Written by: Jayson Morris, Social Entrepreneurship Portfolio Director
Two lines facing each other, separated by mere inches, but those standing on them are worlds apart. One, a group of professionals – from VC’s and startups, tech companies and foundations – just volunteering for a day. The other comprised of female inmates from the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, California; some serving sentences for 2 years, others for 10 years, and a few for life.
Two lines face-to-face, staring into each other’s eyes, cultivating empathy and yearning for connection & understanding.
The instructions were simple, though the execution of them required searching ones soul and the courage to move ones body to tell the truth. Each row took a step back, and as the MC read probing statements, individuals on both sides stepped to the line when truth resonated inside of them and back when it did not.
At first the two lines ebbed and flowed fairly consistently:
- I like hip-hop.
- I work out 3 or more days per week.
- ’m older than 20 years old… 25… 30… 40... 50... 60... 70.
- I regularly feel judged by others.
As we got deeper, the lines fragmented but there were people from both sides courageously stepping to the line, all the while holding eye contact with their partner from the other side. My partner Daniela and I were locked in a dance – our feet moved to and from the line as our eyes filled with the tears of personal suffering and empathy for the other. She seemed to hold the line more frequently than I did, especially when we went through statements about a difficult childhood:
- I was suspended or expelled from school.
- Violence took place in my home.
- At least one of my parents wasn’t exactly a positive role model for me – or wasn’t even around.
- At least one of my parents abused drugs or alcohol.
- My mother or father has been to jail or prison.
- I lost my innocence before age 12...10… 8… 6.
I broke when she held the line through age 6 – how could someone lose their innocence so young? As the MC probed deeper, tears streamed and hearts cracked opened on both sides over a greater understanding of the fragility of human life than perhaps any of us had ever imagined:
- I’ve done criminal things for which I could’ve been arrested, but wasn’t.
- I have suffered, or currently suffer, from depression.
- If you knew every one of my dirty secrets, and knew the real me, you wouldn’t love me.
- Sometimes my feelings of inadequacy lead me to overcompensate in some areas, or act out.
- There are some things I haven’t forgiven myself for, and may never forgive myself.
In the end, the ‘free professionals’ and the incarcerated EITs (Defy’s participants are Entrepreneurs in Training) were not all that different. Yes there were certain statements, like those around education, where the professionals all stood on our line like an imposing wall while the EITs retreated off the line… but with many of the statements there was a mingling of groups – both sides had abusive parents, both sides had committed acts where they might have gone to jail if caught, both sides carried the heavy weight of shame and an inability to forgive others or oneself.
So why did we end up on one line and they on the other? Perhaps it is luck. Perhaps it was the fallout of one choice they made: the choice of who to hang out with as a child, the choice to find love and belonging in a gang or friends that used or sold drugs, the choice to try drugs, the choice to lie to protect a loved one, the choice to drive while intoxicated or to cheat just a little bit. Or perhaps it was that one side just happened to get caught. Perhaps it’s the inches that can separate a DUI from vehicular homicide, the seconds that it takes for a vulnerable girl to lie to the authorities to protect someone she loves. There should most certainly be repercussions for breaking the law and for hurting others. But how have we gone so wrong that our punishments are about causing more hurt, not preventing or rehabilitating.
So there we all were, swaying back and forth in the sea of human fragility, our preconceived notions about the other and the fears we brought inside washed away. Washed away, so we could see each other as fellow humans and to support these women in rebuilding their lives.
Defy uses entrepreneurship coupled with life & business skills training to give incarcerated individuals a second chance, or a third chance – to own the mistakes of their past; to heal and rebuild their sense of self; to gain the skills to leave prison with confidence; and to start their own business. We professionals were there as the ultimate final exam for the women of FCI Dublin who had worked their butts off for 8 months, learning Defy’s accredited curriculum and designing simple, low capital investment businesses they could launch upon release. They’d honed their ideas and pitches the best they could without internet and practiced with each other as sisters. And they presented to us Shark Tank style, standing up in front of six strangers to present their ideas and hear probing questions and critical feedback. The ideas were realistic yet creative businesses, building on the skills they had before they’d gone to prison. Ideas for businesses included: vegetarian-focused catering, homemade cakes, beautician services, and IT support for the elderly. All women were nervous, all found this final project terrifying and empowering. Some ideas were more polished and had a better chance to succeed, but all women felt the success of developing an idea and building their confidence to share their business and their own story.
The day ended festively, with some delicious fried chicken, with hoops and hollers as awards were handed out, profuse applause as all the EITs graduated the introductory “white belt” program (for which they receive a Baylor University MBA Certificate), and a few group photos where we all crammed in to fit.
And for a few minutes along the way it felt like any other graduation event... until we went to say our goodbyes with hugs and had to remember that we were only allowed to shake hands… until one group lined up with a guard and the others were taken out the secure door and escorted past the razor wire, through the secure area with the bullet proof glass, and out into the free world.
That was a week ago, and every day since, I’ve thought of these women stepping to the line; of Daniela’s face as she held the line during all of the statements of a broken childhood; of the love, energy, camaraderie the women shared during the awards and graduation.
To the 28 EITs of FCI Dublin– I see you. I see the pain of your childhoods that I am fortunate enough not to know firsthand. I see the rambunctious revolt you had to your childhood wounds and that comfort you sought in illusory friend groups that turned you the wrong way. I see the frustration of a system that has cast you aside and the sorrow of a world that has moved on without you. I see your new strength and the hope in your eyes now that you found yourself through Defy. I see the purpose you now have, whether you’re getting out in 2 days as Melissa is, you have a few years left on a 20 year sentence like Tatiana has, or you were one of those in for life – you still have a purpose and a value now. I see you as fragile humans, just like me and just how thin and precious that line is between us. You are in my thoughts and my heart. And Ms. Bailey – the prison official who helped the program launch and survive, and to whom the women frequently professed their gratitude – I see your raw strength, and I see your love of these women underneath.
To all of these souls, keep working on improving yourselves, keep honing your business and opening your heart, keep defying the labels that have been put on you and the odds stacked against you.
To learn more about Defy’s life-transforming work, please visit www.defyventures.org