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Recently at the White House, we had the privilege of listening to Hannah Jackson introduce the Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence. What’s unusual about that? Hannah is fourteen years old and the daughter of a formerly incarcerated father. Her courageous and articulate words inspired the entire East Room of the White House and
IMG_0249should inspire the country to support our need for prison reform.  Thank you, Hannah.

Here is the link to Hannah’s speech on c-span as well as the text below. https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4730399/saint-hilary-8th-grader-hannah-jackson

Good morning,

Thank you. It is an honor to be here today. Words cannot express how grateful I am to see everyone here today talking about a topic that is so close to my heart.

I used to have a dream – that I was with my dad – but we were surrounded by metal fences and metal tables. It wasn’t until I was 9 years old and my mom told me he had been in prison that I realized this wasn’t a dream, it was a childhood memory.

It turns out I’m not the only one with memories of having to visit a mom or a dad in prison. There are 10 million other kids in America who grew up with a mom or dad behind bars.

All these kids want, is to come home from school, eat a snack and talk about their day – to have their mom or dad at their ballgame – or hear them read a bedtime story and feel their kiss good night.

Incarceration has many negative impacts for children and families. And it often kicks off a vicious cycle. Children who grow up with parent behind bars are 6 times more likely to be incarcerated as adults. Children whose parents suffer from addiction are 8 times more likely to become addicted to drugs or alcohol themselves. You’re also much more likely to grow up in poverty.

It makes you wonder – how can we ever break this cycle?

As a kid, it is very confusing to watch grown-ups fighting over politics, instead of helping people and solving these problems. And that is exactly why it is so meaningful that we are all here today – to start focusing on the solutions. So we can break these cycles – people can get the help they need – and kids can be reunited with their moms and dads.

To continue that conversation, it is my honor to introduce to the stage –

The Vice President of the United States Mike Pence.

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This is Hannah listening to the President after Mike Pence spoke.

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 This is Hannah’s look-alike mother, Jessica Jackson Sloan, who has her own remarkable story. Jessica is co-founder with Van Jones of #cut50.  She is sharing the stage with another outstanding woman, Topeka Sam, the founder and ED of The Ladies of Hope Ministries. thelohm.org. They’re listening to Jared Kushner speak of the need for prison reform, a cause Jared supports passionately.  FYI, this is a bi-partisan effort that many people have been working on through the previous and current administrations. It is a cause we should all support as Americans and human beings. Don’t tell me we should only work with our own party. Let’s be grownups and work together.

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January 2016, I was privileged to  be a guest of Mrs. Obama in her box at the President’s final State of the Union address. While we watched the President make his way to the podium, everyone was clapping and smiling, while those close to the center aisle were maneuvering to shake his hand. It was very collegial and they seemed like they actually liked each other. It looked. . . hopeful.Screen Shot 2017-11-12 at 8.05.34 PM.png

Then the President started talking and I couldn’t ignore the conduct of the Congress. We hear our congress is divided but when you are looking down at it physically and symbolically, it’s stunning. There’s an invisible line right down the middle of that historic, important chamber.

When the action started, the President would say something and the left side of the chamber (Dems) would stand up and loudly applaud; the right side (Reps) of the chamber sat silently on their hands. While half the room cheered, the other half looked at their email, Facebook or Twitter. We had to leave our cellphones in the motorcade. That rule didn’t apply to our leaders. And now with the change in administrations, the Dems sit on their hands and the Reps cheer loudly. Seems it’s tradition. What kind of crazy tradition is that?

For a long time I’ve lamented the lack of grownups in Congress. The name calling is disgraceful and the lack of mutual respect is shameful. We wouldn’t allow our children to behave the way Congress does. Even if they agree with an issue and want to support it, they are scolded if they don’t follow the the Party Line, because they don’t want the other party to get a win! Shouldn’t this be about human beings, about our country, not about winning and losing?

I believe in bipartisanship and civility. I believe we should be working across the aisles and Getting Things Done. Instead Congress is stuck in the muck.

May 18, 2018 was the White House Summit on Prison Reform. Space is limited in the East Room so this included a very small group of 150. This is the second time I’ve been to the Trump White House and I’ve received a myriad of reactions:

 How exciting! Wow! Can I come too? Are you kidding? How could you go there? How could you work wth them? You shouldn’t go!

Guess what…I went. IMG_0221

Suddenly I’m in the position of supporting a bipartisan bill, The First Step Act, HR 5682. www.FirstStepAct.com and being criticized for it.  Van Jones, cofounder of #cut50, and Jared Kushner and their teams have been working tirelessly on this. It’s a complex dance of up and down the Hill and across those deceptively ordinary looking yet deeply historic aisles to craft a prison reform bill that will start the first domino of the many that must be knocked down. IMG_0231They are walking through mine fields and everyone is getting heat for it. I’m getting heat for showing up at the White House and participating.  So are my other sisters who’ve either lived behind the wires or had a loved one there.

 

(Photo: Columnist Rebecca Hagelin, Me in my camouflage jacket, Jared Kushner (Yes, he’s very tall), Pamela Winn of Restore Her and Amy Cando, CEO of CAN-DO Foundation.)

Van Jones admits he’s as liberal as they come, but in one IMG_0238of our first conversations he surprised me with a comment I’ve never forgotten. I was voicing criticism of one of our political leaders and Van said, “It’s a big playground, Sue Ellen, and we all need to learn to play together.”

In his very intelligent book, Beyond The Messy Truth, he observes, “To fix America, progressives and conservatives need a better relationship, grounded in mutual respect and deepened by working together on tough problems.” He’s serious and he didn’t pay me to say that:)) You should read it. (Photo: Pouring rain in front of the White House with Van Jones, bipartisan leader par excellence.)

 

The First Step Act is just that, a first step, applicable only to inmates in federal prisons. I’ve included a summary of the bill below, a link to the bill and a link to the Marshall Project for a bipartisan analysis.

https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/5682

https://www.themarshallproject.org/2018/05/22/is-the-first-step-act-real-reform

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To answer my critics, I support this bill because no bill will ever be perfect, we are the grown ups in the room and must find ways to work in a bipartisan fashion. Jared Kushner’s father served prison time and, unlike most families, Jared had the means to visit his father often. He met other inmates and their families and he was appalled at how the system operates. He didn’t have to assume leadership on this issue and he’s gotten a lot of flak for it, but he knows how necessary it is.

So YES, I support the extremely difficult work that Jared and Van and their incredible teams have done to get this far. If not for their shared vision, none of this would have happened and I wouldn’t have been in the East Room of the White House last week to attend the WH Prison Reform Summit. Kudos to all who had the courage to show up. We’ve passed the House; now we must pass the Senate, a more formidable task.

For a very long time, not one formerly incarcerated human being was ever invited to the table, therefore our ideas and experiences went unheard. That’s counter productive because WE are the prison experts. Finally we are being included and our voices are being heard. All I can say is, let’s build a bigger table. We need each of you to show your support for this bill, the human beings, the families and communities it touches. That means all of us.

 

 

 

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Harvey Weinstein. Everyone in the world is posting expressions of shock, dismay, disgust and horror. Really? Suddenly American men are shocked and disgusted? Seriously, you never had any idea that this kind of sexual harassment and violence by rich, powerful, old and mostly unattractive, overweight men has been going on for CENTURIES?

I’m 72. I’ve been sexually harassed since I was in my 20s. Yes, by rich, powerful, much older, unattractive, overweight men who were pillars of their churches and had loving ‘showcase’ families. In corporate America, I often reported to the president or CEO of the company and had to travel with them. One of the ‘pillars of the church’ would sit by me on the plane, trying to put his arm through mine over the armrest so he could rub his arm against my breast. It was both disgusting and hypocritical from this tower of Christianity. I quickly learned to check us both in to different rows so we could both have aisle seats:))

I also learned to hop quickly out of the limo at the hotel and dash to the front desk. I would make sure we were checked in to rooms on different floors. and I never sat next to him at meals. It was a dance I did, a keep-away dance. It was exhausting and demeaning, but I needed the job. Good jobs in corporate America weren’t that common for young women in the 70s and 80s.

He wasn’t the first nor was he the last. I got quite adept at that keep-away dance, but it hurt my heart and angered me. No, I never considered going to HR. How could I complain about the CEO? We women talked about it amongst ourselves, but that’s as far as we could go.

So now let’s go a little farther. Did you have any idea that many of those same powerful men were also predators often against their own children? One of America’s other dirty not-so-secret secrets is incest. I met hundreds of women in prison who had been raped by their fathers, step-fathers, uncles, mother’s boyfriends. I met one young woman who gave birth to her father’s child when she was 12! Effectively that little boy was both her son and brother. At first, I though she was an anomaly but I quickly learned she was not.

If you visit any of our country’s juvenile facilities for girls, you will hear stories of incest that will chill you to the bone. So often these predators are pillars of very strict and fundamental religions. They are also powerful businessmen and feel untouchable. Often these girls turn to or are given drugs to ‘ease’ the pain. The next step is crime and then society condemns them as ‘bad girls’ and addicts. I dare you to go through what they’ve been through and not turn to some kind of escape from the horror.

Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes. They are just the tiny tip of an enormous world-wide iceberg. Yes, women are saying “Me, too,” but what is it going to take to put a stop to this? Some men may actually be worried, but mostly, they still feel untouchable. Many women are afraid to make waves, lose their jobs, and, yes, even hurt the wives and children of the predators.

It’s going to take a true cultural shift in America’s thought process to actually change this behavior. It’s going to take men talking openly against it in locker rooms and clubs, men supporting women as they speak out. It’s going to take true equality, equal pay, equal representation in Congress and our state governments and corporations, equal protection under the law. That means men will lose some power. Is that even possible? I haven’t seen any evidence that they’re willing to open up, speak up and stand up for their women: wives, mothers, aunts, cousins, girlfriends and, most important, daughters. That’s what it’s going to take to create that shift. What about it, men?

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screen-shot-2017-02-13-at-11-27-36-pmWhere were you fifteen years ago, Valentine’s Day 2002? Some of my young friends weren’t even born yet. Some of  my sisters and brothers in orange were inside. Some of you were celebrating Valentine’s Day and some of you were lamenting the lack of cards, chocolate and flowers.

I was sitting in a doctor’s office hearing the words, “You’ve got  stage 3B breast cancer.” What? No, that can’t be right. I’ve never smoked. No one in my family has had cancer. I eat my veggies and exercise. And what the hell, it’s Valentine’s Day. Seriously??

But it was right and none of that other stuff mattered. I was tapped on the breast by Breast cancer behind the wiresthe cancer demon and began a journey I never expected. Curiously, it almost paralleled with my prison journey. If I hadn’t been diagnosed on Valentine’s Day and started chemo and had my medical records, I wouldn’t be alive today because most of my treatment including my mastectomy was behind prison walls.

Although “they” told me I probably wouldn’t live five years, fifteen years later, here I am. Christine died; Gina died; Paula died; too many died; even David died, but I’m still here. Often I wonder why. And then I look at the book by my bed, The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu.

I first checked this book from the library, but after one chapter I knew I had to own it so I rushed to Costco where it sits amongst the latest book bargains, hot off the press. You might not notice it, but Pay Attention. Forget the best selling novels screen-shot-2017-02-13-at-11-32-38-pmand take this one instead.

It’s divided into three sections:

I    The Nature of True Joy

II   The Obstacles of Joy

III  The Eight Pillars of Joy

This book will open your eyes to the difference between joy and happiness. It will open your eyes to the incredible power and joy of LIFE, despite suffering and sorrow.

You’ve heard me say it a million times, “Everyone has a story.” Mostly those stories are about pain and suffering. You’ve also heard me say that there is great power in your willingness to be vulnerable and share your story with others.

The Book of Joy distills the power of our grief, pain and suffering and gives meaning to our stories.  I’m not going to give you a book report. Nope, you have to buy it  and keep it by the bed with a marker to highlight the meaningful parts. And then put a journal with it to write your own story so you’ll know why you’re here and what you’re meant to do.

What’s your story? Have you figured out your purpose? If you haven’t, no worries. I didn’t “get” mine until I walked into prison at fifty-seven years old. (Slow learner.) Judy Pearson calls finding your purpose your 2nd Act. 

Judy is a breast cancer survivor with an incredible story and a clear vision to make a difference in the world of cancer. She founded A 2nd Act to do just that. A 2nd Act: Survivorship Takes the Stage is a live, curated stage performance, featuring a cast of eight women survivors of ALL types of cancers, local to the city in which the show is being held. Professionally produced, each woman has auditioned for a slot to share her own story of how she’s using her post-diagnosis gifts of time and experience for the greater good.

I’m deeply honored to have been chosen to be part of the Phoenix cast for 2017 and Sunday we had our first table reading. At that table, The Book of Joy came to life. All of the women there realized the power of their stories while they were going through their suffering and from their pain, they have manifested extraordinary 2nd Acts. Their courage is humbling and inspiring.

The Phoenix event on Sunday, March 12th. I hope you will visit the website to get the details. If you know anyone who has battled cancer or if you have, I urge you to attend this event and bring your friends. You will laugh, cry, be outraged delighted and you may see yourself in one of the stories. Here’s the link to the site: https://a2ndact.org/the-2nd-act/

Meanwhile, back to Valentine’s Day. Maybe you have a marvelous date tonight. Maybe you’re sad because you’re alone. Consider this. In doctor’s offices all over the world women and men and children are hearing the words, “You’ve got cancer.” In a heart-beat, their lives are changed forever.

Here’s your chance for a really special Valentine’s Day. Instead of feeling blue, why not take some flowers to a senior center or a hospital or the VA? Why not invite your mother to dinner? Think outside the box and get creative. What wonderful thing can you do to brighten someone else’s Valentine’s Day? Who knows, it might feel so good it will become your 2nd Act!

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I haven’t been out on New Year’s Eve in about thirty years. David and I kept a wonderful tradition and once he was gone, our tradition became a treasured memory. There was no way I was ever going out again on NYE until my friend Betsy came up with a brilliant concept that grew organically as we all embraced it…a Greenwich Mean Time (GMT)
celebration. (http://www.rmg.co.uk /discover/explore/greenwich-mean-time-gmt

screen-shot-2017-01-01-at-10-24-45-pmThe theory was that we would celebrate the New Year on London (GMT) time, five o’clock in Phoenix. Evryone I talked to loved the idea. Betsy and I got more and more excited. She and her husband Ken ordered thirty-two balloons and streamers. I gotcool hats, important looking crowns and princess tiaras. Their daughter Daria planned a menu of the yummiest of treats lovingly purchased from Costco. After all, who wants to spend time New Year’s Eve slaving over any kind of stove? And we agreed to dress in our sparkly best.

screen-shot-2017-01-01-at-10-38-58-pmWe gathered at three to start the festivities, an eclectic group of people who’d never met, yet felt as though we’d known each other forever. Three of our group went to the same high school. Diane discovered that her beloved mother had been the gynecologist for Mary and her mother and her grandmother. Mary’s words, I loved your mother, brought tears to all of us.

Francine and Diane began plotting how to take over the entrepreneurial world. Paul regaled us with a story of trying to impress his date by taking her to a drive-in movie without a car. It must have worked because they’ve been married over fifty years.  Ken and Tom solved the problems of the political world and have a can’t-lose presidential candidate to run for 2020. Nope, can’t tell. It’s a secret.

Everyone had a story or a connection that stunned, excited and inspired us as we grew closer to five pm, midnight GMT. Crowns and tiaras were tilted at just the right angles; streamers and poppers were poised as we counted down,
                                           5. 4. 3. 2. 1 . . . Happy New Year!!!
Cheers, hugs and pure joy to ring in the new year.

The rest of the world was just starting to prep for their celebrations, but for us, the Arizona sunset was gorgeous and we’d had a fantastic time. By six-thirty we were all safely on our way home, long before the traffic became dangerous with people who had over-celebrated. It was the best possible way to celebrate New Year’s Eve and we agreed it must become a tradition.
                                So here’s to a new way to bring in the New Year. . .
                                                         Greenwich Mean Time.
                                                     Happy New Year, Everyone.

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Finally, we’re at the end of the story. Or is it really the beginning.

How did I get an invitation to the White House, me, a former inmate? How did they hear about me? Let me ask another question. How many of you write actual letters? Not the electronic kind, I mean the kind that go in real envelopes and require a stamp? Not cards. Not bills. Real letters.

I love letters and every year since I got out prison, I’ve written a letter to the President asking him to visit a prison, telling him important that would be for both inmates and staff. I also told him about Gina’s Team, the organization I co-founded with Gina’s parents and our work in the Arizona women’s prison. I wrote for my own entertainment. I never expected anyone to actually read them. I did get a couple of polite responses, letters I considered boiler plate, but hey, they were from the White House.

In May, 2015, I wrote my annual letter and mailed it without a thought.  On January 3rd, 2016, I got a call from the White House inviting me to be a guest of the First Lady in her box at the President’s final State of the Union address. I was sworn to secrecy until the WH announced the list of guests and when they did, my phone didn’t stop wringing. It seems there are journalist all over the world who watch for that list.

A week later I was at the White House. I had a press liaison to help me navigate the press interviews. I had that meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch! Imagine me, a former prisoner, meeting with Mrs. Lynch. Yes, it was a little surreal.

That night, before the address, the twenty-three guests and our plus-ones attended that lovely reception at the WH.  There, while a Marine played show tunes on an magnificent antique piano, White House staffers mingled with a diverse group of guests from the president of Microsoft to a twelve year old boy who started a program feeding healthy food to the homeless.  It was magical.

While at the reception, three young people approached me. “Ms. Allen, we’re from the Office of Presidential Correspondence and we wanted to meet you. You wrote one of our favorite letters.”

They read my letter! Later I learned that, considering the volume of mail the President gets a week, I won the White House Letter Lottery. My letter made it through all the sorting, the volunteers, the staff and finally to the office of Elizabeth Olson, the Director of the Office of Presidential Correspondence. She selects the final ten letters the President reads every day.

Anatomy: How President Obama Gets His Mail

My letter wasn’t just about me, it was representative of all the voiceless, faceless women and men behind bars. The men President Obama visited with in prison were also representative of those same women and men forgotten inside our prisons.

My journey to prison gave me a passion and a purpose I never expected. I’m living that purpose now and my letter reflected that. Do you have a passion? Write letters, to the President, the Governor, your legislators, the head of companies, hospitals and, most important, the people you love. Real letters on heavy cream paper. And don’t give up. Remember Shawshank Redemption? Andy’s letters built a prison library. Letters have power and give you a voice. Who knows, you might be invited to the White House for the price of a stamp.

PS. This really was the beginning.

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Our last day. I had a meeting back at the WH and we wanted to take advantage of this chance to see something special in DC (besides the WH). This time I knew where I was going and traced my steps, feeling so cool. Interesting to note, the Marine Guards were not at the West Wing entrance today. That meant the President was not in residence. This time I was going from the West Wing to the Executive Offices right next door. But before we went to his office, my new friend Elias took me to the White House mess for some saltine crackers and tea. I was still nauseated and sort of embarrassed, but everyone was very solicitous. I’m definitely seeing my doctor when I get home.

IMG_4062After so many years in the desert, it was a joy to see these beautiful old office buildings with interesting tile floors, carved moldings around doors and windows  and lovely paneling. I’ve always loved this part of our country for it’s history, architecture and green landscape. I miss trees and grass.

After my meeting I dashed back to the hotel to check out. It was Dianne’s first trip to Washington so we had to see as much as possible in just a few hours. I chose the Museum of Natural History, one of the most
representative museums in DC.
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It was the right choice; she loved it from the enormous tusked elephant in the rotunda to the breathtaking stones in the gem and rock collection. The biggest disappointment was that the HOPE diamond was out for two weeks for some changes in the display area. Never mind, the other jewels were pretty spectacular.

I didn’t feel great all day but I just ignored the nausea and kept focused on all the fascinating displays at the museum, magnificent gems, awe inspiring minerals, incredible skeletons of every animal imaginable. Look at this; oh look at that! You could spend a week  there and always see something new.IMG_4077 IMG_4081 IMG_4090

 

 

 

 

 

 

We had a great time wandering around every floor. There is so much to see in our nation’s capitol and we only had a few hours but we made the most of it. Then it was on to the airport for our 5 pm flight to Phoenix.

Waiting at the airport, the nausea got worse. This was not good. Suddenly, I threw the magazines out of the plastic shopping bag, the vomiting started and I just couldn’t stop. Again that natural reaction is to be embarrassed. I couldn’t help vomiting but I kept apologizing. Why do we all do that?

Finally I asked for the EMTs and it wasn’t long before the ambulance raced over the tarmac. Oh my goodness, talk about an attention getter. Look at the pathetic vomiting sick woman. And poor Dianne was doing her best to comfort me, all the while feeling helpless.

The EMTs did the usual tests and assured me that my vitals were ok. I could travel if I felt I could manage. Stoic as ever, I was determined to make the trip so they left, lights swirling, for other emergencies. A little later, ready to board, the vomiting was back ; I knew I’d never make the flight. Back came the EMTs and off we went to the Virginia Hospital Center, that I later discovered has more awards than you can count and is a partner with Mayo Clinic. What a blessing.

In the ambulance, the EMT gave me an IV of Phenergan to stop the vomiting. It’s supposed to have a calming effect. Turns out I’m allergic to it and for almost five hours I couldn’t stop my body from moving, jerking, twisting, writhing. It was a IMG_4135terrifying feeling. They couldn’t give me an MRI or an ultrasound because I couldn’t lie still. Dianne said it was awful to watch and I could hear her crying in the background, feeling even more helpless. I wanted to cry too. In my stupor I remember thinking, Oh my goodness, I invited her to have a good time and now we’re in the ER of some strange hospital. I’m so sorry.

Finally I was out for the count and don’t remember anything else, but it was a long IMG_4134night for Dianne. The next morning I learned I’d had emergency gall bladder surgery. The surgeon couldn’t understand why I hadn’t been in terrible pain. All I’d felt was nauseous. He said after all his years of experience,
I had the biggest gall stone he’d ever seen, 5 cm. He even took a picture of it and sent it to me. It sort of reminded me of some of the minerals we’d seen at the museum. The good news was, I hadn’t thrown up in the White House.

When I felt more alert, I insisted that Dianne take the next flight home. There was nothing she could do. I would probably sleep for the next couple of days and neither of us had any luggage. It was already in Phoenix with her heart meds. She had to go home but her mothering/nursing instincts had kicked in and she didn’t want to leave. Finally common sense prevailed  and reluctantly she made the morning flight. And I went back to sleep.

IMG_4118Two days later I decided I could make the flight (that darned stoic attitude is NUTS) and the WH arranged my travel back to Phoenix. They were so nice, worried about my condition and eager to help in any way they could. Nothing to do except watch me sleep until Saturday afternoon when I caught that same flight from the same gate. I was wheeled to the front door by the nicest nurses on the planet and I was on my way to the airport.

That five hour flight seemed like ten. The lady next to me was traveling with her very anxious cat who was yowling at the top of his lungs. She kept apologizing, but I said not to worry. The cat sounded like I felt. When we took off, everyone including the cat settled down and I thought about the last week. Imagine, one day in the White House and the next in the hospital, an unforgettable ending to an unforgettable trip.

Now you’re probably wondering how all this happened. Why did the White House call me? I’ve saved that for the final episode next. . .

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