These women were in prison. Thanks to an extraordinary program, they're now entrepreneurs.

When she decided she wanted to start her own business, Rebecca 'Cafe' Brown was in the unlikeliest place — prison.

She was partway through a five-year sentence for domestic violence-related charges when she realized that something had to change in her life.

Due to a particularly traumatic childhood, Brown found herself in abusive relationships, and those abusive relationships led to incarceration. Though prison wasn't pleasant, she credits it with helping her come to terms with her history.


It's also where she made an important decision: “I didn't want to come out the same way I went in," she says. “This was a wake-up call."

Two years before she was released, Brown heard about a program called Ladies Empowerment & Action Program (LEAP) which teaches incarcerated women the skills they'll need to succeed once they're out of prison.

She believed it would help her get on the right path.

Women apply for LEAP when they are at other facilities in Florida, and if they are accepted, are transferred to Homestead, a multi-security facility.

At Homestead, the women in the program take part in classes like “Thinking for Change," where they learn how to process complex emotions in healthy ways. They're also partnered with mentors who help them learn time management, how to create business plans, and how to balance wants and needs once they're living on their own.

But the program offered Brown something even more important than that. For the first time in a long time, she felt hopeful.

LEAP helped Brown become part of a community, and that community has helped her achieve a level of success she never imagined possible.

“Now, I care about people," she says. That's why she's always promoting the program to people around her.

She's even joined LEAP's board and spends a great deal of time at Dragonfly Thrift Boutique, LEAP's storefront.

Dragonfly provides formerly incarcerated women a launching pad to a new career. It gives them a chance to share their stories, learn valuable skills, and work in an environment that's safe and supportive — often for the first time in their lives.

“We've got a lady," Brown says, "that just got out of prison and she's an amazing young lady. And she said to us recently, 'Nobody has ever told me that I can do something.' Everybody has always told her what she couldn't do."

Essentially, LEAP allows women to grow more confident and empowered in the business world before going out on their own.

As a result, the business Brown dreamed up in prison is now becoming a reality.

Brown now works as a chef at Camillus House, a homeless shelter. She's also recently saved up enough to start her own business — Liberty Soaps, which are sold at Dragonfly.

“The theme is to liberate your soul," Brown says, “Liberate your skin and you liberate your soul. We also liberate the women coming out of prison by donating proceeds from the sale of the soap. So it's a cause."

“It's like the Dragonfly Thrift. You're not just buying a bar of soap. You're not just buying a pair of pants. You're actually helping another person and that's powerful."

If there's any other business that Brown would give some credit for helping her get on her feet, it's Capital One. LEAP does a lot of events at the Capital Oné Cafe in Coral Gables, which is near LEAP's offices.

At the Café, Brown participates in workshops that enable her to network with other people in the area, allowing her to expand her business and get creative with her ideas. Brown says the workshops help her make sure that no ideas fall by the wayside.

Brown's not the only one on the road to success. After being incarcerated in almost every prison in Florida, Rebecca McLemore is also turning her life around.

Before McLemore joined LEAP, she had 14 felonies on her record, and spent years in prison. "I had a problem with pain pills," she says. "That's my addiction."

She didn't know if she'd ever get another chance at a better life.

But in December 2016, McLemore learned about LEAP from a woman who'd completed it. In her journal, McLemore remembers writing, "God, whatever the LEAP program is, I want it."

McLemore says being chosen for LEAP "was the second time God had ever answered one of my prayers."

In the six months that McLemore has been out of prison, she's been working at Dragonfly Thrift Boutique, and recently saved up enough money to buy a car.

Recently, she became Dragonfly's permanent assistant manager. "That's supposed to be a temporary position," she laughs, "but the board members are saying, 'we don't want to lose you.' I decided this is where my heart is."

LEAP has made McLemore more confident. She's trying new things and learning more about herself. She's starting her own business as well.

When McLemore was incarcerated in 2011, she was chosen to be part of a dog-training program in prison. Since then, she's discovered that she's a natural, able to work with dogs that even pros have problems with. So aside from her work with LEAP and her position at Dragonfly, McLemore has also started offering dog obedience training.

"My first client actually is a police officer," notes McLemore. "For a police officer to trust me is amazing."

"From going where I was to this right here, it's been life-changing."

Currently, McLemore is looking to expand her business — LEAP even helped her with business cards — and loving herself more. For someone who's experienced a lifetime of trauma, it's hard for McLemore to believe that she deserves the love and respect she now has. But as she becomes more and more successful, her opinion of herself is changing.

This personalized support is one of the reasons that LEAP is so successful. It's no surprise the program's lowering recidivism rates with every graduating class.

And LEAP is only growing. However, it's retaining its original mission: women who have been incarcerated deserve more, can do more, and can achieve great success.

"We really want more for our graduates than to just not go back to prison," says Mahlia Lindquist, LEAP's Executive Director. "There's more to life than that. We want them to be able to support their families and to be part of the community."

Lindquist, a former prosecutor who spends her time between Miami and Boulder, CO, is grateful for Capital One, whose support was a result of unexpected events.

One day, she'd stopped in at a Capital One Café in Boulder for coffee, started asking a Capital One Ambassador questions, and just a few weeks later, the financial organization was designing a partnership with and providing a grant to support LEAP's mission.

"Since then, they've supported us financially but they're also very hands on," explains Lindquist. "They have some of their [South Florida] Ambassadors come every single Thursday. They have hosted events for us at the store. We've gotten two or three of [their Ambassadors in Miami] recently cleared to actually go into the prison to teach financial literacy."

"We were moved by the mission of LEAP and its alignment with Capital One's Future Edge initiative, focused on equipping people with skills to succeed in today's economy," says Nancy Lambert, Community Engagement lead at Capital One. "Listening to Mahlia's passion for helping these women, and building connections with our associates in South Florida has been gratifying."

The work that LEAP does, Lindquist says, is invaluable.

What's even more priceless, however, is the hope that LEAP has brought to so many of its participants.

"You have to put in the work," Rebecca McLemore says. "You have to put in the sweat. You have to put in the effort and have to throw all your fears away and just say, 'I'm all in.' If you do that, the results will be life-changing."

Future Edge




Tyler Perry says instead of fighting for a seat at the table, build your own

There's a lot to be said for paving your own path, and Tyler Perry said it all when he accepted the Ultimate Icon Award at the BET Awards. Perry received his award for making movies that were, Perry feels, subconsciously about "wanting her [his mother] to know that she was worthy—wanting black women to know you're worthy, you're special, you're powerful, you're amazing." Perry's inspirational acceptance speech has enough motivation to get you going for years. He spoke to the power of helping others while simultaneously carving out your own destiny.

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Inclusivity

Anyone who's done yard work on a hot day can tell you that it can be just as good of a workout as playing a team sport.

You're down on your knees pulling weeds, up on a ladder lopping off errant tree branches, and pushing a heavy lawnmower that never seems to start on the first try.

Unfortunately, because lawn work is so physically intense and not everyone can afford a gardner, the elderly and disabled sometimes have to let their lawns and backyards grow wild.

An alternative learning center in Dubuque, Iowa is helping its kids stay physically fit while helping out their community with a new program that gives them high school PE credit for doing yard work for the elderly and disabled.

The Alternative Learning Center is for high school juniors and seniors who are at risk of dropping out of school.
As part of the program, the teens visit homes of the elderly and disabled and help out by raking leaves, pulling weeds, cutting grass, and cleaning gutters.



Teacher Tim Hitzler created the program because it helps the students get involved in the community while helping those who need it most.

"The students aren't typically too excited at the beginning but once they get involved and start doing the yard work they become more motivated," Hitzler told KWWL. "What they really like is A: helping people. They really like giving back to people and meeting the person."

Nick Colsn, a 17-year-old student at the learning center, told NPR that the program allows him to meet people he wouldn't have otherwise. "I'm more of like go-to-school-go-to-work-home-repeat kind of guy," he said. "So to me, I probably would not have met any of these people."

The end-of-year program has been so successful, Hitzler hopes to expand it next year. "You know, in education, a lot of times, there's so many different gimmicks and curriculum packages you can buy and things like that," he told NPR. "And something like this all you need is a few garden tools. You know, I mean, it just makes sense. It's so simple. And it works."

Recommended

If you're a white supremacist, I imagine drinking beer (or any other alcoholic beverage) is a nice way to relax and tune out the fact that you're a terrible person who's helping set human progress back at a rate the bubonic plague would be proud of. But for some self-professed white supremacists, it wasn't quite so easy on a June weekend in Germany.

According to Newsweek, the hundreds of neo-nazis who flocked to the "Shield and Sword Festival" in Ostritz found themselves uncomfortably dry when a court imposed a liquor ban at their gathering of hateful bigots who also like to listen to awful music together. The ban's aim was to prevent any violence that might erupt (you know it would...) and the police confiscated more than a thousand gallons of alcohol from those attending the weekend-long event. They even posted pictures on Twitter of the alcohol they'd removed from participants.



But that's only half the story.

Residents of the town of Ostritz, who've had to deal with the bigots before (they threw the same festival last year on Hitler's birthday), knew that the ban wouldn't stop the festival-goers from trying to obtain more alcohol while in town. So the townspeople got together a week before the festival and devised a plan which would truly make the white supremacists focus on how terrible neo-nazi music is: They bought up the entire town's beer supply.

"We wanted to dry the Nazis out," Georg Salditt, a local activist, told reporters. "We thought, if an alcohol ban is coming, we'll empty the shelves at the Penny [supermarket]."

"For us it's important to send the message from Ostritz that there are people here who won't tolerate this, who say 'we have different values here, we're setting an example..." an unidentified local woman told ZDF Television.

At the same time the festival was going on, residents also staged two counter-protests and put on a "Peace Festival" to drive home the point that bigotry wasn't welcome. If the festival is held in the same town again next year, ticket-buyers should be aware that Ostritz isn't playing around when it says that white supremacists aren't welcome.

There's some good news, too: Aside from the fact that residents aren't afraid to send the message that they're intolerant of intolerance, attendance to the far-right music festival has drastically decreased in the past year. In 2018, 1,200 people attended, according to the BBC. This year? Approximately 500-600. Here's hoping the festival won't have a return engagement next year.

Culture

I sent both of my children on a bus on Tuesday. I knew where they were going.

The morning started rainy, buggy, and too early. To be fair, it always feels too early.

My husband and I waved from across the street as the buses pulled away, our kids, along with a hundred or so others, behind tinted glass. We waved like we were excited. Our son was likely not looking. Our daughter may have been, but she also could have not been paying attention until the bus started into motion. We won't know for sure if she saw us waving until she returns.

Returns.

Every day when I leave the house, I expect to return.

That's the default.

It's so much the default that realizing it is actually stunning. We run our lives as though anything else other than what's in our head, our routine, our privilege, is what will take place. There's that little truism that a worrier shines like a pebble in the hand: you're more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash. Yet we are much more likely to be worried about flying because it is out of our routine. Being out of your routine awakens you to the precariousness we completely shut out in our day-to-day lives.

I put my children on a bus. My oldest will be gone four weeks, my youngest, two.

What should be normal: sending your kids to sleep away camp. What feels wholly unnatural: sending your Jewish kids to a Jewish sleep away camp in the world we're living in now. Even writing those words: JEWISH SLEEP AWAY CAMP make my fingers seize at the knuckles. I don't want you to know there are such things as Jewish sleep away camps. Even having others know that they exist feels like a danger.

I'm used to my feelings and my instincts seeming like hyperbole to others. I'm emotional. I'm tuned in. I'm hyperreactive. I have a hair trigger. I have anxiety and depression.

I also come from a genetic and cultural history of people who ended up in this country because we were hunted and pursued and needed to escape. Over and over and over again. The cells that have come to build the tissues and structures of my body and my brain have been organized by UNSAFETY.

In "normal" suburban upper-class life, this can be a huge detriment. A handicap. It can manifest in the most unhelpful and frankly, startlingly blind ways. I've spent so much of my life reacting and feeling and then trying to understand what makes me tick. I've spent so much time learning to train and control and ignore and channel.

I wasn't made for easy times. I was made for survival. I was made, like an animal, to intuit danger and get the hell out, fast. I was made in the image of fight or flight. I do both better than most people. It's not something I brag about, because it doesn't feel like a good thing most of the time.

I put my kids on a bus to Jewish sleep away camp. Because when my husband and I got married (I'm Jewish, he's not), our pact was this: if our children live in a world where historically they could be targeted and threatened because of their Jewishness (regardless of their actual observance of religion or customs), they deserved to know that being a Jew is not negative. We should give them every opportunity to be proud and happy about their Jewishness. Their belonging should help them to feel good about themselves and the world. It should help them seek connection and understanding of the human condition. They should know songs. They should sing full-throated. They should feel comfort in our traditions when they are useful to them, but never feel threatened or unnecessarily constrained by them.

Research funded by Jewish institutions and communities suggests that the number one way to help ground kids in their Jewish identity is to send them to Jewish sleep away camp. It's the glue.

And yet.

I put my kids on a bus to Jewish sleep away camp at a time when our government is putting migrant children into concentration camps.

I bought all the supplies on the list. I washed and labeled and sorted and packed. I zipped up those bags to accompany my children. And then I dropped my children off and couldn't see if they were waving back as the buses drove away.

Of course, the camp I'm sending them to has a stellar reputation. Every day they post updates on a special web site, along with hundreds of pictures of the kids in action. I send emails to the kids which are printed out and given to them. I send packages with stickers and trading cards and all sorts of goofiness so that they know they are loved.

Migrants from central America have made their way to our border with just what they could carry. (My children's bags were so heavy that neither of them could carry them. Likely at least 1/4 of what I sent will come back unused or untouched.) Migrants are following the rules of asylum seeking. They are fleeing violence and intimidation and abuse far greater than I will allow myself to imagine. They are separated from their children by a government that has no business doing so.

I, an upper-class white woman, expect my voice to be heard. I expect to be able to vote and call and hold my elected officials accountable. I know what to say to get my point across. I've given money to candidates and I know how to threaten that support in the future. I also have the privilege of time and energy with which to do it. My underlying expectation is that there are very few problems that I don't have some redress for.

Asylum-seekers, in good faith, and following the rules, have nothing left to lose. They are coming here seeking something less life-threatening than what they're fleeing. They're seeking some good will. Or, at the very least, safety. Or relative safety.

I put my children on a bus to Jewish sleep away camp knowing that in my daughter's cabin of 8 girls, there are 4 young adult counselors who are there to make sure that she's safe, happy, and her needs are being met.

I also know that last year, an asshole white supremacist antisemite decided to go to a synagogue on shabbat, the Jewish sabbath, and turn it into a bloodbath. Well before that ever happened, well before the era of mass shootings and Columbine, Jewish institutions like synagogues and preschools and JCCs have needed extra surveillance. We've had police guard our religious services and social gatherings. Even (and perhaps especially) seeking out Jewish belonging, Jewish joy, has always been a reckoning with danger and threat.

After I sent my children on that bus—the one I knew where it was going—the one where I'd shoveled their overpacked duffle bags into the bowels of the bus—I came home to a house strewn with the remnants from packing. Laundry bins with unneeded t-shirts and shorts and single socks. The cat—he normally comes to greet me when he hears the garage door open—was nowhere to be seen. I called for him. He still did not come. I came upstairs and looked in my son's room. No cat. I looked in my daughter's room—with its orange and pink somewhat darkened by the rainy skies—and there he was, tucked into a furry circle in an eddy of her duvet. I laid down next to him and lost control. The control I never really had.

Twitter this week has erupted in a jagged back-and-forth between politicians and pundits and opinion-havers about whether or not it is appropriate to call the migrant detention centers run by ICE and our government "concentration camps." I, and most other Jews I follow and know, agree they should be called exactly what they are.

Non-Jews (and, to be fair, some Jews as well), like to tiptoe around the Holocaust and any words or imagery which may in any way encroach upon the historical accuracy or singular legacy of that horrible period. To a degree, I might agree when the comparisons are used flippantly or improperly.

But the legacy of the Holocaust, we are all reminded, is NEVER AGAIN. And NEVER AGAIN means that we don't wait until something worse happens. What's happening RIGHT NOW in the United States shares that DNA.

In the same way I understood or had an inkling in my bones that the election might go a way I didn't want it to, I know this same thing: we are not ok. This is not just the start. This is halfway down the road to the place where we lose not just perceived control, but real control. For all the current administration's lies and purposeful incapabilities, know this: the cruelty that comes out of the mouth of our president and those who continue to support him in the government and in the populace is not a lie. It is predictive. They're telling us in advance what they intend to do. And then they are doing it.

In a world where I still have the ability to put my daughter and son on a bus with all their toiletries and know that they will likely arrive at their destination, I also know that our government argued for the legal right to deny soap and toothbrushes to migrant children. When anyone's children are denied such basics—human basics—no one is safe.

I know it will sound like hyperbole. I know that those who so easily dismissed my concerns early on—before this administration even took office—will still attempt to dismiss my warnings now. But do so at your own peril.

I was not built for normal times. I was built for times like these. And I haven't been wrong yet.

This post originally appeared on Outside Voice. You can read it here.

Inclusivity