Jellyfish among the zebras

•June 13, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Saturday evening offered one of those moments of undeniable messages from the universe.

Speaking to a friend sitting on a hotel lobby couch, I expressed the resistance I’d felt asking my many questions over the first two days of a workshop we were attending. My questions felt “irrelevant” for most workshop attendees. In a room full of coaches and holistic practitioners, I was the “odd ball” which is not only being called into prison, but is now being called to bring in a change from a punitive to a compassionate culture across the prison system. I’ve been feeling both humbled by the direction and freaked out as I know nothing about government, anyone in government, becoming a government contractor (which is what I assume will have to happen), how to propose this crazy idea to the government, what credentials they’d wish to see, how to support myself in the process (can I do it without double niche-ing?), etc. While we were speaking of offering a free consultation and enrolling people into packages and programs, I was wondering how the heck this applies to government officials. I told this friend: “In a room full of zebras dealing with zebra questions, why bring in a jellyfish?” I felt like the misplaced jellyfish.

Within minutes of saying those words, a woman sat down across from us. On her T-shirt, underneath her half-open sweatshirt, I spotted… a jellyfish!!!!! Really!!?!?!?!! We laughed and everyone agreed that it meant that I was to bring the jellyfish into the room of zebras.  On Sunday, I committed that I would raise my hand at every sharing opportunity to bring in the jellyfish.  That sharing did not happen with the bigger group.  And the jellyfish admits having a hard time accepting that, after feeling so unseen, daring to put out its tentacles and not receiving group support.  Until I realized the many zebras who provided support to the crazy jellyfish which is showing up in the room full of zebras.  I’m now on a mission to connect with people who can provide clarity into the government jungle… Because this jellyfish has crazy stuff to create!

A huuuuuge circle of 60 men

•May 10, 2017 • 1 Comment

When we started organizing TEDxDonovanCorrectional last December, our team was 11 Donovan men strong. These “men in blue” became our Core Team, the men who ideated, conceptualized and implemented each detail of the event. Then, in February, our team grew to 15 men after the Core Team short-listed the TEDx speakers-in-training. A couple weeks ago, the Helpers joined the Core Team and Speakers and our team ballooned to 30 men. And today, when I walked into the Activity Room, I saw a huuuuuuge circle of 60 – yes, 6-0 – men in blue! I stopped almost dead in my tracks. What a sight! From the 11 initial men, TEDxDonovanCorrectional has grown to engage 60 men! Many of these men have been coming to see me for weeks, asking to get involved. They are eager to gather the tools that create positive impact and experiences in their lives, so they may continue to grow into the positive human beings they know themselves to be despite their violent destructive pasts. I was moved to tears to see this large group of men committed to their transformations, committed to being the change they wish to see in the world, committed to putting on a successful mind-expanding, heart-opening TEDx experience for all people involved. And I am humbled to be a creator of this space of transformation, that we may each create the learnings that will stay with us forever, craft the new chapters of our lives. Each time we visit Donovan, all of us – those in blue and those not in blue – leave touched, changed and more connected to our common humanness.   We are 11 days away from the big day and our team is ready to step up their game in dimensions we have never imagined before. We are stretching them and they are absolutely stretching us.

Dripping sweat and serving

•April 29, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Sunday morning, two TEDx team members arrive to our meeting in their sports jerseys and excitedly say: “We’re in a basketball tournament and our team has a playoff game right now. Can we go play the game instead of working on TEDx today?” After talking about the fact that basketball or TEDx is their choice and they are grown men who are free to make their own choices, they choose to go play their game. Considering how excited they were about being in the playoffs as well as the men’s past dedication to TEDx, it was a perfect decision as far as I was concerned.

A little while later, the two men come back into the room, out of breath and dripping sweat, excitedly saying “Mariette, It’s half-time. We have about 20 minutes. How can we serve right now in 20 minutes? How can we help?”

Seriously?!? The men were playing basketball (and winning, might I add) and, instead of using their half-time to hang out with their homies, to rest and chill out, they immediately run back into our room to see how they can serve. And serve they do. One of the men notices that we missed something that only he can take care of. So, he runs off to the housing units to take care of it. The other man listens to the speakers practicing their talks to give them feedback.

The commitment of these men to their TEDx program continuously astounds me. They are the ones who keep pushing the envelope of what can happen and how to make it happen peacefully and with a great diversity of opinion and expression. They continuously go beyond what we had imagined to create the event of a lifetime. And tiny moments like this one remind all of us of their dedication.

In for a treat

•April 13, 2017 • 1 Comment

Oh my friends, you’re in for a treat! On Tuesday, after 6ish weeks of preparation, our inside speakers-in-training shared the drafts of their talks from our pretend-stage for the first time, so that we could select the five speakers you will be hearing on May 21st.  Wowza! Power, vulnerability and true lessons of life, love, forgiveness, purpose and redemption.

One man invited us on a journey with his lyrical multilingual spoken word. Another man opened up and shared, for the very first time, a painful story he had kept locked up inside of him for 26 years! Wow, there is magic in watching a man express and accept a part of his history that has festered inside him for over two decades. Over the past few months, we’ve watched another slowly overcome his sheer terror of speaking (not just public speaking) and, on Tuesday, he spoke with resolution and connection, walking us through his step-by-step guide towards… (ah, you’ll discover that on the 21st).

These men are metamorphosing before our very eyes. I think back to December 20th, the first time we met the Core Team. The men were already blowing our socks off with their awareness, openness and respect for each other. Today, they blossom to allow an expression of their deeper soul. They dare to excavate, to interrogate, to really dig deep into the moments that have defined their lives. They explore the stories they have held as truths. They let go of their shackles to fly free. Where there was little to no eye contact, there is now profound connection. Where there was hesitancy, there is now confidence. Where there was force, there is now power.

And… these men still have five weeks to continue refining these drafts into the talks that will blow our minds and hearts open. Oh my friends, you’re in for a treat!

Honoring Neville

•March 21, 2017 • Leave a Comment

As we arrived at Donovan prison today, our TEDx guys were clearly carrying the burden of the loss of their friend, Neville, who passed away on Sunday of a sudden heart attack. We started our TEDx planning time together by creating space for Neville’s memory, anything anyone wanted to share and simple acknowledgement of the pain of grief.

Many of our guys knew him well: the first to get up and going in the morning, the last to head back to his cell is the evening. The men spoke about his kindness and the good friend he had been so many of them.

After sharing memories, we all maintained a minute of silence during which I invited each of us to “pray, meditate, grieve, celebrate, express gratitude and sadness… and, for those of us who feel less impacted by this loss, I invite you to hold space and send loving support for those who are impacted.” The men did just that.

Even we, coming from the outside with no formal reason to know Neville, have been impacted by his presence and his care.   Before moving to a bigger space when our team size doubled, Neville greeted us each Tuesday with his large smile. He would bring an additional “comfortable” chair because, as he said, “plastic chairs are for those of us who committed bad actions.” He would make sure our meeting room was absolutely spotless and, before leaving, he would squirt a few sprays of his lemon air freshener to liven up the air.

What seemingly inconsequential actions. And yet, each time our space would receive the squirts of that artificial lemon smell, Mark and I would look at each other and smile. We felt welcomed and cared for.

The power of these seemingly inconsequential actions is such a reminder of the power of each and every one of our actions. We simply never know which action may have the most profound impact on another: from a hug, to a smile, to providing a sandwich, to listening with the heart, to even helping someone out with a work problem. I invited the guys to pay attention to their small actions this week. And to receive the magical gift of the small actions done onto them.

I invite each of us outside prison to do the same.

TEDx brotherhood

•March 9, 2017 • Leave a Comment
This week, the TEDx men surprised us yet again. Dita was moved to tears and Mark regularly looked over at me with the smile that I’ve gotten to know as meaning “Is this for real?”. Now that the TEDx team is jelling after the addition of the speakers-in-training a few weeks ago, it was time to discuss what being on the TEDx team stands for.
 
I invited the men to commit to ideating, designing, creating and executing THEIR event, to commit to counting on each other and being a source everyone can count, to commit to co-creating our weekly TEDx time into a space of experimentation, expansion, exploration and expression, etc. The conversation could have stopped here.
 
Instead, over the next 20 minutes, the men started sharing why this space matters to them and how they expect to honor it:
  • “This creates relevance and we need relevance.”
  • “Putting on TEDx takes courage.”
  • “TEDx is a privilege.”
  • “This [transformational growth] is a process and we’re all in different parts of the process.”
  • “We here to work together as a team.”
 
We have the blessing of working with 18 men who are deeply committed to executing this crazy TEDx vision, who come together as friends, peers and collaborators. We can quickly forget that, outside of our sacred space, the dynamics on the yard are quite different. The racial divides pressure the men to avoid contact with each other. There are constant pressures towards negative behaviors; contraband – drugs, cell phones, electronics – are continuously tempting. Fights are a regular mode of communication. There are countless rules about what you can and cannot do. And many behaviors are considered to be signs of weakness, quickly leveraged by other men.
 
Therefore, it takes courage to stay committed to a path of positivity and to take small steps beyond the pressures of those yard politics and rules. One team member is so committed to the diversity of the team that he regularly goes out on a limb to reach out to the men with whom he “shouldn’t” be speaking.
 
As written a few weeks ago, all paths from black to white travel through grey, which is made up of moments of black and moments of white. In prison, falling back into moments of black is judged quite harshly. And, like one of the guys said, it’s a process. We attempt to honor that process with as much humanity as possible, while constantly inviting the guys and ourselves to step it up.
 
As the 20-minute conversation (Mark, Dita and I sat back and listened) began to come to a close, the men said: “This is the TEDx brotherhood.” It’s inspiring to see this camaraderie and companionship. Not just because of the above-described challenges or that these guys are inmates (with all of the perceptions that entails). But because, in this camaraderie, the men are, yet again, an example to all of us on the outside. They take companionship and support of another to a level I rarely experience on the outside. This camaraderie they create enables the safety required for true and lasting change.
 
Soon, we’ll have a secret handshake…

Transformation under the influence of classical music

•March 2, 2017 • Leave a Comment

During this week’s meeting with the Core Team of inmates, we “introduced” the men to our selected outside performer by showing them a video of Eric Genuis’ performance of “The Butterfly.”

I watched the men become captivated by the classical music filling the large cement room, some of them closing their eyes. Over the 9-minute piece, the men visibly transformed. They softened. They sank into their chairs, more peaceful. They allowed themselves to be carried and moved by the music.

When the last note rang from the TV, I asked the guys: “What did you feel as you listened to Eric and the orchestra play?”

  • I felt joy.
  • Yeah, and there also are moments of sorrow.
  • I really liked how I felt the crescendo grow inside me.
  • I felt love.
  • [standing and placing his hand on his heart] He played from his heart.
  • Yes, he played with such passion.
  • Did he really write this music himself? [Yes.] Wow!

It’s so easy to discount these hardened men who rarely (ever?) listen to classical music that they won’t understand. And, of course, beneath any hardening and persona they wear, at their core, they are human, like all of us. And it is that common human core that is moved and touched – transported and transformed – by classical music.

Eric and his fellow players will grace all of us in attendance at the TEDxDonovanCorrectional in May with his passionate play. Just like for the men, their notes and harmonies will open our hearts and create that the perfect landing place for subsequent talks.