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Follow This, TEDxColumbus, TEDxColumbusWomen

Gabrielle Crosby at TEDxColumbus, the first prisoner to speak on a public TEDx stage

by Kendra Hovey

Gabrielle Crosby has been incarcerated for three years. She has seven more to go. Yet, one Thursday a month she visits South Africa. She smiles and waves joyfully to the children at Sunflower House Hospice, then catches her breath and stands tall as she and a choir of inmates begin the first notes of “Little Bit of Me.” The women sing; they perform a puppet show; and when the children respond in song, they listen, eyes beaming.

This visit is a Skype visit, uniting incarcerated women in Ohio with children in hospice care in South Africa. It is also rehabilitation. The first time Gabrielle sang to the children and they sang back, “that was the moment,” she says, “my life began to change.”

Gabrielle shared these words to an audience of over 600—not by Skype, but in person in downtown Columbus. While prisons have hosted TEDx events (and at TEDxRiodelaPlata a prisoner—Martin Bustamante—shared a poem from his seat in the audience), Gabrielle’s talk at TEDxColumbusWomen marks the first time a currently incarcerated person has given a talk on a TED or TEDx stage outside of prison. And on that stage, Gabrielle delivered this message: “I may be serving a sentence but I am also serving a purpose.”

“Music is healing,” she says, and as a member of the Inside/Out Choir, a partnership between The Harmony Project and the Ohio Reformatory for Women (ORW), Gabrielle has experienced the benefits of giving back: “I am astonished at the impact I can have…and I have found something I have been missing for a long time: My voice.”

Gabrielle was introduced at the event (themed Own It: The Power in our Story) by the warden at ORW, Ronette Burkes. Cheering from the audience were five fellow choir members. Warden Burkes had arranged for the inmates to attend the event both to support Gabrielle (not only is she the first prisoner to speak from the stage at a public TEDx, because of prison protocol she was not told when or where until just a few hours before) and so that they could participate and interact with the world that they will soon be reentering.

 

Warden-Burkes-and-Gabrielle at TEDxColumbusWomen 2015


If all this doesn’t exactly fit with what we think we know about prisons, actually, says Burkes, safe contact with the outside world is an essential part of rehabilitation. And towards this mission, the Harmony Project has been a perfect partner.

Under the direction of David Brown, the Columbus nonprofit harmonizes voices through singing and communities through service and education. There are a number of choirs under the Harmony Project umbrella, and Brown says he runs Inside/Out the same way he runs all his choirs—which is to say, very unlike every other choir you know. In David Brown’s choirs, no one has to audition, but everyone has to serve.

The result is diversity, not just of ability, but of age, culture, religion, orientation, and affiliation. Choir members sing together and serve together—painting murals, tending gardens, building playgrounds—and they break bread together. The Harmony Project creates opportunities for families with different histories and points of view to sit at the same table and share a meal.

one-family-03 Copyright Shellee FisherThough the logistics are more complicated, the Inside/Out choir is no different. They serve children across the globe by singing, sharing their love and connection, and making homemade toys and supplies however they can—last year they sent 700 pairs of hand-knitted socks to the Sunflower House community.

They also break bread with different families. At ORW, inmates, guests from Columbus, and correctional officers dined side-by-side. Likewise, one evening a small group of inmates were able to join a dinner hosted by the Harmony Project in Columbus.

On the TEDx stage, Gabrielle spoke about the transformation the choir helped bring to her own life. She and many women at ORW are mothers separated from their own children. Gabrielle is mom to three, and the separation from her youngest, born a few months into her prison term, sent Gabrielle into the darkest period of her life. Across the ocean, the terminally ill children in South Africa are also separated, many of them, from their own mothers.

Through song, the women and children have formed a powerful and healing relationship. “Call it warm fuzzy if you want,” says Brown, “but it’s changing lives, not in a Hallmark way, in a gutsy, emotional, confrontational, evolutionary kind of way.” There’s nothing subtle about the metaphor here. Says Brown: “In singing, people find and express their voice—and every voice matters”

 

Inside Out choir

 

Kendra Hovey is editor at TEDxColumbus: Follow This. On Twitter @KendraHovey, she blogs at kendrahovey.com, more of her writings are on Medium.  

Photos of TEDxColumbusWomen courtesy of Time Tank Labs; Photo of Harmony Project dinner courtesy of Shellee Fisher

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Events, Follow This, TEDxColumbus

Sunflower wallby Kendra Hovey

In yesterday’s post I asked Who is going to TEDxColumbus? only to conclude that with a willingness to meet and engage with others, we’ll have to all find out for ourselves. Just maybe, we’ll also find talent and commitment not only on stage, but off-stage, perhaps in the seat next to us.

I’m a four-time attendee and this has been my experience—and I’m an introvert. I’ll give you one example: Cathe. At the 2011 event, Cathe and I were two of six “strangers” randomly selected to sit around a table and have lunch together. While some attendees have loved this idea, others not so much. Our table had a great time, and Cathe is definitely a “pro-luncher.” As she told me recently, “I’ve now got these ideas that I’ve heard and then I’m going to sit with these people and were going to have a wild conversation about it. It’s fantastic. I just can’t believe how interesting it is…. We exchange cards … make a little contact and off it goes…. Honestly, to sit down and not try to convince anybody of anything, but just talk about what you just heard—we don’t do it that often.”

At that lunch Cathe and I exchanged cards, talked, and met-up again, and gradually I learned more about the work to which she has dedicated much of her life. It was about thirty-five years ago that Cathe witnessed a young friend’s descent into illness from an incurable brain tumor. Just weeks after her friend’s death, she read an article about hospice (a rather new idea in the U.S. at the time). She called the facility. The woman who interviewed her—who is still in the hospice movement today—told Cathe that she still had her own grieving to do and to call back in six months. She did, and has worked in hospice ever since—a journey that would take her to the far and open spaces of Africa and to the closer and closed spaces of the Ohio Reformatory for Women.

Hospice work is “doing whatever needs doing,” says Cathe. Maybe it’s talking, doing laundry, cleaning out a cat box; there was one woman who couldn’t eat anymore, “but she loved food,” say Cathe, “she would give me a list. I’d buy the ingredients and from her bed she would tell me how to make it. She just liked the smell of it in the house. Then her family would come over and eat it.”

Sometimes, what “needs doing” is just sitting, simply being there. “That was a terrific lesson for me,” she explains. “I was so sure I wasn’t valuable because there wasn’t any demonstrate-able thing going on. Now I know that is not the case.” Hospice volunteers are more than extra hands. “Illness is isolating,” she says, “hospice says to the patient and the family, the community hasn’t forgotten you, and when a patient dies we keep track of the family for a year…. How do you talk about that kind of care? How do we talk about it?”

Contemporary American culture does not have an easy time with language around death and dying. Cathe’s comfort and straightforwardness is refreshing. It’s also essential for good healthcare: “Hospice care is in essence a conversation. The patient is at the center, surrounded by family and a multi-interdisciplinary group of caregivers. Everyone talks to each other about what is best for that patient.” Not just hospice, it’s a model that would benefit all healthcare.

These elements of conversation and community are something Cathe experiences at TEDxColumbus. It’s why she now tries to attend every year: “I find it incredibly interesting that this is the same kind of thing that happens at TEDx. You put us in the center and all these ideas are spoked around us. With hospice, if you have a caring community and family, we support that. If you don’t have that, we help you create it. With TEDx, if you do or don’t have an intellectual community, we are going to create this community—and then we’re all going to share lunch out of a box!”

Janet ParrottCathe was introduced to TEDxColumbus through Janet Parrott, a 2011 speaker and also director of the film Song of the Soul. This film exists because of Cathe. Having heard about the expertise of hospice work in Africa, she began visiting and learning, and after a chance meeting with Parrott back at home, Cathe said to her, You get a film crew. We’ll go and I’ll show you what is going on in South Africa because it is really hopeful. These are wonderful people and we should tell their story. It was a spur-of-the-moment idea, but as Cathe recalls, “Poor Janet goes: Okay.”

It was a lot of work and a lot of travel. Cathe is grateful for the film and “extremely proud” that it is written, directed, produced and financed entirely in Columbus, Ohio. Her hope is that the film will build understanding about hospice, and also show the competence of the programs in Africa, and this one in South Africa particularly. “People go to Africa thinking we’re going to save them, we’re going to show them things, Africans know stuff,” she says incredulously, “they have a tremendous amount to teach us.”

children at sunflower 2Cathe is also involved in a Harmony Project program at the Ohio Reformatory for Women (ORW). The Harmony Project is about “connecting communities across social divides through art, education, and volunteerism,” and it’s about singing, lots of singing. But within that collection of voices are people of different backgrounds, with different needs and life circumstances and the collaboration between them and the gift they give to others with their voices is what makes the Harmony Project transformative, healing, kind of like good quality healthcare.

The program at ORW—one of many within the Harmony Project—offers an opportunity for those “serving a sentence to serve a purpose and be a part of the community.” These words are from founder and creative director David Brown, who also rather deftly points out that community is where these women will one day reintegrate. When Cathe learned of this program, she visited OWR and eventually helped arrange for the choir of female inmates to sing and perform over skype to the children at Joan Marston’s Sunflower House Hospice in Bloemfontein, South Africa. She happened to be there with the children, each one with a life-limiting disease, for the first skype. “It was magic,” she says.

Brown understands that women singing to children may sound like a small thing, but he knows that it has “wonder-working power.” At Sunflower House, when a child dies their name is placed on a sunflower and added to a wall full of other named-sunflowers. The women at OWR have created their own sunflower garden wall, and on each flower is the face of a child that they sing to at the Hospice House.

Hospice can sometimes refer to a building or facility, but always it is a healthcare practice and, as much as it is focused on death and dying, it is a philosophy of living. For me, this is a changed and deepened understanding, and it came by way of two strangers meeting at TEDxColumbus with an openness to talk and to listen.

Kendra Hovey is editor at TEDxColumbus: Follow This. On Twitter @KendraHovey, she blogs at kendrahovey.com

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