Nicole Tetreault (PhD ’13)
“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” – Mother Teresa
Every January, I kick off the year with a vision board that maps out my goals and intentions. In 2019, I taped clippings of the Milton & Rosalind Chang Career Exploration Prize in the lower left corner of my vision board. Just beside those clippings was a large post-it note with the manifestation:
Beyond the Cell – teach meditation, neuroscience,
and creative writing to incarcerated women
In my wildest dreams for 2020, this all came true with the launch of the Beyond the Cell program made possible through the Chang Prize. And each step of this manifestation has been a true exploration. I feel like I did in the early days of graduate school – learning a new language, a new set of values, and pushing myself to greater expansion.
Beyond the Cell aims to heal the scars of trauma, stigma, bullying, social isolation, and incarceration by employing specific education strategies supported by neuroscience. Participants will connect with themselves – and their community – to build a bridge to greater self-awareness and metacognition. The result: a deeper understanding of themselves and others. Participants will use the insights of meditation, neuroscience, and creative writing to achieve healing, rehabilitation, and redemption.
I have been met with open arms by numerous organizations, including Homeboy Industries, PEN Los Angeles, Victor Treatment Center, and Penal Reform Solutions. And I have developed partnerships with leading psychologists and educators, such as:
- Scott Barry Kaufman, a humanist psychologist
- Dale Sigle, an expert in education and motivation
- Susan Baum, a world leader in twice-exceptional education
- Lori Burns, a human rights activist and founder of the Teen Project
- Michelle Franke and Tracy Kardash, LA PEN leaders and activists for prisoners’ free speech
The day I met Father Greg Boyle – the founder and visionary of Homeboy Industries (the largest rehabilitation and gang-intervention program worldwide) – was an all time high. I sat across from him after he had just returned from an interview at CNN. His office was filled with pictures; Father Greg with homeboys, homegirls, babies, and families – all the people he has dedicated his life to helping. But there were also photographs of Father Greg with luminaries, such as President Obama and Pope Francis. I was sitting in the presence of a living saint.
Father Greg began his mission in the early 80s when his community experienced over 1,000 deaths due to gang violence. Homeboy provides hope, life, training, and employment to thousands of men and women that were former gang members and incarcerated. As I sat in his glass office, employees walked through the door with ease. Father Greg is one of them and they are one with him. There are no airs. His calm and informal nature sets the tone of a twenty-four-hour welcome mat at his door.
We talked about bringing Beyond the Cell to Homeboy, where I could teach the program and learn from the participants of how to connect with incarcerated women and ensure safety. As I was leaving, he turned to me with a gentle and powerful gaze and said, “You know, people always say that gang members are looking for community and they are wrong. Gang members do not choose the life. They are pushed into the life.”
From our fifteen-minute meeting I learned a new dimension of compassion through Father Greg’s actions, words, and his unwavering attitude of hope for his brothers and sisters. Incarcerated people very often have no choice. They are escaping from an unimaginable life. They are surviving trauma. They are suffering. They need a chance. They need open arms. They need a twenty-four-hour welcome mat.
Beyond the Cell aims to be twenty-four-hour welcome mat, where participants learn practices that empower them to make choices – not from suffering and pain – but centered on compassion and wisdom. Empowered through their voice and knowing they are valued participants in our society at as a whole. They are empowered, and they are welcomed.
In early March, I will participate in a twenty-hour training program for trauma informed yoga. By mid-March, Beyond the Cell will begin focus groups at Vera’s Home, as well as pilot programs across Pasadena and Los Angeles to ensure the program’s safety and effectiveness for participants. Beyond the Cell aims to design a replicable program that can be used across the nation for incarcerated women to instill positive practices for life. A life free from trauma, free from suffering, and free from judgment where these women can step fully into their essence and walk side-by-side, hand in hand, with us free in society.
Transform our pain, transform our minds, transform our experience, transform our lives.