Last month a woman named Katie Ford emailed me saying she wanted to help promote a screening of The Goddess Project documentary in Austin, Texas. She also mentioned that her calling in life is helping incarcerated women write and share their stories. I instantly recalled listening to an episode of the Creative Mornings podcast and being moved to tears while hearing a woman share a similar story. I looked up Katie's name and sure enough it was her!
I responded to Katie saying I had heard her story and I was inspired by the work she was doing. I told her that I would love to show The Goddess Project to women in prisons.
She happened to have a meeting scheduled with the Warden at Lockhart Correctional Facility the next day and said she would ask him if we could screen the film for the women there. It has always been a dream of mine to share this movie with people from all walks of life, but having the opportunity to show this inside of a prison was beyond what I thought was even possible.
Had I not connected with Katie serendipitously through the power of the Internet, it probably would have been really difficult to get this documentary behind bars. To my surprise, Warden Frawner was thrilled about our idea and they set the date for the day before the Austin premiere of the film so that I could try and make it out to Texas for both.
Being an entrepreneurial artist on a budget, I second-guessed whether I should make the trip to Austin, but by the grace of a few sweet souls I was gifted a flight from L.A. to A.T.X. and a couple nights in a cozy little AirBnb. The universe was conspiring to help me get to Texas and I knew that this was a rare opportunity so I better take the leap!
While soaring above the clouds, I reread the clearance paperwork for the prison and noticed a line that said “If you are taken hostage, we will not barter for your release.” I was already feeling a little nervous about visiting a prison for the first time but I took a deep breath and settled into this possibility.
When I arrived in Austin, Katie picked me up and we went to dinner and got to know each other. I had so many questions for her considering I had no idea what to expect and my only perception of a women's prison was through watching Orange Is The New Black. She told me that she’s been volunteering at Lockhart Correctional Facility through the organization Truth Be Told for the past 7 years, and that leading and participating in writing workshops with the prisoners there helped her discover her true self. (see video below)
She explained how the prison was minimum security and that most of the inmates there would be getting out within the next two years. I was ecstatic to hear that they were so close to regaining their freedom, and couldn’t wait to see how they reacted to the film!
The next morning, Katie picked me up and we headed out to the prison with Truth Be Told’s co-founder, Carol Waid. As I drove with Carol she told me her story of overcoming an abusive relationship and addiction, to alcohol to becoming empowered and sharing her story to help women in prison for the past 17 years. She said she could relate with the incarcerated women more than people out in the free world because they had been through hard times too and were less judgmental. She felt like she could be herself around them and that made me eager to meet them.
When we arrived at the prison, I was introduced to Warden Frawner. He was a Texan with a big smile and was very excited about hosting a screening. As we checked in to get our volunteer badges, visitation was happening and I watched women exchanging stories, laughing and enjoying snacks with their loved ones.
We went through the metal detector and were patted down before entering. I have to say, I was immediately surprised by the kindness of the staff and the colorfulness of the facility. As we walked to the gymnasium, there were inspiring murals painted throughout the hallways. It was beautiful and not at all what I expected prison to look like!
Katie and Carol explained that it wasn’t always like this. They said that the prison used to be very stark, but the Warden and the company he works for completely transformed the environment.
We started to unpack the equipment and a group of prisoners came in to help us. They were the Chaplain’s Crew and we’re skilled in setting up for events, audio engineering and the PA system. As the women worked together to line up chairs, extension cords and speakers, we rolled down the screen and the movie was ready to begin in a matter of minutes.
Katie had spread the word about the screening by putting up posters around the prison the week before. About 150 women showed up for the movie and lined up outside of the gym waiting to be seated. Wearing their purple vests, the Chaplain's crew transformed into ushers and started filing the women into the rows. Their curious eyes and smiling faces confirmed that on this day, January 8, 2017, this was exactly where I needed to be.
Katie introduced me to the audience and I shared my story of dreaming of being an artist and activist and wanting to help women. I told them that I was 21 when I started working on this project and had never done anything like this before. That it all started with an idea, and how through the internet and sharing our story, Sara and I were able to find people who believed in our mission and donated time and resources to make the film possible.
When the movie started playing we sat down in the back and watched as their eyes were glued to the screen. They laughed, cried, cheered and clapped, and after the film ended they even gave myself, Katie and Warden Frawner individual standing ovations! Many of them had been taking notes during the film, and when Katie announced we were going to have a Q&A, hands shot up all over the audience with women eager to share their thoughts.
The microphone cord was short so each woman came up to the front of the room to introduce herself and ask her question. The first, a woman in her 30’s with braids, read from a piece of paper and said that the film made her realize how important it is for the women at Lockhart to support one another instead of cutting each other down. She suggested they start a sisterhood group to keep this conversation going.
Then, a woman in her late fifties stood up and walked over with her cane. She announced to the audience that she’s going to be free in a couple of months and is planning on having hip surgery. She imagined just having to lay low to avoid crime, but now that she saw The Goddess Project she realized it is not too late to go back to school and make something of herself. She said she was inspired by my mother's story, who after years of raising children and working from home as a hairdresser to support us, decided she wanted to go back to school in her 50’s to learn how to become a professional baker.
Another woman walked up with a notebook and asked what Nora’s last name was from the film. She had a lanyard with a picture of her daughter around her neck who looked almost identical to the pictures of Noramay Cadena's daughter in The Goddess Project. Nora was a teen mom who packed up her life and moved across the country with her one year old daughter to attend MIT and become an engineer. It brought tears to my eyes to see how clearly she related to Nora’s story and was inspired to do well for her daughter, just as Nora did in the film.
Next, a woman stood up and said that Jesus Christ was her lord and savior, and that she believed I was sent there to open a gate for all of the prisoners to dream again by showing them this film. A number of other women raised their hands to simply say thank you for sharing other people's experiences of trauma and abuse, because now they feel less alone with the painful things they had been through.
After about 30 minutes of questions, our time was almost up and there were still women all over the audience with their hands in the air. After seeing the joy, hope and enthusiasm on all of their faces I could have easily stood there for the rest of the day listening to their reactions and hearing their stories. Unfortunately we had to pack up, but as soon as we announced that the event was over, many of the women formed a line to come up and talk to me personally.
Some of them gave me hugs, some wanted to look me in the eyes to say thank you, and some even asked for my signature in their notebooks. A couple of them told me what led them to prison and what they dream of doing when they get out. One woman even said that she saw herself (her adventurous and curious spirit) in me. She said “I was just adventurous in all of the wrong ways before, and now you’ve inspired me to use my curiosity to do good in the world.”
Each of their stories warmed my heart, and it was mind-blowing to see the variety of women of all different ages, faiths and backgrounds that were inspired by the film. After many tears, giggles and connections, the equipment was finally packed up and we headed out of the prison. As we walked out through the halls, the Warden proudly stopped every so often to show off the murals that the women had painted.
He was particularly proud of a mural of Rosie the Riveter, who appears in multiple stories in The Goddess Project. This picture even became the Prison's empowered emblem with the slogan "Lockhart Ladies, We Can Do It!"
After packing up the car, Katie, Carol and I praised the Warden for his willingness to show the film and his positive influence on the inmates. With a grin from ear to ear, he handed me a Lockhart Ladies mug with a patch in it and thanked me for coming. "This film needs to be seen in more prisons," he said. I smiled and nodded, "Can you help me spread the word to other Wardens? I'm ready whenever they are."
That night, as I lay in a bed in awe of the magic of the day, I felt so grateful for all of the women who shared their stories with us and for everyone who has supported this project along the way.
After so many years in the making, it was such an incredible gift to be able to reach a group of women that truly needed this inspiration, and to have felt so seen and heard by them in return. Regardless of our pasts, we all deserve a chance at a brighter future, and sometimes it helps to be reminded that each and every one of us have gifts to contribute to this world. So many of these women came from hard places and have never had someone telling them, "You can do it!"
In less than two and a half hours, watching The Goddess Project and sharing our stories helped the women at Lockhart Prison regain hope in themselves and faith that they could also contribute something positive to this world by pursuing what they love. It's experiences like this that remind me how impactful art can be, for both the artist and the audience. Screening this documentary for these incarcerated women ignited a fire in me to keep sharing stories to help empower people and communities around the globe.
Others see their possibilities in your reality!
- Holli Rae
*The next day at Regal Cinema's Arbor for the Austin Premiere of the film! Read writer Katie Ford's heart-warming interpretation of both days here!