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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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Follow This, TEDxColumbusWomen

TEDxCbusWomen Own It all

by Kendra Hovey

Inspiration good, action better. What next?

These #sixwords tweeted by @sdk614 at the close of the morning session of TEDxColumbusWomen ask a very good question. So I decided to pose it to the speakers and performers that made the event, to quote other tweets, “amazing,” “memorable,” “incredible,” “uplifting,” and “kinda awesome,” and I gave them a deadline—a short one. Once videos are up and ideas spread farther, Follow This will dig deeper, but last Thursday at the Southern Theater the energy, enthusiasm, and engagement was palpable, so why wait?

From each speaker, in order of appearance, some first steps towards what’s next:

Amanda Scott (Owning Your Story) recommends another TED Talk, Caroline Heldman’s “The Sexy Lie.” It’s one she referenced in her talk. She also suggests this Psychology Today article: “Do Women Want To Be Objectified?” 

For a “cool, visual depiction of gender and sexuality” Liz Balk (Living in the Middle) suggests Sam Killerman’s infographic, The Genderbread Person. Liz is also featured in the documentary,“Kings, Queens, and In-betweens” by 5 Sisters Productions (and 2013 TEDxColumbus speaker Gabrielle Burton), currently in post-production, out later this year. You can view the trailer here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=oV2YufycN9Y.

A TED Talk that is an inspiration for Casey Brown (What Price Do You Place on Excellence?) and that she believes would be a good resource for others is Start With Why by Simon Sinek.  

While LaChandra (Lala) Baker (Use That Voice!) and her daughter Aujolie (Aujie) Baker don’t have a specific website for their music, LaChandra shares some background on, as she says, “who we are and what we stand for”:

The greatest joy of Lala‘s life is to educate, entertain and encourage people through her interactions both on stage and in real life. In addition to performing, Lala is also a communications manager at Cardinal Health, a freelance consultant and a small business owner of an It Works! global nutrition and skin care distributorship. She is happily married to the best man in the world, Brian, and they both love living life to the fullest! You can connect with Lala via Facebook, LinkedIn or her business website.

Aujie is a 13-year old dynamo! She has been acting and modeling since she was three. She has appeared in commercials for Woodsmen of the World Insurance and Skyline Chili. Locally, she has been seen on the stage in productions for Catco for Kids, Columbus Children’s Theatre, SRO Theatre, Wagnalls Memorial and Canal Winchester Middle School. Aujie loves to entertain and encourage people with her performances. She is an honor student and an amazing person. You can connect with Aujie through her mom!

Erin Upchurch (Choosing Compassion in the Face of Diversity) recommends to sites that may be helpful:

Joanna Ruthsatz (Connections Between Prodigies and Autism) points us to her upcoming book on the link between autism and genius, The Prodigy’s Cousin 

Jennifer Adams (The Beauty of the Black Man) “highly encourages” people to look at the photographic work of Mr. Gordon Parks and Mr. Saddi Khali. She also has three books to recommend:

Natalie Spiert shares this video about her personal journey to becoming a survivor, with the intention that it help eliminate the stigma around sexual assault. For more on the topic of Sex Ed, she offers, as a start, the following two articles:

Songs and videos by Ladies of Longford are on their site and YouTube channel.

To learn more, volunteer, or stay connected to Jessica Hollins’ (They Own Their Story—and a Blanket) project, the website for My Very Own Blanket has everything you need. 

A web resource Mark MacNaughton (Through the Eyes of My Daughter) uses quite often is MARC—Men Advocating for Real Change. White men, he says, “have no more control than anyone else does over their own race, gender, etc,” and he likes this resource because “it has you acknowledge you have advantages because you are male (or white male) and has a mantra of ‘use your privilege with honor.’ It’s an approach that “really motivated me to do more,” he says.  

Lauren Kinsey has three sites to share. Two she mentioned in her talk. The third is her website, where she has also posted a transcript of her talk: 

To learn more about Theresa Flores and S.O.A.P. or to get involved, go to traffickfree.com. You can also learn about her story in her book and a documentary film

Melissa Crum shares two news reports about the race-based academic standards she spoke about in her talk. One from the Huffington Post. The other NBC Nightly News. A perfect pairing with these news reports, she also shares a video that explains “Deficit Ideology.” The video deepens understanding and also places these race-based standards into a highly important historical context. 

Larry Smith (I Would Have, You Never Asked) will launch Six in the City at the Columbus Arts Festival, weekend of June 12–14. For more Six Words and to get future updates on Six in the City, go to www.smithmag.net and www.sixwordmemoirs.comFor Six Words in educational settings, there’s Six in Schools, and you can check out Larry’s all-illustrated, all-student Six-Word Memoir ebook with TED Books

The Inside/Out Choir will be one of the choirs featured at “All Together Now” a Harmony Project concert this Wednesday June 3rd. The Harmony Project website is the best way to keep informed of future events. Speakers Warden Ronette Burkes and Gabrielle spoke about the choir and also the Ohio Reformatory for Women. You can learn more about ORW on their website. The prison is a short drive from Columbus. Arrangements need to be made in advance, but visitors are welcome at ORW and at Tapestry.  

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

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In a few weeks at TEDxColumbusWomen 2015 among other thoughtful speakers and performers, we’ll be showcasing the Inside/Out Choir, a joint project of the Tapestry Program, a therapeutic community at the Ohio Reformatory for Women, and The Harmony Project.  While you may have seen them perform once or twice at other events, we wanted to help raise their voices even broader.

But two things happened recently which has led me to make a special, small appeal to our community.

First, we decided to host a tampon drive at the TEDx event on May 28th. The Free The Tampon campaign has been featured recently in the New York Times and the writer of those stories inspired us to have an actual drive, to bring the social awareness to a simple, actionable step. But we hadn’t yet decided the beneficiary.

Then I went to ORW to visit the women in the choir we will be showcasing. I remember hearing Orange is the New Black author Piper Kerman’s moth recording how she was given free tampons during her stay in prison. So during my visit, I asked Tanya, the woman sitting next to me, how she accessed sanitary products.

“Everyone gets free pads. But we have to pay for tampons,” she said.

I asked how much they were, not expecting the rapid response.

“They are $2.31 for a box of 10. And they are the cardboard applicator Tampax brand.”

She continued, “Most women don’t have a lot of family support. And the little money they make at their job isn’t enough to cover them.”

No matter how you feel about the crimes these women may have committed, I would hope you agree with me that they have the right to access the most basic of sanitary products, which in turn is access to basic human dignity.

When I asked the director of the Tapestry program if it would be acceptable to donate tampons. She said people donate goods all the time – but not often tampons.

The women of the Tapestry program who are also in the choir will be watching the livestream of our event. And we’ll be enjoying their song and talent without the chance to tell them thank you in person, like we will the other speakers.

So please help show our appreciation by bringing a box of tampons (or 2!) so that we may send the choir a very little gesture of appreciation in return.  If you cannot attend and would like to contribute a box, you can have them delivered to RESOURCE/AMMIRATI, 343 North Front Street, Cols 43215 before May 27. And there’s nothing keeping you from dropping off any supply straight to the guard desk at ORW.

And if you want to come to the event on May 28th, tickets are still available here. We’d love to have you.

– Ruth Milligan

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