This past week I spent two days teaching business and professional development to twelve inmates at the North Carolina Women's Prison in Swannanoa, NC. I have to admit when I first considered this opportunity, I was a little hesitant and unsure of what to expect. After spending the week with these ladies, I learned so much about the human struggle, but also about the human spirit.
Building Trust & Product Ideas
During the first day, I could tell that these ladies were skeptical of me, and didn't trust me, but why should they. We spent the first class focusing on coming up with ideas for a product and developing a mini business plan and marketing plan for that product. I had them work in groups and come up with a conceptual product or service idea. One thing that I realized very quickly was how our environment stifles our creativity, but when we are given creative freedom our minds open and can shape ideas that may have been untapped before. The ideas that these ladies came up with were "interesting", but it was limited to the knowledge that they had while serving time in prison and the time they spend in society before being incarcerated. It took a while to build trust with them during the day, and many of the women were distance and didn't engage much with me.
Team Building, and Openness
On the second day, I started out the day-long class with an exercise using We! Connect Cards from We!™ which was co-founded by Chad Littlefield and Will Wise. These cards provoke thought and interaction across the group, and the ladies appeared to enjoy this exercise. I also participated, which I think they appreciated. I connected a second exercise called Truth and Lies. This exercise was to have everyone write down three true statements about themselves and two lies, but the lies could not be entirely unbelievable. When I introduced this exercise, the ladies said: "we live together, eat together, work out together and study together 24x7, we know everything about each other." So we proceeded with the exercise and what they found, is that they didn't know everything about each other. Interesting enough they struggled to determine what was the truth and what was the lie. This exercise was designed to build trust and knowledge of their peers and to strengthen the team. What was most interesting to this particular activity was a couple of the women knew exactly what my true statements were and which ones were my lies without knowing anything about me and they were all quite neutral statements.
Establishing a Common Link
After spending the week with these twelve ladies, I had the chance to learn about their stories, where they came from and why they were in prison. The majority of them were in prison for drug-related crimes, and the rest were for alcohol-related offenses. I completed another exercise that was designed to again, build strength in their team. I asked them to come up with a common problem and then we would discuss as a team potential solutions to that problem. They didn't come up with a topic, so I proposed drug & alcohol abuse in our society. As we started, they immediately came up with solutions, and it wasn't what you would immediately think. They all had a joint solution, which was to start with programs to identify and counsel young children that might be abusing these substances already at a young age. They said they started at a young age, and it progressively got worse as they got older. Interesting enough, a good portion of them said the biggest problem wasn't drugs on the streets it was at home, in the medicine cabinet. They said the biggest issue is how pharmaceutical companies push prescription drugs onto families with young children.
Regardless of where you stand on this topic, what I loved about this exchange was they were all respectful of each others proposed solutions and as the conversation continued, the proposed solution became stronger with each team member. I think in business we often fail to bring our team members for such discussions on business topics. How many of you have sat in conference rooms with executives or managers telling you how things should be done. Our companies can be much stronger if we bring together our teammates to solve common problems. You may be surprised with the results.
Departing with Common Respect
It has taken me a long time in my life to accept people for who they are, and I am still learning. Being inside the walls of that prison last week gave me a different perspective on human relationships and acceptance. These women came from various backgrounds, some rich, some poor. Some were young (20's), some older (50's). Some had been there three years, some thirteen. But I realized that they have a common respect for each other, and truly want the best for each other. It didn't matter what race or sexual orientation they were, they accepted each other for their friendship. At the end of the week, they eventually accepted me and learned to trust me, because they knew I wanted them to get something out of the week that would make them better prepared for when they leave the walls in the next year (it is a transition program).
Spare the Judgement
I believe that they all want to make changes in their lives, and want to participate as a law abiding citizen. I think their biggest challenge is the rest of us believing they are capable, and giving them a chance. I would encourage you to look at felons differently if they are willing to prove to you that they indeed are ready. Don't just discount people for what their past looks like, give them the lens they need to look through for a better future.