Speaker after speaker – including professors, doctors, actors, CDCR staff and inmates – shared stories of healing and hope. Inmate emcee Steve Duby pointed out that on the same day, TEDx talks were being held in Pompeii, Italy; Taipei City, Taiwan; Fuzhou, China; and Blythe, California.
“Today all of you are part of a global community,” Duby said as he began introducing the impressive list of speakers. One of the first was Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Mobile, who spoke on the importance of rehabilitating oneself while incarcerated.
During a Q&A with organizer Scott Budnick, a film producer and founder of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, Branson was asked why he feels it’s important that employers give formerly incarcerated people a second chance.
Branson replied that not only does it help offenders stand on their own two feet and make them realize they are loved and cared for, it’s also a great opportunity for companies to work with formerly incarcerated people who come out of prison educated and with job skills.
“I think as many companies as possible need to get out there and take people and give them a chance,” Branson said. “And I think they’ll be surprised by how successful it is.”
The independently organized TEDx event was made possible through a partnership of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and coordinators Budnick and the Ford Foundation. Each speaker helped spread the TED message: Ideas can change the world.
For inmate Marquise Clark, changing the world begins with getting an education. Of the 1,288 college degrees earned at ISP, at least one will be his. And for that, he shared, he’s “grateful for the opportunity” to be in prison — the theme of his talk.
“Being enrolled in college, passing the classes, gaining more knowledge and completing the classes satisfied me because it says that my future is looking bright again,” Clark said. “So yes, I am grateful for the opportunity to be in prison. I’m grateful to be alive, for how far I came.”
Getting an education, he emphasized, means not only expanding horizons, but also gaining self-value, self-confidence and courage. Another speaker, Ellen Rutledge, focused on a different kind of courage: the courage to forgive. Rutledge, chief executive assistant to Chief Deputy Warden Neil McDowell, lost her son in 2008 when he was murdered. While the journey to forgiveness was long and trying, she shared, it is possible.
“Be assured: We all have the ability to forgive,” she said. “But it may not happen in one fell swoop. Sometimes it has to happen in waves. Sometimes we have to forgive someone many times before we can let go of all the emotional residue of the past.”
Rutledge wasn’t the only CDCR employee to speak at TEDx. Millicent Tidwell, director of the Division of Rehabilitative Programs, spoke about the importance of the “R” in CDCR, and ISP Correctional Officer Calvin Williams shared his story of growing up without a father, urging the inmates to stay connected with their children, as even a phone call can make a big difference in a child’s life.
Therapist and self-help author Sean Stephenson received one of the loudest standing ovations of the day after he spoke about making healthy choices. Stephenson, who was born with osteogenesis imperfecta (“brittle bone syndrome”), was given just months to live when he was born.
More than 30 years later, Stephenson’s motivational talks inspire others to live their dreams instead of focusing on their limitations. Stephenson railed against pity, pointing out that had he chosen to wallow in self-pity, he would probably not be alive today. “I choose something else,” he said. “I chose to be strong. I choose to be a leader. I choose to have words to move this planet.”
Stephenson shared why he believes he was born, and encouraged the inmates to look inside themselves to find out why they were born, and use that knowledge to change the world.
“I was born to rid this world of insecurity, because when a human being is insecure, we do stupid stuff … we chase external validation and external objects to try to tell us we are enough. You are enough.”
“I have a belief that has served me in my life, and that is that everyone is rooting for you to win, even those who do not know it.”