Free since May 2019
Barbara has been a poet her whole life, but it wasn’t until she participated in Truth Be Told’s Talk to Me program that she read her poetry out loud in front of others. “[That class] is where I found my voice,” she says.
In Talk to Me, participants follow a guided process of sharing the story of what they believe put them on a path to prison — both the formative experiences and the choices they made.
“For a couple of weeks, ladies got up and told their stories, and I was so in awe,” she says. “They unzipped themselves and let out all the ugly. If they could do it, so can I.”
When it was her turn, Barbara wrote a spoken-word poem about her life and performed it — an experience she calls “eye-opening, awakening. A transformation.” Her classmates elected her to share her story at graduation. From there, Barbara’s visibility in the prison rose. She combined poetry and personal storytelling to bring a message of hope and understanding to many of the women incarcerated there.
After her release from prison in 2019, Barbara was ready to hit the ground running, but she faced many challenges.
“I was scared of facing friends and family, not finding a job, not having a place to live, disappointment, rejection and just plain ol’ failure,” says Barbara. “I had to parole to a city where I knew absolutely no one. I also had to go to a halfway house, so that was an added fear of not having the emotional support most have when returning home. My first Thanksgiving and Christmas home I spent alone eating a sandwich. I felt lonely and unwanted. I felt isolated and ostracized. I thought no one cared to hear my sorrows because ultimately I had done all of this to myself.”
Like many folks who have been involved with the criminal justice system, Barbara was rejected by employers who initially expressed excitement but changed their tune once they found out about her incarceration.
However, she didn’t give up.
“I knew in my heart what I was capable of,” she says. “I knew what I had accomplished before. I knew some expected me to fail, and I became determined to prove them all wrong — that included that scared, little girl inside of my head. So, every time someone rejected me whether that be a place to live, a place to work or a friendship, I would go harder. I would apply more. I would ask more people for referrals. I would read or look up more resources online. Eventually, I would find the right guidance and direction.”
And that she did. Barbara went to the Austin Area Urban League in hopes of getting matched with a second-chance employer that encourages individuals with past justice involvement to apply for work.
“During my initial visit to AAUL, I was being asked a lot of questions by one gentleman, in particular. I felt so comfortable I unloaded all my dirty laundry to him,” Barbara remembers. “I was telling him about all the obstacles I had come up against. I was telling him about all the cracks in the system, and my thoughts on what needed to be done to correct them. I spoke with this man for about 45 minutes. Little did I know, I was sitting there talking to the president and CEO of the Austin Area Urban League: Mr. Quincy Dunlap!”
Dunlap offered Barbara a job at the League. Today, she is a case manager and computer literacy trainer. She helps people coming out of the Texas Department of Corrections get educated and find jobs.
“I am in a position to be a direct reflection of what hard work, patience and perseverance can produce,” she says. “It does something to my spirit every time I tell them that I understand their struggles. I watch their faces tell me, ‘Yeah, right.’ I then hit them with, ‘I understand your struggles because I was just released from TDC last year.’ The disbelief in their faces quickly turns to hope. I know the importance of hope firsthand. Hope is when your expectations and desires are combined, and they explode into your success.”
Barbara also has been deeply involved in supporting people disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are part of the RISE and Covid-19 Relief Services Programs,” she explains. “We are on a mission to supply 10,000 PPE kits to our community free of charge. We gave out 3,000 kits last month, and just last week we built another 3,000 kits to distribute at our next event.
“When I talk to these families and hear their stories, it makes me proud to be a part of my team at AAUL,” Barbara continues. “These families have been served eviction notices or simply do not have the means to put food on their tables. So to hear their appreciation when we are able to approve them for assistance is indescribable.”
Barbara recalls the story of a woman who was having a difficult pregnancy and unable to work. One week after having her baby, she was served an eviction notice to vacate her home.
“We were able to pay her rent for three months. This covered her past-due expenses and caught her up a month until she was able to get back to work. It’s stories like that that make my heart smile,” Barbara says.
What once imprisoned Barbara now serves to her advantage as she helps the next person.
“I am very grateful for every obstacle I have come across. I am able to appreciate so much more because of all the work I had to put in,” she says. “It also helps the next person leaving TDC not only know but believe me when I say, ‘I understand your struggles.’
“This journey has also strengthened my relationships with my children and family,” Barbara continues. “They see me out here grinding and know that I am so serious about my success — not only professionally but with them as well. They see me out here working for what I want and not making excuses or giving up because it got hard.”