writinginsideVT as life line

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courtesy of csolifeline.org

For the ten years we have offered writinginsideVT to women incarcerated in Vermont, we have heard it over and over again. How these weekly opportunities to write and share what is on each participant’s heart, with respect and without judgement, have provided a lifeline through incarceration. For some, it is the first time they have been heard, or even discovered they have something to say. For others, it is a chance to unpack the pent-up frustrations, griefs and crushed dreams that inhabit the underbelly of their daily routines inside.

No matter the content, the fact remains: writing offers a way to re-write (and in the process re-right) past decisions and choose a new path going forward.

The respite our writing sessions offer inside (where, unfortunately, many women remain who would otherwise be receiving treatment for their illnesses) is undeniably healing, hope-producing, enlightening, confidence-building. In short, in the context of epidemic drug abuse and dearth of mental health treatment programs, the moments of quiet reflection, sharing and validation amount to … well … a lifeline for many.

As founding co-director, I have been deeply humbled across this past decade to witness acts of transformation through the safe community we have co-created with our writers. To honor those for whom the program has provided a link to re-visioning a future, I have received funding from BCA Community Fund to publish a BCA_logo_Kcollection of writings. Life Lines: Re-Writing Lives from Inside Out will be released in late March by Green Writers Press, Brattleboro, VT. The book and its public presentation will provide for community discussion and advocacy on behalf of the challenges faced daily by these writers.

Stay tuned for updates on the book and its launch. Meanwhile, thank you for your interest in and support of our work over the years.

wiVT team member helps inside voters

election - Luke Eastman

credit – luke eastman

Check out this wonderful write-up by Mark Davis in Seven Days featuring Kassie Tibbot, recent VT Law School graduate and long-time assistant to writinginsideVT. The article, titled “Vermont is one of two U.S. states that let incarcerated citizens vote.” The other is Maine.

Kassie is quoted throughout the piece, including the opening paragraph:

Kassie Tibbott spent several weeks this fall visiting five Vermont state prisons with the goal of getting local inmates to vote. The recent Vermont Law School graduate was happy to help 44 prisoners register for the first time. She was even more elated to meet 39 inmates already on the voter rolls, who simply asked for help getting absentee ballots. Dozens of others didn’t need assistance because they already knew the ropes.

The article goes on to point out the central importance of community to those inside and looking to return home at some point. Voting is one of the few ways they can participate in ‘normal’ life during incarceration. It is also an imperative that is felt as a result of all those who can NOT vote.

“Some of them, because they saw that some of their fellow inmates couldn’t vote, they thought, I had better do it,” said Tibbott. “I heard quite a few times inmates say, ‘See, our voice does matter.'”

It is heartening that our democracy can permit citizens otherwise limited in their civic engagement to vote.

brewing empowerment

cups of coffeeAs promised, here is more from the UVM students who are, this week, starting their four-week pop-up venture on behalf of writinginsideVT.

They very kindly shared their Business Plan with me and gave permission to share it here. Excerpts follow:

Company Description
Brewing Empowerment is comprised of 10 UVM students who are creating a pop-up social enterprise. Our main goal is to make a profit through selling coffee and stickers to donate to “Writing Inside Vermont.” This non-profit works with women who are incarcerated in Vermont and gives them an outlet to express themselves through poetry and stories. We chose this group because we feel their message is powerful and one that needs to be shared. Often when people are incarcerated they become dehumanized and lose a sense of who they are. What brought our group together was that we all had an interest in gender equality and empowering women. This non-profit aligns with our groups goals of empowering these women. The name of our group not only goes with what we are selling but it goes with our main message. We want to empower these women by sharing their stories and their past experiences to make other UVM students and faculty members open their eyes and hearts and not make anybody feel they don’t matter, regardless of their situation.

 

Executive Summary
Brewing Empowerment is our pop-up social enterprise. We will be selling coffee and stickers, to donate our profits to “Writing Inside Vermont.” This non-profit works with women who are incarcerated in Vermont and provides them an outlet for their voices and words to be heard. Our group not only wants to donate to this non-profit but we want them to be known throughout campus for years to come. This is why we chose to sell stickers which will last beyond this pop-up. Our target audience will be students, professors and friends who want to spread awareness of the amazing work this non-profit does.  

Mission Statement
Brewing Empowerment is dedicated to spreading the words of these powerful women whose voices deserve to be heard. Often women behind bars are not given the validation that they matter or that they even exist. We are working to remove this stigma and echo their words throughout UVM’s campus.

Product Description:
Brewing Empowerment will be selling both coffee and stickers. Students on the University of Vermont campus are constantly buying and drinking coffee to fuel them through their long days and hefty amounts of work. With that said, Brewing Empowerment will sell great quality coffee at a reasonably low price outside the Bailey/Howe Library in hopes of attracting the business of hustling, working students. Our coffee cups will have quotes from the women’s poetry on them, to achieve our mission to remove the stigma from incarcerated women.Fortunately our group received kind donations from businesses scattered throughout the Burlington area, so we are able to kickstart our business at almost no cost. Hannaford Supermarket supplied us with a $20 gift card in which we will purchase coffee grinds and cups. Similarly, City Market was generous enough to donate a $20 gift card with which we will obtain cream, milk, and sugar. Lastly, Sodexo has agreed to supply us with holders(creamers) for cream and milk, endless ice, and a tub/bucket to hold the ice. With all that said we will charge $2 per cup of coffee.

In addition to coffee we will be selling stickers. Students around the University of Vermont campus love collecting stickers and displaying them on their reusable water bottles or laptops. We will capitalize on this trend and sell stickers alongside coffee. The stickers will include quotes from and art drawn by women involved in the Writing Inside Vermont program. With the $10 allotted to our group we will purchase sticker paper from Amazon and print out designs with the art and poetry incorporated. These stickers will then be sold for $2.

UVM student initiative

from students to entrepreneurs

The other day I received a cryptic call. After a few moments I learned that, once again and out of the clear blue, writing inside VT is the subject of an unsolicited PR/fundraising effort.

It happened a year or two back, when we received a generous check from a local congregation. The accompanying note explained that writing inside VT had been chosen the worthy non-profit recipient of the week’s Sunday collection. Quite aside from my curiosity as to how individuals not directly involved with us actually hear about or find us, these incidents move me. Deeply.

A few weeks back it happened again. This time, a UVM student called to ask if we would be the focus of a student fund-raising project. A team of 10 students from a variety of disciplines who have come together in a class on entrepreneurship have been charged with creating a pop-up commercial venture. Their personal interests intersect at gender equality, criminal justice and women’s issues. Which is how they found us.

For six to eight weeks, they will have two slots/week on camput to sell something which they have designed and produced. Their goal is to start a conversation about incarceration. When me met, I jotted down the list of impacts they wanted from their project: connection, building social capital, rehumanizing and validating the incarcerated in an authentic way to raise awareness about criminal justice reform. A tall order by any standard.

They are mid-project right now. Their product is still under development. Working with a copy of HEAR ME, SEE ME: Incarcerated Women Write and their own brainstorming, initiative and energythey will choose artwork and empowering quotable lines to create their product.

Stay tuned for more information as the plan unfolds!

on silence

Silence. What a double-edged concept. Every year I hold a workshop around the topic,  framed as “Refusing Silence.” Yet even so, every year writing comes out on both sides of silence: the heavy hand that imposes an unwanted internal reality vs the spacious opening for reflective growth and nurture.

Like anything, it is not so simple, Nor are the realities of silence either/or, one extreme or the other. I am reminded of this again and again as I hear stories about silences we carry, silences we suffer, silences we impose, silences we seek. Last week at this time, I had the privilege of speaking to an assembled group at Three Cathedral Square, a Burlington assisted living/retirement community. They wanted to learn more about writinginsideVT and to hear from the incarcerated women who so eloquently write inside prison walls week after week.

I opened with a poem called “Silence” from our 2013 book, HEAR ME, SEE ME: Incarcerated Women Write. Following a chance to check in with what resonated for each of the dozen participants seated in a circle with me, I invited them to think about a silence in their own lives — whether self- or other-imposed — and to consider its lifelong impact on them. And the stories poured out, going back as they will to early experiences of shaming, belittling, being made to feel less-than, invisible, devalued … from men and women alike.

These stories were also interspersed with heartening follow-ups: the shy one who started to speak up against unequal pay at her workplace; the one who would now take positive action in the face of political repression; the one who found her voice after being told silence equalled ‘being good’ … the bullied and marginalized who discovered through writing how to create an identity that would serve them as adults … the misunderstood who just wanted loving acceptance …

Sadly, these very personal stories of otherness and loneliness and despair are all too universal. Certainly they are often the stuff of which the incarcerated write. And yet here I was in the middle of a cross-section of the never-incarcerated. After we shared our own stories, I read more from the book, perhaps another ten or so pieces covering a number of topics. These wonderful elders were spellbound, grateful, engaged and encouraged by the wisdom and perseverance of ‘our’ inside writers. As are all of us who walk into the echoing corridors week after week to witness the power of the written word to promote awareness, growth and change.

As is my usual custom, I followed up the session by creating a ‘found poem’ from the few lines I jotted down while listening to others read. I know you’ll find yourself in here, too.

 

SILENCE CAN BE SCARY

Silence can be scary,
a feeling of endangerment
that imprisons because of what has happened in life.
A repressed childhood, a lot of secrets —
imposed silence feels like being unseen.
Like Sunday School – ‘you need to be quiet to hear’ –
or feeling an outsider in a new school.
It hurts to keep so much inside over the years,
not expressing yourself;
waiting to vote, getting out of line without saying anything
because I didn’t own property;
the shaming and belittling of
who do you think you are?!?

Lying in bed, I just wanted Mom to hold me.
I’ve never been much of a talker;
I’m very shy, just listen.
I still don’t like to speak.
And yet – inside silence is an opportunity
if I can really listen.

As a 12-year-old, I found my voice through writing,
forced to find myself.
As an employee, I started writing letters,
speaking up at meetings
for equal pay;
today I would call the Board of Elections.
I’m vocal, I’m not retreating.

Silence can be scary, either way.

swb
[poem ‘found’ from lines shared at our 2/1/18 conversation about writinginsideVT]