Humility as path to big dreams

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Photo by KBPS’s Megan Burks

After 18 years of incarceration, John Schimmel – a 2017 TEDx speaker – is out of prison! John came out of prison with big ambitions and goals: get his Masters, become a counselor and empower at-risk youth through motivational speaking. And he has good reasons to believe in these big dreams. John dedicated himself to his education and transformation and received four (yes, 4!!) Associate Degrees while in prison. He’s a TEDx speaker and was even featured, since his release, on KPBS describing his ambitions and determination.

John is a man with many reasons to aim high and not “settle” for anything below his ambitions, just like many of us are taught. And yet, he’s currently holding down two jobs: one washing cars at a rental car facility and the other picking up trash on the highway. Not quite the work we’d expect when working to become a counselor.

And this is where John moved me with his humility. When we spoke about his next steps, John told me: “These jobs are temporary.” He added, “while I prepare my path to my Masters, these jobs are an opportunity for me to reengage with the outside world and to validate to myself that I am committed, dependable and trustworthy in this new environment.” John realizes that, at this stage, it’s not about the content of the jobs; it’s about the lessons they provide: forming the habit of holding a job, accountability, financial sustainability, and (re)learning the in’s and out’s of life outside the barbed wire.

What a brilliant lesson to each of us who so often believe certain responsibilities and jobs are below us. John trusts that each step, no matter how small it may seem, offers him the lessons that take him closer to his big dreams. He recognizes that while he proved himself in prison, the “real world” is quite different and he has to test and relearn many of the lessons he had acquired. I look forward to seeing how he continues to grow as he – and we as society – have a lot to gain from his passion for education and mentoring at-risk youth.

We become what we believe

We were in our usual closing circle at the end of a weekly meeting with the men of Donovan State Prison. This is an end-of-day time of reflection on key moments, insights and learnings to anchor them before we step back onto the prison yard or into our cars. One man in blue says “I’m going home soon.” And we all look at him confused.

First, let me say that everyone in prison dreams of one thing: going home. Seeing the streets one day. Many people are lifers with no date to go home. They work hard and diligently to transform themselves hoping that, one day, the Parole Board will find them suitable. If they have or get a date, oh, everyone knows because it’s massive cause for celebration. Second, prison is not a space of sudden changes. We are usually well aware of upcoming bills that may change the men’s ability to go home. They know their date to go to the Parole Board well ahead of schedule. Even for clemency, they work towards it for months and years.

So, what had happened that enabled this amazing news of “going home soon”? The man clarifies, “Oh no, no, no.  Nothing has changed in my sentence or term. I simply have decided that I’m going home soon.”

Woohoo!!! Now, this is cause for celebration!!! It’s a well-documented fact that we become what we believe. Until now, this man believed, reaffirmed by his life sentence, that he had no prospect of ever leaving prison. Suddenly, he realized – and currently he has a few startling examples around him – that the first step to stepping outside the prison gates is to embrace this possibility, even when all “facts” point to the contrary.

One of the startling examples is a man who was told, at 17 years old, that he was going to die in prison as he was handed a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. A series of events over eight months not only gave him the chance to head to the Parole Board but he was found suitable for release!!! On his first time in front of the Board, which is a feat! While the circumstances enabling him to see the streets have taken place over the past eight months, this man has been committed to his transformation for the past 15 years, becoming a positive role model for all around him. He understands the power of belief and trust.

This works for you too! You become what you believe. So believe you will achieve your small and large goals and watch them materialize. Truly believe them. If you believe them for 3 minutes a day but spend the rest of the day thinking how stupid and unachievable they are, guess what’s going to happen.

Believe in your goals. Believe in yourself. Believe it’s possible. Allow a group of men with very little reason to believe in their goals and themselves to be your inspiration.

You wanna wug?

A wug! Today, our TEDx team coined the term that describes what we do in prison to show connection, appreciation and love. What’s wug you ask? A word-hug!!

Explanation: Hugs are not allowed in prison. It’s not always the easiest thing to accept when we connect deeply and humanly with one another. And yet, this rule has its reasons for existing.

So, most of the time, we “hug” by hugging ourselves. We “hug” by placing our hands on our hearts. We “hug” by saying things like “consider yourself hugged.” And we talk about the day we will give each other hugs, which translates to the day the Donovan men walk the streets again.

But no actual hugs, with arms and heart-to-heart contact, as long as the men are dressed in blue. Over the past year, the TEDx team has developed a hug replacement, and today it was coined… a wug.

To receive a wug, a person stands inside our circle to be acknowledged by everyone else with a single descriptive word. The person is wrapped in an energetic hug of appreciative and loving words that shine the person’s inner brilliance. Its power is tremendous as each person is authentically seen and honored. And it’s often quite overwhelming to receive the truth that is reflected to us.

As long as we cannot hug, we embrace the power of a wug!

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(Drawing by friend Leah Pearlman from Dharma Comics)

Impact of TEDx attendees on inside team

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Here is a collection of comments the Donovan men made last Tuesday about the impact YOU – outside attendees – had on them during Sunday’s TEDxDonovanCorrectional:

  • The gravity of the situation hasn’t set in yet
  • I imagined us as one big family, living in a mansion together and coming down for breakfast
  • I’ve been exposed to so much love, compassion, and understanding that I’m transformed
  • [The day] was good — I don’t have any fancy words — it was good (from a man who speaks poetry)
  • [Outside attendees] brought light to my life
  • What I got out of [the day] was love
  • Seeing [everyone] being vulnerable and coming out of their cocoon. There is an essence of unity. I’m still stuck on that
  • We are part of a legacy. I’m just so happy to be part of it
  • I sat with two ladies in TEDxpression. They had me laughing. There was so much laughter, bubbliness. This was a whole new experience that just blew my mind. They were good people. I’ve NEVER experienced anything like that EVER — not at a wedding, not at a party
  • Some things you can’t describe in words because it takes away from it. Words would only lessen what I want to say.  There are no words to share what I’m trying to say. It’s indescribable
  • I enjoyed people just being people
  • It’s about being humble and respectful. One thing I deeply cherish is being humbled
  • It was the most powerful, spiritually uplifting thing I’ve ever experienced. I will take it to the grave

First appreciations after Sunday’s TEDx

TEDxDonCorr-previews-7For 2.5 hours on Tuesday, we had the pleasure and honor of listening to the TEDx Core Team and Speakers team, their wisdom, insights and pure joy created during Sunday’s TEDxDonovanCorrectional. Over the next few days, we’ll release segments of the 13 pages of typed notes that were captured by three volunteers . Here’s the first…

“I’m spiritually full, spiritually high. I don’t know what the [heck] happened to me. I can’t put it into words, but I’m full. I don’t have a burden. [TEDxDonovanCorrectional] took away my burdens. I’m happy. All the new friends I made in [by being part of the Core Team]. How we problem solved together. I take the language we use here – and the tone – and I use it with my family. No blowing up when things don’t go the way I want. I’m just giving them love and respect for humanity. An awakening of humanity towards other people. It’s not about anything you can give, it’s about seeing that humanity. I found soft compassionate parts of myself that were covered up because I wanted to be hard. It’s like you [outside folks] cracked open an egg. And inside, it’s not soft, it’s strong. If we all do this for each other more and more, we will be a better person to everybody around us. When you let your guard down and be the real you, people gravitate to you. I had a woman tell me [on Sunday] that I had a great smile and nice eyes. [The attendees] treated me like I was somebody. There was such kindness. They don’t care what my crime was, they just see me as a human. They wished I wasn’t incarcerated. I can have more of that! After having the courts telling me that I deserve to be locked up — it means the world to me to hear this. I’ll remember those women 20 years from now. So much kindness. I’m not used to it. Race didn’t matter, my crime didn’t matter. It was just about peace, humility, kindness, compassion.”