November 29, 2019

Back to Prison: Graduating the First All-Female Defy Colorado Class

Two weeks ago, I took the day off work to be down in Pueblo, Colorado and volunteer in prison with Defy Colorado… and I can honestly say it was one of the best days of my year.

This look of excitement as I walked into the prison gym is completely, 100% genuine. I was so happy to be back on this momentous day!

I wrote about my first experience with Defy here (please go read that post!), and I’ve gone back a number of times since then. Last winter, I was excited to get to kick off the first female class in Defy Colorado, and I got to go back a few times to teach classes. Now, nine months later, I got to judge the final business pitch competition and watch the EITs (entrepreneurs-in-training) graduate in caps and gowns with business certificates from Colorado State University. It has been so amazing to build relationships with these women, who have impressed me with their candor (unlike the men’s prison, many of the women opened up about exactly why they were in prison), intelligence (there were several businesses pitched that I genuinely want to invest my own money in), and desire to change who they were before prison and become upstanding members of society.

Think you can’t relate to someone in prison? Our icebreaker involves trading stickers whenever you find a commonality with someone… and I ended up covered in stickers within ten minutes.

My “50by25” journey has been all about transformation, and I’ve become a huge fan of Carol Dweck’s work around mindset. Dweck has done a lot of studies on what people believe and what they can actually achieve. She’s coined the terms “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset”, and found that which of those mindsets you have significantly impacts your success in life. For example, if you praise kids with “great job on that test; you must be really smart!”, they learn that their intelligence is innate, and develop a fixed mindset – believing they can never be more than they already are. But if you praise kids with “great job on that test; you must have worked really hard!”, they learn that their success is a product of their effort – and that growth mindset encourages them to try harder when faced with a challenge. I definitely used to have a fixed mindset, which I was able to gradually transition to a growth mindset. Now, I look at any challenge as an opportunity to see what I can achieve, and I frequently surprise myself with the results.

I do not shy away from asking difficult questions during the pitch competition, and challenging the women to ensure their ideas will work.

As you can imagine, I love seeing the EITs develop growth mindsets and make these gigantic transformations throughout the Defy program. They go from being people with limited opportunities who turned to crime, to people with the confidence and skills to start from the bottom and work their way up to success. At Defy, we say that we don’t give second chances; we give hope and opportunity to those who never had a chance to begin with.

Look how excited Alexis is to walk down the aisle for graduation!!!

While I will admit that I was terrified the first time I went into prison to volunteer with Defy, this time, I was literally counting down the days until I got to go back. I can now honestly say that the hardest part of going to prison for me is the fact that we’re not allowed to hug the EITs… there were so many times I desperately wanted to do so! If you can keep a secret, I’ll admit that at the end of the graduation ceremony, we were allowed to pose for pictures, and I sought out as many of my EIT friends as I could to take a photo with me – not because I cared about the pictures themselves, but because it was my only chance to put my arms around these wonderful women.

Secret hug happening here…

Two years ago, I never would have thought I’d so much as shake hands with “a criminal”; now, I am honored to call these ladies my friends, and am eagerly awaiting their releases so they can show the world they are so much more than their past history.

These two were absolutely remarkable. Their business ideas were two of the best, but they had the misfortune to go up against each other in the first round, so only Joy could advance. Sarah handled it like a pro, though, accepting the disappointment and still cheering on her best friend throughout.

There were two things I want to write down to remember from this day, which just make me feel so good about Defy and the difference we are making. First, one EIT snuck in an extra hug when she hoped no one was looking; she said giving me a hug was worth any trouble she might get into. (And I absolutely teared up at that.) And second, one of the EITs was due to be released from prison before the Defy graduation… but she requested to stay in prison longer because she wanted to finish out the Defy program! These women are not quitters, and I loved seeing her classmates cheer her on in the final round of the business pitch competition.

Congratulations to our overall winner, Joy!! Her idea was a stellar one and I think it would be a big hit in my neighborhood.

60% of those released from prison will go back to prison within three years, but for Defy graduates, the recidivism rate is less than 5%. I know that some of that is selection bias (it’s a rigorous program, and only those who are truly dedicated to transformation apply / make it through), but that statistic, to me, speaks volumes. And so I keep going back to prison, in hopes that Defy graduates will never go back.

What if we can empty out our prisons not by being lax on crime, but by giving people the skills and opportunities so that they don’t have to commit a crime? That vision is what keeps me going back to prison, and I hope you might consider checking it out yourself. Click through to learn more about Defy Colorado and Defy Ventures (for other states), and please let me know if you’d ever like to join me in prison.


2 thoughts on “Back to Prison: Graduating the First All-Female Defy Colorado Class”

  1. Have you seen the PBS documentary College Behind Bars? Inmates can earn an AA or BA through the Bard Prison Initiative. the documentary talks the same way about giving people opportunities to prevent recidivism (they don’t use the term growth mindset but that’s definitely what’s happening there). It might resonate with you!

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