The Risky Business of Building Safe Communities

Katie Ford is a Talk to Me and Discovery class facilitator at the GEO Lockhart prison. She also emcees the orientation and graduations each semester. For two years, she served as the Truth Be Told program coordinator at Lockhart. The following piece is something she put together for a public reading at The Continental Gallery in Austin, where a group of musicians, poets and writers were invited to share original work on a common theme. The evening’s theme was “Safety.”

Think about the last time you sat down with a good friend, or a few good friends, and had one of those conversations in which you feel genuinely inspired by what the others are saying — and when you have something to say, you feel heard, understood — or at least accepted.

That feeling of really being connected with others.

And perhaps that conversation leaves you in awe — of people, of yourself, of life in general. And maybe you feel a bit overwhelmed; your mind is going a million miles an hour — but you feel really alive, like you’re getting a glimpse of the bigger picture. You can feel how wonderful and awful and mysterious life can be.

And you feel … safe.

To me, that’s what it’s like being in a classroom with the incarcerated women who have enrolled in a writing class I teach at a prison in Lockhart.

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The first time I went inside the prison, I was volunteering to be as an audience member at a Truth Be Told graduation ceremony. Truth Be Told is an Austin-based nonprofit that provides self-discovery tools to women behind bars. The organization started 13 years ago at the Lockhart unit with one class. Today, Truth Be Told has graduated more than 1,000 inmates and has expanded to offer programming at the Del Valle Jail and the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville. It’s run entirely by volunteers.

So it was with Truth Be Told that I went behind bars for the first time. I was extremely nervous. But all that anxiety disappeared with a handshake.

As I entered the women’s gymnasium where the graduation was to be held, one of the inmates who was stationed by the door extended her hand to welcome me. Her eyes barely met mine and her hand was shaking so hard it practically vibrated in my palm.

I’ll be damned, I thought. She’s more nervous than I am.

As I sat in that gymnasium and listened to some of the graduates share their stories, I heard hope, inner strength, and a willingness to be vulnerable and speak the truth. Many had suffered a lot as children, and as adults they had made others suffer too. But — through Truth Be Told programs — they were learning that the past does not have to define who they  are, and that it is never too late to get up and try again — if you choose to say YES in spite of everything.

I left that graduation on fire. I wanted to help this organization. Put me in, coach! How can I help? You have a website that needs copy? A new brochure that needs editing?

Turns out I would be volunteering for Truth Be Told in a way I had never imagined for myself. The executive director asked me to lead a writing workshop behind bars — just one afternoon, anything I wanted to explore with creative writing. No big deal.

But it was a big deal. I had never taught anything in my life. Just thinking about standing up in a classroom with all those eyes on me made my heart race. But the director seemed sure I could do it, so I took a risk and I did it.

And as I stood in that classroom for the first time and led 31 female inmates through a series of writing exercises, I kept thinking to myself: Who is this person I’ve become? When did I learn to speak this way? I sound so confident. These women are responding to me. I bet it actually looks like I know what I’m doing!

Driving home to Austin that afternoon, I felt a new current of energy in my body. I felt locked into something big, as if everything I had lived through, everything I had learned, everything  that  I  was  up until that point, was the way it was because it was preparing me for this work.

And so I got used to taking risks.

 Some rights reserved by eleni papWhen the founder of Truth Be Told suggested that I become a trained facilitator and teach their curriculum behind bars, I said “yes.” When a need arose for someone to step up and serve as the Truth Be Told program coordinator at Lockhart, I said “I’ll do it.”

I have loved every minute of it; it feeds me and informs me and challenges me and rewards me on so many levels.

I feel like I have awakened.

Risk-taking has now become a habit of mine. I’ve learned that if I’m to fully live out my truth, I have to take risks. I have to rethink the value of playing it safe.

And guess what: This risk-taking business, it’s contagious.

I want to read you an excerpt from a letter I received from a former student. I’ll call her D.

When I come to class, I don’t want to leave. I feel very comfortable being there. Just so you know, I almost dropped the class two weeks after we started. All of the homework seemed so overwhelming to me, and I didn’t know if I was ready to deal with it yet. I’m so happy I didn’t quit. I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders.

You give me strength to take risks, seeing now that it pays off in the end. Thank you for teaching this class and providing the information on change. This class has truly helped me to see things in a different light and pick up on patterns I never really saw before. Thank you, Katie.

The class I teach is called Circle because we arrange our desks in a circle. The purpose of the class is to help the women write the story of what led them to prison — not the crime, per say, but the bigger picture — to look at your entire life: identify the experiences you’ve had and the decisions you have made that slowly but surely have led you to where you are today — behind bars.

I still remember the day D shared her life story in class. It’s not so much the details of her life that I remember now, but the way her story made me feel. It was the first time I felt panicked as I listened to a student’s story. I remember feeling like the trauma and tragedy were almost too much to bare and it would take every ounce of self-control to “stay in it” with her as she let it all out.

After she finished, she slumped into her chair, body heavy, eyes wet and puffy from crying.

After D shared her story, I looked around the Circle. Most of the women had tears in their eyes. Many were staring at the floor.

“Does anyone have anything they want to say to D?” I asked them.

M’s hand shot up into the air — M, who I had pegged as my drifter for the semester. There’s always one in the class. The one who doesn’t really apply herself. M’s homework, in which she was supposed to write about specific times in her life, was filled with sentences like: “No one should have to see what I’ve seen.” “You can’t imagine the shit I’ve been through.” “No one would understand why I did the things I’ve done.”

I found myself writing in the margins of her papers: “Explain. Elaborate. Tell me more. Name it. Name it.”  In class, M’s round, pale face was always without expression. She wouldn’t speak unless I called on her. And even then, leaning back in her chair with her arms crossed, she’d offer up some “too cool for this” quip. She would talk, all right. But she never really said anything.

But here was M now, hand high in the air, red blotches appearing all over her neck and cheeks. Her eyes were wide, alive. I nodded at her.

“I KNOW EXACTLY WHAT YOU’VE BEEN THROUGH!” Her words were accusatory, an explosion of anger. Her finger pointed directly at D as if she were identifying her perpetrator in a lineup.

“The beatings. The rapes. Being locked away in an institution for crazy people. Trying to kill yourself. I tried to kill myself too, you know. I STILL want to kill myself!”

 Some rights reserved by NightscarsHer words hung in the air. M even seemed surprised to hear them. She suddenly fell back in her chair and bowed her head, tears streaming down her face. I looked over at D. Her head was bowed and she was biting her bottom lip, as if to prevent a torrent of tears from escaping. No one in the Circle moved.

I can’t remember what I said at that point, but it was probably something trite, definitely something inadequate. I was in over my head.

Driving home that evening, my heart started pounding in my chest as I realized that I had a woman admit in my class that she was suicidal. What is my responsibility here to make sure that she is safe? Do I need to call the warden? The chaplain? The executive director of Truth Be Told? None of that felt right. Instead, I called a mentor of mine — someone completely removed from the situation. His advice? Don’t play into the drama of the moment. Focus on the future. Point out how valuable M is to this safe community that you’re building together in the classroom.

So that’s exactly what I did. I wrote M a letter and sent it to the prison. I thanked her for speaking up in class. I told her that because she took a risk and spoke up, she showed D that she was not alone — that there was someone right there in her Circle who could identify with her. M had demonstrated that she can be trusted and that she is a safe person, because she allowed herself to be vulnerable, just like D had done.

I told M that I looked forward to hearing HER story next week.

The following Thursday as I was preparing the classroom I was relieved to see M at the door. She was one of the first to arrive. When I let her in, she grinned at me sideways and said, “I got your note” and then made a beeline to her desk. Later, when it was her turn to share her story, those red blotches were back on her neck and cheeks.

“OK, before I start, I want you all to know that I was only going to tell a small part of my story,” she began. “But D showed me last week that it’s OK to talk about this stuff, and I know it took a lot of courage for her to stand up and say the things she did. So today I’m going to tell you my whole story. I’m going to tell you the truth.

ScanAnd that’s exactly what she did. She told it all. Through tears, she put a name to it. M owned her story in front of a Circle of women who listened respectfully and with compassion. She spoke of the people who had hurt her badly when she was a little girl, and she spoke of the people she had hurt badly once she was grown, including her own children. I’m not going to lie: It was difficult to hear at times. I had to watch myself, make sure nothing that looked like judgment crossed my face.

But M’s story was heard that day, and through M’s risk-taking, others in that room were able to see that they’re not alone in their shame and guilt and suffering. And on the flip side of M’s risk-taking, the women got to experience what it felt like to hold a safe space and be a safe person for someone who needs support.

Which leads me back to that feeling of connection — of being truly heard and accepted. Those moments when you connect with another human so deeply that you feel — even if it’s for a fleeting moment — the awesomeness and the awfulness of this life…

and, in the midst of it all, you still feel safe.

So tonight, I invite all of you here in this room to ask yourself this: What risks do I need to take to live out my truth? As the writer Katherine Mansfield once wrote:

“Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on Earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.”

And that’s my truth being told.

5 Responses to The Risky Business of Building Safe Communities

  1. Katie, your words move me, inspire me, awe me. You do an incredible job of capturing the hard-to-explain feelings I have felt about volunteering at Lockhart. I especially appreciated your account of offering “something trite, definitely something inadequate” after an especially powerful, emotional speech. Been there, done that.
    Thank you from the bottom of my heart for putting your experience into such eloquent, soul-searching words.

  2. Katie, I loved reading this. You are such a value to the women you teach and TBT. It is always a pleasure to hear your experiences with TBT. Thanks for the post!

  3. Katie, I have been mentoring hurting women for the last couple of years, after leaving an almost 30 year abusive marriage. It took me that long to leave, but 4 1/2 years ago I did. After going through my healing, I began having women placed into my path who I began to mentor. It has been the most rewarding experience I have had. I continue to mentor most of these women, even after relocating – we will always have a connection. I will always be available to them, but I have also encouraged them to invest in someone else in the same way that I have invested in them… They are beginning to do that, but they are also still in the healing process. I believe that serving others was the second biggest thing I did, after going through several things which helped my healing, to help me take the attention off my stuff and focus on someone else. It was very healing to not be the center of everything. Being able to relate to them, even if not the exact story, gave them a feeling of being in a “SAFE PLACE” with me. I commend you and all your efforts! God has allowed me to speak to women and He has given me the confidence to be able to do and say what is needed at the time. I am now getting ready to become a part of TBT, after relocating to Austin, and connecting w Carol through a summit. I knew when I heard some the girls’ stories that this was an organization I needed to be involved with.

  4. Wonderful entry/speech! Love to hear the response Katie got from the Continental group! That kind of risking has always led me into aids that feels more like an adventure than a comfortable & predictable “safety.” I think Katie put the finger on the kind of safety the women in our programs (& facilitating our programs) learn about It’s a safety that comes from being part of a group that listens to each person as respectfully as they share their own story Truthfully, when its their turn. Grateful for your Yeses, Katie!!! Nathalie Sent from my iPhone

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