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.
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.