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In approximately nine (9) months, a child can be born, a college year can be completed, beliefs can be altered, and lives can be changed. For me, it was a life altering experience that happened during an unexpected journey toward new discoveries, which started while teaching inmates at the Arlington County Detention Facility (ACDF) in Arlington, VA in September 2013.
My journey toward personal enlightenment started after friends encouraged me to use my inspirational life quotes to teach inmates about managing their life, actions, and behaviors. Prior to these subtle pushes and even after, I never considered or wanted to be in any jail for any reason.
Disregarding my apprehensions, a meeting was scheduled to meet with ACDF Program Manager – Kristen Cane. Ms. Cane welcomed my new educational non-profit – without any past performance history – to submit proposals to teach life management, soft skills, and business concepts to inmates.
Even after Ms. Cane and I scheduled a meeting to solidify the beginning of this potential partnership, I still wasn’t sure whether a jail was the right environment for me to teach. However, while visiting a housing unit, someone from my distant past was encountered who was a temporary resident of the unit that I would later teach.
This individual – someone who I hadn’t seen in almost thirty (30) years – recognized me within seconds of entering the unit, and validated the pushes from friends to offer my non-profit’s “Saving Our Communities at Risk Through Educational Services (SOCARTES – www.socartes.org)” educational programs in this environment.
These men quickly embraced me, the material, and the journey that we were about to take together. None of us would realize that at this moment our lives would change and we would forever be intertwined because of the unlikely intersection of our different choices, which would lead us to exist in a common place, share a considerable amount of time together, and unexpectedly grow from this shared journey.
The most valuable lessons learned from my first nine (9) months teaching at the ACDF:
* Individual desire overrides location – location can be a factor in an individual’s growth; however, self-motivation is required to maximize any journey toward success. The reason for this is that anyone who has a desire and determination to make forward-progress can do so regardless of the environment.
* Connections are significant factors in success – individuals who don’t understand a learning objective’s purpose can sometimes have difficulty connecting to the material if there isn’t engagement with the process used or the potential lessons to be learned.
* Engagement in learning is important – engagement allows individuals to connect in meaningful ways for them; otherwise, the information received can create noise that doesn’t have a method or a means to be properly processed.
* Lessons can be learned at unexpected moments – learning is an individual process that doesn’t occur the same way, happen at the same time, or learned using the same process of delivery. Therefore, anyone who transfers knowledge should use different methods of delivery to ensure the lessons taught are captured.
* Everyone can learn from each other – learning is a tool for mutual growth. While preparing to teach at this jail, my expectation was that I would teach the inmates about life, soft skills, and business; notwithstanding, I learned about the importance of not making assumptions about individuals or their capabilities, that every individual has the propensity to be moments away from a situation that doesn’t demonstrate their finest actions or behaviors, the power of forgiveness, the importance of opportunity, and that support can come from anyone --- regardless of their current challenges.
* Limitations minimize possibilities – preconceived notions about who someone is or who an individual will be in the future can lead to societal faults that needlessly place limitations on an individual’s and society’s potential for future success.
My experiences being voluntarily locked-up at the ACDF taught me valuable lessons about the things that can be learned and achieved by the removal of preconceived limitations about yourself and others. As proven by history, societal advancements occur due to individuals who are driven to push beyond current boundaries to evolve toward new discoveries.
There are countless individuals who have made momentary mistakes, bad choices, or had setbacks. Nevertheless, individuals who temporarily create a societal fault should still be offered an opportunity, resources, and support to become productive members of society.
The societal cost of placing limitations on an individual’s future can exceed that of the initial crime if the unwanted actions or behaviors are viewed as a permanent barrier to an individual’s future success. Therefore, society cannot afford to continue to devalue the benefit of learning from past situations, while also allowing anyone who wants to make positive progress to have unrestricted opportunities to have a chance for a life that is accountable, responsible, and productive.
An individual who is caught in a bad moment or situation should face the consequences of their actions or behaviors, but should also not be unnecessarily punished for their entire lifetime. If similar circumstances happened to you or someone you love, what would you want individuals to think about and do for you?
To the men who completed my programs in housing unit 9A: I have changed and grown because of our time together, the conversations we had, and the lessons that were collectively learned about the importance of forgiveness, opportunity, and most importantly “hope”. I wish each of you unbridled success!
award-winning educator, mental health advocate, social entrepreneur, inspirational speaker, author/writer, program executive, and radio host