An Invitation

Board Chair, Kelly Abbott invited Traveling Stories CEO to spend a day in jail earlier in the year. Emily was so moved by the experience that she decided to send Hezhi and me to jail too. Literally!

To say it was life changing is not powerful enough to describe the overall results of the day.

This was part of Defy Ventures‘ Entrepreneur in Training program. For 6 months, a group of inmates at the Donovan Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison, learned how to launch their own business upon release. Thanks to this program inmates are transformed. They are addressed as EITs (Entrepreneur in Training) and never as an inmate. I can’t even begin to imagine how this alone can impact a person. How people address us has such a direct impact on how we feel about ourselves as a human.

Defy uses an “inside-out” model to deliver holistic support that begins while EITs are incarcerated and extends through their reentry into society. By offering intensive personal and leadership development support, competition-based entrepreneurship training, executive mentoring, and business incubation, Defy empowers EITs to become the CEOs of their new lives. (Source: Defy Ventures)

Festive Greeting

We waited for about an hour before everything was set for us to make our grand entry as the EITs prepared the room for us. We got to know the other mentors, who was participating for a first time like myself, and who was a seasoned mentor. We had a pretty impressive group among us. I kept wondering what kind of contribution I would bring to these guys when I compared myself to the others. Heck, many attended loads of Tony Robbins events, one guy even worked for him as a coach!

The Donovan staff listed rules of behavior, EITs could hug each other, but we had to limit our contacts with them to high fives and fist bumps. What if I slipped and hugged an EIT? What if I did something wrong that would turn out to be considered a felony?

They split us into 2 groups for security purposes. I was among the lucky ones who made it in the first group. We formed a line and started walking to the door exiting the entrance building and onto the prison grounds. I got denied entry because my blouse was slightly see-through. The attendant told me to go change. Go change? Where? Into what? I drove there with Emily. If I couldn’t go in, I’d be stuck spending the whole day in the waiting room. I was heartbroken at the idea!

My team walked away without me leaving me feeling rather alone. I turned to the rest of the mentors and asked who had extra clothes I could borrow. I was in luck as another volunteer happened to be from out of town and had a suitcase full of clothes in her car. We rushed out and I was able to add a silky black tank top under my blouse. Nothing like silk to make me sweat when I’m nervous.

Entrance to prison grounds: Take 2. A guide greeted us at the door and walked us through gates and chain-linked alleyways. At times we were locked between two gates waiting for clearance. The guide explained the different levels of security and added that the section we were going to was for the hardest of hardest criminals. Not scary at all! Finally we made it to the main building where we were to spend the day. We waited a few more minutes outside and could hear their cheering. We all smiled at each other as our excitement grew and my nervousness faded away.

Security guards gave us the cue to enter. The EITs greeted us with an archway of arms having us run underneath them. They were so happy to see us! To help break the ice, they played human bingo. Each EIT had a sheet of paper with a bingo layout and characteristics. They would ask us questions to see if we fit the bill and we got to know them one on one. They were awesome! I was amazed but such an incredible warm and friendly bunch of guys, and a woman. One of the EITs was an incredibly beautiful transgender woman. She had hair that could easily be the envy of any top model!

How I wanted to pull her aside and ask her a gazillion questions! Did she feel safe? Where did she get all her beauty supplies? Was she bullied? Was she a transgender when she was first admitted at the facility? What kind of support does the prison system provide her with to protect her? It didn’t feel like the ideal scenario to go poking into her life… Instead I gave her a huge smile and did my best to end up chatting with her about her human bingo card.

After the ice breaker came the rounds of pitch. From haircare products (guess who’s business idea that was) to beekeeping, they had amazing ideas and wanted to do what they could to make the world a better place.

Reading Matters in Real Life

The activity that resonated most with me was “Walk the Line”. The EITs were asked to stand shoulder to shoulder facing the row of coaches and mentors (us volunteers). We spent a moment looking into each others’ eyes. Then the facilitator had everyone take a few steps back. A series of statements were made, when the statement rang true to a person, he or she stepped forward to the middle facing the other row.

Statements such as “my parents tucked me into bed as a child” or “One of my parents served time when I was growing up.” From these statements the cohort of coaches and mentors discovered how truly cards are not dealt equally to begin with in life. Some are setup to fail before even being born!

Then came statements that supported what the Traveling Stories team has been saying for years:

  • I had access to kids books in my house growing up
  • I was read to as a child

Guess who stepped forward on these statements, and who stayed in place? The EITs were a veritable case study for the reading programs implemented by Traveling Stories. Literacy does matter. Reading to kids does matter. Having access to books does matter.

82% of low-income kids cannot read at grade level by the time they reach 4th grade. Among those, two thirds will either land in jail, or end up on welfare. (Source NAEP)

I must admit there were a few times when I was the only mentor to step forward on some of the harder statements. Each time that happened, my EIT buddy was also there in the middle waiting to greet me with a friendly and comforting fist bump. I felt connected to them and almost felt like I had more in common with them, the EITs, than the coaches. The one biggest difference between me and them was the statement “I got caught”.

Get Involved

Will you accept the challenge to make significant impact on the lives of those who are forgotten? Did you know many inmates spend years without family visit, without any visitors at all. Most also spend years in solitary confinement. What’s a day to you?

To volunteer with Defy Ventures click here. Or check out Brilliance Inside bringing Ted style talks to the same facility!