It would be odd if Kat and I walked into a room with 15-20 female inmates, and they all met us with open arms, goofy grins, and a willingness to simply do whatever we asked of them. These women are living in a circumstance defined by a loss of control, a lack of the freedom to make even the simplest choices. Someone else determines how early they get up in the morning, whether or not they can leave class to go to the bathroom, who shares their dormitory space, and how they spend their days.
That said, the degree of openness with which the women met us on our first day was astounding. There is always a tipping point in a group with regard to participation. When many people fully participate, they establish an atmosphere of possibility in which it becomes not simply safe or okay, but also productive and even fun to play. One of our goals is to invite people to have a good time, to experience the lightness of laughter (as the women say, “laughing with, not at”), and to find the inner comfort and security that can arise as a result of shared experience. In order to create a truly “shared” experience, everyone has to choose to participate. In modeling or demonstrating the activities, Kat and I play off of each other, putting ourselves in silly circumstances, messing up and making mistakes, laughing, and doing it again.
Participation doesn’t necessarily mean always going first. Participation can be simply being in the room, and refraining (as much as possible) from criticizing or judging those who do give themselves fully to the games and exercises. We want participants to participate, but we also want them to choose to play. We want them to see that goal of the experience we are offering is personal empowerment through creative expression.
Our hope is for the women to fully participate by taking responsibility for their own experiences. We want them to benefit from sharing their own creativity and supporting others in a positive and fun atmosphere. We understand when people hold back and check us out before deciding to fully participate, but it is so exciting when people take the risk to play!
My favorite moment of this workshop so far was at the end of the second day, when someone mentioned to me that she had been unsure the first day and had not really wanted to come for the second class, but by the end of the class she was glad to have participated and thanked us for providing this program. In our one word check out, women summed up their experience with words like “blessed” and “inspired.” I am also feeling blessed, inspired, and grateful for going on this journey with this group. And that was only day two!