My eyes are open

I literally had a life-changing experience this week. (I don’t use that word lightly either.)

My job has challenged me to re-think the world. I was raised in a small, conservative town. You were either Christian and white or Christian and ‘Mexican’ (who cares what your actual nationality is – you speak Mexican, you look Mexican, you’re Mexican.) There was very little diversity. I didn’t have much exprience around people different than me. That’s something I’ve loved since college –  ‘expanding my horizons ‘.

In my job, I meet people who grew up like I did. I meet people who grew up the opposite of me. I see all of the ways that my life could be different. Remove some element of my life and who knows where I would be.

Monday, my job took me to prison. We went to present an Empowerment Fashion Show to women who were due to be released in the next six months. I had no idea what to expect. My entire experience was based on the media portral.

Orange jumpsuits. Everyone locked in cells. Armed guards. Chain gangs. Tough, scary ladies who could beat me to a pulp (and would if given the chance.) You know the stereotypes. Insert the ones I’m missing here.

The media/majority of the population believe that all people in one situation are the same. And they’re wrong? That’s never happened before.

Gorgeous, well kept grounds with women mingling around.  A well-stocked library (with a lending service if you needed a book they didn’t have). A second, religious library. Once inside, I didn’t notice the security  although I know they were there. They have a half-marathon.

There’s puppies. PUPPIES. I seem to have missed the puppies in Prison Break.

As our morning began, all of these stereotypes/media generalizations were pushed away and refuted. I started talking to the women we were working with as they changed into the suits we brought for them; did their make up; styled their hair. Yes, they did bad things, made mistakes – but they weren’t BAD people. One has 7 grandkids she can’t wait to Skype. Another’s 3-year-old counts down the days until she’s home when she calls. Another can’t wait to start a personal training business with her sister.  Another wants to be a florist; went to cosmetology school while incarcerated. Yet another will go visit her son, who she reconnected with while incarcerated. He’s a Marine; she’ll return to visit her 3 younger children who know her as “Anna*” – their foster mom is the only “Mom” they know. And then, she wants to share her incredibly powerful story of abuse and addiction and the transformation she’s underwent the past ten years.

While sharing their stories, I noticed a pattern.

Almost all of the women were GLAD they had been incarcerated. The programs offered to them when they were incarcerated provided them the support they had been seeking. Needing. They were hopeful for what was next.

I was inspired in a place that for so long I had known as a place of desperation.

Now this experience obviously isn’t the experience of every prison. Or everyone who is incarcerated. Some are bad people who do bad things. Some are scary places. But it was a great reminder to not view things at first glance or by what we think we know.

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