TEDx planning viewed by inmate Mike Jaquith

Meet Mike Jaquith, a TEDxDonovanCorrectional Core Team member! Below, he shares his experience of organizing TEDxDonovanCorrectional in his own words!

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“First off, I would like to give a quick introduction about myself: I’ve been incarcerated for five years. It has not always been the easiest being isolated, away from my family and friends, and put in a place with people who have different personalities and attitudes, which can create even more isolation. I understand that my wrongdoing put me here, and I take full responsibility for those actions. Since being incarcerated, I’ve made a choice. That choice is change – and I’ve been working hard at it! I was the first to complete a vocational training in Heating & Air Conditioning and also received a 3.8 GPA at Southwestern Community College. Yet, none of those tops what I receive here at TEDx.

“I didn’t know what to expect when I first arrived, and I’m so happy I came because the TEDx journey has been nothing less than life-transforming. Meeting twice a week, we work our tails off on all the logistics needed for this event. Beyond this, it’s a place of love and respect for one another where we receive critical tools for life, where we can put our guard down, and where we come together as a “TEDx family” to help each other reach our fullest potential and, most importantly, be ourselves.

“I’m truly honored to be a part of an organization that is for the greater good of humanity as a whole. I’m writing this message in the hopes for change, or simply to help others realize to continue on with the better fight for our collective wellbeing. For those reading this right now, I cannot express enough the impact participating in TEDx has had on me. I highly recommend you experience this for yourselves, in the hope you feel the same impact I have.”

A magical human transformation

As mentioned in my two-years-in-prison anniversary post, I’m amazed at the transformation possible when we create a safe space in which the men cultivate their brilliance, those gifts that make them truly unique.

Here’s one such magical transformation…

When last February David first became part of the Core Team organizing the first TEDxDonovanCorrectional, he was a very broken human being: unexpressive and completely hidden. Here’s this kid, hidden behind his sunglasses, hair in front of his face down to his chest and with his guitar as a permanent crutch. No one saw his eyes for our first three months together. He would barely participate in conversations, not engage in the decisions. He sat there, holding his guitar.

Instead of writing him off, we showed David – like all the men – unconditional love. We first met him where he was at and honored and celebrated even the minuscule ways he could show up, like strumming his guitar as we planned the TEDx event. We gave him a safe space where he was allowed to be himself – something that he may have never received before. Little by little over the summer, we saw him open up.

He dropped his guitar, and then his glasses and then cut his hair. But it did not stop there. Today, David is unrecognizable. He now is in almost constant eye contact, speaks up in our meetings, constructs well articulately arguments for his opinion and we’ve even discovered a phenomenal writer who wrote the intricate theme description of the next TEDx event. Just a couple weeks ago, we identified, from 45 applications, 18 Donovan residents we invited to interview, from which the inside Core Team selected 10 speakers-in-training for next March’s TEDx event. David was not only selected to be one of the 10 speakers-in-training; he received the highest score of all interviewees!!!!

This success from a man who a few months ago stayed hidden and voiceless!

* All names changed.

Lessons from two years in prison

It all started on a Saturday. Saturday, December 5th, 2015. Two years ago, today, I entered prison for the first time. I remember being surrounded by chain-link fences topped with razor wire, walking through the electrified fence that kills on contact. As the gate clanged closed behind me, I had the oddest feeling: I felt at home. Though I had never been to, seen and barely thought of prison, it felt oddly familiar.

Since this first day, I have spent over 800 hours behind bars. And while I would never wish a bunk there on anyone, I have been transformed by my interactions and experiences with Donovan’s residents.

Here are three of the myriad lessons the Donovan men have taught me:

1) Hurt people hurt people. All of these men have committed crimes; no one is here to deny the hurt created or to deny the need to separate dangerous people from society. What is also true is that we hurt others when we ourselves are hurt. Think about it. When you yell at your spouse, how are you feeling right before you yell? Peaceful and loving? Or angry, resentful and frustrated? The same goes with these men at a massively greater degree. They often had tortuous childhoods. Imagine being sexually abused by your father and uncles on a weekly basis. How loved would you feel? How much pain would you be carrying? I’ve developed a whole new relationship with my own anger and resentment. Anytime I lash out on someone, I recognize that it’s an expression of my own pain. And, incidentally, I’ve also learned that the pain felt when I lash out was rarely created by the person receiving the lashing.

2) The main difference between them and me is that I grew up with loving mentors and role models. My parents, my teachers, the adults in my childhood wished my wellbeing. They created a safe environment in which I could learn and grow. They encouraged me when I felt down. They taught me the lessons of respect, responsibility and love. Many Donovan residents had no – like zero – positive role models. Their families taught them that “violence IS the solution.” They pulled out a gun when someone brushed by them. For some, my team and I are their first mentors… ever! Who was there for you, just at the right time, to provide lessons and guidance you would have never imagined, to “love you back to life,” to help you make the right choice? Where would you be today without that person?

3) Most importantly, we all have brilliance inside and, when given opportunity to cultivate it, people do. My life experiences through the world’s boardrooms and slums had already taught me that everyone carries a seed of brilliance, those gifts which make us truly unique. I’m amazed at the transformation possible when I create a safe space in which the men cultivate their brilliance.   Our world becomes brighter, safer and more peaceful.

Am I “there” yet?

I was coming home from work yesterday and the only thing on my mind was the next thing I had to do when I got home. I was almost angry about being on the road. Why could I not be home already? I have shit to do and people to see! Does the universe not know that??!?! I was agitated, frustrated, acting like I was in the worse place on the planet (after having JUST driven out of prison; the dichotomy is striking).

I wished to be “there” already. To have arrived. To be able to celebrate what has been accomplished.

There exists such a parallel with the frustration I can feel about the creation of my 6-week-old nonprofit. I wish to be “there” already. “There” is having raised awareness about the dramatic life change I’ve created. “There” is having the financial funds to support the upcoming year of activities. “There” is speaking about the magical lessons I learn in prison to professional organizations and church groups. “There” is knowing and engaging with my community of support in this new foreign land of prison reform. “There” is being recognized for the awesome impact my programs are having on the prison residents and the prison culture.

Yet, here’s the secret: Yesterday’s drive home offered a TON to celebrate!!!

  • On the medium-security yard that morning, the men invited me to be the speaker at their Christmas celebration
  • On the high-security yard, our TEDx team spent 20 minutes in thanks giving. While they may not spend the holidays with their families, we can all experience gratitude for the gifts in our lives. PLUS, yesterday was also our first meeting with our newly selected ten speakers-in-training for our 2018 TEDxDonovanCorrectional
  • My drive to and from Donovan is a predictable and consistent 30 minutes. I travel reverse traffic, zipping by at 70 mph while others are crawling forward at 20
  • I drive along the US-Mexico border for the first 15ish minutes, which reminds me how little my life is impacted by the borders we’ve created
  • I head towards the ocean, which always offers a sunset on my drive home. Its beauty varies but it’s always magical to witness a sunset
  • These 30 minutes can be a gift of stillness – in a car moving 70 mph – after facilitating 5 hours of workshops with 50 prison inmates

Yesterday, I was so busy being frustrated that I was not “there” that I lost sight of these moments of celebration. Of course, the frustration didn’t disappear when I got home and therefore, the evening’s productivity, relaxation and prep for the next day, all happened with more struggle than was necessary.

As I now sit on the plane, heading to another “there” – this time, my Thanksgiving celebration – I take a moment to be right here, right now, to enjoy the scenery out the window (I flew over Donovan!), to write a reflection piece and to breath and greet this moment.

Compassion in Prison

Compassion in prison??? Yes people! And it was a roaring success!!!!!! Yesterday marked the end of the 30-day Compassion It Challenge that Sara and I put on at Donovan. And we celebrated in big prison style: with music performed by resident bands (they are so awesome that Hollywood producers are producing a CD of their music!), stories of compassion (wait until you hear some of these below!) and with cake (you gotta see the residents eat cake, it’s magical!). Every day in October, the Donovan men were encouraged to perform acts of compassion to their friends and family, themselves and all. And we heard two in particular that rocked our world.

Story 1: A few days ago, John asked to recognize a man who performed amazing compassion. So, during yesterday’s celebration, John shared with the 80 men present: why are we so afraid of death? The greatest compassion comes when we do something others are afraid of. In prison also, people grow old and die of old age. The decline can be difficult. Over the past weeks, John has been witness to a man giving of himself selflessly to a dying man: “cleaning him, washing him, dressing him, feeding him, talking to him and treating him as though he still matters. It was compassion in its purest form, not for the attention or the recognition of doing it but pure love for humanity and compassion for another person.” When John called this man out, the fellow residents gave him a spontaneous standing ovation!!!! A small and meaningful acknowledgement for the amazing selfless commitment he’s shown to a fellow resident…

Story 2: Keith shared a marvelous story of the ripple effect of kindness. During one of our weekly compassion classes (attended by 17 residents), Ben told the class about secretly slipping soups into his cellie’s pantry when he noticed that the cellie’s pantry was low. (That cellie turned out to be Keith.) Inspired by this story, Mark one day spontaneously asked Keith what he wanted from the store. Keith was incredibly taken aback: He knew who Mark was but they had never spoken. (They are different races.) And he wondered what could be behind the offer. (It’s prison after all.) Keith refused but Mark insisted. So Keith asked for coffee. Folgers. And Mark returned from the store with Folgers and a pack of soups! Keith was so moved by these acts of kindness that he felt compelled to share them with all celebration attendees.

There were more amazing stories throughout the month and during the day, including one of a man making amends with a man he had sworn to hurt. Oh, the power of these men’s stories!!!! It literally changes and saves lives.

* All names have been changed.