Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop and look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ you must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
The purpose of life, after all, is to live it, to taste experience to the Utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”
Like you, I have had many transformative events in my life. So when I was asked to present today I had difficulty choosing the most salient. The personal event I will discuss today I believe is the one that not only formed my life’s goals but defined who I became.
When I was 27 years old I was newly married to my first husband and had just returned to the US after working for the army in Germany. I was immediately hired by Michigan bell Telephone Company and placed on their fast track management program. I was flattered and delighted to have been selected.
Within six months I was fired from that job. Clearly my employer did not see the same qualities my college schoolmates had when they elected me their class president. As you might well guess that after I was fired, I was embarrassed, devastated and confused. I felt like a looser.
But I didn’t like that job. It wasn’t a good fit for me. Surely my employer saw that in my performance.
Yet getting fired turned out to be one of the best thing that ever happened to me. Because shortly after, I started my twenty–year career with the Michigan Department of Corrections. And that was a good fit because I used my sociology degree and my social worker mentality.
After I was fired in 1971 I applied for the entry level probation officer position I knew nothing about corrections and could barely spell incarceration. I was scared to death. I feared I would fail again, especially when I discovered I was the first woman ever interviewed in Oakland County.
Yet I decided I had to take that giant leap into the unknown as Eleanor Roosevelt words encourage and make it work.
The moral of this story is simple–embrace change rather than run from it. All of us fear change because we don’t know what it holds for us. I teach a workshop where I give an exercise about change. The result of this exercise shows that 99% of the time the changes we make whether forced on us or ones we want have positive outcomes. Still we tend to stay cemented in negative personal relationships and careers.
We humans seem to be predisposed to resist change because of the risk associated with it.
So in a nutshell fear, uncertainty and discomfort are our compasses toward growth. We must respond to a challenge because if we do not we will never move forward. Like the donkey in the children’s story i will shake it off and move forward.
But facing change and overcoming the fear of taking a job I knew little about was only part of my transformation. The day i was interviewed for the probation officer position truly added to my life-changing experiences. And i am confident Ruth Bader Ginsberg our friend and fellowship member could identify with.
The interview went something like this. Remember this was 1971 and the probation department was forced to hire a woman under the new equal employment opportunity law.
The male director of the probation office that interviewed me asked if I was taking the pill. I thought for a moment and then I asked, “Do you have a vasectomy because I do not see how this fits with the qualifications for the position.”
His face turned bright red and he stuttered his answer, “uh, I mean, we would be concerned about your safety should you become pregnant.”
I studied him and answered, “I believe that is an issue only my husband and I should discuss and decide.”
There was a few moments of silence. Then he said, “Speaking of your husband, we would like to interview him.”
I put on my most shocked face and answered a little too loudly, “WOW! I thought he liked his job. I didn’t know he applied for this for this position.”
When the director started to answer I raised my hand and asked, “Do you interview all the wives?”
Of course they had not.
The interview went downhill from there.
So you can picture my surprise when I was hired. Then added to my astonishment, I discovered that i was one of handful of women in the country handling a caseload of primarily adult male felons. I had to ask myself, “What are you doing?”
But my determination and stubbornness prevailed especially when I learned that the probation director was certain I would fail because no woman could handle the job. When I found this out i told him that he hired the wrong woman. I had no intention of failing.
Of course, years later when I became I prison warden he took credit for hiring me.
Although the interview was my introduction to workplace gender discrimination I soon learned that a similar attitude prevailed about incarcerated women who were poorly treated.
For an example the women incarcerated in the county jail were rarely let out of their cells and had no programs offered to them as did the male inmates. The women prisoners didn’t even get to do “women’s” work like cooking and cleaning.
This negative treatment was even more obvious in the Michigan women’s prison and resulted in a class action law suit in the early 1980s that set the precedent in the United States for female prisoner classification. I will not go into detail about this law suit except to say that prior to it when women prisoners were allowed to work in the same jobs as men they were paid less which of course mirrors our society.
I mention women prisoners’ plight because once I realized how badly women prisoners were treated I decided my goal was to help change their status of being correctional second class citizens.
As I was promoted in corrections I also became overwhelmed with the inequality within the criminal justice system for both men and women. And that truly became my life’s work—to help change the injustices and inequalities not only in criminal justice but in our society.
This brings me to the sub-reformative event that awakened in me how important it is to give back to our community.
I have tried to live by Eleanor Roosevelt’s words: that life experiences mean that every person should look beyond what they can do for themselves.
Our own lives are enriched by helping others. This can happen in large ways like the gates’ foundation or in a small way—more appropriate for most of us such as the love out loud program.
Success after all is not measured in dollars but in how we live our lives and the positive impact we make.
As an author, i receive many letters from people who have read my published works. One such communication came from a young southern California woman who after reading my first memoir left gang life, went on to college and now works with troubled youth.
Another young woman heard me speak to her Durango High School street law class. At that time she was under house arrest and wore an ankle monitor. Whatever I said that day inspired her to read both my memoirs. She graduated from high school and went to college to study criminal justice.
Yet nothing prepared me for the telephone call I received from Jeff Deskovic, a native of New York State. At the age of seventeen, Jeff was found guilty and sentenced to prison for fifteen years to life based on a coerced confession of the rape and murder of a schoolmate. After sixteen years in prison Jeff had exhausted all his appeals and was denied parole. He faced the bleak reality that he would never be exonerated and perhaps never be released from prison.
I believe that providence plays a major role in our lives. It did in Jeff’s. He borrowed chicken soup for the prisoner’s soul from the prison library (there is a chicken soup book for everyone’s soul). In it Jeff read an essay I had written about a mentally ill prisoner titled, “the feeling of success.” Jeff checked my credentials at the back of the book and discovered my first memoir, the warden wore pink.
Jeff contacted my publisher and my friend, Julie Zimmerman. In his letter, Jeff told Julie his story. Julie and I agreed that she should contact our mutual friend, Claudia Whitman, a Mancos, Colorado resident, and an advocate for the wrongly accused.
Claudia took up Jeff’s cause and convinced the innocence project to handle his case although they had previously turned down Jeff’s request to work on his behalf. The innocence project then persuaded the current district attorney to run the existing DNA evidence from the original crime scene and compare it to Jeff’s.
The result proved Jeff’s innocence and that the actual guilty man was a prisoner serving life on another murder. Jeff, at the age of 33 and after 16 years, was released from prison on September 20, 2006.
My unexpected association with Jeff taught me that we never know what small act of ours will make a difference. I also learned that the transformation we make in someone’s life doesn’t have to be a grand gesture because mine was not. All I did was write an essay. We must all use the talents we have not only to transform ourselves but to help others transform.
I learned from Jeff to never give up. Jeff persevered against the severest odds that anyone could face and won.
One other lesson I learned is that there is no amount of money we can earn that can replace the reward we get from giving back a person’s life.
I believe that a poem written by my friend Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer who lives in Placerville, Colorado. Sums up the perseverance and courage Jeff showed.
It is titled once you have known darkness
Will follow you,
But only to regions
Where there is light.
You are forever linked
To these two worlds:
One that shapes you,
One that takes your shape.
To recap: if I did not take that leap into the unknown of the criminal justice system in 1971 I would not have worked to improve that system in 1971 or help the wrongfully accused or help overcome gender, racial, ethnic and economic biases.
I would never have become an author which was another life-change I had not planned or even wanted. Yet without my published works I would not have given interviews in every form of media or presented throughout the country on social justice and women’s issues.
So I can truly say that I am thankful that I was fired from Michigan Bell Telephone Company. And that one event transformed my life.
In closing I will share a quote and another very short poem from Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer
The quote is from the very wise Benjamin Franklin: “When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.”
Lesson from weeds
The dandelion doesn’t worry
When its gold starts to fade.
It transforms its proud yellow petals,
Into spindly white seeds
Then lets the wind take them away.