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Personal Work

  • Women's March on Washington D.C.

    It was an exceptionally stormy Monday after the march when I found myself with sopping feet pacing through the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum itself was full of the triumphs of African Americans across the span of history. The top floor was adorned with artifacts of garments, pottery, art, music and film. The design was beautiful in the way one feels tiny amongst the grandiosity of accomplishments. Memories of George Clinton, Bootsie Collins, Michael Jackson and so many more engulfed the space. 

    In the concourse there was an immersive exhibit called "Journey to Freedom" where auction stones and shackles of the slave era and memorabilia of the civil rights movement submerged visitors in the darkest times of African American history. I saw a booth where guests can share an experience around how race affects him or her on a daily basis. I stepped into the silent, evenly lit sanctuary and closed the frosted glass behind me. In my moment of confession my priest was a piece glass with a blinking arrow labeled "look here”, and I watched the 2 minute timer tick down as the words hung on my breath. What was supposed to be some profound speech of whiteness and race seemed dissolve before the muscles in my tongue could catch hold and make it audible. Instead my mind was filled with those that marched on the Mall of Washington across history so many times, but while I marched for what I believe is right, so many before me marched for what was necessary, for love, for a voice, to matter: all of the same freedoms I enjoy daily.

    Two days prior the women of the world assembled on the streets of D.C. and on every continent once again, and again the message was one of solidarity. "We are here. We are exceptional. We are equal. We are free. We will not surrender." Three million women's voices around the country stood and told those watching, and yes, everyone was watching, that they will not be victims of a man's world, that their power is boundless and their conviction limitless. 

    I stood with my mother, an undisputed champion of women, a defender of the powerless and victimized. She knows too well that sting of the hand of misogyny across her womanhood, and is unable to allow another to feel the way she has in the past. The evening she called to tell me she was marching on Washington my face got hot, my eyes glossy, and I knew that I had to be there for her, with her to let her know that I would not be the face of the hand that fed her self doubt, mistrust, and abuse for so much of her life.

    My Mom

    On that Saturday I stood with her on the streets of the capital to say that I am not afraid. I am not afraid to stand beside, in front and behind every woman as my equal, not as a supplement to my power. I am not afraid to say that it is time to cease to believe that they are not as smart as us, not as rational as us, not as deserving as us. I am not afraid of the fall of men because it is not a fall but in fact it is a victory for us all; that our mothers, our nurtures, the givers of power, the reason each of us men exist on this planet are the secret to progress when we hold them on high and worship the beauty of the talents only the feminine possess. I was not in Washington to march for my freedom. I can never know what that feels like. I build stages with my camera and my words. The megaphone belongs to others.

    It had been a full minute of me staring into the glass, "look here" still blinking. I pressed the cancel button, pushed my chair back from the booth and thought for a minute about what it means to be a white man in America, then I left and continued through the exhibit resting for a minute in front of a video of Obama's presidency and a tear came to my eye. The march on Saturday as those marches before are to echo the constant cry of equality, never to stop until the last person is free.

    During my journey, I had the pleasure of sharing some time with the marvelous women that marched. Here's what they had to say.

    Nicole - "My vision for the future of women is to keep track of what we lose and get it back, to get even more. We can never go back."

    Kimberlee - "We are better than this. I need to be the good in the world. I need to raise my children to be good."

    Martha and Alice - "This not right not normal, and we want it on the record."

    Sheila - "The masses will prevail as long as they speak up."

    Erin - "I felt like I had to come to stand with everyone. I came for racial reconciliation and social justice and the future of my 2 kids."

    Kelly - “Climate change is real and we need to act now!"

    Stephanie - "tired of feeling oppressed as a woman. Im hoping by coming here that it will show the world that it's not okay to treat women like this. People are listening."

    Lauren - "I march because we have so much more work to do to ensure that we build an intersectional feminist movement - one that recognizes and values the diverse experiences of those affected by the inequality in our country. The fact is that white women elected Trump. We have a responsibility to ensure that as much as we are standing in solidarity, we are also doing the hard work of engaging in conversation with those who think differently than us. This march is just the beginning - the fight doesn't end here."

    Catherine - "I went expecting to stand up for women's rights and equal rights, and that happened, but I was surprised by how much I got back from participating. It was really healing for me. I felt so isolated after the election and this made me realize that I'm not alone."

  • 14 Hours in Lancaster State Prison

    “At what age did you lose your innocence, whatever that means to you?” Catherine Hoke asked a room half full of wealthy volunteer venture capitalists and entrepreneurs staring at a room half full of inmates at one of California’s most dangerous prisons. I want you to pause here and really think about that — Lancaster State Prison is a level 4 maximum security prison north of LA, a yard so dangerous that 99% of inmates are strapped with a shank at all times. Many of the inmates, or EITs (Entrepreneurs-in-Training as Defy calls them), are here for life, no chance of parole; some of them convicted as young as 16.

    We were in the midst of an exercise called “Step to the Line” in which the volunteers lined up practically nose to nose with the EITs, toes on a line of festive duct tape, gazing into the back of each other’s pupils. “Before the age of 18?” asks Catherine. About half of the volunteers step away from the line signifying this doesn’t apply to them. “Younger than 16?” More volunteers step back, the first batch of the EITs step back. “12?” All but a dozen of the 70 volunteers retreated from the line while a little less than half of the EITs remain. “10?” The line thins. “8? 6 years old?” Now just a combined handful stay. Several EITs rushed to the line and reach across to the now sobbing volunteers fixed on the line. They offer support, hand shakes, soft noble eyes of compassion. They offered their brethren that are still at the line warm, comforting embraces. Everyone was crying now. Some of us because we knew we should be at that line still but fell short on courage, and some of us because we wish that they didn’t have to be standing there, and for fewer still both were true. Rolling into prison for the first time 24 hours prior, I was most worried about missing a procedural step and getting kicked out or tackled and detained. Now I stood in front of 56 EITs scared of what I might discover about myself. 

    For Defy, this is business as usual. Catherine, her husband Charles and an amazing support staff sets up programs in prisons all over the country to help the forgotten imprisoned population of America regain their self image and truly reform. For the entrepreneurs reading this today, who is better to face the challenges of starting a business than men and women that have gone through unthinkable struggles? The prison system was designed to be used as a reform tool and Defy is taking that back. Their EITs in the program learn skills that prepare them for “the outs.” Each of them was to give a business pitch to a panel of volunteers in a Shark Tank style event in which 5 finalists would receive a check for their accomplishments. Entrepreneurship is possibly the path of least resistance for an ex-convict that’s been demonized by society after paying their debt. 

    Mark Suster with an EIT

    I thought about the worst things I’ve done in my life, and I imagined if I was known for that one thing, like if I were named in the middle ages. Tom the Arsonist they’d call me. How might that affect my opportunities and my path? Suddenly, I found myself scanning the eyes of the room around me. I’ve traveled alone in impoverished countries when the only way for me to know if I was safe was to look into someone’s eyes. What I saw was regret, shame, compassion, suffering, yearning for redemption. 

    Now it was the end of the day. A day full of business pitches, hugs, tears, eye gazing and carnations. Not really what I would have imagined at one of California’s most dangerous prisons. The EITs were dressed in their cap and gowns for graduation from the program. For many of them, it was the first time they had ever worn one. Marlund stood on stage, picked to represent his class to address the audience. He held strong, yet modestly and quietly. His voice was barely audible with the mic pressed against his lips. He talked about gratitude for the opportunity to be a part of the program and expressed deep thanks to Defy for the skills he’d learned. He then read a poem that he wrote titled “Love.”


    Rather than tell you the words of his poem, I’d rather tell you to imagine what it must sound like coming from a 22 year old man who became a legal adult in prison, five years of his double life term under his belt, only 50 more years before he’s eligible for parole. A robbery gone wrong ending in a conviction for 2 counts of attempted murder, escape, burglary, and causing severe harm with a firearm all at the age of 17, and no one will get to hear his plea for forgiveness until he’s in his mid 70s, almost 10 years past his life expectancy. One of the EITs pitched me a photo project that day: a photo of a man in the moment his first born comes into the world, and a photo of that same man when he’s sentenced to life in prison. He said you can watch his soul leave his body. 

    There has been a time when we each have looked up to the heavens, the clouds, the universe, the gooey stuff that holds all this together and asked for one more chance. I challenge each of us to give ourselves one more chance, and to give others that same chance we beg for. Think back to a time when maybe you could have been incarcerated. Think back to when you lost your innocence, whatever that means to you.

    ...and please if you live in California, vote YES on prop 57!

    Some of the faces of Lancaster