The Power of Women's Networks

The Power of Women's Networks
By Sarah Vitorino 12PhD

During the Q&A portion of a President’s Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW)–sponsored event on women, leadership, and the importance of networking, a woman stood up to ask a question. I noticed her almost militaristic stance, commanding voice, and unapologetic dominance of the room when she introduced herself as Warden Alexis Chase and proceeded with a thoughtful question. Having worked with women at Metro State Prison in Atlanta for a few years and after spending the past hour learning about the importance of woman-to-woman mentoring, I thought I would introduce myself to her after the talk. 

In talking with Chase, I learned that she had been appointed to open and supervise Emanuel Women’s Facility in Swainsboro, Georgia, that opened on May 21 of this year. I found this serendipitous given that Metro State Prison would be closing in June.  I had been wondering how I might stay connected to incarcerated women when the nearest prisons now would be hours of driving away. Also during this time, I had been writing my dissertation, where I was synthesizing a lot of what the formerly incarcerated women I interviewed said about what helped them succeed upon release. I felt that I had a wealth of information and advice that I desperately wanted to share with women currently incarcerated. 

When I shared with Chase my desire to bring this information to the women at Emanuel, her response was stern and absolute: “That is exactly what these ladies need. When can you make it out to Emanuel?” Her response gave me pause for two reasons: First, I never have heard a warden (or any other corrections staff) refer to incarcerated women as anything other than inmates—a word that immediately strips away their humanity and dignity—and certainly never with any warmth behind their words. Second, I immediately felt underqualified to lead a workshop at the prison. Not wanting to go against the warden’s orders and eager to seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, however, I agreed to visit Emanuel. At the time, I could not have anticipated how meaningful a collaboration this was about to become and what a powerful impact it would have on myself and others involved. 

Once the date for the workshop was set, I decided that my own limitations could be redeemed by my network of incredible women colleagues and friends. I knew the women at Emanuel deserved much more than I could provide, so I reached out to Sasha Smith (assistant director, Center for Women), Lauren Bass (media relations, Office of University-Community Partnerships), and Michelle Manno (PhD candidate, sociology), inviting them to take part in the workshop. 

They enthusiastically agreed and, after much brainstorming, we decided that the workshop would be holistic in focus, with sessions attending to mind, body, spirit, and relationships. Each of us was responsible for designing and facilitating the session that most closely represented our interests and expertise. On May 21, we headed east on our road trip to Swainsboro.  With two classrooms seating thirty-five women each, we alternated sessions throughout the day so that both groups could experience the full schedule. Here are some details about each session in the presenters’ words:

Sasha Smith—Relationships

Relationships are a major factor in how we make positive decisions in our lives. The foundation of a healthy relationship comes from our parents (caretakers), friends, loved ones, and partners, who have a major influence on our thoughts and behaviors. I felt as though it was important to talk to these women about the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships so that—upon their release—they can ensure that they maintain healthy relationships. In my discussion of intimate partner violence with the women of Emmanuel, I also shared my personal story of having my sister killed by her ex-partner. I discussed the personal impact it has had on me and my family members. The majority of them admitted to being survivors and/or perpetrators of intimate partner violence. They also discussed never seeing or being involved in any healthy relationship and fears about having to deal with the negative influences in their lives. During the session, we focused on being able to identify unhealthy relationships, resources for intimate partner violence, increasing self-worth, and reaching out for help. During my next visit to Emmanuel, I would like to talk more about how positive relationships can have a positive effect on our lives.

Lauren Bass—Meditation

My experience as a chaplain intern at Metro State Women’s Prison taught me the importance of opening up to the sacred moments that happen every day, everywhere. I have heard some of the most powerful and inspiring stories from incarcerated women. But I also knew that the holy moments of unconditional love, acceptance, and faith that often keep the women pressing forward toward reuniting with family and friends could be overshadowed by the daily grind of prison life. With this in mind, I decided to lead a guided imagery meditation that focused on self-worth and acceptance. We debriefed after the meditation; and some women admitted to using the time as an opportunity simply to get some rest, while others—with tears in their eyes—spoke about a revelation they received. All the women described the meditation as a peaceful moment. Although a moment of peace in a prison setting is itself a powerful thing, I believe it was so much more than that. The meditation offered the women an opportunity to experience themselves and the divine in an imaginative space that exists beyond the tile, fluorescent lights, and identical uniforms. And it is this type of sacred moment that speaks light into the darkest corners of one’s experiences and reminds a woman that she has been divinely gifted with the ability not only to endure, but to overcome. That is a holy moment. 

Michelle Manno—Physical Exercise and Assessment

Oftentimes, the stressors we experience mentally and emotionally in life manifest themselves in our bodies. We often ignore minor aches and pains without realizing that such pains are our body’s way of telling us that it needs attention. This is why I thought it was important to include exercise in the workshop for the women at Emanuel. Given time and space constraints, as well as the varying levels of ability the women would possess, I focused on a series of total body stretches combined with deep breathing. The goal was to teach the women two or three exercises that they easily could incorporate into their daily routines to help them relax, release stress, and be mindful of their bodies. It was my hope to show the women that what we experience in life impacts our bodies on multiple levels and that it is important to take care of ourselves, even if we can only do little things at the moment.

In addition to the exercise routine, I also created the assessment tool for our workshop. We wanted to get feedback from the women so that we knew what they liked and didn’t like about the day’s events and what they wanted and needed so that we could provide better, more effective workshops for them and others in the future. The assessments were extremely informative, and we look forward to implementing the women’s suggestions and requests in our forthcoming workshops.

Sarah—Ice-Breakers and Strategies after Release

I knew that the women would be meeting our small group of facilitators for the first time, but I was also aware that many of them would not know each other. Restrictive prison routines make it hard for women to get to know others in a safe space.  With this in mind, I felt it was important to provide opportunities for women to learn more about each other and, I hoped, to set the stage for meaningful interactions in the future. In addition to the ice-breaker, I led a session called “Strategies for Hard Times” that incorporated much of the advice I gathered from interviewing formerly incarcerated women for my dissertation study. 

These coping strategies included gratitude, finding the silver lining in bleak situations, having faith, and realizing that as bad as it gets, it could be worse. These approaches—along with tips such as listening to and helping others, and quite simply hanging in there—were intended not as a magic pill but as strategies for managing the tough times that have and surely will come their way. These tools can help mediate some of the pain, stress, and anxiety that come with hard times in an effort to keep women hanging on for just a little while longer—until a potential employer calls back, until a drug craving subsides, until a friend returns their call, until laws change and they are given another chance at life.

Possessing an empowered and hopeful perspective can make a significant practical difference in incarcerated women’s lives both in prison and upon release. Perhaps even more crucial to women’s potential for a successful reintegration into society is a shift in perspective on the part of the general public—people like you and me, who can influence policy and programming to improve access to education, employment, and other resources—away from fear and punishment to compassion and restoration.

Despite our initial fears, worries, and limitations, the workshop went so well it almost seemed by divine plan. If I had to describe that day in one word, it was nothing short of magical. In addition to the four unique sessions, the women were also provided with a home-cooked meal by two volunteers connected to the prison, the likes of which many of the women haven’t had in years. Beyond the compliments to the chefs, we received overwhelmingly positive responses from the participants in their evaluations.

The following quotes are from some of the women who participated in the workshop:

  •  “Thank you so much for realizing our lives have value and that, with the right tools, we can be great.”
  • “It was a great workshop, and I really enjoyed it. I was at a breaking point and I’m leaving here feeling overjoyed. Thank you!”
  • “Thank you so much for your time and information. Very encouraging—you brought positive energy to what can be a negative energy environment.”
  • “Please come back. You all made me feel free for a while. I really enjoyed it all.”

Perhaps even more touching, the women presented us with homemade cards decorated with thanks and well-wishes—cards that they had managed to create and pass around for signatures without our knowing during the quick five-minute breaks we had in between sessions. 

We plan to continue holding these workshops at Emanuel (and perhaps elsewhere) two to three times annually, providing new and different elements at each based on the feedback from the women who took part in the first workshop. In doing so, we hope we can connect with more women and provide them with vital information and strategies.

The organizers of the Women and Leadership PCSW event knew something about the importance of women’s networks and cared enough to share that wisdom with others. As a result, I—along with a small network of close friends—discovered for ourselves how lucky we are to have each other, our privileges, and freedom. Most of all, we are grateful for the opportunity to add other incredibly strong and capable women to our network, including Warden Chase and the inspiring women incarcerated at Emanuel.

Sarah Vitorino is a doctoral candidate in the department of Women’s Studies. Her research focuses on well-being and life histories of formerly incarcerated women. She also works full-time as the project manager for strategic initiatives in the Office of the Secretary and Vice President.