Thursday, April 10, 2014

Pecha Kucha Austin #19

Poster design by Pentagram Design Inc.
For those who weren't able to attend, the video is out! And conveniently for you, I'm the first presenter of the evening. 

In March, I had the opportunity to speak about my volunteer prison work at Pecha Kucha Night #19. The 20x20 presentation format -- 20 slides, 20 seconds of narrative per slide -- was quite challenging. I rehearsed what felt like a gazillion times to get the words down and the pacing right. In fact, the night before, upon settling into bed, I found myself compulsively reciting the entire thing like a nervous tick. When I uttered the first line, my dog -- somewhere in the darkness at the foot of my bed -- let out a dramatic sigh and promptly left the room. True story.

"Srriously, Katie?" I imagined Martha Dog saying. "I'd really like to get some sleep."

I guess I put so much care into the preparation because I knew I was representing Truth Be Told, and I wanted to do well for this nonprofit that has come to mean so much to me. I felt like I was standing up for the more than 1,000 incarcerated women who have graduated from Truth Be Told's programs and the thousands more who will take our classes and graduate in the future.

In my volunteer roles at Lockhart prison, I routinely get up in front of people and talk. I've also spoken at Truth Be Told fundraising events. So, to a certain degree, I'm comfortable with public speaking.

However, Pecha Kucha proved a different ball game, and it wasn't just because of the 20x20 format. As I stood there, facing the biggest crowd I'd ever addressed, I had this strange sensation, like half of me was there, in downtown Austin among the hustle and bustle of SXSW. Yet, the other half of me was behind bars in Lockhart with the incarcerated women. I mean, right beside me on a giant screen were images of us in the prison classroom -- laughing, crying and sharing our stories. I know these women. They have names, histories, families, hopes, fears, dreams. I see them fully as fellow human beings.

But I wondered: What was the audience seeing?

On their faces I saw looks of fascination, concern, curiosity, thoughtfulness, indifference. Of course, these are the emotions I assigned to their expressions. Who knows what they were really feeling in that moment.

I know what I was feeling in that moment: passion. Passion and conviction. It occurred to me as I stood there that this might be the first time some of these people have stopped to think about the incarcerated population.

I wanted these people to SEE the women as fully as I do. 

Addict, thief, con artist, perpetrator, aggressor, drunk driver, prostitute, drug dealer, gangbanger. Yes, yes and yes. You will find all of these people and more in prison. It's depressing, ugly, frustrating, disheartening and scary.

But here's what you'll also find in prison: mothers, grandmothers, sisters, daughters, wives, college graduates, war veterans, degreed professionals, business owners, former foster children, survivors of childhood abuse, survivors of domestic violence. 

These women who are locked away and invisible to most of us are also our neighbors. They are members of our communities. And one day, when their sentences max out or when they make parole, they will be back among us.

Will they be safe, contributing members of our society, or will they continue in their old ways?

That's a good question. I think a lot of that depends on what they learn while they're incarcerated.

I have a 26-year-old woman in my class this semester. It's her first time in prison. She got locked up at age 22.

The other week in class she proclaimed that prison has taught her how to be "sneakier," how to be a "better hustler," a "better addict."

That is, until this class.

She said she loves this class. Why? Because Truth Be Told is teaching her how to be truthful to herself and to others, how to express her feelings in healthy ways, how to ask for help when she needs it. It's also showing her how to seek supportive community and how to be supportive to others, which can make a world of difference in this crazy ride called life.  

I feel hope for this young woman. I think she's onto something good. Something better. Something different than what she's been shown and taught in the past. I can't guarantee that anything will blossom from it, but I am certain that a seed has been planted.

I want to thank PK organizer Lana McGilvray for suggesting that I present at Pecha Kucha, and I want to thank the board for voting me in. It was an honor and a real pleasure.