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Christmas in prison (And New Year’s too!!)

We spent both Christmas and New Year’s Days inside prison! They both fell on Tuesday this year, the day we meet with the TEDx and Spiritual Disciplines teams. Several of us stepped away from our family holiday engagements to spend our usual three hours per program. Christmas is the toughest time of year inside prison. While families come together, celebrate, share in food and drink and watch in glee as kids rip open wrapping paper from Santa’s gifts, the Donovan residents face their separation from this joy, their remorse, their abandonment…

Many residents showed up to the program long faced. One expressed what many were feeling: depressed. Knowing that he let down his family, that he destroyed the joy of Christmas for his victim’s family, and that he will never have a Christmas “on the streets” again. Some know their kids are having Christmas without a father. Others struggle remembering their last Christmas outside prison as 20 or 30+ years of incarceration separate them from those memories. They spoke of wishing to pull the covers high above their heads in the morning and let the day wash over them while they pretended to not be living it.

And then came the realization that it was Christmas Day and we had shown up. For them. Because we care about them. Because they matter. Because they are valuable in our eyes. Because our “family in blue” holds a deep place in our hearts.

Some did not really know how to take that in. That they matter enough that we choose to be with them instead of our families… Their gratitude oozed out. And their self-worth grew. One resident said:  “Even our own families don’t come to visit us on Christmas! But you do.”  Another: “When I see you show up for me in this way – drive to Donovan, go through security, get all of us out of our cells… – it makes me want to show up for you, for us and for me in this way too.”

YES! Our commitment of the residents creates deeper self-worth. And this in turn, creates a commitment on their part to their transformation, to their journey to positivity, to the team, which then expands to their families, the yard, the greater community…

Show someone he matters and watch him light up. This is the gift we receive from this time away from our families.


Some specific moments of glorious light on the team. Many of these involve race, the greatest divider in prison. Plus, like most families, holidays often come with emotions, tension and disagreement. We have not been spared; the difference is how they handle this:

  • We discussed a moment of tension that had taken place the previous week. While what had been said had been hurtful, the team came back together and recognized the difference between the hurt and the person, saw the truth in what had been expressed and found their path to move forward together. It’s amazing to watch this happen, often among themselves with little involvement from our part

  • Even though certain Core Team members and all Speakers are very new to the team, the prison rules are breaking down for them. One Hispanic man (6 weeks on the team) already feels comfortable enough to go around the entire circle of team members and bear hug every “person in blue,” giving them love and merry Christmas wishes. And offering himself to support anyone who’s struggling

  • Another African-American man again referred to a white man as his brother and means it. The magic is that this extends beyond our TEDx room. We’ve heard stories of the brotherhood between races on the yard

  • Yet another person told us the vulnerable story of losing his mother on Christmas day two years ago. He went into his parents’ room on Christmas morning signing “Frosty the Snowman” and found his mother had passed away during the night

  • Another told his mom later that day that he got a visit for Christmas!! (Let’s be clear, a visit is from a family member or personal friend only.) His mom didn’t understand: No one lives close enough to visit her son. He clarifies that this visit was us. “Very dear friends came to spend Christmas with me.”

2019's ambitious goals

TEDxDonCorr2018-646 Small.jpgThe Donovan residents are celebrating!!! After a year of strong progress shared with you in November, we’re looking to a powerful 2019.  And we've outlined ambitious goals for the year:

  • Continue running the existing 5 programs inside Donovan prison
  • Expand our TEDx rehabilitative program to the “Echo” yard, which means a doubling of resource needs and – yes! – TWO TEDx events in 2019
  • Launch the entrepreneurship incubation program on “Alpha” yard (the current TEDx yard)
  • Pilot the re-entry mentorship program, supporting reentrants to bring their cycle-of-violence-breaking ideas to reality
  • Hire facilitators and staff to strengthen the power we’re creating
  • Build sound back office with financial and operational management systems

Our vision is to break society’s cycle of violence.  And yes, as described in my TEDx talk, we believe that those who perpetuated this cycle are at the heart of its solution.  They have lived the cycle and, once they connect to their own brilliance, they become unstoppable to spread it.  Our programming embraces and enhances this power.  Together, we break the cycle of violence.

Blog, UncategorizedMariette
Just a few 2018 successes

b3418099-e9dd-49d0-9318-5af1731f770f.JPGThis past Saturday, I had the honor to give a TEDx talk entitled, “Violence to Peace: How Those at the Source of the Problem are also at the Heart of the Solution,” for TEDxNarbonne in France. I was so grateful to share the lessons that I have learned from the spectacular “men in blue” whom I have the honor of working with. The audience saw that they could be a powerful solution to our society’s cycle of violence and were transformed by the love expressed in the men’s transformations and by the other successes of our work together with the residents at Donovan. I wanted to take a moment to share some of these successes with you, our wonderful supporters, as well. Brilliance Inside was founded a little over one year ago now! And what a year at that! Reflecting from this milestone, I can see all of tremendous work we have put in to creating transformational programs inside Donovan prison. Here are just some of our successes:

  • We put on a second successful TEDxDonovanCorrectional! The residents tell us they engage, speak and even hug each other in the prison yard! It is a profound testament to the change that is taking place individually and collectively. Read more about these transformations here
  • We have recently selected four new residents out of over 70 applicants to take on roles as Core Team members for our TEDx program!
  • About 30 CEOs and business leaders have attended our programs and were mesmerized by the lessons learned in a mere three hours spent with the residents. In the words of Katy, one of the participants: “I figured I would go [to Donovan] and share a bit of my brilliant wisdom with folks who ‘had done wrong.’ … I learned I wasn’t afraid of visiting Donovan prison because of the inmates. I was afraid of learning something about myself and having to make a choice of being a better person.” Read more here
  • In response to requests from Donovan residents, we expanded our programming to include Conflict Resolution training, Stanford’s Compassion-Cultivation Training, and Nonviolent Communication training
  • We published our first video featuring some of the Donovan residents and their tremendous transformations. Listen to their lessons and insights here

Thanks to donors like you, Brilliance Inside continues to grow and to achieve amazing successes. As we continue our work, we wanted to take the time to thank you and to celebrate your support of our mission. We have big plans for our future, and we invite you to come along with us on this journey for the next year and for the years to come.

Fueled by Love

Working in prison, I've grown to develop a new relationship to love, fear, hurt, compassion...  This reading, shared by Awakin, provides such beautiful words to explain.  As always, this is source of understanding, not justification. I could not have said it better....


Fueled By Love

-  by Timber Hawkeye

When a parent sees their child is about to be attacked by someone, it doesn't matter how peaceful and calm they normally are, most parents would still resort to violence (or much worse) in order to protect their loved ones. In that scenario, you could argue that their violence is fueled by love, right?

We are only talking about conditional love in this example, not some altruistic compassion for all sentient beings (which would also include the attacker in this instance). We are talking about a very intense and passionate love for that which we personally hold dear.

By using that same logic, it's now easier to understand why some people are so hateful, racist, homophobic, or prejudiced: they are simply defending what they personally hold dear. As soon as they feel their values, traditions, or ideals are being attacked, their impulse is to protect, defend, and fight against anyone who threatens them.

Is it possible that even what we often perceive as a "hate crime," for example, is actually fueled by love? A love that is misplaced or blind at best, but love just the same?

Don't get me wrong; I'm not justifying violence, crime, or war in any way, I am only trying to apply the theory that "hurt people hurt people" so that I can better understand all the fighting in the world. It's as if everyone is protecting something, which would explain so much. If we justify the parent's violence in the example above as nothing more than their attempt to protect what they love, then it's easier to understand how one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter. Even greed is nothing more than someone's love affair with always wanting "more," and intolerance is just a heated resistance to change.

The reality is that we can't control what other people do or how they see the world, but maybe we can start to see it all through the lens of love (haters included). Can we accept that when someone is hurting deeply within themselves, their pain spills over until they start hurting everyone around them? According to Thich Nhat Hanh, this is their cry for help, and what they need is our understanding, not judgment. Because when we hate the hater, we become haters ourselves.

So here is my food for thought and invitation [...]: let's extend our own love and compassion to include EVERYBODY. When we see someone screaming, yelling, and protesting against something, can we look beyond their anger and hatred to what they actually love and are simply trying to protect? Would this subtle shift open our own hearts to truly include everyone, not just those whom we happen to personally hold dear?

Nobody's hate is justified, but perhaps it can be understood.


“You saved my life.” I had never heard those words said to me before. They were spoken simply and profoundly at the same time, heavy and light, complete and so wildly inadequate. Ten days ago, another man told me “I’m going to be shipped out this week. And …oh, I’m going to make this quick, else, I’m going to cry… Thank you. Thank you for everything. You changed my life.” With that, he wiped a tear away from behind his sunglasses and turned around to leave, unable to stand without bursting in the surfacing emotions.

Yet another, who left Donovan two weeks ago, said “I never knew I could be the person I am today. Thank you for giving me a chance to discover this brilliance in me.”

Departures are tough in prison. Yes, yes, we celebrate the fact that these men are being sent to lower-security prisons where life will be more easeful and aligned with their peaceful lifestyles. And yet, departures are also difficult and made more difficult by the fact that, when people ship out, we – volunteers – can no longer be in contact with them. It’s “until we meet again.” We cannot know what happens in their child custody hearing or the clemency request or simply their new life in a lower-security prison.

So, in these simple words, so little is said and so much is expressed. We’ve shared live-changing moments, have witnessed each other’s growth, been there to nudge and counsel each other along this journey of life. And no words can adequately capture the gifts, insights, beauty, growth, gratitude and transformation. So it’s kept simple: thank you. Knowing that everything is contained in this expression of gratitude. Simple and profound. Heavy and light. Complete and so wildly inadequate.

Thank you gentlemen for the myriad ways you’ve changed my life.

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

"Pain is inevitable.  Suffering is optional."  At this two-year anniversary of my cousin’s murder, I attest to this truth. As I wrote last year, I was “magically” relieved of the pain felt from his murder by spending the day with – oh! the irony – about 30 people who themselves had murdered someone. Huh??? Pain is inevitable. Every day, we get hurt. From the person cutting us off on the highway, from falling while hiking, from a family member making a rash judgment, from being misrepresented by a colleague... Most of us have also been subject to incomprehensible actions by others and deep traumas: abuse, murder, rape, shaming, fraud, stealing of life savings, etc. The pain from each of these is real.

With Kari’s murder, I experienced how optional suffering truly can be. As I entered that prison chapel with the 30 men, I was hurt, confused, in disbelief, wondering how this could ever happen. I was in the first stage of grief; they call it “shock.”

After I shared, four – yes, FOUR! – men told me a version of “I created the pain you feel right now for another's family. I am sorry for your pain. I am sorry for the pain of that family.” They expressed understanding of the murder, sadness for my loss and remorse for their own actions that had created the same pain for another family. One man even shared the details of the murder he committed, including his thoughts and feelings. Suddenly, while I knew nothing more about the details of Kari’s murder, I no longer felt the weight of confusion. Understanding these men’s experiences helped me understand the fears, disconnection, mistaken beliefs, pressure and choices that the people who killed my cousin may have experienced.

Within a couple days, I caught myself holding love and compassion for the people who killed my cousin. This was illogical and unexpected. And yet, it came naturally. I had skipped over disbelief, anger and most other stages of grief to land into “acceptance.” I understood that, to commit these actions, this person/these people must have hurt terribly inside, feeling they had no other choice (despite the fact they clearly did!).

I myself also had a choice: (1) stay locked inside grief and anger, believing this keeps my cousin’s memory alive or (2) celebrate my cousin by releasing the pain, remembering the contributions he’s made to this world and, in the process, relieving myself from the suffering so that I may live more peacefully and joyously.

I chose the second path. Today, I feel peace. I feel gratitude. I feel joy. Yes, even when I think of my cousin. Because I celebrate his life. And I’m grateful for the relationships, gifts and lessons I’ve received from him in his death. I have grown and it’s thanks to him.