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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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Celebrate Our Community and Radical Transformations

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Celebrate our Amplify Austin success! Okay, it hasn’t happened yet, but we are already planning a party. Thursday, March 5, 5:30-8:30, All Saints Church, 209 W. 27th St., Austin. Our Truth Be Told community will share in the fun of watching our hard work pay off when donations start to roll in as Amplify starts. We’ll have food and most importantly, a chance to build community with the people who make our work possible. Come meet our board, founders, facilitators, donors, and graduates. If you are on social media, you can help spread updates and reminders since the 24-hours of fundraising will just be getting underway.

Personal Fundraising Campaigns. We have 28 fundraising pages! Some are still “under construction” but check them out.  More than half way to our goal of 50 and we still have 24 days before the event. Creating a fundraising page can be challenging, but we are here to help. Just contact Carol (carol@truth-be-told.org) or Kathleen (kathleen@truth-be-told.org). Once you have a page, you just spread the word to your network: email, Facebook, twitter, whatever. Or you can just talk to your friends.

Radical Transformations

Who I Want to Be. The Mask Exercise guides the women to a deeper understanding about themselves and the way they hide their vulnerabilities. They discover masks that cover up who they want to be and masks that conceal who they are. These two fabulous drawings were created during the exercise by Michelle M., a graduate of the Talk to Me and Discovery classes at the Lane Murray Unit in Gatesville, TX.

 

Who I’m Afraid To Reveal. In Michelle’s writing she expressed feeling like a “broken vessel” and “screaming to be free”.Mask 300 dpi_1

Empowering Voices

Kathryn S. found her voice in three classes at the GEO Lockhart Unit, Talk To Me, Discovery, and Let’s Get Real. She was released on December 10, 2014 and got in touch right away to connect with our Beyond Bars activities. Kathryn already has a job, has reunited with her family, and is falling in love with her grandchild. Her poem, My Wall of Masks, is her creative expression from the Mask Exercise and is printed in the Discovery class Book of Wisdom.

My Wall of Mask

I have discovered that hidden beneath my mask,

I am still me.

I am every mask that I put on.

I am every mask that you might see.

Each mask has a different face,

every moment, every time at each and every place.

They are all unique, but they are the same.

I don’t remember them all,

but they do have their own name.

My mask of laughter, my mask of tears.

My mask of courage, and, yes,

my mask of fears.

My mask of failure, my mask of shame,

my mask of accomplishment,

My mask of fame.

My mask of success. But,

what does that really show?

My mask of right now

is the only one I truly know.

My mask that I hide behind,

my mask that I embrace.

My masks are all a part of me.

I wear them upon my face.

I could go on and on about

the many masks I wear.

But right now at this moment,

this is the woman I want to share.

So when I put my mask on

for you and the world to see,

it doesn’t really matter what it looks like.

They are all and each

A part of me.

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.

Creativity an essential tool in the development of Truth Be Told

By Nathalie Sorrell, Truth Be Told Co-Founder

When Carol Waid and I were creating Truth be Told classes in the first two years of our work behind bars in Lockhart prison, we knew we were offering these incarcerated women our primary tools for maintaining our own sanity and exceeding our various forms of discouragement when life presented us with difficulties. Our main tool was writing and talking, when those to whom we wrote and spoke were respectful listener/readers and authentic truth tellers themselves. Being in 12 Step programs provided us with a belief in a Higher Power that could support our life journey, as well as the example of others who had struggled, now choosing a more authentic lifestyle, and willing to talk and listen at a deeper level. We began thus to share, in the format of a public speaking class, which the warden at the prison had offered me a chance to create.

Soon the women wanted more and were greatly distressed when the Talk to Me class completed after “only” eight weeks of soul-searching honesty and sharing. They had formed a community of support behind bars where they’d never known it – and they wanted more. Carol and I began to add more writing exercises like we had done when we were friends, writing together in the Texspresso coffee shop at the Village shopping center. I had other personal growth exercises I’d used in my Lighthouse Enterprises workshops and when I was leading women’s retreats for various churches in Texas. Some were based on Wishcraft, Barbara Sher’s book about how to discover your heart’s desire and become a success by your own definition. Others were from Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, by Susan Jeffers, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. A primary book for me was Elizabeth O’Conner’s Our Many Selves, which is still a staple of our Discovery Classes. Soon, we had a six-week Discovery class planned for our graduates to attend, using exercises which we and friends and mentors had created or borrowed from workshops we’d attended.

The women in our classes felt rewarded for the intensely difficult work of delving into their past pain and shame-smeared life experiences, speaking them aloud to each other and even to audiences at graduations, when they knew that they were going to then be eligible to attend the creative Discovery classes. We promoted them by saying:

“Now that you’re no longer driven by or hiding from the past, you can begin to create a future for yourself. Now your past becomes the gift you can offer when your truth-telling is needed, to help others caught like you were, to create a safer community for everyone to grow.”

When our second group of women began with the deepest possible truth-telling by a young intense woman speaking the unspeakable trauma of being her father’s sexual plaything when she was a toddler, Carol and I realized we were into facilitation beyond our depth of training or life experience. After meeting with prison officials, and while creating our first prison pray-er team at the suggestion of Margaret Simpson, the idea arose of bringing into this class other facilitators who had creative gifts for dealing with trauma. One week was devoted to the creation of mandalas, which the facilitator had used to get her through the trauma of a miscarriage. Another week was given to a singer song-writer who used her writing to express how the trauma of her divorced father’s neglect played over into her adult love-life of choosing men who were unreliable in spite of their spoken words. And another program came from a woman who did bodywork for many women who’d endured many kinds of trauma. The participants showed a profound resilience emerging from their shared creativity. They then continued the class by staying within guidelines for 5-7 minute speeches for graduation (that didn’t include such intimate detail that they’d traumatize the audience.)

Carol and I saw that we needed to include opportunities for women in prison to experience the power of creativity beyond their commitment to our eight-week Talk to Me classes. Thus were born Truth Be Told’s Exploring Creativity workshops. Any creative person we met in our daily lives in Austin’s generative community was liable to find Carol and me standing in front of them after they had sung, played, painted, read their writing, danced, or performed in any way that inspired or evoked our attention. We’d be asking them:

“Would you be interested in going into the women’s prison with us and doing a two-hour creative workshop?”

It was amazing and gratifying to see that artists so often are wide open to sharing their talents and gifts with people who can’t afford to pay them. We couldn’t, and didn’t… but again and again, these performers and visual artists experienced the same thing we did: Their own passion and creativity was rewarded deeply as they satisfied the yearning women in prison have. Incarcerated women long for meaning, for role models, and for playful and courageous exploration of new ways of discovering and expressing their true selves.

Suzanne Armistead was invited in to lead an Exploring Creativity workshop, and as a dancer, became our passionate advocate for letting the women release and address their issues through movement as well as talk and writing. She had a lot of work to do with Carol and me as well … because although I’d awakened eight years before to my severe neglect of my own body’s need for my attention and respect – I was still far more comfortable with ignoring my physical desire for expression than giving in to it – especially in the groups or classes I facilitated.

So Truth be Told had three founders with great mutual respect for what the others had to offer and the willingness to go beyond our own comfort zones into innovative and challenging experiences with following each other’s leadership. As we facilitated classes and workshops together, we continued on our own path of personal and spiritual growth and learned many more creative forms of working through the inevitable conflicts and differences that occur in team leadership.

Creativity is an essential tool of the work we have been doing for the past 14 years. A new article in The Texas Tribune just came out expressing this primary truth that we’ve learned through our own experience. It is a joy to read, and I hope you’ll find time to go to this link soon, and see how once again, Truth be Told is doing something simply because it works for us that has great value on a far wider scale than we knew when we began this work in 2000.

What a joy to be part of this journey with so many authentic, growing women and men, beyond and behind bars, within and outside our organization. I will be thanking my Higher Power until the day I die for the fun and the growth I’ve experienced as a co-creator of the Talk to Me classes, Discovery classes, and Exploring Creativity workshops of Truth be Told.

Meeting the woman, not the crime: Exploring Creativity at Hilltop

by Peggy Lamb

Twenty-eight women in dingy white uniforms file into the chapel at the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville. Most of them know me and gift me with big smiles. I feel a flood of joy circulate through my body, and my heart opens wide.

These women are all in the Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP), an intense 18-month cognitive therapy program. (For more information on this program go to http://www.tdcj.state.tx.us/divisions/rpd/rpd_sorp.html). They live together in a special dorm where community is emphasized. Each woman has committed a crime that will brand her for life as a sex offender.

Most people have a hard time wrapping their minds around the concept of female sex offenders. I certainly did. A Google search brought me to a research paper entitled Female Sex Offenders: Severe Victims and Victimizers. It was hard to read about women sexually molesting children, even harder to grasp that some of the women of SOTP had committed similar crimes. Women don’t do such things. Only men do, right? Wrong. Both genders are capable of unspeakable and horrifying crimes.

I do not know the specifics of these women’s crimes. I could find out via the TDCJ website, but I’ve made a conscious choice to remain in the dark. I meet them, woman to woman, outside ideas of right and wrong.

The artists I bring in and I share tools of discovery and encourage the creativity of these deeply wounded women, who themselves are victims of sex abuse, to take root and blossom. I passionately believe in the power of creativity to heal and redefine oneself. Walt Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

I want these women to know in their bones that they are more than sex offenders; they are more than their crimes. They are writers, poets, dancers, singers, actresses, and visual artists with gifts to share.

When I learned that the Hilltop unit had a SOTP program, I was deeply drawn to teach there. I do not know why I was drawn there, but I have learned to follow my soul urges. It’s been almost two years that I’ve been going up there once a month, and it is work that deeply feeds my soul.

Today I’m teaching a movement and writing class I call Elements. Chairs are moved out of the way and we circle up for warm-up exercises. The sound of African drumming fills the room, breaking down barriers and inhibitions like a magic wand. Hips sway, shoulders shimmy, toes tap, and heads bob. We boogie and rock out. Movement is generated from the core — pelvis and torso. In the Soul Train section, I encourage the women to get down and shake it out, to shake out anger, despair, loneliness, frustration, and resentment. It is deeply satisfying!

women dancing black silhouettes orange and pink background

My first writing prompt is five minutes of free-flow writing on  the topic “I Am Earth.” Then I ask the women to create an earth gesture — a movement that symbolizes groundedness, stability, and nature. Each woman shares her gesture, and the rest of us repeat it. I play just the right earthy music (usually another cut of African drumming), and we go around the circle dancing each woman’s gesture. We’ve just choreographed our first dance! 

We repeat that process with three more writing and movement prompts for the elements of air, water, and fire. By the end of the class, we’ve created four dances, and the women have four pieces of creative writing they can be proud of. The chapel is filled with the divine energy of creativity and community.

One woman comments, “I didn’t know I was creative!”

Another says, “This is the deepest sense of community this dorm has ever had.”

A comment that touches my heart deeply is, “In the twenty years I’ve been locked up, this is the most fun I’ve ever had.”

I am filled with awe at the women’s willingness to step outside their comfort zones. I love this work. My soul is filled with joy and gratitude.

Below is one woman’s beautiful poem:

I am water

By Laurie S.

I am water

Pouring

Dripping

Sprinkling

I am the water from the sky

I am water

Pounding

Breaking

Rolling

I am the water of the seas

I am water

Rippling

Flooding

Streaming

I am the water of the rivers

I am water

Breathing

Circulating

Flowing

I am the water

Inside us all

 

Peggy Lamb organizes Truth Be Told’s Exploring Creativity program. She brings artists to both the Hilltop and Lockhart units. Exploring Creativity classes use expressive arts to enlarge the women’s sense of themselves, to release pain and to express despair without harming oneself or others. Leaders vary from storytellers to singers, visual artists, dancers, quilters, yoga teachers, and writers. If you are interested in teaching an Exploring Creativity class, please contact Peggy at peggy.lamb at sbcglobal.net.

Truth Be Told is 10 years old!

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
~ Margaret Mead

smallgroup

Truth Be Told has reached a significant milestone.

This post is to thank you for your support and to share a few years of reflection. We are 10 years 0ld as a non-profit, and we have just ended our thirteenth year of programs Behind and Beyond Bars. We invite you to take a walk down memory lane with us.  And if you love words as much as we do, we hope you will go and visit our brand new website www.truth-be-told.

We thank you for your support, which has taken us from graduating 15 women in the spring of 2000 to our current day of graduating over 1,000 women in two prisons and serving countless others in the TCCC Del Valle Jail.  We have gone from One Woman’s Journey to now having 14 certified facilitators.  We look forward to what’s next in 2014.

Let’s hear from our co-founders.

Carol Waid, Truth Be Told co-founder and Director of TBT Programs:

The question that I ask myself is “What keeps you going back after 13+ years?”  The simple yet complex answer for me is that it’s the most rewarding work I have ever done. I will tell you that it’s also hard, daunting, sad, and at times despairing. The human spirit is an amazing thing. And to witness and experience, again and again, the complexity of life behind bars has been a crucial growing time for me.

The world has changed a lot in the last 13 years, and I have worked with hundreds of women in these years. The faces are different, but the stories have a theme that hasn’t changed. There is still much suffering, violence, abuse, and insanity that goes on behind front doors in our neighborhoods, in our side streets, in places that are close to us, but not seen.

What keeps me coming back is that I know there is a need for love, community, caring, and connection. The story below, about T. was shared in the second Talk to Me class, in the Autumn of 2000, and, 13 years later, we heard a similar story in our last graduating class on November 21, 2013.

 Nathalie Sorrell, Truth Be Told co-founder, facilitator, and the one who took the courage and initiative to begin the work Behind Bars in February of 2000, wrote this piece for Truth Be Told’s 2007 newsletter:

T stood in front of our second ever Talk to Me Class on the day she was to tell her story. It was autumn of 2000. Tightly built and pretty, with long dark blonde hair and blazing blue eyes, she said,

“I hate men. If I don’t get rid of my anger, I’m gonna kill me one when I get out of here.”

No one laughed. Her hatred was palpable in the room. Then she told us of parents who owned a nudist colony, and men who used her as their sexual play-thing while she was a toddler; the mother who accidentally shot her when she was aiming at T’s brother; the 34-year-old man who offered to protect her after she’d run away from home at 14, then beat her so severely he eventually broke every bone except for her legs so she’d still be able to dance in topless bars and earn money to turn over to him. By the end of her story, we were all shaking. No one was the same.

T was the first speaker. That class, triggered by her example, spoke their secrets and shame-filled stories until the last shy woman left was blue-lipped and trembling, knowing she too would have to match T’s courage and re-live her personal horror. We all swam in graphic memories spilled out, flooding a prison classroom with dark nightmares that they had lived.

After each woman spoke her piece, we saw that we could not move onward through the classes without guidance. Carol and I were not trained counselors. We were afraid these women would break, psychologically, and we’d have taken them deeper into trouble instead of helping them out.

The day after our last woman spoke, I walked into Magnolia Cafe and saw Barbara, a friend I’ve loved since our now-grown sons were two-year olds in Sunday school together. Her face lit up and she beamed: “We were just talking about you!” She introduced me to Margaret, who had been her Bible Study Fellowship instructor.  Margaret looked up at me, laughing, “I have 5 minutes – tell me everything about your prison work!”

I laughed, sat down, and breathed a prayer for brevity. Then I spoke of the situation, and the fears we were drowning in. Margaret said, “You need a prayer team. I will start it. Find people who do e-mail and we’ll get it going right now.” She wrote her e-mail address on a napkin and I took it home.

That was Wednesday.  At Saturday’s UT football game, I ran into another friend from a church we neither attended anymore. She and I stood in line in the stadium women’s room, and by the time we finished talking about our prison work – it was an hour later and the game was two-thirds over. She informed me of her Women’s Bible study that met on Tuesdays during the hours we were at the prison. They would hold us up weekly as they met and prayed.

When I emailed Margaret, she said,

“That was my first prayer request – God provide a prayer group for the day you’re there.”

I get goose bumps on my legs telling this story, every time! We have grown, changed, come far, done a lot – not one thing has been done without prayer, and God’s spirit guiding and supporting this work, including our decision to be a service organization, instead of a faith-based organization.

I hope you’ll come up to me and say, “I am one of the Prison Pray- ers.” I’d so love to thank you and hug you – you have been bridging the gap between prison and the free world with us for seven years now!

This piece was written in 2007, and like Carol’s statement above, faces have changed but our focus and our intentions remain the same, as we continue to grow and strengthen our programs.

circle of hands wearing "TRUTH" bracelets

Suzanne Armistead, the third founder of Truth Be Told, attended a graduation as a respectful witness and when it came time for the Circle of Response she danced her acknowledgement of the powerful gift the women who told their stories had given her. S’Zan returned the next semester to lead an Exploring Creativity workshop and soon after trained to be a facilitator by attending the TTM (Talk to Me) Speaking class; then supported Carol to start the TTM Circle class; then became the TTM Movement class creator and facilitator.

All along using words but mostly by example, she was teaching Carol and Nathalie the utter necessity for all women (including facilitators) to become tuned in to and active within our bodies and movement. She constantly lightened heavy feelings and intense meetings by jumping up and “playing” with a topic instead of discussing it. S’Zan showed us an entirely new way to get free from our own resistance and heaviness.

At this time, we had not organized or become Truth Be Told. Carol hadn’t yet given us this name. At the prison, we were simply volunteers who created the TTM (Talk to Me) classes and the Exploring Creativity workshops and who loved what we were participating in.

The story of how TBT became a non-profit service organization in November of 2003 is too long to tell here, but it wouldn’t have happened if Suzanne Armistead hadn’t joined Carol and Nathalie in 2002.

 Thank you for participating in helping to change the world, we could not have come to this milestone without you.

A Story About Movement

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By Ginger McGilvray, a Volunteer Facilitator for Truth Be Told

I looked at the clock and we had twenty minutes left of class, which on this day was essentially a rehearsal for the two movement pieces we would be presenting the very next day at the Talk To Me graduation ceremony at Lockhart GEO Prison.  We had one piece ready to go.  It was a poignant collection of movements we each created through the process of telling our life stories, set to a worthy song called “Long Journey Home” by Sweet Honey in the Rock.  But the second piece was another matter.  It was falling apart.  

 This was my first go at facilitating one of the Talk To Me classes.  The entire eight weeks with these 11 women in the Movement class was alive with me learning about myself as a facilitator and unlearning strategies that were not useful or relevant.  All semester I was finding that I cared more and more for these 11 women and that I was responsible for this thing that is designed to bring out their vulnerabilities.  We humans are so vulnerable already, and this is taken up a big notch by the fact that these women are incarcerated.  Their lives are very controlled in there, their voices are limited, and still they were showing up, open to see what this class might offer them. 

 There were weeks that I felt the class went just great.  There were no snags.  We were building trust with one another, doing the nitty gritty work of telling our life stories and learning to really hear ourselves and one another.  There were weeks when my lesson plan sort of fell apart and thankfully my improv skills came in very handy.  One of those weeks, we had an impromptu dance party, and there was laughter and smiles on their faces like I’d never seen before.  It felt like a huge relief, playfulness like there were no walls.  Then there were weeks when I felt the pressure of my responsibility, and it was a bit much to handle.  Group discussions were my biggest challenge as I tried to facilitate a balanced conversation among women who had very different levels of comfort with speaking their minds.    

And so it went.  Eight weeks of me, learning the ropes, finding my connection with these women, and basking in the support and friendship I was building with the other two facilitators.

 But the second movement piece was still falling apart with 20 minutes to go on the day before the graduation ceremony.  Although dance and movement have been important to me most of my life, this was my first time since high school to choreograph or direct a group piece.  And I was losing them.  My plan was too complicated, not translating well, and they were getting frustrated and so was I.  

The women had been excited about the song for this piece, “Tell It Like It Is” by Tracy Chapman.  This was to be our stepping stone to freedom piece.  The sun peeking out after the storm.  We were supposed to have fun with this.  And it was going to be a breeze: I’d teach them the format I had made up at home and get them to plug in their personal movements, we’d collaborate on several parts, and then we’d be done.  But, not so.  I began to feel the trust we had been building the whole semester dissolving as I dug my heels in and so did they.  One woman said “I just wanna move.  This IS the ‘movement’ class.”  Some panic started to grow in me, quickly overridden by the idea that I would just take charge and make this happen, like it or not.  This was going to be great; they would see!  

I started lecturing them about movement and the purpose of this class, and I could see on their faces that this was NOT working.  I stopped, and we just stood there, quiet.  I looked at the clock and it was 20 minutes till four.  And I looked at the 11 women, who I genuinely loved at this point, each one of them.  I realized, suddenly, that I was in charge and this thing was not going to happen if I gave up.  And I realized that I had to bring them with me.  I could not lose them like this.  The class, the graduation, it was for them, and they had shown up and been brave and real and pushed their edges in a way that I cannot even imagine.  And here they were being real with me.  That is trust!  I heard myself say something like “Ok, we’re just gonna make this real simple,” and I started directing something that was clear and they totally got it.  Then we just started to collaborate again, and we created that piece together in 20 minutes!  The song is called “Tell It Like It Is,” and that is what happened.  We were honest and pushed one another to keep it real.  It’s what we were there to do, after all.  To find our truths and speak our voices. 

 The next day at graduation, our bodies spoke our truths in a whole new way. 

As we presented our pieces, we had eye contact and we breathed together.  We coordinated our movements and our telling of stories that were both painful and healing.  During the first piece, our faces showed the emotions of the movements and it felt like the thing we were there to do was actually happening:  we were moving for our own healing.  And then, when it was time to celebrate and dance to our beloved Tracy Chapman’s voice singing ‘Say it, say it, say it.  Tell it like it is, we were together.   

Ginger Photo

Ginger McGilvray grew up in Central Texas and lives in Austin.  She is a Licensed Massage Therapist and yoga/movement instructor and she is a Hakomi Practitioner-in-training (Hakomi is a mindfulness-based, body-centered form of psychotherapy).  She is a lifelong dancer and writer and she has an affinity for working with people who are in healing process in their lives, such as related to trauma, cancer and addiction. She also works with end of life care.  There is a popular quote by Howard Thurman that pretty much summarizes Ginger’s intention:  “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”    www.gingermcgilvray.com