Archive for March, 2012

These are the observations from one of our spring interns from ASU. Her analogy of Oz is very similar to mine of Wonderland.  I asked her if I could share it and she readily agreed. I’m very proud of her efforts.

Last Thursday Sue Ellen and I went on a whirlwind trip around Phoenix. In the early afternoon, we accompanied the 2009 Miss Black Arizona, Brittanee Perkins, to Adobe Mountain/Black Canyon Academy where she spoke to about 120 kids about her story, her life, and leadership and decision making in their own lives. Then we had a quick lunch, met up with the rest of GINA’s team at the Perryville Women’s Prison and completed the second session of this year’s ATHENA Lead From Within class. Then, for me, it was back to Tempe, back to the residence halls, back to work and back to homework like usual. The evening’s lesson plan in Perryville was “learn constantly.” So what did I learn? I wasn’t sure at first; the day was dizzying.

In the days since I can’t help but compare what I saw last week to a book many people will never read that was adapted into a movie most people have already seen: The Wizard of OZ. Being at Adobe Mountain/Black Canyon Academy felt like being in Munchkin Land, and not just because of the height of the people there. They didn’t break into song or dance but many of them were very excited to see Sue Ellen and Brittanee (I’m the Toto in this story). Many of them were eager and excited to hear what Brittanee had to say and were struck by her message that just because their parents went down a bad road, or because they may have started down that same road, doesn’t mean they have to keep going in that direction. She told them that they each have the power to turn themselves around and lead themselves someplace great in life. Many of them drank in that message and left happy. A few of them were unconvinced. “It’s so much easier to do illegal things” one young man said. Another added that “We just go right back into it” – “it” being the situation that got them to Adobe Mountain/Black Canyon in the first place.

The women at Perryville likely agree. I don’t think a single woman there would say that it is difficult to get into prison (at least as an inmate). What’s hard is learning how to turn themselves around and to find somewhere else in life to get to. That’s what the ATHENA class is for.

But it occurred to me, after spending a day with boys and girls and women who are involved in the justice system, that even before they’re placed under any form of supervision, many of them are in Oz and their one yellow-bricked road leads straight to and back to prison. It’s easy to get there. Just follow the yellow brick road, or tan brick, as it may be.

So what are we doing? What can be done? We’re already taking steps to help the people who have arrived in the Emerald – well, tan and orange – City. And now we’re starting programs to help the children who end up in Munchkin Land. But how do we keep people out of Oz? No more tornadoes? Only if you call the systematic and institutional neglect and abuse that often lands people in trouble a “storm.”

I don’t know who The Wicked Witch is, or who plays The Wizard in this story, but we all know for sure that’s not who to ask for answers because they won’t tell us the truth anyway. We should be asking ourselves how this happened and what can be done, and, most importantly, “How Can I Help?”

Ruby slippers

An original pair of ruby slippers used in The Wizard of Oz, on display at the Smithsonian Institution

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On March 18, 2009, I was released from prison. My friend Carolyn welcomed me back to the world and took me to Paradise to have my first meal. I stood with my mouth open, looking up at the menu with no idea what to choose. I was just determined to have something with tomatoes. Then Carolyn took me to the home of my friend Eleanore where I became a house guest until David was released and our life began again. I will never forget her kindness and generosity.  I am sure that she and her family gave us our life back.

Not everyone is so blessed. So many women get out of prison with no family or community support. Most places will not accept ex-felons as tenants. Most companies don’t want to hire you. And the economy isn’t the greatest, just in case you haven’t noticed. What a period of adjustment. There are so many choices out here. The best thing about prison is realizing I don’t need all that stuff to make me happy. Happiness comes in finding your purpose and living it. I found mine in prison and I am blessed to be able to serve the population I left  behind. Teaching classes in the prison and in the juvenile facilities we serve through Gina’s Team is the most rewarding thing I have ever done.

We didn’t celebrate yesterday. I was busy updating curriculum for our classes and writing mid-term evaluations for our interns. I guess tonight was our celebration. It’s the first night of one of my favorite shows, Dancing with the Stars. I confess, I love all those sequins, feathers, and spray tans. I love the color and joy of dance.  I love the fun of it all. Finally, David and I get to watch it together and we get to vote.

Life is precious and the simple pleasures are the best. We live in gratitude.

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