“A Well-Read Woman is a Dangerous Creature”
“The Most Dangerous thing in America is a Black man with a LIbrary Card”
Leadership doesn’t always require a superhero cape. Sometimes it comes from a page-turner…
My colleague, Ken, had a hell of an education. It took even longer than mine, and I have a BA, MA, Ph.D., and few certifications just for fun. Ken education came through 20 years in the carceral system, 9 of those in solitary confinement. He can teach us a thing or 20 about growth mindset.
How does one “get into” solitary confinement? In Ken’s case, it was for reading a book about the history of the Black Panthers. What stood out to me is that books about the Black Panthers are sometimes assigned in prestigious university classrooms. History is not dead factoids on paper. History is the expansion of our consciousness about who we are and what we have to offer. Some people received Bachelor’s degrees for reading a book about the most pressing social and civil conversations of our era. Ken got 9 years in a cell.
We need not encumber ourselves with diatribes on hypocrisy. Rehearsing what doesn’t work is exhausting and… doesn’t work. Don’t get me wrong: I am a proponent of seeing racism and the vital lessons we learn from mapping social dysfunction. Seeing how humans assign different meanings to the same action — in this case reading — teaches us about worldview, power, and its impacts. But instead of extending energy on (justified) indignance about hypocrisy, let’s ask how to redesign the whole system. That’s what Ken does.
Between Ken and I, it’s hard to tell who the bigger nerd is. We both have incurable appetites for learning, growth, and reinventing systems to hum like a ferrari shooting for the moon — when it comes to designing a sleek and effective inclusive economic future, big thinking is not optional. Yet it’s not the flashy moments that make a hero or heroine, it’s the “homecoming” after the adventure when we invite others to bend paradigms with us.
A brief interlude with numbers —
California spends $140K per year per incarcerated human
It costs up to $70k per year per person for prison prevention workforce programs
This would be a good place for a shameless plug for both cash and in-kind donations. Because this is some of the clearest math around. Even back-of-napkin calculations do the trick, it’s so straightforward. If you have means, consider sharing.
But what if the whole shebang ran itself on 5% “return” for program alumni making above $60k per year? The problem with donations is that it’s an infusion of cash with a huge power dynamic. Plus, it takes tons of energy and time to re-re-re ask people for money over time. If a program runs itself then all of its energy gets to self-reinvest. Effective programs have narratives like “new paradigm leaders” rather than “please give us money to try to do good”.
And the same goes for humans. People who have spent time in prison need human-centered curricula and socialization… plus the chance to reinvent one’s self-image from “employee,” “incarcerated,” and “learner” to “visionary,” “liberated,” and “leader.”
Power isn’t just about money, it’s the ability to connect the dots and to see how institutions and humans can mutually co-create healthy social structures. It’s why leadership development, housing access, and skills training might seem like it’s “for” people… until we zoom out and realize that being for people also means being for the greater good.
I have no doubt that someday I’ll be reading Ken’s book. He hasn’t written it yet, but I have every faith he will. And I’ll share it with some of the other executives I work with. Because we all deserve to learn and be inspired — not be incarcerated — for new paradigm thinking.