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
Healing Work Trauma – as Learned in Prison

Regularly, I receive a phone call or email from a person mesmerized by a powerful insight or transformational healing enabled by an experience with the prison residents.  Yes, as counterintuitive as it sounds, the residents’ journeys through violence have the potential to heal.  If we allow it.  Here’s one such story…

“Hurt people hurt people.” I first heard these words spoken by a “man in blue” incarcerated at Donovan Correctional Facility while visiting with Brilliance Inside. These words stuck with me because they felt so simple yet so profound. The man who spoke them had clearly done some terrible things to land him at Donovan. Yet, he also seemed wise beyond his circumstances and years.

Four years ago, my career took a painful detour. For over a decade prior, I had been blessed with a job, boss and team that I loved. I never wanted to leave that job but my personal life needed to come first. The birth of my second child and my spouse’s career opportunity meant that I needed to move on. So, I quit. And I cried.

I needed to find another job but all I could find was something at a small consulting firm. I wasn’t excited by the opportunity, but I took it. Six months after starting the job, I got fired. While I now know that this was the best possible outcome for me, it took me three years to fully realize and appreciate it. The CEO was awful, making the six months in consulting the worst months of my entire career. Even so, I didn’t realize just how deep the trauma went.

Last month, I ran into the CEO three times at a large conference with thousands of attendees. Each encounter created such an intense physically negative reaction in my body. My body temperature rose, and I started sweating. I felt stress and anxiety envelop my being. I couldn’t think straight. I was consumed with negativity. While I never spoke with the CEO, seeing her in person reignited my trauma. Despite over three years passing since she fired me, I had not healed.

The CEO was toxic, cruel and demeaning, among many other negative adjectives. But after my time at Donovan, I realized that more than anything else, she was hurt. I don’t believe she had been trying to inflict personal trauma on me. She was just so hurt that she didn’t know any other way to operate. I knew I needed to forgive her if I wanted to fully heal. And it was during this reflection after seeing her at the conference, when I realized her hurt wasn’t personal or intentional, that I was able to forgive. This realization – which a gentleman in blue from Donovan helped to spawn – was the key to my healing.

The men of Donovan probably have some of the most intense and difficult healing processes to bare. Yet, their experiences can help us through our own. Through each of our own journeys of self-discovery and reconciliation – however big or small – we are creating a world filled with more love and forgiveness. A world where hurt people can be set free from the shackles of their wounds and begin to love themselves and those around them.

Note:  The author chooses to remain anonymous.

Jonathan Martin
Volunteer Spotlight: Jen

Jen is one of Brilliance Inside’s most dedicated volunteers, coming into prison almost every week for the past two years as well as keeping many activities “on the outside” running.  She’s a light to the men who trust her deeply.  Now’s your chance to discover her light: 


Every Tuesday at Donovan begins the same way: After being processed by an officer, I push open the heavy door that separates us from the first walkway of the prison—one of many—and the A Yard. I look up. Shiny metal fencing towers everywhere and casts diamond shadows across the concrete we walk on. Razor wire glistens in the sun with thorny arms wrapped and rolling for miles, an end I can’t see. The sky looks wider than before I’d stepped inside prison—like it always does, as if this dense world of prison somehow widens my world…and in many ways, it always does.

In March, I celebrated two years of volunteering to help run the TEDx program. The description above is a scene I’ve come to regard as normal, even beautiful, if not a bit haunting—as if the razor wire surrounding this prison contains more than people, but also everything that makes us human—the men’s pain and sorrow, their bittersweet joy, their loneliness…the separation, and ours; everything about prison affects me to my core. Yet, the men in blue locked up inside Donovan with whom I have the honor to work are the reason I keep coming in.

Once we hit the A Yard, we begin our walk with handshakes instead of hugs. Some men meet us at the top of the track.  We walk together into the space in which we’ll meet for the next three hours in the safe, confidential circle:  Sharing stories, catching up, working on logistics, creating visions, discussing current news.  No matter the conversation or our work a spectacular moment always creeps in, until, suddenly, my heart is touched, again. Is it the men’s innocence, some from being locked up since they were 16…that creates such beauty? Or is it their wisdom from being incarcerated, some for over 30 years? Maybe it’s both. There’s just something precious I can’t touch but can feel when I’m with the men in blue; their unique perspective from transforming themselves inside this tough container, their nonjudgment, their open minds and gentle hearts.

Every Tuesday, when it’s time to leave, we stop at the top of the track. The men can’t go any further. There we say our last goodbyes, as we shake hand…after hand…after hand. My heart feels heavy, as it always does, leaving the men behind, but not as heavy as it used to. I know it’s only one more week before I’ll be in again. How could I ever stop?

Plus: Listen to Jen’s TEDx Talk “Don’t Tell Me What You Did Wrong, Tell Me What You Do Right” from TEDxWilmingtonWomen.

Jonathan Martin
Prison Residents Become Part of the Solution

Ripple effects are amazing. I’ll let Liz Sheahan, Vice President of Development, San Diego Food Bank, who attended the first TEDx event at Donovan, take it from here:

“We received a $10 donation from an inmate at Donovan – SO touching. He said he used to be part of the problem, and now he chooses to be part of the solution. He said that even though he couldn’t do much, he’d do what he could. As I do with many donors, I sent him a short personal note, letting him know that his $10 donation provided 50 meals – that he’d made a big difference in the lives of many. In a follow-up note, he stated he was beginning to wonder what could he possibly contribute – but when my note came, he was thankful and happy that he was able to help others. He remembered what it was like to be hungry as a child. He stated understanding the impact he was having helped him appreciate even more what he has – even in prison. He’s now encouraging other inmates to give as well (even though they make 65 cents/hour) – we’ve already received $5 from another inmate.

Warms my heart – and I feel like the work you’re doing at Donovan is causing some really great ripple effects.”

Jonathan Martin