He left prison for the first time since he was a teenager. Then he started filming.
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The Kresge Foundation

14 days after finishing a 20-year sentence in prison, Bilal Coleman appeared on video in an unlikely setting: a garden full of fresh herbs.

With this, Coleman kicked off his video diary project called "The Freedom Chronicles," which documented his first year out of prison.

He doesn’t say much in that first video, which was filmed in December 2015. His mentor, another formerly incarcerated man named Anthony Forrest, shares the names of various plants around them. He encourages Coleman to break off pieces and smell the rosemary and basil — the scent of which, Coleman says, reminds him of his grandma.


These were Coleman’s first experiences of life outside of prison since he was a teenager — and most people in his place wouldn’t dream of sharing something so personal with the world.

Coleman meets goats on his 11th day out of prison. All images courtesy of Planting Justice.

For most people, the first year out of prison is a struggle. After incarceration, many have trouble finding stable jobs, accessing basic needs like healthy food, and transitioning back to daily life on the outside.

In fact, in Coleman’s home state of California, 7 out of 10 former inmates go back to prison within a year after being released.

Coleman was only 17 years old when he was sentenced to 20 years at San Quentin State Prison — so at 37, he didn’t exactly have a ton of work experience. Like so many others returning to their communities after incarceration, he faced the world with the odds stacked against him.

But when he got out, he had a good reason to start filming his journey — a job waiting for him at an organization called Planting Justice.

Planting Justice is an Oakland-based nonprofit that empowers people to grow their own food. In 2009, when co-founders Gavin Raders and Haleh Zandi launched the organization, they wanted to support people who are most affected by issues such as poverty and a lack of access to nutritional food. And they couldn’t think of a better way to do that than hiring people who, like Coleman, are leaving prison.

Planting Justice staff members Maurice "Big Mo" Bell and Darryl Aikens with co-founders Haleh Zandi and Gavin Raders.

"We really wanted to build the world that we want and need, and focus on solutions," says Gavin Raders, executive director of Planting Justice.

The organization offers a living wage and full benefits to all of its staff — an opportunity that’s all too rare for people with criminal records. Since its start in 2009, the Planting Justice team of landscapers has built over 450 edible gardens around the Bay Area.

Today, they employ about 35 full-time staff members, and just over half — including Coleman — are formerly incarcerated.

They've garnered some significant support, including plant sales from customers all over the country and $300,000 a year in small donations earned through street canvassing. They were even awarded a grant through The Kresge Foundation’s Fresh, Local, and Equitable initiative, known as “FreshLo,” for building healthy, inclusive communities.

FreshLo is all about supporting work that leverages creative, neighborhood-based food enterprises for community development, and these Bay Area gardens are brilliant examples.

The Planting Justice edible gardens grow in unlikely places — empty lots, schools, and concrete neighborhoods that don’t have fresh produce or green spaces for miles.

About 100 of the gardens they’ve built so far have been free or on a sliding scale, with fees depending on income, for people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford them.

A Planting Justice garden begins to grow at a juvenile detention center.

In spite of his inexperience, it turns out that Coleman is actually the perfect fit for this work. He’s from the very communities that Planting Justice serves and can relate to their struggles on a personal level.

"You try to instill a life skill within the youth, but what you don’t understand is you’ll receive one as well," he shares in the video for his 200th day out of prison.

Planting Justice has a success rate of nearly 100%. In nine years of existence, only one formerly incarcerated staff member has returned to jail.

What began as a simple landscaping service now includes education programs, farmer training, and a holistic re-entry program to help former prisoners transition back to a stable life.

And in 2017, after a lot of hard work and the help of over 900 donors, Planting Justice acquired a 2-acre plot of land to open up a nursery and farm. Rolling River Nursery provides landscaping services to the neighborhood, and ships plants, herbs, and trees all over the country. It’s located in deep East Oakland, California, in an area called Sobrante Park, which is known for having some of the highest rates of unemployment and crime in Oakland.

Sobrante Park is exactly the kind of place that needs green jobs like the ones Planting Justice creates, and Raders hopes that similar neighborhoods throughout the country can replicate their model.

Staff members at Rolling River Nursery.

In his final "Freedom Chronicles" video, Coleman celebrates his 365th day of freedom — and shows a total transformation.

This time, Coleman’s the one naming the plants, and he’s much more outgoing than he was when he started. His smile glows as he shows viewers his work, including the gardens he tends daily and a high school where he passes his skills on to youth.

"I feel overjoyed!" he exclaims about beating the odds by thriving in his first year out of prison.

It’s clear that he’s gained some skills, including newfound abilities in public speaking, youth education, and analyzing issues like economic and environmental injustice that affect the communities where he lives and works.

Coleman on his 365th day of freedom.

Coleman’s story shows how an opportunity to thrive after prison can help lift up a whole community.

Coleman was still working at Planting Justice at the time of this writing. He also enjoys spending time with his two kids, and he’s developed a passion for health and personal fitness.

On top of providing fresh food, vital skills, and an opportunity to escape the cycle of mass incarceration, the formerly incarcerated staff members get a chance to help lead these initiatives to transform their neighborhoods.

At the end of his last video, Coleman grins as he looks over the results of his hard work.

"Seasons pass, tomatoes are gone, the chard has popped back up like the spring," he says. "That’s resilience."

Photo courtesy of Yoplait
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When Benny Mendez asked his middle school P.E. students why they wanted to participate in STOKED—his new after school program where kids can learn to skateboard, snowboard, and surf—their answers surprised him.

I want to be able to finally see the beach, students wrote. I want to finally be able to see the snow.

Never having seen snow is understandable for Mendez's students, most who live in Inglewood, CA, just outside of Los Angeles. But never having been to the beach is surprising, since most of them only live 15-20 minutes from the ocean. Mendez discovered many of them don't even know how to swim.

"A lot of the kids shared that they just want to go on adventures," says Mendez. "They love nature, but...they just see it in pictures. They want to be out there."

Mendez is in his third year of teaching physical education at View Park K-8 school, one of seven Inner City Foundation Education schools in the Los Angeles area. While many of his students are athletically gifted, Mendez says, they often face challenges outside of school that limit their opportunities. Some of them live in neighborhoods where it's unsafe to leave their houses at certain times of day due to gang activity, and many students come to his P.E. class with no understanding of why learning about physical health is important.

"There's a lot going on at home [with my students]," says Mendez. "They're coming from either a single parent home, or foster care. There's a lot of trauma behind what's going on at home...that is out of our control."

Photo courtesy of Yoplait

What Mendez can control is what he gives his students when they're in his care, which is understanding, some structure, and the chance to try new things. Mendez wakes up at 4:00 a.m. most days and often doesn't get home until 9:00 p.m. as he works tirelessly to help kids thrive. Not only does he run after school programs, but he coaches youth soccer on the weekends as well. He also works closely with other teachers and guidance counselors at the school to build strong relationships with students, and even serves as a mentor to his former students who are now in high school.

Now Mendez is earning accolades far and wide for his efforts both in and out of the classroom, including a surprise award from Yoplait and Box Tops for Education.

Yoplait and Box Tops are partnering this school year to help students reach their fullest potential, which includes celebrating teachers and programs that support that mission. Yoplait is committed to providing experiences for kids and families to connect through play, so teaming up with Box Tops provided an opportunity to support programs like STOKED.

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Dr. David McPhee offers advice for talking to someone living in a different time in their head.

Few things are more difficult than watching a loved one's grip on reality slipping away. Dementia can be brutal for families and caregivers, and knowing how to handle the various stages can be tricky to figure out.

The Alzheimer's Association offers tips for communicating in the early, middle and late stages of the disease, as dementia manifests differently as the disease progresses. The Family Caregiver Alliance also offers advice for talking to someone with various forms and phases of dementia. Some communication tips deal with confusion, agitation and other challenging behaviors that can come along with losing one's memory, and those tips are incredibly important. But what about when the person is seemingly living in a different time, immersed in their memories of the past, unaware of what has happened since then?

Psychologist David McPhee shared some advice with a person on Quora who asked, "How do I answer my dad with dementia when he talks about his mom and dad being alive? Do I go along with it or tell him they have passed away?"

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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!