSW Program Supervisor, asserts, “Women who commit sexual offenses have a distorted understanding of emotional relationships. Within the therapeutic community, offenders have an opportunity to develop and practice healthier ways of interacting. Women gain the skills to identify and meet their emotional needs. The treatment requires tough honesty, but they agree that the healing is worth it.”

TDCJ Dr. Lane Murray Unit is another of the cluster of women’s prisons in Gatesville. It houses 1,341 women with G1-4 custody levels and is the only prison we go to that has Administrative Segregation or “Ad Seg” which the Handbook explains as:

“Administrative segregation, refers to offenders who must be separated from the general population because they are dangerous, either to other offenders or staff, or they are in danger from other offenders… These offenders leave their cells, for the most part, only for showers and limited recreation.”

Women in Ad Seg can’t attend our programs, but just walking by their building drives home the harsher realities of prisons; they call out from their windows and toss pieces of paper to get attention. The Murray Unit is where we have come to know more women with longer sentences, 20 years, 35 years, whose convictions are connected to more grievous crimes. The dynamics of working with women who are facing many years in prison are leading us to shape our programs to their unique needs.

The Lady Lifers: A moving song from women in prison for life is a video from TEDx at Muncy State Prison that expresses some of their emotions.

Lady Lifers

Federal Prison Camp in Bryan, a minimum security prison with 847 women, is the only federal-level facility we visit. It sits on a former community college campus that isn’t even completely fenced. The inmates are non-violent offenders with average sentences of five years. They know that if they left the grounds they would be moved to maximum security and have years added to their sentences. Even though the facility has an abundance of programs, the administration asked Truth Be Told to provide Talk To Me because it is unlike any other program. Facilitating at FPC Bryan feels a little like going to a community college to teach a class.

Travis County Jail in Del Valle houses about 2,500 men and women in a variety of stages with the criminal justice system. We work with women in two programs that the jail Social Services Director administers, PRIDE for the general population and PEACE for women in maximum security. Women get in the program because they expect to be there for at least a few weeks, but most are working their way through the court system and have not yet been sentenced. They are dealing with legal uncertainties (what their final charges will be, what court they will go to, and what type of plea bargain they will be offered) and emotional personal uncertainties (who will take care of their children, will their families stand by them). Because of these factors Making Connections is 20 stand-alone classes that help with emotional well being and self-management.

 

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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.

Gatesville: A first-time visitor’s observations

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OgleHeadshot4GatesvilleBlog

 

Shelly Ogle, a retired editor, attended a Truth Be Told graduation at a women’s prison in Gatesville on November 20, 2014. These are her impressions as a first-time visitor to prison.

 

 

 

Gatesville: A first-time visitor’s observations

By Shelly Ogle
Austin, Texas

In lots of ways, my first visit to a Texas state prison was full of surprises. I’d thought we’d be driving to East Texas, but our van headed west out of Austin. I’d been ready for a lot of traffic and congestion, but the country roads we drove on were winding and open. A stormy day had been forecast; instead, the November skies were clear and sunny.

Within a couple of hours, under that gorgeous sky, our van turned into the prison’s entrance. All was flat. At our right was an empty guard’s shack and ahead was a big parking lot. There wasn’t any sort of main gate. Everything was ugly – fencing and razor wire and lights and cameras, big signs with commands and prohibitions, wire cages enclosing each of the chain-link gates.

I was among a group of 15 women visiting this women’s prison. We were there to applaud the graduation of 23 inmates who had just completed 18 weeks of Truth Be Told classes. The training teaches them to better understand themselves, to review their lives, and to write and speak the truth about what they know and remember and hope for. Of the prison’s 1,500 inmates, some 250 had signed up for the classes, but there was only room for less than a tenth of them.

11302014 TBT 1st Lane Murray Graduation_1

In groups of six, we were led through a caged gateway and into a lobby with a shiny linoleum floor. It was 5 p.m., and it seemed like a shift was changing. The lobby was busy with uniformed guards, almost all female. Some looked friendly and bright; some smiled, some frowned. After a short wait, we were led into a room with tables and chairs and greeted by the warden, who was another surprise. I’d expected someone military and harsh; instead, this warden was a friendly and perky blonde, in civilian clothes. She looked like a yoga instructor or a vitamin saleswoman.

From her, we learned that the state has 150,000 prisoners, and that 12,000 of them are women, mostly housed in Gatesville units. The prison we were at was medium-security, but it had a maximum-security unit. Maybe that’s the same one that she casually called “adseg”; when asked what it meant, she explained that prisoners who violate institutional rules are put into “administrative segregation.” Not being in good standing, they’re not eligible to sign up for programs such as Truth Be Told. We were warned to expect aggressive language from them, as we’d be passing them on our way to the prison chapel where the graduation ceremony would be held.

We were also told to not give anything to a prisoner, to not accept anything from one, and to not touch them in any way except for a handshake, and even that small contact was permissible only on this special occasion.

The warden then led us outdoors toward the chapel. We had to wait at yet another inner gate while a guard got the key to it.

A strip of concrete pavement, about 20 feet wide, led to the chapel, past a few grassy areas with high chain-link fences around them; one area had a sad-looking little rock-lined pond and fountain. The concrete had a yellow stripe on each edge, marking off narrow shoulders where the prisoners walked – guards accompanying them strolled in the wide center. “Hi there, ladies,” I said to a few guards and to a few prisoners. They all seemed a little startled to be addressed.

The metal-clad buildings we were passing – there were no stone walls in sight – looked like industrial-district warehouses for welding or plumbing equipment. Though wide and squat, some seemed to hold as many as four stories, as I saw three layers of tiny windows, most of them numbered on the outside, above a windowless ground floor. At the windows, I’d often see more than one face, so I guessed that those cells are shared.

None of the “adseg” prisoners yelled out much of anything to us. I noticed little showers of birdseed or breadcrumbs being tossed out of their windows for pigeons, and I waved at a few of the prisoners in the windows; they waved back.

The chapel was another squat metal building, again with a highly polished floor. Its bathroom had to be unlocked by a guard for me to use it. It was immaculate. Its door locked automatically behind me, so the next person to use it also had to ask the guard to let her in.

In front of the chapel’s low stage, we arranged two rows of chairs into a semicircle, with our 15 chairs on one side facing the prisoners’ 23 chairs on the other. A few women, probably trusties, set up a microphone and fiddled with a sound system. While we waited for the prisoners to arrive, I admired a beautiful quilted banner on the stage and took in the wall-sized painting behind it, kitschy but earnest, showing the gates of heaven, a garden, a rainbow, and lots of shafts of light. That was the background behind each of the graduates as they stood and shared their insights with us.

A group of guards led in the 23 women we’d been waiting for. The prisoners wore white, not orange. Their pants were what my family called “bumper stumpers” when I was a kid: thick, unattractive sweats with a bunchy elastic waist. Their white T-shirts had polo-style collars. I was surprised to see makeup and elaborate hairstyles on some of the women. Shoes showed some variety, but all were closed-toed and flat-soled.

I was excited to see the prisoners, and they seemed excited to see us. After they sat down, their guards gathered at the back door and the graduation ceremony started. It was about 6 p.m., so the prisoners must have had an early supper. Over the next 90 minutes or so, each of them went to the stage and gave a short talk. A few offered performances – one lady played guitar and sang a song she wrote; a couple of skits and dances were also done, some in pairs. We applauded everything heartily.

Women spoke of their childhoods, and it made me cry. One was abandoned at the age 5. Where was I when I was a 5-year-old? Not abandoned. Another ran away from home at 14, escaping abuse and hunger, and hung around the bus station when she arrived in a big city. No one came up to her to ask where her parents were or whether she needed any help – except, of course, a pimp. “He put a needle in my arm,” she recalled, “and I wasn’t hungry anymore.”

Not a single person said, “I was a victim” or “I was victimized,” but each one of them was. I was impressed by their avoidance of the word. I was horrified by their stories.

One lady spoke about how, as a child, she was abused by her family in numerous ways, starting with being fingered, as a toddler, by her uncles when she’d sit on their laps. That invasion of trust reminded me of how much I loved to sit, so comfy and secure, on my dad’s lap; one of my earliest memories is being fascinated by the golden hairs on his forearms. I loved sitting on my grandpa’s lap, too; it was the safest place ever, except when Gorgeous George did some fancy wrestling move on the TV and Grandpa would jump up out of his chair and cheer. It’s so sad that the lady in the prison chapel had never felt that same goodness and love.

Another lady spoke of being loved and safe for her first seven years, living with her grandparents, until her mother took her away from them, and a life of hell began. I thought, “Where would I be today if everything good for me had stopped when I was 7 years old?” That’s the age I was when John F. Kennedy was killed, and I was so innocent then that I assumed that Jackie would just be named queen. I had opinions and ideas, but I was basically an unformed blob, and if those had been my final memories before starting a life of suffering, I could have been turned into anything.

I was lucky. I could have been her, but instead, I was lucky.

And what became of that prisoner? She emerged from her years of pain with a defiant insight, only recently gained from her Truth Be Told experiences: “I am lovable for who I am.” That’s a big, bold idea for someone like her.

A thin woman with an impossibly thick braid proclaimed, perhaps metaphysically, “I am free.” Another woman, contradicting a widespread assumption that prisoners always protest their innocence, declared, “I am exactly where I belong.”

Only one lady, one of the last to speak, had anything specific to say about the crime that landed her in prison. Twenty years ago, she said, she shot her husband while he was throttling their baby and also threatening to kill her and himself.

“Good,” I thought.

“I called it self-defense,” she said, “but the state of Texas called it capital murder.” She got a 30-year sentence and has 10 years left to serve.

Put yourself in her place. Think of all the good things that have happened to you in the past 20 years, and erase them all. And then erase them for the next 10 years, too. Now try to be serene and brave.

After the last woman had spoken, we visitors were invited to go to the mike and let them know our reactions. I wasn’t brave enough to, although I’ve spoken in public in the past, yet each of those 23 women had been brave enough to get up there and speak.

So, I admired them all the more.

One visitor spoke for me, though, when she told the prisoners that she was impressed by their ability to bear the problems they do, compared with the minuscule worries we have. They have been through so much. They are survivors. They’re courageous, and in many cases heroic. They embody the best of the human spirit.

Well, I sure wasn’t expecting to ever have that thought.

My favorite part of the visit happened next, when the prisoners all lined up and we visitors went down the line, shaking each woman’s hand and briefly saying whatever we could think of. I thanked them and told them they were beautiful and brave. I said I admired their endurance, and I congratulated them on their self-awareness. I praised the two who had been signing throughout each performance for their abilities in American Sign Language. One woman “hugged” me in the permissible way: hugging herself while smiling at me. I “hugged” her right back.

She’s hoping to be paroled soon; the signs are good. She might be released in Houston. I asked if that’s where her family lives. “No,” she answered. “I hurt my family. They don’t speak to me.”

That’s right, I reminded myself, she’s a criminal, and she’s paying for it.

I worry about her.

Afterwards, dining at a long table at a restaurant in town, we visitors all reviewed the day. Many agreed that the women’s self-awareness gained through their Truth Be Told classes was all-important. “It heals their trauma,” said Nathalie, a Truth Be Told founder. “It works,” agreed Kathleen, the organization’s executive director. “And their new awareness isn’t going to go away,” added Louise who, like me, was a first-time visitor.

The drive home through the dark was mostly quiet. It had been a long day, and when I got into bed and stretched out between my fleecy sheets, I was filled with gratitude for the life I have. How exceptionally lucky I was to have been born into a stable family. As my mom used to murmur, whenever she’d pity someone, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

 

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If you would like to attend one of the TBT spring prison graduations, watch our website for Upcoming Events and email: office@truth-be-told.org . The next graduation at the GEO Lockhart Unit is April 17 and the Bryan Federal Prison Camp graduation is May 6. Other dates are pending.

 

 

The Journey Home

Kay started her physical journey home when she was released from prison on July 5, 2013, but her spiritual journey was already well underway because of her commitment to seek out healing experiences while incarcerated. Kay enrolled in the Truth Be Told (TBT) Talk To Me – Movement class and then Discovery, where she wrote the poem below.

She attended every one of the TBT Exploring Creativity Workshops that she could and had a powerful opening experience when Sherry Gingras and the Djembabes brought drumming to the women in prison (described in this November 2013 post).

Kay_reduced imageWhen Kay was close to being released, she joined the TBT Let’s Get Real class for two semesters.

Our programs weren’t her only resource: her love of dogs made her the perfect match for PAWS in Prison.

Since being released, Kay has been active in our Beyond Bars Program, connecting and supporting other women, in spite of a busy life with a new job, new dog, new car, new home, and renewed life.

We love that Kay took the time to create a personal fundraising page for Truth Be Told during Amplify Austin 2014 and raised $500!

Kay, thank you for sharing your grace, your wisdom, and your story.

 

The Journey

By Kay R.

 

For so long, I’ve had this absolute longing to go home…

Even when I was home.

Did that mean I felt lost?

Did that mean I sought death?

Did that mean I yearned to be embraced by God?

Did that mean I slumped over in weariness and confusion?

Yep! You betcha!

 

Oh, I’m not talking about going home from this cell, the walls, and the razor wire —

the oppression.

Oh yea, I want out of here.

BUT – which way is home from here?

I’ve been searching; I’m still searching.

 

Could that path over yonder lead me back to home?

I wonder.

I’ll have to remove some of the many masks I’ve worn.

Some I’ll toss away forever.

Ah! Look! The core of me.

Wow! The spirit of all that I am lives.

 

The spark of my spirit flickers…just a little.

I’m shedding layers now.

I’m digging through the pain.

Whew! That really, really hurts.

I’m not sure I want to do this.

Now I’m shrinking, crumbling – fearful.

I scream: I can do this, determined.

Tumble down the walls and barriers

Courage, please take hold

 

There’s the hand of God

For once I grab it and hold on tight.

Look at me. I feel innocent and pure

Even in the midst of all my experience

I’m feeling my spirit begin to shine now

The glow heals me.

Smiling, I embrace the hearts of my circle of friends, boldly.

 

I am still growing, eager to evolve

I encompass resolution and acceptance

I am rejoicing in being me

I am celebrating being me

Dancing, twirling, laughing

I’ve found home. Hello, self! Welcome home.

TEDx Goes to Prison

By Kathleen Littlepage, Executive Director, Truth Be Told

Kathleen Littlepage

Kathleen Littlepage

By now, most of us have been inspired, educated, or just amazed by a TED talk. The short, powerful videos can start public conversations and even change lives. TED began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment, and Design converged, and today talks cover almost all topics — from science to business to global issues — in more than 100 languages. Meanwhile, independently run TEDx events help share ideas in communities around the world.

Truth Be Told facilitators were fans of Brene Brown and her work on vulnerability and shame before her TED talks, The Power of Vulnerability and Listening to Shame, went viral and catapulted her to the national stage.

At Truth Be Told, we know the transformational power of giving the women in our classes an opportunity to tell their story to an audience of respectful listeners. That is what happens at our prison graduations. When one of our graduates who participates in our Beyond Bars activities shared the link to a TEDx event in California’s Ironwood State Prison, my first reaction was a little flash of envy.When I watched the videos, I couldn’t imagine how they created this high quality production in a prison.

This Mother Jones magazine article, TEDx Goes to Prison, explains that the event was the brainchild of movie producer Scott Budnick, who has been volunteering in California prisons long before he became a celebrity. The article has some of the videos embedded and you can find more of them here.

As we find in our Truth Be Told programs, the voices of prisoners in these videos are inspiring, humbling, and surprising to the uninitiated.

If you would like to attend a Truth Be Told graduation and respectfully listen to participants in our Behind Bars programs telling their stories, the dates for fall graduations appear on the Truth Be Told website’s Events page. Three public graduations are scheduled: two at the Lockhart GEO unit and one at the Murray Unit in Gatesville.

Stay tuned to this blog for reminders!

My Freedom Will Hold, Thanks to Truth Be Told

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By Stephanie, a Truth Be Told graduate.

Stephanie and her daughter

I am Stephanie, graduate of the 2013 Talk To Me Circle class at the GEO Lockhart Unit. I came into this class with an open mind, willing to learn, but my main objective at the time was to have something to show parole. I had just gotten a year set off (a delay in release). I knew why I had received this set off. It was because the system was tired of me. You see I had spent the majority of my life in and out of prison. More in than out. I am a fifty-year-old, repeat offender. Been to state jail three times, TDC (Texas Department of Corrections) two times, and out-of-state once.

My prison journey started at the age of 19. So as much as the system was tired of me, I had finally become tired of it. So I signed up for everything that had a dotted line and embarked on the Truth Be Told class with my all. I really was tired of prison life. I knew I needed a change or I would die in prison or lose someone close to me and not be able to handle it. I took the Circle class where you have to write your truth with Katie Ford.

I was very distanced and I held my feelings inside. I didn’t know how to communicate very well. I felt I would do good with the writing. At least it was a start and I would let go of some of my junk and pain. In the beginning, I didn’t know that was a way of healing and finding your truth. I give thanks to Katie, because that’s a tool I learned from her and Truth Be Told, my tool of journaling. See I had never journaled in my life and this has helped me to face my truth. There were other tools as well as writing my truth. I learned to speak my truth, that I still have a voice, and that I am somebody besides a number. Most importantly I learned how to change and never go back to prison.

This class provided me with personal and spiritual growth. It’s true that these tools have held me together. I’ve been out for three months now and it has been a challenge for me. I have to constantly remind myself that I can do it, that I can ask for help, that I am not alone, and to trust in my Father’s Words that he will make a way. I am holding on and expressing my feelings through my journaling, because I know that God has got a blessing with my name on it and it’s not a TDC number.

“Going to prison saved my life.” I’ve come to understand what they mean.

IMG138-1Editor’s Note: Since 2010, Katie Ford has served as a volunteer facilitator for Truth Be Told at the Lockhart GEO unit in Lockhart, Texas. In March 2014, she was invited to present on her volunteer work at an Austin event called Pecha Kucha Night, which took place during South by Southwest. The format required 20 slides with 20 seconds of talk per slide. Katie worked hard on her presentation, which was very well received.

You can watch a video of her presentation below (please hang in there; the sound improves. Katie is the first presenter, so if you want to skip to just her section, it runs from 1:24 to 8:24).

You can also read Katie’s thoughts about the experience on her personal blog. Katie teaches writing in the prison, and it’s a good read, worth clicking over. (You’ll also meet Martha.)

Here are a few truths from Katie:

 Why is it so important to heal? Very simply put, healed people heal others, and hurt people hurt others.

These women who are locked away and invisible to most of us are also our neighbors. They are members of our communities. And one day, when their sentences max out or when they make parole, they will be back among us. Will they be safe, contributing members of our society, or will they continue in their old ways?

In a certain respect, going to prison, it saved my life too. In helping others to tell their stories, I’m learning the words to my own story. I’m discovering the power and the freedom in having a safe community, and I’m learning my role in helping to build that for others. And I’m helping to build that one story at a time.

Katie will also speak about her work with Truth Be Told on Creative Mornings Austin on Monday, May 16, at TOMS Cafe at 8 am. Click this link for details.

Thank you, Katie Ford!