Gentleness and Strength

by Sunaina Chugani Marquez
Nonviolent Communication Program Facilitator

Growing up, many Donovan residents learned the importance of being “tough” and providing for their loved ones. There was little space in their lives to connect with their own needs for belonging, care, rest and so on.

“Admitting I have needs is difficult,” one of the residents said, “because I don’t want to appear weak to myself or to others.” 

It struck me that this is true inside and outside of prison. I remember times I judged myself for needing more compassion in interactions with others, or for needing play and rest in the middle of a challenging work week. I would think to myself: I shouldn’t need these things, and doing so makes me weak.

The residents, volunteers, and I explored whether it’s possible to be gentle with ourselves and to be strong at the same time. Is there a relationship between gentleness and strength?

With love in his voice, one resident shared that thinking of gentleness reminded him of the first time he held his precious first grandchild in his arms. Laughter broke out from a group of residents who pointed out that even the toughest “gangbanger,” when you put a baby in his arms, will begin to speak silly baby talk to connect with the infant. :-)

Another resident reflected on how little gentleness his mother received from his father who ran a tight household full of strict rules. How different would their family life have been, he wondered, if his father had treated his mother with more love, maybe asking how her day went once in a while? And, why did his sister receive tenderness, when he and his male siblings didn’t?

Soon the conversation shifted to the sources of gentleness in the residents’ lives. One man shared that his foster mother was the first person in his life to show him what love meant. Grandmothers were symbols of gentleness in many others’ lives. Though many of these sources were feminine, one resident shared that he was only now realizing that gentleness is not just a feminine trait, as he’d been taught growing up, but a real strength for all genders. 

We are learning in our NVC circles that being gentle with ourselves allows us to see and connect to the sources of our joy and pain. It allows us to connect to our humanity. When we tell ourselves to ignore our needs and to be “tough” instead, we are ignoring our own humanness, which makes it easier to ignore the humanity of others. 

Thus, there is profound strength in gentleness, because it is with gentleness that we can truly see and understand ourselves and each other. My hope is that this understanding will help us to build stronger relationships, more resilient communities, and a more peaceful world.

Our ending meditation concluded with this thought: "You, as much as anyone in the universe, is worthy of your love and compassion."

Sunaina Chugani Marquez
Conflict with a baby momma - Resolved!

In June, we launched the 4th iteration of Conflict Resolution | Being Peace, led by the fabulous and deeply experienced (30+ years!) Cynthia. Here she is to share just one of her memories…

About a year ago, during a session continuing our study of feelings and needs, our own and those of others, the prison residents and I worked with lists of needs and feelings created by the New York Center for Nonviolent Communication. As a group, we practiced:

  • Identifying and distinguishing feelings from needs

  • Recognizing our feelings

  • Holding them, separately, from our search for ways to meet our needs

We also talked about the possibility that by simply acknowledging, to the person we’re in conflict with, that we understand they may have needs, we might be able to move past our old intractable arguments. We identified this simple step as one way to reduce actual conflict and address a possible cause of conflict.

Then, to practice these skills, Stu, one of the program participants, volunteered a recent, personal conflict he had had with the mother of his child. Stu wanted to talk to and see his daughter, but the child’s mother refused to discuss the matter with him. Whenever the parents spoke on the phone, they were soon caught up in a loud argument and Stu got no closer to interacting with his daughter.

We went to work understanding and analyzing the interactions between Stu and his daughter’s mother. Clustered around Stu, sitting on stools bolted to the Culinary tables, through conversation and brainstorming, the men began identifying Stu’s possible feelings and needs, as well as those of his daughter’s mother. We compared the two lists the men had created and it was obvious that several needs - for example, for dignity, belonging, understanding, and connection - were shared by both Stu and his daughter’s mother.

Empowered by this new knowledge, the group discussed the types of statements Stu might make when talking to his daughter’s mother to acknowledge her pain and need, and to help her hear him talk about his need and desire to interact with his daughter. Their conversation and ideas were thoughtful, useful and appropriate. We all felt hopeful and comfortable with these new insights and capacities that folks in the group were displaying. The session ended on a high note!

Fast-forward to earlier this month. While on my way to gather with the new group of program participants, I met Stu. He greeted me and, with a big smile on his face, told me that we had really made a difference for him and how he talked with his child’s mother. Stu said he no longer had a relationship with her but he didn’t care, because he now was in regular contact with his daughter and that was what was important to him.

More about Conflict Resolution | Being Peace: This interactive program offers Donovan residents training, analysis and practicums on understanding and resolving inter-personal and inter-group conflict. It also exposes them to yoga postures, Qi gong movements, silent meditation with affirmations and poetry. Almost weekly, participants and I amaze ourselves as we experience revelations of connections between our innermost feelings and the outermost behaviors of others.

Jonathan Martin
Celebrating insight

“Mariette, have you ever had an insight that felt so simple when you realized it, so simple that you wonder how come it’s taken you so long to realize it?”

I smile as many instances flood my mind.  Oh, how many times had I beat myself up for taking “so long” to realize something that was “so simple.”

Nodding, I snap out of my own memories to ask this inquiring prison resident “What insight did you realize?”

“I realized last night, after NVC*, that we’re all one!

What?!?!?  As the prison residents say themselves, when they disconnect from humanity, it becomes easy to lash out at it.  This insight was exciting as it demonstrated a shift towards a deeper understanding of and connection to humanity.  When it happens, hurting another becomes less likely.

He continues, “I’ve heard this countless times.  But I could never figure it out.  I always felt so different from everyone around me.  How could I be the same as these people that were so different?  Then, last night, it clicked.  All those people who are so different – the correctional officers, the other residents, my family, people on the streets, etc. – well, I now see the person in each of them.  It’s so simple.  And it changes e-ver-y-thing!!!!!  WHY has it taken me this long to realize this????”

As we part ways for the day, I provide “You’ve landed on what I consider to be a universal truth.  And universal truths are always simple.  It’s their simplicity that confounds us because we believe that it cannot be this simple.  So instead of beating yourself up for taking ‘so long’ to realize something ‘so simple,’ I suggest you celebrate.  Many people never come to their own experiential realization of this reality.  Congrats for recognizing it.”

Now to you, “free person”:

  • What universal truth have you uncovered?

  • How have you celebrated yourself for this insight?

And I close with the same question I asked the prison resident before leaving him at the gate:  “The question now is:  now that you’ve realized this, what beliefs, thoughts, words and behaviors are you going to change?”

* NVC = Nonviolent communication, a recurring 12-week program Brilliance Inside’s Sunaina brings to Donovan which teaches the theory and practice of nonviolent communication

Releasing Hurts Ignites Brilliance

As Donovan volunteers, we need to get a TB test every year.  I headed to Target for my annual prick last week.  I got some groceries, received my TB test and then self-checked out.  As I later look in my bag, I realize that under my computer, there were three Lindt orange chocolate bars I had completely forgotten about!  Oh, a flurry of emotions surfaced:  “You’re a thief!  How dare you walk away without paying for the chocolate.  And you think you have such high integrity, my tush!!!!!”

Recognizing the gremlin attack, I reenacted the event in my mind, recognized it was an honest mistake, defined a rectification (easy, as two days later I’d be back at Target to get my TB test read) and asked for forgiveness.  The load lightened and then I continued going about my evening.

The next morning, I sat down to work.  As I put fingers to keyboard, I found myself tightening up, feeling stressed, constricted, uncreative.  Wondering what was creating this feeling, I realized I still harbored guilt and shame for the Target episode.

“I must have not released all of it last night.”  So, I stepped away from my computer and reworked through the steps that I know work, closing with asking for forgiveness.  And here, I hear “I’ve already forgiven you.  When are you going to forgive yourself?”

Well… That had not even crossed my mind!  So, I put my hands on my heart and, with as much care I could create in that moment, I said “Mariette, I know this was an honest mistake that you’re going to rectify tomorrow.  You are free to release any guilt and shame you continue to hold against yourself.  I forgive you because I love you.”

With this, I felt the boulders on my shoulders and in my stomach dissolve.  I sat down at my computer again, and I was back in the flow: open, creative, receptive, joyful.  I was in my brilliance!  And produced terrific work over the next couple of hours.

My brilliance had been dimmed, blocked and shackled by the shame and guilt I had been holding onto.  As soon as I released it, I was back in my brilliance.

And I realized, I had applied a lesson continuously learned in prison:  Releasing my hurts ignites my brilliance.  (Some of the countless examples of the residents’ journeys through this lesson another day…)

Jonathan Martin
Circles of Transformation Through Nonviolent Communication

John* had stood out to me – Sunaina Marquez – at our first Nonviolent Communication (NVC) meeting at Donovan. He had said matter-of-factly that he enjoyed using violence against correctional officers and that behaving violently helped him feel better. His eyes shone as he described using his anger and strength to break the lock of a holding cell he was put in.

John’s shares made me nervous. Violence is one strategy to meet underlying needs like self-expression and safety, but would I be able to show John and the rest of the group that together we could learn more peaceful ways of satisfying the same needs? I wondered whether our time together learning about empathy, compassion, and nonviolence would resonate with the residents and cause meaningful connection.

So, my ears perked up when John started sharing, in our final gathering before a two-month break, how he felt about our circles temporarily ending.

“It doesn’t feel good that we won’t be meeting for a while,” he said. “We are authentic and real in here, and we don’t get that anywhere else.” My heart leaped. There had been connection after all! Later, one of John’s friends told me that he’d never seen John smile on the yard but saw him smile often in our circles. This felt like a major, heartening win.

After John’s share, another resident spoke up. “You guys come in here and you treat us like human beings. You shake our hands, talk to us with respect. I forget sometimes that I’m a human being, and you help us remember.”

Other residents shared that they understood more about themselves because of our circles. Still others expressed joy at the community they find when they come to these gatherings and feel safe enough to be themselves.

The NVC concepts and philosophies are only a small part of what these residents take away from our weekly gatherings. They crave compassion and empathic community, of which they receive so little within prison and from their outside lives. And we are able to give each other this healing gift just by showing up with open hearts. I know connection is a path to building a more peaceful society, and I am grateful to begin seeing these transformations in our circles.

We launched another NVC program on June 17th. Connect with us to join us on this journey!

*Name changed to maintain confidentiality.

Jonathan Martin
Prequel to Brilliance Inside

“This is the Prequel to Brilliance Inside!” A friend was speaking about my recent talk on Creative Mornings’ theme of Inclusion.

I guess it is… Instead of the “usual” talk found in these spaces – sharing what I do and ending with a call-to-action to support and get involved, I was guided to bring something different to this experience. To share my personal journey to greater inclusion, greater humanity and greater connection. To bring the audience from Brown to Morocco to India and then into prison.

I found myself focused on three goals:

  1. Be vulnerable

  2. Speak my authentic truth

  3. Allow my true self to be seen

As I was preparing the talk, I regularly heard my inner gremlins say “You need to pay the bills, Sister! How’s this talk going to do that?”


A number of the 400 audience members cried during the talk! There’s something crazy humbling to realize that I’d struck such a cord. To see how much people cared about these stories of a deepening connection to humanity. As I spoke about the discovery of a greater humanity in an Ohio prison, I watched people brush away tears. As I revealed that Donovan’s first TEDx event received a Net Promoter Score of 100, I saw people dab their eyes.

I received accolades such as

  • “So inspiring, so encouraging, so enthralling”

  • “Excellent”

  • “As you watch, you’ll grow to appreciate Mariette and how she is giving of herself to make our world just a little better”

  • “…Encouraging us to stretch and break through stereotypes”

Plus, when I returned to May’s Creative Mornings, people shared the actions they had taken, inspired from my talk.

Aaaaaand… a post-talk coffee conversation led to a part-time project…that’s paying the basic bills for the next three months!

Conclusion: Always trust!!  I nailed my three goals. And am completely supported. God has a plan! And he knows better than I do. 

Enjoy the “Prequel” to Brilliance Inside. I’d love your thoughts, brilliant community! (Even the funny video preview image!)

Jonathan Martin