Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Truth Be Told

It was the last thing I expected to hear coming from her lips. The poised, well-dressed woman at the front of the room was telling us that she had spent 15 years in prison ― 15 years that she will never get back. She completely missed her now grown children’s formative years, a soul-crushing reality that caused her to choke back tears as she spoke.

Rutanya Pearson was one of the panelists at a Seedling Foundation mentor training session that I attended in the fall. She represented Truth Be Told, an Austin-based nonprofit group that provides creative tools for personal and spiritual growth for incarcerated women. According to Truth Be Told, the goal is to “encourage in these women a deeper sense of personal responsibility and to help them face the truth of their pasts and embrace the hope of their futures.”

After the training, I asked Rutanya how I could learn more about Truth Be Told. She suggested that I volunteer to be an audience member at an upcoming “graduation ceremony” for 29 female inmates who were about to complete the latest Truth Be Told series.

And that’s how I found myself spending an afternoon at the Lockhart Prison Unit.

It turns out I wasn’t the only Seedling representative who signed up to be a “respectful listener” at the graduation. Six Seedling directors were also there. At first, I was surprised to see their familiar faces; but, in hindsight, our shared curiosity in Truth Be Told makes perfect sense. The way I see it: If I’m going to be the best mentor I can be to a child whose mother is incarcerated, I need to seek to understand the parent’s experience as well as the child’s.

The graduation ceremony didn’t entail caps and gowns or long-winded speeches. There were no cheering relatives saddled with camcorders in the stands. After turning in our drivers’ licenses at the prison’s entrance and being frisked by security guards, we volunteers were escorted through a maze of drab, concrete corridors. There was not a single window in sight and the air smelled like a hospital.

Eventually we arrived at a gymnasium. The female inmates, in their standard-issue blue scrubs, waited just inside the door, a makeshift receiving line for the guests. As I shook their hands, I noticed that some of them were trembling with nerves as they smiled their best smiles. I felt my apprehension slowly shift to something that felt more like compassion.

Prior to arriving at the prison, we were informed that the Truth Be Told participants were asked to put together presentations that reflected their personal journeys of self-discovery. The women could use any of the skills they had learned in Truth Be Told, from public speaking to creative writing to dance and movement. They could work on something individually or in small groups. Whatever they chose to do, the women had to present their creative works at graduation.

The Truth Be Told founder opened the program with a prayer and then the presentations began. Over the next 90 minutes, I watched a myriad of performances. Some women sang songs or read poems they had written. Others performed group skits; a few presented monologues. The range of stories, memories, perspectives, epiphanies and emotions overwhelmed me. Their truths were raw, funny, painful, disconcerting, inspiring, candid, brave, optimistic. I could go on forever with adjectives.

Our role as volunteers that day was to be a "respectful listener," but still we were perfect strangers to these women. They stood before us, anyway, risking judgment and unloading their greatest sorrows, admitting their deepest fears, owning up to their biggest mistakes and ― perhaps most importantly ― giving voice to their newfound hopes and dreams.

Afterwards, the audience members were given an opportunity to stand up and give feedback on the presentations. I thought this was brilliant, because I’m sure these women rarely hear things like “You fill me with hope” or simply “Thank you for being so honest."

At the program’s conclusion, the atmosphere was not unlike your typical post-graduation scene. Volunteers and graduates mingled about the room, laughing, hugging and sharing high fives. Heartfelt compliments and thank-yous were expressed. I wanted to tell each woman directly that I was proud of her, but the warden suddenly entered the gym and sharply announced that our time was up. As I watched these women file out of the room, I no longer saw only abusers, addicts and thieves. I saw mothers, sisters and daughters ― each with a truth to tell and a dream in her heart. And I genuinely hoped the best for them.

We were at the Lockhart prison for only an afternoon, but the experience has left an indelible mark on my conscience. Until that day, it was easy for me as a Seedling mentor to demonize the incarcerated parent. Now I find it harder to cast such a final judgment. To see someone in such black-and-white terms.

I don’t know. You could spend a lifetime debating who’s to blame and where the evil begins. Maybe it’s better to focus on where it could end ― with the ones we mentor.