Have you ever felt so completely sure of your path while feeling like you’re walking on glass at the same time? This is how I felt working in a prison and how many people feel on social media every day. It’s about community, accepting your fear and just going with it. This is my story from the 140 Conference in New York City, 2012. Other than the video, I have porposely excluded pictures from this story. I'm sure you'll understand why...
What you do here matters everywhere…
The sign at the edge of the driveway says all persons and vehicles subject to search. Pockets of flowers circle the razor wire fence, and a butterfly bush sways in the breeze. Inside the gate sits 12 homes on a grass crescent. There are no honeycombs of cells – but there’s no mistaking it’s a prison.
Twelve years ago, I accepted a job at a women’s medium/maximum security prison as a horticulture teacher. And if you knew me then, you’d know the closest I’d come to prison (or jail for the matter) was a game of monopoly. In fact, I could have been the spokesperson for the “So Incredibly Naive its Painful” campaign.
Prison is where I worked for two years. Prison is where I learned the true meaning of community. Prison is where I found community and lost it.
It’s never too late for redemption
One day after a long shift working in the gardens, a woman I’d grown close to was at the front desk as I was leaving. M had been incarcerated from age 22 to 37 and was due to be released soon. She needed help adjusting to a world that didn’t tell her when to sleep, when to eat, what to wear. In prison she was allowed 60 items of clothing – socks count as two.
She was getting ready to enter a world that didn’t limit how much she wanted to buy, a world that now included the Internet, cell phones… Getting her ready to live in our world again meant regular trips to her home in Toronto, about an hour from where we were.
But that night she was as angry as a hornet in a box. Her ride hadn’t shown up and her trip home was about to be cancelled. M grabbed me and asked if I’d take her...home…please. The prison would give me a car and we’d be back here by midnight. Looking at the hope in her eyes was like looking directly into the sun – I wanted to turn away but couldn’t.
After talking to the warden and getting my instructions – if she bolts, let her run. Your safety isn’t worth chasing her. If she gets angry, if she has a drink, if she does this or that or anything, call 911. Simple, right?
When we stopped at a gas station, I called home to tell my husband. Um, honey I’ll be late tonight – I’m taking M home to visit her parents…To give you an idea what my husband was feeling – M had shot her husband in the face with a hunting rifle – in a crowded bar.
When we got to her home, it was a sleepy suburban neighborhood, like the one I grew up in. Her mom made roast beef and potatoes and severely over-cooked carrots – just like my mom. We spent the evening looking through old photo albums. M learning to ride a bike. M at her first dance. M and her husband on their honeymoon in Jamaica…
And then at end of the evening when M took some time call old friends, her mother and I sat on the front porch and chatted. “I’m just so thankful she’s alive. We have so much to be thankful for.”
And there it was – 37 years of a life wrapped into one, painfully honest sentence.
The label of murderer will never leave M – she’s the story of all of her stories together. Every time she meets someone new, she unpacks the same book of stories and she’s no different than you or I. The biggest difference though – there’s no hiding for M.
There’s an awful lot of talk on social media about the importance of being your authentic self – and by the way, everything you say contributes to your brand. From the colors of your logo to the clothes you wear in your profile pictures, be consistent. Be honest. Be your story.
But what about when you share too much on social media or your story is all wrapped into something hurtful and terrible? What about redemption? When I make a mistake, when you make a mistake, when a big company makes a mistake where does redemption live?
I’ll tell you where redemption lives – right here – in our hearts. Social media works only because we put our hearts into it. The keystrokes become our heartbeats – each word another digital pulse of love – or hate. Negativity online is a virus and once it catches hold can be more damming than a life sentence.
M’s mom taught me an important lesson that night. Where there’s life, there’s hope. And where there is hope, there’s a chance for redemption.
Identify the risks
Ever notice how in real life we talk in circles around hard issues? When you go around in circles the world can be very big but when you plow straight ahead, through all the muck, it’s small enough.
I worked with women who killed their husbands, their children, who broke their mother’s jaw for their next high. People who live in prisons don’t waste time skirting issues to get to what really matters.
During one of my first shifts, I was asked to help dig gardens behind one of the main houses. While most of the prison was under video surveillance, there were some areas outside of that reach – the gardens behind the houses was one of those areas. My position as horticulture teacher was unique from the other people who worked there. I wasn’t a teacher in a classroom with papers to grade, nor was I guard with a weapon. But I was outside of security much of the time and with heavy tools.
That particular day, I was with 5 other women, digging a plot of land for a vegetable garden.
I asked if the cameras could see us. One of them leaned over her shovel and said, “Why, what’s the plan?” And then they all laughed, big belly laughs. I stood there, gobsmacked. Trying not to look as uncomfortable as I felt – I knew they were laughing at me. Let’s face it, the closest I’d ever been to prison was passing go and going directly to jail in a game of monopoly.
But if no one could see us, then what if… Eventually one of them leaned over, and slugged me in the arm – like a guy hits another guy in joking. Relax Julia, you’re safe with us.
I stayed there and finished the job and then I came back the next day and the next day. I chose to be there. I can’t tell you why – except that I wanted to be part of it. I wanted to learn from it and to give back to it. I knew that if I left that day, I’d miss something important.
For some people, stepping into social media can be the same feeling of terror. What if my words are taken out of context? What if someone realizes I don’t know what I’m doing and they call me out on it?
What if no one wants to be my friend?
So, what will happen? You won’t lose your house. You won’t get cancer. You won’t get bashed in the head with a shovel by someone who shot her boyfriend in the face with a rifle. You’ll make mistakes, yes. If you’re lucky, you’ll keep coming back and you’ll discover that what being here is worth the risk.
Find your community
My naïve question in a back garden became the start of a long initiation. The women who gave me their time to beautify the gardens also gave me their stories. As we dug gardens and planted flowers and built a gazebo and greenhouse, I listened to them.
I took their stories home with me and slowly, bit by bit, I began to change. I began to change because I wanted to be cooler, hipper. I wanted to be more like them so they would like me.
One night as I was finishing up my shift, there was a weird vibe in the air. I couldn’t identify it but the air around me felt heavy, like it does just before a storm.
Turns out a riot was brewing – parts of it had already started before I clocked out for the day.
While I slept that night some of my “friends” were hurt. Some were hospitalized. Some were put into isolation. When I arrived for work the next day, the landscape had changed. No one showed up for their shifts. No one.
I worked my normal shift in the gardens, which were in the center of all the houses. I thought they might be watching me from their windows but I wasn’t sure.
At that moment, I realized that my friendship had crossed the line. I loved them and wanted to help them but I was not one of them. They knew I wasn’t one of them – that’s why they hadn’t told me about their plans.
I wanted to belong to a community, any community so badly I had misjudged everything. Until that moment, I had forgotten who I was, I had attached importance to all the wrong things.
Ever have that happen in social media? You think you’ve made a friend and then something happens and wham…
Two years ago I lost a friend in the earthquake in Haiti – he worked at the UN in Port a Prince and was on Facebook chatting when the earthquake struck and the next minute he was gone. It took 11 days for them to find his body. A couple months later a girlfriend lost her 2 year old son to cancer – 1 month after diagnosis. My social media voice became a long, drawn out song of grief but you know what? My community – the true friends I’d made over the years were there for me. I didn’t need to be cooler or hipper. I could be as sad as I needed to be and it didn’t matter.
Social media is where I do business. It’s where I service my clients and where I find new ones. But it’s also the story of my life stories. I don’t change my stories to fit in with a crowd.
How is prison like social media? In a prison you’ll find all the same characters you find in your real life. Everything is on display. No privacy and no time to talk in circles – every conversation has the potential to be a head on collision.
Social media can be the place where we find community but it has a dark side. When you mess up online, forgiveness can be hard to find.
What did I learn in prison?
- I learned that being true to ourselves is the only authenticity any of us has. Whether we’re a brand or a person – our community is there, we just have to find it.
- Never underestimate the power of your voice. Whether you have 10 followers or 10,000, your message is important because it’s yours.
- Whether you keep it well protected or flaunt it to the world, your weirdness is my weirdness. We are all weird inside and being accepted with our weirdness intact is as important as breathing. You shouldn’t have to be something you’re not to be loved.
In some ways, working in a prison was my Wizard of Oz moment. I had the power to be myself all along but I had to try all the wrong paths first. Like Judy Garland said, Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.