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Journey to Self

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

Truth Be Told Spring Graduations and Gone For Good

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By Kathleen Littlepage, Truth Be Told Interim Executive Director

There is no better way to learn more about Truth Be Told and our programs than attending a graduation.

Right now, we are filling spaces in the last two spring graduations: Talk To Me and Discovery at Hilltop Unit in Gatesville is May 16, and Discovery at GEO Lockhart Unit is May 23. We need about two weeks to process the prison paperwork for the attendees, so please let us know as soon as possible that you want to attend. For more information, contact Carol Waid at carol (at) truth-be-told.org or (512) 292-6200.

On Friday April 4, a group of about 20 from Austin met up at Kreuz Market in Lockhart, but it wasn’t all about the barbecue. After lunch and some visiting, Katie Ford, a Truth Be Told facilitator, prepared us for the short trip we were about to make to the GEO Lockhart Unit for a graduation. It was routine for the TBT facilitators but a completely new experience for a journalism graduate student, a school counselor, a psychiatric nurse, a stay-at-home mom, a former DPS officer, a UT professor, and the rest of the assembled. We listened carefully as Katie described how we would be processed into the prison and what the event would be like.

The three spring Talk To Me classes were ready to graduate 31 women. They had all spent eight weeks learning how to tell their life stories— not the stories of their convictions but the larger stories of how they became who they are.

The women had all chosen one of the three Talk To Me formats, speaking, writing, or movement. Many of the women had never participated in a graduation, although a few had some higher education, but the occasion marked completion of an intense personal journey of discovery for all. We were there to be respectful listeners to enlarge the safe communities they had built in class.

In the auditorium, the guests and graduates mingled and sat together while waiting for the ceremony to begin. This was my third graduation, but it had been several years since the last one. Ginger McGilvray’s movement class began with a group performance to a rendition of Motherless Child, and I remembered how deep these women go and that I was about to go on that journey with them. Three women from the speaking class and three from the writing class told their stories. I heard about a father who was a drug dealer, a mother who left, a brother who took her innocence, a girl who knew she was pretty, a child who died mysteriously, bad choices, and struggles with addiction. Pain, loss, mistakes, hopes, and redemption all tumbled out together. When Donna Snyder began calling the names of her 12 students in the speaking class, I was so thankful and ready for the upbeat mood of the women celebrating their accomplishments. After some guests chose to share their thoughts in the closing circle, we ended with laughter as we each said our name, a one word feeling, and a gesture that the entire group then repeated.

I agreed with the guest who said, “I am comforted to know that some of the people that we incarcerate have access to moments that will make a difference in their lives.” And I wanted to add, “…and make a difference in our lives.”

Kay Rosenkranz, who was released from prison in 2013, wrote about her experience with three Truth Be Told classes, “Graduation day was so special for me. I became an emotional basket case that day too. I was so surprised to see that people from the ‘free world’ were inspired to tears by what we did that day and the stories we shared. More surprising was learning how many other women had stories to tell and how those stories impacted their lives. I found hope in learning I had so much in common with these women. I remember thinking that if only we could harness this goodwill, this human commonality, and this energy, what a world we could then create!”

Gone For Good Supports Truth Be Told

On April 1, Gone For Good presented Truth Be Told with a $2,500 grant award at a lovely luncheon at Chez Nous. Kathleen Littlepage and Carol Waid were there to accept the check from the three founders, Retta Van Auken, Gail Miller, and Sandy Rotman. IMG_3049

Gone For Good is a nonprofit with a simple but clever model to help other nonprofits. Individuals donate items of value that they no longer want. Gone for Good sells the items and donates the proceeds, less a handling fee, to the charity chosen by the individual, who in turn gets a tax deduction. Gone For Good has a booth at the Antique Marketplace, and they sell items online. They also organize and manage estate sales.

Gone For Good was started three years ago by these three Austin women and has made over $150,000 in cash and in-kind donations. For the first time this year, Gone For Good used some accumulated funds to award grants to five small local nonprofits, and Truth Be Told is fortunate to be in that group. We are grateful to Gone For Good for their hard work and generosity and for choosing to support Truth Be Told.

Please keep Gone For Good in mind as new way to support Truth Be Told next time you want to give some items a new home. We love playing a part in their mission to sell worldly treasures to do a world of good.

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

An Amazing Opportunity

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Lauren J., a participant in the TCCC Del Valle Program shares her connection with Truth Be Told.

I had the amazing opportunity, and hopefully only the first of many, to go to prison today. Only this time I got to leave a short while later! I got released in March of 2011. Since then I have placed my hand into many different pots, a few causes and organizations. It doesn’t take up more time than I can give, and it has been a lot of great experiences!

One of the organizations that I have only recently become involved with is called Truth Be Told. I had been in the classes that they do in the Del Valle jail through the PRIDE program at the same time that I was in the Conspire class. If you had asked me even then, I would have told you that these two classes were my favorite! At the fundraiser kickoff for Conspire, I had the opportunity to reconnect with some of the people who provide programs out at the jail.

Kathleen, who facilitates for Truth Be Told approached me and as our conversation progressed she asked if I would be interested in working with them as well. The thought had occurred to me before. However, I assumed that since I hadn’t graduated from a more intensive course such as the ones they do at the prison, that I wouldn’t be a candidate for that. My assumption was incorrect and I went to an interview with Truth Be Told. We were a good fit for each other and I was invited to sit in on a meeting with them to help develop a curriculum for a class that they want to start doing with the women in the prison’s that have 90 days or less until their release. It was a great meeting that left me energized and excited!

Truth Be Told has been doing classes out at the prison in Lockhart for many years. The class that graduated today was broken down into three different groups, one group that was dubbed “movement”, one that was writing, and one for speaking.

As a part of the class the women have to examine things that happened in their lives that were beyond their control, as well as things that they actively chose that led them on the path to prison. At the end of the class each woman has to get up and share their story with their group. The group then picks three women to represent them at graduation and tell their story.

I went in today only having a vague idea of what the experience would be like. I made an effort to be present and in the moment throughout the experience at the same time making mental notes about what I was witnessing and feeling. Just before the movement group got up to do a performance of sorts, I thought to myself that if I had been there and had to choose I probably would have chosen the writing or speaking group since those are areas that I feel comfortable in. Then the women got up, and without saying a single word, a full range of emotions evoked in me.

Even though I tried not to, in the beginning, I decided that it would be better that I show that emotion and let the tears fall. The combination of music and movement expressed several very different experiences and each of them transcended beyond anything that words could have expressed.

The women got up and told their stories, some of them were articulate and well spoken leaving me with the thought that the stories they told should be published and shared with the world. Some of them were nervous and slightly introverted, but they exhibited courage as they got up and pressed beyond the fears they had and shared the truth of their stories anyway. These stories are stories that I could relate to in so many ways, and so many of the stories I had heard many times before, just with a few different details. I realized that the ways in which we are connected reach far beyond our histories. Although I had never met any of these women before, I felt as if I had known them and been on a part of their journey with them.

At the end we formed a circle of response where the participants and volunteers could get up and speak about how this impacted them. My mind was racing. I could have talked for an hour! There were so many things I wanted to say. I tried not to monopolize the time and kept a balance between expressing what I feel is most important to convey. I also try not to take much of the focus off of them by keeping it on me. I shared a small amount of information about my story, that I had been locked up, that like one of the women who spoke, I had my son in jail. I was blessed with opportunities to examine myself and explore who I was and wanted to be through programs like these.

I was happy to be a part of something so powerful, even if it was only a small part.

While I was there today, I remembered the ache that I felt when I was separated from my children. When I got home, I took a moment again to be present and hold my children extra tight, grateful for the chance to be able to do so. As I held them, I thought of those women and sent them my love.