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Archive for October, 2011

My Time in San Quentin

I stood in front of my closet trying to decide what to wear. I was supposed to be at the prison in a half hour, and if I didn’t get dressed soon, I’d be late. Flashbacks of movies like Shawshank Redemption ran through my head as I flipped through the hangers for the third time. What does one wear to prison? I finally decided on a black top that was not too tight or low cut, plain black khakis and black shoes. I pulled my hair back in a severe bun, no jewelry, no makeup. “You look like an undertaker,” my husband said as he kissed me goodbye. “Just the effect I was going for!” I laughed as I walked out the door.

I live close to San Quentin and drive by it regularly, but somehow I missed the turnoff. I finally found the entrance and parked my car. When I got out of the car I dropped my keys, as I picked them up, I dropped my phone. I was shaking. I looked for Rochelle where we’d agreed to meet, half hoping she wouldn’t be there.

“You must be Laura,” said Rochelle Edwards, as she pushed back a lock of brown hair from her face. She looked relaxed and comfortable in a breezy white cotton blouse and a calf-length linen skirt. Now that would have been nice, I thought, admiring her outfit, as I stood there sweltering in the hot sun in my Johnny Cash -plays-Folsom-Prison getup.

Noticing my tension, she gently took my arm, “I’ve been coming to this prison for years,” she said. “I know it can be scary the first time.” She led me through the main gate, chatting comfortably with the guards, explaining her Victim Offender Education Group (VOEG) to help prisoners emotionally connect with the consequences of their actions. “Our goal is to create healing and forgiveness on both sides of a crime.”

The heavy metal door swung shut with a loud clang behind us as a uniformed guard in a bulletproof vest waved us through. I took a deep breath as I stepped into the bustling courtyard, officially entering San Quentin prison, home to some of the most violent offenders on the planet.

The prison itself is hot and crowded, an imposing three-story structure with cells stacked on top of each other. Originally built for 3,000 men, it holds over 5,000. Two men are housed in a cell built for one. San Quentin’s death row has been described as the largest in the Western Hemisphere. At one point as we were walking the yard, an alarm went off, blaring from the loudspeakers all around us. Every prisoner had to squat to the ground, holding still until an announcement released them. “Before, they had to lie face down on the ground,” said Rochelle. “This,” she added, indicating the men around us, “is a little more dignified.”

I’ve always had a fear of prison. When I go through customs I worry I’ll be arrested for bringing something into the country that I didn’t even know I had. Maybe it’s my Catholic school upbringing… never knowing when a wooden ruler would come flying through the air, landing on the back of your hand for some infraction you hadn’t realized you’d committed.

Rochelle guided me into a chapel on one side of the courtyard where 22 prisoners in their denim blue outfits gathered chairs in a circle for the meeting. I smiled nervously at the men as Rochelle introduced me. She shook their hands, hugged them, asking about their children, their families and recent parole hearings. She clearly had a strong bond with each of these men who were white, black, Latino, Asian and Native American.

The men looked at me expectantly.

“Thank you for including me in your group,” I said, sitting down in a plastic chair, shoving my hands under my legs. “I have to admit, I’m nervous to be here. I’ve never been in a prison before.”

A young-looking Asian man sitting across from me gave a knowing nod. “That’s exactly how I felt when I first came here 20 years ago. I was 19 and real nervous. But you get used to it.”

My heart stopped. Here I’d been worrying about spending 3 hours in San Quentin while most of these men had been there for over 20 years with little chance of leaving any time soon. My tension began to subside as they went around the circle and introduced themselves. The first man told me “I’ve been sentenced for 25 years to life for murder.” He named his victim and said, “I know what I did was wrong. I wish I could undo what happened that day, but I can’t, I’m paying for it by being in prison, but no amount of time in here can erase what I’ve done.”

Tears welled up in my eyes as I listened to their stories. They were raw, honest, vulnerable, and most of all, remorseful for what they had done and the pain they had caused to the families they had hurt. Most of these men had committed murder while on drugs or alcohol or in a passionate rage and they could not turn back the clock.

It made me think how many times I’d lashed out in anger at someone with a desire to hurt or get revenge, wanting to see them suffer for the suffering I felt they were inflicting on me. When the men were done sharing, I realized I was no longer afraid. I connected with each of them on a human level beyond their prison blues and murder convictions to see who they really were in their hearts. And, as I usually find when I drop my judgments and preconceived ideas of others, they were not dissimilar to me. It seems odd to say it now, but my visit to San Quentin prison was truly a transformational experience.

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The other night I woke up at 2:30 a.m. unable to sleep. As I reflected on how depleted I felt — the result of too many early morning cross country flights to visit clients and family and a few intensive day-long strategy sessions with colleagues — I realized I’d been running a bit too hard and fast.

I was exhausted. Sitting on the couch thinking of my current state, it reminded me of my car. In great shape overall, looks better than its years, but running bone dry and in need of a major tune-up.

The next day I decided to implement my 6-step jumpstart plan to get my energy back:

1. Clear the clutter. I cleaned off my desk, cleaned out my files and answered some emails that were nagging at me. Oh and unpacked my suitcase that’d been shoved in a corner of the bedroom.

2. Plan for time off. I looked ahead in my calendar to anticipate what needed doing between now and the end of the year, blocked off times to think, write and carved out time to enjoy the holidays with family, as well as time for myself to rest and rejuvenate before the new year.

3. Say NO – eliminate the “maybes.” By removing three tentative commitments from my calendar, which felt a bit stressful to undertake, I gained back 4 weeks of my time, not to mention the hours each project would have taken me to complete.

4. Drink water. Seriously, it works. After being on 6 airplane flights in a week and drinking too much coffee (to wake up) and wine (to fall asleep), I was dehydrated. Nothing cures what ails you like water.

5. Sleep. The other miracle cure besides water. Yesterday I took a nap. People who know me know this NEVER happens. My mom couldn’t get me to take a nap at 2, why should I start now? But I allowed myself to surrender to my exhaustion and it really helped.

6. No Should Days. This is my miracle cure and it works every time. If you’re like me, you might have the fear that if you actually slow down, relax and, gasp – get horizontal – you may never want to get up again, so you just keep going. That’s when I pull a “No Should Day.” On this day (usually a Sunday) I allow myself to do anything I want, but I never do anything if I feel like I “should” or have to. I can scrub the toilet, but only if I want to. Yesterday I played Gin Rummy with my 9-year old niece, watched 2 movies (No Reservations and Nim’s Island), took a nap, baked squash, hung out with the dog and went to bed early. This morning I woke up at 6 a.m. without my alarm and felt good as new.

If you feel like you’ve been sprinting through this year and are in need of a bit of respite, try my six steps and let me know what works for you!

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Given the chance, 600 million adolescent girls in developing countries can unleash the world’s greatest untapped solution to poverty. This is the Girl Effect. If we can release girls living in poverty, they will do the rest.

On this day honoring the power of enabling young women around the globe, I reflected on my own “Girl Effect” and where I’d backed away from truly owning my power to create change.

From the moment of my conception, I was swimming in the amniotic fluid of revolutionary change. Barely a year old when Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I still cry every time I hear his powerful words. That same year, 1963, Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique” which my mother discussed in hushed tones over coffee with her friends holding my newborn sister on her lap.

When I was 3, my parents marched on Washington to protest the Vietnam War and, although my two younger sisters and I stayed with our grandparents, we felt ourselves swept up in the enthusiasm of the belief that our voices mattered. At the age of 7 I could barely contain myself as I stayed up late one night watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon on our tiny black and white TV.

In that moment it seemed to me that the human race was capable of miracles. Anything and everything was possible.

As I got older, I was convinced my generation was forging a new world order of peace, justice and equality. In elementary school, my parent’s had us bussed to the South side of Syracuse in Upstate New York to support integration. Although at times I awkwardly stood out as a white girl in a sea of black children, I felt it was my responsibility to be strong and fulfill my parent’s dream. My certainty that we were doing the right thing was never greater than when we gathered for assembly. Our budding little multi-racial community would sit in a circle on the polished gymnasium floor holding hands singing “We Shall Overcome” at the top of our lungs, beaming at each other with wide smiles, as if the power of our voices could heal generations of prejudice, injustice and pain.

Soon all our heroes and role models were slain. My uncle returned from Vietnam a shadow of his former self. The South Side became a dangerous hotbed of rioting and unrest, and my parents decided to move us back to neighborhood schools, fear damping down the fires of change.

The teenage years crept in. My parents got divorced. After college I moved to New York to try to make a living on Wall Street with all the other ’80s graduates. But something nagged at me.

For a while I volunteered at homeless shelters, taught writing to young kids from Central America, traveled to third world countries, gave my support to the Ugandan Literacy Project to swap books for education for young women. Then 9/11 happened and, shell-shocked, I burrowed further into my nest. I recently supported a project in Haiti to build a school for young children, but it’s different. I’m an observer. I’m no longer on the front lines.

In the pursuit of my career, a happy marriage, paying the bills, surviving each economic downturn and market correction, I realized I’m hiding out — playing it safe. I’ve taken distance from the battle. The young revolutionary in me got scared — don’t stick your head out too far or it’ll get blown off.

But I can feel a new revolution emerging. One that comes from a place of love, not fear. One that wants us to find solutions together, not battling each other. I am hoping, not only for the young women of the world who so desperately need the education we take for granted, but for all of us, that together we can find a solution to some of the world’s most pressing problems.

As Rumi says, “Outside of ideas of right-doing and wrongdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

What is calling to you? Where are you playing it safe? How long are you going to wait?

This post is part of a collaborative effort of hundreds of bloggers coming together to write about The Girl Effect, how young women can change the world. Your support, your voice and your action – that’s what it’s going to take to wake up the world and make a real difference. You can be part of that change. In fact without you it won’t happen. Join the conversation and let the world know what the Girl Effect is capable of. Talk it up. Spread the word. Blog about it or read others who are blogging about it – find out more here

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