Congratulations to the New Graduates…in Prison

28 09 2009

A letter to the women in the Lockhart, Texas prison who just graduated from the Truth be Told program

You had no choice but to wear matching dull blue v-neck formless pullover tops and pants, white t-shirts, and tennis shoes. I had the freedom to choose to wear a peridot-green peasant blouse, black capri pants, and close-toed (a requirement) black heels. I wore jewelry. You did not. I freely came in from the outside, handed over my driver’s license, and was escorted into the gymnasium with 17 other women and 2 men who chose (and were pre-screened) to attend your graduation. You, too, were escorted there, but after graduation, you stayed in the prison. I went home.

Despite our marked differences in freedom, we came together to celebrate your graduation from the Truth Be Told program. I recognized the 10 of you in the Talk to Me Speaking Class from when I had the privilege of evaluating five of your this-is-my-life speeches. Many of you ran to me, hugged me, and said how happy you were that I was there. I felt real joy in seeing you and delight in sitting between two of you. Three of you spoke and my heart filled with pride that you so openly and skillfully shared the story of what came before that led to you being in prison.

Three of the nine women from the Talk to Me Circle Class also spoke and shared your stories and three women from the Talk to Me Movement Class delighted us with your expressiveness and impressive moves in the Michael Jackson “Beat It” number. Charlotte leaned over and told me it was the first time she’d heard music (from a loud speaker) in three years.

Walking through History - Purchased from iStockPhotoYou told us stories of being sexually abused as a child, a mother who allowed such abuse toward you and even toward your children, a father who beat your mother, using drugs to dim emotional pain, being forced to sell drugs or to prostitute yourself to support your children, being beaten by men who you thought loved you, never feeling loved, joining a gang to find a sense of belonging, having to give up children, being in and out of prison, and more.

Your stories touched everyone who attended. We gathered afterward to name our feelings: grateful, joyful, amazed at your courage and honesty, a sense of sisterhood with you, pride, recognition and acknowledgment of your pain and what you’ve been through, and honored to have had the opportunity to bear witness to your stories.

The Truth be Told volunteers who facilitate the classes are amazing: Peggy Lamb, Julie Wylie, Natalie Weinstein, Katie Ford, Mary Gifford, and co-founders Carol Waid and Nathalie Sorrell. You are fortunate to have women who are so passionate, so talented, so intelligent, so giving, and so caring guide you in walking your life toward making healthy choices and feeling hopeful for a better tomorrow.

As amazing as your facilitators are, I wonder if you ladies in the Truth be Told program realize how much you give to those who work with you. We feel your humanness, that you are our sisters, and that but for different life choices and circumstances, the roles could be reversed…we could be in prison and you could be on the outside. We see your courage, your vulnerability, your willingness to be open and honest, your admission of bad choices, and your desire to turn your lives around. We admire you, we are Truth Be Told Logoin awe of you, we are touched by you, and we take you with us as we leave.

The experience of being in prison with you and hearing your stories lasts long after we leave the facility.  We share our experience with those we care about and they share it with still others. Something changes in us. We develop an even deeper understanding that we are all one and must do what we can to lift each other up.

Thank you, dear Truth be Told graduates. Take in all the applause we gave you at the graduation and continue to give you every time we think of you. You are changing your lives…and ours…for the better. And that’s the truth.

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Truth Be Told by Women in a Texas Prison

5 09 2009

I went to prison on Thursday. Through a friendship with co-founder Nathalie Sorrell, I  had the opportunity to participate in the non-profit Truth Be Told program at the Lockhart, Texas prison. The mission of Truth Be Told is to provide:

…transformational tools for women behind and beyond bars. [Their] programs provide respectful listening and creative tools for personal and spiritual growth for incarcerated women. [They] encourage in them a deeper sense of personal responsibility and help them face the truth of their pasts and embrace the hope of their futures.

The program I attended is modeled on Toastmasters, which I attended for 13 years. In this group were ten women, whose ages ranged from around 22 to 59 and whose crimes ranged from drug dealing to violent crimes. I served as the evaluator for the speeches of five women, who told the stories of their lives and what led them to prison.

PrisonAs I listened, I was struck by how these women could have been any of us…and how any of them could have been living lives of freedom if they had been blessed with emotionally healthier parents, gotten a good education, had not been so desperate for love from the wrong men, and had made better choices. Each woman gave me permission to tell her story…they want others to understand the consequences of bad choices. I promised to change their names. Here goes.

DulcineaHispanic, 35 years old, a beautiful, easy smile, corn rows on top of her head and remaining hair upswept in a bun – Dulcinea’s father beat her mother. Dulcinea had an abortion at age 18, gave birth to two children by age 28, and her father was killed by a drunk driver when she was 28. That crushed her and she began doing cocaine. From ages 29 to 35 she did prostitution and was in and out of prison. She has now discovered that God is the real “man” she needed and that he has rescued her.

CarolBlack, daughter of a Marine father and Filipino mother, 35 years old, trim, shoulder-length straight hair, serene countenance – Carol’s parents divorced when she was five years old. From ages 7 – 13 she was sexually abused by her stepfather and felt hatred toward him, her mother, and herself. Her mother, who was on drugs, blamed her and left her to take care of herself and her little sisters. At age 14, she met an older man, believed she loved him, and sold drugs for him. She was put in prison for the first time at age 17, which led to two “good things”…getting her GED (Graduate Equivalency Degree) and “giving [her] life to the Lord.” After getting out, she became pregnant by a new man, he left her, and she sold drugs again to support herself and her child. She had two daughters by a third man who sold drugs and went to prison. She took her children to her mom’s, lived on the streets, sold drugs, and met another man who she hated. She had multiple suicide attempts, he kidnapped her and raped her repeatedly, she became pregnant with her fourth child, and was sent to prison again…this time for eight years. She was released from prison in 2007, tried dating women, and was still hurt. She had her fifth child by yet another man. She wrote a bad check and wound up back in prison.

CarlottaBlack, 33 years old, curly hair, full-figured, friendly face – When she was seven years old, Carlotta’s mother ran away, her father was incarcerated, and Carlotta was sent to live with her grandmother, who was very religious and strict. Carlotta felt bitter. Looking for love, she became pregnant by a 14-year-old and went to a special school for teen mothers. Despite the separation, when her mother died when she was just 17 and her father when she was 20, she wanted to die too. She lived a life then of sexing, stealing, and clubbing. At age 23, a high-speed chase led to her arrest for shoplifting; she went to prison for a few months and received 10 years probation. She reconnected with a childhood friend, became pregnant, and suffered postpartum depression. While still on probation, she went on the run for 15 months, was caught, and was put back in prison in 2005. Now she is taking back her life.

Rosemaria Hispanic, around 23 years old, innocent looking, smiling – Rosemaria’s mother left her and her siblings in an orphanage when she was just seven years old, which led her to feel rage and hatred. At age 13 she became part of a gang. At age 15 she became pregnant, had three children by age 18, and four by age 21. She said that while in the gang, she didn’t “…feel bad about fighting. We didn’t hurt children or anyone who was innocent.  But now I see that we were hurting innocent children when we hurt their mothers, fathers, uncles….” She said that being in prison is the “biggest test of [her] life” and she now understands that what she did was wrong. She says she is still a “G“…this time God’s child.

NancyWhite, 59 years old, graying hair messily swept back in a bun, peering over granny glasses, thin – Nancy stated out right that she was not like the others. She said that both of her parents were lawyers and Ph.D.s and her mother told her over and over that she was a “loved baby.” She said that she led a charmed life until she came to prison, but didn’t know it. Her parents were in Europe, but her mother “waited to have her” until they came back to the U.S. so that Nancy could possibly be president one day. She watched prison movies and read a lot from the Bible and was determined she would never go to prison and would be the best Christian she could be. Although she says she took extraordinary measures to insure that she was indeed the owner of a house that was deeded to her, she says that her lawyer was crooked and she wound up in prison. Nancy was apparently imprisoned for real estate fraud, but even when challenged about the veracity of her story and what her part was that led to her being imprisoned, still said she is innocent and will one day see her story made into a Lifetime network movie.

Each woman in the group gave me hugs and thanked me for coming. I felt a Truth Be Told Logoreal sense of joy of being with these women who…though they have made real mistakes …are now trying to better their lives. Truth Be Told has several programs that help women build a sense of community, come to grips with the decisions they made that led them to prison, and learn to better communicate with each other respectfully and caringly.

I felt joyful from start to finish the day I went to prison. Through the efforts of volunteers like Nathalie Sorrell (co-founder), Carol Waid (co-founder), Katie, Peggy, Natalie, Suzanne, Julie, Mary, and executive director Shannon Holtzendorf, programs like Truth Be Told begin to bring some joy into the lives of women who have led hard lives and experienced little joy before coming to prison.

I’m going back to prison for their graduation in three weeks. Truth be told? I can’t wait.

Read my blog post about going to the Truth be Told graduation in the Lockhart prison

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GHOST: Counterterrorism Agent Fred Burton

16 07 2009

A 12 year stint as a special agent (and later deputy chief) of the Diplomatic Security Service of the Department of State’s counterterrorism division began for Fred Burton on February 10, 1986. A former Maryland police officer, he Fred Burtonhad some experience working in the shadows and with the dark strands of society. His life totally changed on that cold Bethesda day and became consumed in finding and disarming those all over the world whose purpose is to cause harm and destruction and to strike fear in the hearts of innocent people.

I heard Fred Burton speak at the Texas Book Festival right before the election last year. I found his talk intriguing and bought and read his riveting book Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent. In it, he tells stories of how the initial office of himself, his boss Steve, and another agent (and later additional agents) investigated many international incidents to determine if they were terrorist attacks. These incidents included the following:

  1. A bomb on TWA Flight 840 from Athens to Rome
  2. A bomb at a German disco in West Berlin
  3. The Beirut hostage crisis
  4. The airplane crash that killed Pakistani President Zia
  5. The first World Trade Center bombing

Mr. Burton is a true American patriot. He kept a suitcase packed and was ready to go anywhere in the world on a moment’s notice. He often was gone for weeks and his wife would have no idea where he was; he couldn’t tell her for security reasons. He rarely got a full night’s sleep as he would either be awakened with an emergency call that necessitated him going into the office or would lay awake anticipating such a call. He rarely even had a weekend morning to himself. He was always on call, always on the ready, always working to keep Americans and people all over the world safe.

Since 1998, Fred has worked for Strategic Forecasting (STRATFOR) in Austin, Texas, a company that does “geopolitical intelligence and economic, political, and military strategic forecasting.” He is currently VP of Counterterrorism and Corporate Security. There he and his counterterrorism team “watch overseas threats, analyze them, and report our findings to our clients.”

Mr. Burton was kind enough to send me a note when he saw that I listed on my blog that I was reading his book. I said I’d love to read another book by him and he replied that “My next book is MANHUNT and centers on my 25 year quest to capture a Palestinian terrorist who gunned down an Israeli secret agent in the DC area.” That sounds like another riveting book and I look forward to reading it when it is released in April 2010.

When you go to bed tonight, your thoughts may be on an argument with your spouse or a slight from your boss, but most of us won’t have to worry about whether we are safe or not. Eight years into his stint in counterterrorism, Fred Burton made these observations:

Do the people around me have any idea of the ruthless depths of the world they live in? Do they have any clue what lurks around them? I certainly didn’t eight years ago. Perhaps that ignorance is a good thing. Living life in perpetual fear is not a life at all. In truth, there are moments where I miss that blissful ignorance. Knowledge and a top secret clearance do not equal happiness. I’ve found that out the hard way.

We can be grateful for people like Fred Burton who are willing to give so much so that we can live blissfully and ignorantly safe lives. Here’s Mr. Burton in February discussing his book:





Celebrating World Refugee Day by Becoming a U.S. Citizen

20 06 2009

June 20 is World Refugee Day. 42 million people worldwide are refugees. Angelina Jolie serves as UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Refugees) Goodwill Ambassador. She and Brad Pitt have donated $1 million to help Pakistani refugees displaced because of war. Angelina says that the number of Pakistani refugees is jumping at a really high rate…as much as 100,000 people a day…and 2 million Pakistanis are now refugees.

Austin, Texas (where I live) takes in about 500 – 600 refugees per month; the most challenging thing is helping them find work. Here’s an article that is currently online and will appear in Sunday’s Austin American-Statesman newspaper about 21 refugees who became U.S. citizens today in Austin.

Refugees who fled horrors of war, famine now call Austin home.

Jeremy Schwartz
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Sunday, June 21, 2009

They’ve fled war, famine, genocide and concentration camps. But in an intimate ceremony Saturday at the Bullock Texas State History Museum, 21 refugees from 11 countries took an important step on their roads to a new life: They became U.S. citizens.

The naturalization ceremony took place on World Refugee Day and marked the second consecutive year that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has commemorated the day in Austin with a citizenship ceremony for refugees.

“They’ve gone through so much,” said Mario Ortiz, the San Antonio district director for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. “So it’s only right that as an agency and as a country we recognize the contributions they will make to this country.”

For Amir Causevic, a 34-year-old who left his hometown in Bosnia-Herzegovina when war broke out in the early 1990s, Saturday’s ceremony was the culmination of nearly two decades of struggle.

“This is the biggest day in my life so far,” said Causevic, who lives in Hutto with his wife and son and works as an installer for Time Warner Cable. “You have so many bad memories of your country that you want to start your life over again.”

John Mohinga and Wife (with family) become Citizens in Austin 6/20/09 - Credit: KUT's Erika Aguilar

John Mohinga and Wife (with family) become Citizens in Austin 6/20/09 - Credit: KUT's Erika Aguilar

John Mohinga, a 52-year-old from Congo, urged his fellow newly anointed citizens to take advantage of their second chance.

“Here you can live in peace and see your children go to school and get degrees and so on,” he told the crowd during the ceremony. “Here, you can be whatever you want to be.”

Mohinga, who works as a security guard and is the assistant pastor at North Austin Christian Church, fled Congo during a civil war that killed about 5 million of his countrymen more than a decade ago. He and his wife were forced to leave, he said, because she was an ethnic Tutsi originally from Rwanda, putting her on the wrong side of local militias.

The couple and their children were rescued by Red Cross workers who delivered them to United Nations forces and ultimately to a refugee camp in Cameroon. They came to the United States in 2000.

“I want to thank the great people of Texas for this peaceful welcome,” Mohinga said.

After the 21 refugees — all of them Austin-area residents originally from places such as Sudan, Afghanistan, El Salvador and Cambodia — took their oath of citizenship, immigration officials handed out certificates. The new Americans held them as if they might break or fly away and posed for pictures with smiling family members.

“Thank you for inspiring us,” Ortiz told them. “Thank you for humbling us.”





Celebrating Diversity at a Gay Pride Parade

7 06 2009

Outlandish. Festive. Convivial. Celebratory. My first gay pride parade ever. My good friend (a gay guy) had invited me years before…this year I said yes. After a dinner of fine Mexican food downtown, we walked over to 4th and Colorado and staked our spot near the reviewing stand to watch the Austin gay pride parade last night.

Attendees at Austin Gay Pride Parade June 6 09 - StatesmanThe crowd of several thousand grew as the 8:30 starting time approached. The streets blocked to traffic, this was people watching at its finest. Lean young men in black briefs wearing white feathery angel wings with a five foot span. Lots of tattoos. Women who looked more like men than some of the men did. Bleached blond…and even green… spiked hair.
Tranvestites…men dressed as women…with full makeup, hair, and dresses. Men with bare chests and tight leather pants. Androgynous women. Men holding hands with men. Women holding hands with women. Lots of dogs on leashes. Children. Rainbow flags and leis. A rowdy but controlled crowd of people of all ages, sizes, and looks.

And then there were the usual Saturday night Austin club hoppers…the 20-something women in 5-inch heels, short tight skirts, skin-tight tops, and tons of makeup. Their male dates in sloppy shorts, Birkenstocks, and shirts that hung over their beltless pants. And of course the rest of the hetero crowd that came down to check out the action, but wasn’t out to find “love” for the evening. A lot of these people stared blankly as they walked by, not Best Buy Austin Gay Pride Parade - Statesmancomprehending what they were seeing.

The crowd roared when the parade wound its way through the streets of downtown to where we were standing and sitting. As for every gay pride parade (per my friends), it was kicked off by the “dykes on bikes.” What followed was a 1.5 hour procession of people from church groups, clubs, arts groups, bands, restaurants, bars, retail stores, and miscellaneous organizations. Some marched, some rode in cars or trucks, and some rode on cheesy (and definitely not Rose Parade material) floats.

Particularly impressive was the sight of Austin Chief of Police Art Acevedo marching with his gay police men and women and Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr, one of only 30 women fire chiefs in the nation, marching with her gay fire men and women.

The non-uniformed marchers were in various states of dress and undress…with men in speedos seductively dancing getting the most cat calls. Some people dressed in costumes…the moLove Peace Equality Sign at Gay Pride Parade - Statesmanst memorable being two women in wedding dresses who held hands and walked together to make a point about gay marriage. In the spirit of a mardi gras parade, marchers flung cheap yet colorful beads into the crowd as well as t-shirts and condoms.

It was a fun evening, but in the midst of the hilarity and raucousness, the seriousness of the Sign at Gay Pride Parade - Statesmanoccasion was not lost. Many of the marchers held signs that proclaimed messages of equality, which reminded us in a quiet way why we were all even attending a gay pride parade.

I feel proud to live in a town (Austin) that is accepting of the diversity of people who came out for the parade. I think I’ll go back next year. Gay or straight, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Note: All photos are from the Austin American-Statesman’s online website www.statesman.com.





LGBT (Gay) in America…LGBT in Iraq

13 04 2009

gays-holding-hands1As gay marriage, gays in the military, gay teachers, gay friends, etc. become mainstream, we must not forget that LGBT people still suffer. A gay couple was thrown out of the beautiful Four Seasons hotel downtown in Austin (a very gay-friendly town) recently because one guy sat on the other’s lap in the lobby. Students are still harrassed in school.

To bring attention to this, the Day of Silence is being celebrated throughout the U.S. on Friday, April 17. According to the website:

Founded in 1996, the Day of Silence has become the largest single student-led action towards creating safer schools for all, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

Students who participate in this stay silent the entire day to bring attention to the silence faced by LGBT students in the face of name calling, bullying, etc. According to the GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network), 61% of students feel unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation.

If you’d like to encourage Congress to support the National Day of Silence, go to this Gay Rights page on the Change.org website and sign the petition.  The resolution was introduced to the House of Representatives on April 2nd.

The White House and President Obama support several LGBT initiatives, which can be found by going to this whitehouse.gov civil rights page. On June 1, 2007, candidate Barack Obama said the following:

While we have come a long way since the Stonewall riots in 1969, we still have a lot of work to do. Too often, the issue of LGBT rights is exploited by those seeking to divide us. But at its core, this issue is about who we are as Americans. It’s about whether this nation is going to live up to its founding promise of equality by treating all its citizens with dignity and respect.

We are making great strides in treating LGBT people with respect, but there are still hate crimes and murders here. And while our government is struggling with how to treat LGBT equally, police here are at least not hunting down LGBT people as they are in Iraq.

Is there anyone to help me before it is too late? That’s the urgent plea in a handwritten note released last weekend from a member of the Iraqi-LGBT who is being held for execution because he is gay. In an April 7, 2009 article, the New York Times reports:

In the past two months, the bodies of as many as 25 boys and men suspected of being gay have turned up in the huge Shiite enclave of Sadr City, the police and friends of the dead say. Most have been shot, some multiple times. Several have been found with the word “pervert” in Arabic on notes attached to their bodies, the police said.

The police have been working to “clean up the streets” of beggars and homosexuals lately. A gay subculture has sprung up with the increased freedom in Iraq, but homosexuality is still against the law. The Times speaks of the fatwa that was issued against homosexuals in Iraq:

In 2005, the country’s most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a religious decree that said gay men and lesbians should be “punished, in fact, killed.” He added, “The people should be killed in the worst, most severe way of killing.” The language has since been removed from his Web site.

Below is a disturbing report from CNN about gays being targeted in Iraq. One young man interviewed says he would rather commit suicide rather than admit to his family that he is gay. So when you walk down the street and think of the freedom that you have to love who you want and hug your partner, remember that if you were lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or transgendered, it could put you in danger in an American school or get you killed in Iraq.