We’re only four months into 2015, but TMS has already had a busy year! To read about the exciting programs and happenings of the past few months, check out the TMS Winter 2015 newsletter here! Also save the date for the Telling Stories for Social Change class performance: the TSSC performance will take place on Thursday, May 21 and Friday, May 22 at the Valley Vista Rehabilitation Facility in Bradford, VT. More information and RSVP link to come soon!

In the winter of 2012, Dartmouth College student Nell Pierce ’13 accompanied TMS Executive Director Pati Hernández to Talca, Chile to co-facilitate and implement a self-portraiture workshop of her own design. Nell was kind enough to reflect and share her thoughts on her experience with TMS.

In this particular project we expanded the collaboration to include a self-portraiture workshop that I developed a few years ago in Guatemala City. We focused half of the week on Pati’s TMS sessions, and the other half on self-portraiture, complemented with improvisation exercises led by our third collaborator, Katie Lindsay. The combination of the calm, introspective nature of self-portraiture with the energy of collaborative theater presented complementary challenges and nurtured different needs. Thirty-three women completed the self-portraiture workshop and half of them pushed through the entirety of Telling My Story to perform in the final shows. The women presented powerful perspectives and challenged their audience with questions and invitations to join in their struggle for a healthier society.

Unlike work I’ve done in NGOs that bring the people they serve into the organization’s own space, I soon learned that the prison was not our space, and it was not always an environment conducive to our needs. This was a great lesson in listening and improvisation; whatever agenda I entered with was immediately thrown out the window (I chased after it for a while, but the crazy winds won). While it wasn’t our space, I hesitate in deciding whose it really was. The social hierarchy, rules, and codes that the women create amongst themselves make the prison feel like their territory, yet it eerily becomes a puppet show when the guards exert their power. The women develop cheap power facades as survival mechanisms; when people laugh, side-talk, or leave in the middle of a workshop, it’s a pretty blatant way of expressing that the facilitators running the workshop don’t have power over them. It’s the same game we played with substitute teachers in my high school – a very human device. The difference is that inmates may harden these defenses because most of their real power to make decisions in their lives is taken from them. Telling My Story became a collaborative fight to revive and build an internal power in the midst of all the rubble.

Facing what I couldn’t fully comprehend and moving through it without an answer was both terrifying and empowering, and it helped to feel the group moving right alongside me. When I embraced the limitations of my perspective and trusted the arts as our vehicle, I was more in tune to little shifts – signs that something was moving and something was being reshaped, however slightly, through the creative process. It was expressed through crying and stubborn interrogation about the purpose of this work. It emanated through a glowing face or steadier eye contact.

When sensing shifts in the women, we were challenged to balance pushing with nurturing, which depended on the woman and the hour. When a woman was not meeting her commitment to the workshop (which happened a lot – we went from fifty women to thirteen), Pati listened for whether the woman’s justification was a façade for fear of participating or outside factors that she couldn’t control, such as mental and physical health or work obligations. Some feared confronting their life stories, others feared committing to a group and sharing power. Despite the social support the women offer each other, the deprivation of basic needs (namely love and trust) that many have lived with for years fosters survivalist selfishness, a tough habit to break because it works on many levels. Given that these fears were legitimate and widespread, the determining factor was always attitude – whether a woman was ready to challenge herself and open to collaborate. It was hard to see women with big personalities who I initially assumed would be key players drop or get kicked out mid-way through (and to put my own foot down in the self-portraiture workshops), though it was clear for everyone that it was not personal and that expectations of attitude were consistent – perhaps not being given a third chance was the greatest opportunity for self-reflection one could take from the workshop. For those who did participate, expectations of performance were personal because every woman began with a different level of sophistication and challenging themselves meant different things. For me, it was a great challenge to discern a bad attitude in a charismatic and talented woman that took on the main role while honoring the courage of a shy and inexperienced woman that would watch for hours before shaking to deliver a line.

Because I have only a salty taste from the rough currents of the deep, dark, ocean the people around me had beennavigating for most of their lives, my resistance to the disturbing dynamics of the prison was shallow and uninformed.Alternatively, I decided to embrace the chaos of what I didn’tunderstand and it allowed me to focus on and take ownership over what I knew I could contribute. It would be naïve to declare that art is the only or best way to change these women’s lives – or that it’s going to at all – but it did provide an opportunity to create something when we, the women and ourselves as facilitators, otherwise felt powerless to a situation. The act of creating, especially collaboratively, implies that something raw and new will emerge, so it involves trust and risk – a good practice for control-freaks, like myself, and many of the inmates who have lost trust in others and hope in change. And yet, the materials we start with are the materials with which we end. It isjust a reshaping of what’s right in front of us – or inside us. The ability to reshape what’s inside us is real power.

Almost all Telling My Story participants have had a hand in creating Talking Walls that serve as the backdrop to each performance. Similar to a graffiti wall, the Talking Wall allows for expression of words, thoughts, and ideas that help participants communicate their experiences. We are working as an organization to mount…

Telling My Story was the light at the end of the tunnel for me while I was incarcerated. When I got out I had meetings and groups for a period of time, but the farther I got from incarceration and treatment, the less I talked about it. I talked about hard things…

On December 15th I will be traveling to Chile to reproduce the Telling My Story program there for the first time. I will be implementing the program at a women’s prison in Santiago. My cousin and close friend has been helping to organize this project in Santiago, and I am so impressed…