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Chris Bisbano was serving an 18-year prison sentence when a drama class changed his life.

"We’re not teaching inmates to be actors. We’re giving them the tools of creative expression, and more importantly, emotional awareness."

Chris Bisbano was serving an 18-year prison sentence when a drama class changed his life.

60 days after Chris Bisbano was released from prison, he found himself back again, this time by choice.

He was there to teach a drama class with The Actors' Gang Prison Project. As he walked in, he noticed the inmates eyeing his tattoos, all of which he got during his 18-year sentence at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, California, for attempted murder. He knew he stuck out from the other teachers but didn't realize how much of a difference that would make until he introduced himself to the inmates.

Chris Bisbano (center, arm outstretched) with a group of inmates participating in The Actors' Gang Prison Project at Norco. Photo by Peter Merts. All photos used with permission.


"I told them I was formerly incarcerated and had only been out 60 days," Bisbano says. "The whole room started tearing up. The inmates exclaimed, 'I can’t believe you’re back in prison after doing all that time. And you came back just for us?'"

Bisbano came back because he has firsthand experience with the life-changing potential of The Actors' Gang Prison Project.

Unlike other prison drama programs, the Actors' Gang utilizes a specific type of acting exercise — an improv style known as commedia dell’arte — to help inmates recognize and control their emotions.

Commedia dell'arte is essentially the basis for clowning. Participants develop characters that represent four emotional states: happy, sad, frightened, and angry, and they build scenes around them.

Chris Bisbano. Photo by the Associated Press.

"We’re not teaching inmates to be actors. We’re giving them the tools of creative expression, and more importantly, emotional awareness," explains Bob Turton, one of the project's teachers.

When Bisbano first came to The Actors' Gang workshop as an inmate in 2009, he was skeptical.

He expected it to be like all the other run-of-the-mill art programs that came and went at Norco. But once he started doing the work, his perception changed entirely.

Photo by Bob Turton.

"I thought it was amazing," he recalls, explaining that the commedia style is perfect for the prison environment. "In prison, you don’t normally show emotion. You revert to one emotion: anger. Or you don’t show any emotion at all — that’s a sign of weakness. This program provided a safe space where we could explore all our emotions."

Remarkably, the program also helps to quickly build a sense of community among the inmates that crosses racial boundaries, which can be much more rigid in prison.

The Actors' Gang Prison Project isn't just a cool idea — it's working really well.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), the recidivism rate statewide in California is 50%. For inmates who completed The Actors' Gang Prison Project, however, it's 10.6%, according to a preliminary analysis conducted by the CDCR in conjunction with The Actors' Gang.

Even more impressive? Behavioral infractions by students in the Actors' Gang dropped by 90%.

Photo by Peter Merts.

Today, Bisbano is six months out on parole and already a head teacher for the Actors' Gang.

He started teaching weekly commedia classes as an inmate, and now that he's out on parole, he teaches at The Actors' Gang Prison Project as well as the Re-Entry Project, which helps inmates at halfway houses (between prison and full release).

As a teacher, Bisbano says, he's noticed that once the emotional "safe space" is established, the inmates are able to go much deeper emotionally much faster. "It’s like they've been waiting for this moment to open up and share," he says.

Photo by Bob Turton.

It's at the halfway houses that Bisbano and Turton say their work is the most challenging but can also make the biggest difference. The people there are anxious because they're much closer to getting out. A program that helps channel that emotion productively can be incredibly beneficial.

In 2007, there were zero publicly funded art programs in California's state prisons. In 2017, there will be art programs in all 35 of them.

Studies show just how much of a positive influence art can have on inmates' emotional development and behavior. The Actors' Gang's success — not to mention other programs like San Quentin's Prison Art Program, Marin Shakespeare at Solano State Prison, and guitar classes at Salinas Valley State Prison — are proof of that.

Photo by Bob Turton.

For Bisbano, what makes The Actors' Gang Prison Project exceptional is the way it taps into the source of inmates' behavior.

The work inmates do with The Actors' Gang helps them recognize a triggering feeling, learn how to diffuse it, and turn it into something productive. Once they leave prison, those skills give them more control over what they do, both on stage and on the streets.  

"We call it 'riding the horse,'" Bisbano says. "If [the feeling] is good, I ride it out. If it’s bad, I ride it out. But it doesn’t mean I need to act on it."

True

When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Vanna White appeared on "The Price Is Right" in 1980.

Vanna White has been a household name in the United States for decades, which is kind of hilarious when you consider how she gained her fame and fortune. Since 1982, the former model and actress has made millions walking back and forth turning letters (and later simply touching them—yay technology) on the game show "Wheel of Fortune."

That's it. Walking back and forth in a pretty evening gown, flipping letters and clapping for contestants. More on that job in a minute…

As a member of Gen X, television game shows like "Wheel of Fortune" and "The Price is Right" send me straight back to my childhood. Watching this clip from 1980 of Vanna White competing on "The Price is Right" two years before she started turning letters on "Wheel of Fortune" is like stepping into a time machine. Bob Barker's voice, the theme music, the sound effects—I swear I'm home from school sick, lying on the ugly flowered couch with my mom checking my forehead and bringing me Tang.

This video has it all: the early '80s hairstyles, a fresh-faced Vanna White and Bob Barker's casual sexism that would never in a million years fly today.

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