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A theater teacher played 'Hamilton' for a group of inmates. Their reaction was priceless.

These men are prisoners. But in 'Hamilton,' they saw themselves on stage.

A theater teacher played 'Hamilton' for a group of inmates. Their reaction was priceless.

I work with a group of men who aren’t used to seeing themselves in the narrative unless they’re portrayed as villains.

These men are prisoners. They understand that much of America thinks they’re monsters who deserve to be locked in cages. They are the bastard, orphan sons of … every kind of woman you can imagine. They are also beloved sons and husbands and part of close families who come to visit them every week.



Photo by the author, used with permission.

Maybe they understand Alexander’s words in the musical, "Hamilton": “Livin’ without a family since I was a child. My father left, my mother died, I grew up buckwild.” Many of them know all about living impoverished, in squalor, and about fathers who split. A few of them are in college, working on being scholars.

People look at them like they’re stupid. They’re not stupid.

Because our criminal justice system silences these men, I will be so bold as to tell (a little piece of) their story.

We make plays together at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility hidden away behind razor wire and 18-foot-high walls. We rediscover vulnerability and human connection behind faces masked for survival and inside guarded, broken hearts. We perform for the incarcerated population (please, not one more joke about the "captive" audience) and for a few hundred civilian guests.

Right now, we’re two weeks away from this year’s production, which is "Twelfth Night." We’re telling a story about losing a brother, about heartbreak, about discovering what it’s safe to reveal, and what one has to conceal in a strange and possibly dangerous new place. We’re telling a story about not knowing when the joke has gone too far and the consequences of that — a story about wrongful incarceration. We’re telling a story about recovering what one thought was lost forever.

Me and the men in my theater group. Photo by the author, used with permission.

I’ve written before about how theater can teach trust, empathy, compassion, peaceful conflict resolution, deeper cognitive thinking, delayed gratification and how it can create community and understanding.

The men in Rehabilitation Through the Arts have far fewer disciplinary infractions inside the facility and a dramatically lower recidivism rate upon release than the general population.

I often wish I could take the guys to the theater.

You may be able to imagine that a fair number of these men had no access to the arts as children. We make do with production photos and the occasional “adapted for television” viewings.

That is, until the cast of Hamilton beautifully and powerfully performed their opening number from the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre for the Grammy ceremony and then performed again at the White House.

The Hamilton Cast at the Grammys. Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images.

When Lin-Manuel Miranda freestyled in the Rose Garden with President Obama, I promptly burned the performance onto a DVD and waited for clearance to bring it into the facility.

We watched on video as Miranda performed a piece from his "concept album" at the 2009 White House Poetry Jam, and then we talked about how that audience received his work.

We talked about what happens when people laugh and you’re serious, about the decision to stand one’s ground and follow one’s purpose, which is a hot topic in our rehearsal room as we get closer to sharing our months of work with the population of the prison.

One of the men observed, “He gets more confident as he goes.” Some of the men worry the population won’t understand Shakespeare; some worry they will laugh at the serious parts. One of the elders in our circle said, “We have to tell the story.”

We watched a true Broadway show in the big house.

Well, four minutes of one anyway, in the form of the Grammy performance of “Hamilton” from the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Heads nodded to the beat; some of the men snapped along. “Can we watch it again?” We could. We did.

We talked about how "Hamilton" is performed on a bare stage, just like we’ll perform "Twelfth Night."

“No one laughed when he said his name this time.” We talked about how Miranda uses language, leverages rhetoric to find each character’s voice, just as Shakespeare did. We talked about working for six years on something you believe in, and we speculated about the long, uncertain nights he might have had somewhere in the middle of year three or year four.

These men know more than the rest of us can imagine about long, uncertain nights in the middle of a very long bid to survive.

Opening night at Hamilton. Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images.

We watched the cast perform “My Shot” at the White House. We whooped. We joyfully beheld the son of Puerto Rican parents and the first African-American president freestyle in the Rose Garden. We cheered. (One or two of us might have teared up, but we don’t need to discuss that.)

These gorgeous, thoughtful, wounded men rarely see themselves represented in the world.

As they fight to become the men they want to be, they still mostly see themselves in the narrative as junkies, dealers, thugs, or the latest black man brutally gunned down in the streets by the police. According to an Opportunity Agenda study, “negative mass media portrayals were strongly linked with lower life expectations among black men.”

"Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?"

But, in the midst of our shared creative endeavor, they saw themselves smack in the center of the narrative of creation, possibility, pursuit, and achievement.

Representation unabashedly made me weep as I watched a few of the men lean in.

Representation matters. Representation is beautiful.

And I am not willing to wait for it.

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels
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Increasingly customers are looking for more conscious shopping options. According to a Nielsen survey in 2018, nearly half (48%) of U.S. consumers say they would definitely or probably change their consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment.

But while many consumers are interested in spending their money on products that are more sustainable, few actually follow through. An article in the 2019 issue of Harvard Business Review revealed that 65% of consumers said they want to buy purpose-driven brands that advocate sustainability, but only about 26% actually do so. It's unclear where this intention gap comes from, but thankfully it's getting more convenient to shop sustainably from many of the retailers you already support.

Amazon recently introduced Climate Pledge Friendly, "a new program to help make it easy for customers to discover and shop for more sustainable products." When you're browsing Amazon, a Climate Pledge Friendly label will appear on more than 45,000 products to signify they have one or more different sustainability certifications which "help preserve the natural world, reducing the carbon footprint of shipments to customers," according to the online retailer.

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The 1776 Report isn't just bad, it's historically bad, in every way possible.

When journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones published her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project for The New York Times, some backlash was inevitable. Instead of telling the story of America's creation through the eyes of the colonial architects of our system of government, Hannah-Jones retold it through the eyes of the enslaved Africans who were forced to help build the nation without reaping the benefits of democracy. Though a couple of historical inaccuracies have had to be clarified and corrected, the 1619 Project is groundbreaking, in that it helps give voice to a history that has long been overlooked and underrepresented in our education system.

The 1776 Report, in turn, is a blaring call to return to the whitewashed curriculums that silence that voice.

In September of last year, President Trump blasted the 1619 Project, which he called "toxic propaganda" and "ideological poison" that "will destroy our country." He subsequently created a commission to tell the story of America's founding the way he wanted it told—in the form of a "patriotic education" with all of the dog whistles that that phrase entails.

Mission accomplished, sort of.

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If the past year has taught us nothing else, it's that sending love out into the world through selfless acts of kindness can have a positive ripple effect on people and communities. People all over the United States seemed to have gotten the message — 71% of those surveyed by the World Giving Index helped a stranger in need in 2020. A nonprofit survey found 90% helped others by running errands, calling, texting and sending care packages. Many people needed a boost last year in one way or another and obliging good neighbors heeded the call over and over again — and continue to make a positive impact through their actions in this new year.

Upworthy and P&G Good Everyday wanted to help keep kindness going strong, so they partnered up to create the Lead with Love Fund. The fund awards do-gooders in communities around the country with grants to help them continue on with their unique missions. Hundreds of nominations came pouring in and five winners were selected based on three criteria: the impact of action, uniqueness, and "Upworthy-ness" of their story.

Here's a look at the five winners:

Edith Ornelas, co-creator of Mariposas Collective in Memphis, Tenn.

Edith Ornelas has a deep-rooted connection to the asylum-seeking immigrant families she brings food and supplies to families in Memphis, Tenn. She was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States when she was 7 years old with her parents and sister. Edith grew up in Chicago, then moved to Memphis in 2016, where she quickly realized how few community programs existed for immigrants. Two years later, she helped create Mariposas Collective, which initially aimed to help families who had just been released from detention centers and were seeking asylum. The collective started out small but has since grown to approximately 400 volunteers.