Defy Ventures Nebraska
Tecumseh State Correctional Institution Kick-Off Event
Documentary Photographers in Nebraska
By McKenzie Hildreth Ring
To skip to the images...click here...but you'll want to read this...
Once I went to prison...
On Tuesday, I went to a maximum security prison. Nerves in tow, I surrendered my ID and personal belongings, slid my camera gear down the security belt, and met with the team of Defy Ventures. It was their program Kick Off Event in the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, and I was there to document it. Nervous, yes...but I wouldn’t say I was necessarily scared. I didn’t really know what I had gotten myself into...but I was committed and all in.
It’s hard for me to explain my day. In nearly every other situation, I could come out of documenting a day and say, “It was great! Everyone was so nice, welcoming, gracious, kind, and helpful!” And nobody would bat an eye at it. But when you add that I was in a room full of incarcerated men in a max-security prison that’s known for its bad reputation...you get a few looks. Or a lot of looks. But the statement still stands true. It WAS great. Everyone was SO incredibly nice...and welcoming...gracious, kind, and helpful. I never felt unsafe. Dare I say that all of these men were more well-behaved than a few groomsmen I’ve had in the last 8 years? I digress…
I am curious at heart. I always have been. And truthfully, I can thank my Fearless and Foundation Family for instilling a deeper curiosity with the people I surround myself with. My desire to know a person's story and tell it runs deep. Not to be confused with nosiness...but with genuine ears just to understand a person...who they are and why they are who they are. Because I want the same for myself. Tuesday, I was curious. A thousand times over. Not to know why these men were here, but to understand why they were taking the steps to be leaders...to make a change through Defy Ventures.
Defy Ventures is an INCREDIBLE non-profit that teaches leadership and entrepreneurship skills to the incarcerated. Their program encourages finding common ground. Not just finding common ground with the men “on the inside”. But the men “on the inside” finding common ground with the volunteers “on the outside”. Exercises were done throughout the day that required honesty, transparency, empathy, and an open mind on both parts. Now known as EITs (Entrepreneurs-in-Training), the men were encouraged and guided to start developing a plan for their life to become successful and legal entrepreneurs.
I think what I loved the most about Defy, their program, and their people is that, for the lack of a better term, they cut the bulls*&%. They’re not promising the world to men who, in reality, may never get out. But they’re giving them HOPE and the skills to make their lives better no matter what their circumstances might be. That even if they can’t make a difference to the outside world, they have the unique opportunity to create community and change the culture of where they are. It’s no secret that the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution has been in the public eye. But it’s incredibly encouraging that these men have the desire to change its culture for the good...and that they were dedicated to do it.
Defy Ventures encourages its EITs to focus on their talents and interests. Be it to start a legal and successful business when they’re released, or simply to help out their internal community become a better place. If they’re fluent in a second language, teach someone who isn’t. If they’re great at fitness, help someone else become great at fitness. If they know a trade, work in the trades. Defy and it’s volunteers encourages these men to dream up their ideas and execute them. It was inspiring to listen to them ask the volunteers for genuine advice and encouragement...and inspiring to hear the volunteers share their experiences. At one point I heard a man say that for the first time in his life he felt like someone took interest in him. For the first time in his life he felt hope. For the first time in his life, someone took time to listen to him. And my heart crumbled. I can’t imagine not having that feeling and support growing up.
It’s easy for us to look at the people who committed some of the most horrible crimes and label them as the “unfixable”...the “unworthy”. But I tell you what...I can’t imagine a world where EVERY single person is purely defined by the absolute worst thing they’ve ever done. I think if we all paused and thought about that, we’d remain a lot quieter in our judgements. We all have a “rap sheet”. While their past actions are inexcusable and made by choice, everyone still deserves hope and a chance to move forward in the right direction. We all do. We all deserve to feel as though our dreams have value. Some of these men came into this institution as kids...teenagers...because they didn’t have the guidance to do good. They hadn’t seen love or compassion, ever. Defy Ventures does this. They’re encouraging these men to change the legacy they leave. As Rihanna would say, “We found love in a hopeless place.”
I think every day we live and every experience we have changes us. Tuesday changed me. Tuesday had me telling the story of the genuinely delicate moments of the harshest-labeled men in Nebraska. They weren’t murderers or thieves...they were woodworkers, chefs, musicians, roofers, dads, sons, uncles. I learned more about myself and our existence by 65 max-security incarcerated men than I have by nearly anyone in my 33 years. I learned profound things about forgiveness, empathy (not pity), giving value to people, and that ALL people can do good.
My favorite moment of the day was watching EIT, Derrick, read his “Sweet Sheet”. A sheet full of encouraging words from other EITs and volunteers. I watched Derrick’s eyes float across the page...taking in the words. He closed his eyes, put his head down, and absorbed the words. I watched his straight face slowly change to a smile. He FELT the words. I could feel his genuine hope from across the room. That little moment he had by himself taught me a lot and will be something I replay over and over in my mind for years to come.
What else did I learn?
I learned that when you feel joy, show it. These men sure do. It’s contagious. Do not be shy in your joy.
I learned that these men were excited to have their photos taken. These photos will go to their families and they were over-the-moon for them to be shared with them. If you only knew how many times a day I hear “I hate being in photos”. Be excited to be in them, because they’re for your family later in life. They’re part of your family's history, like it or not.
I learned that I need better ice-breaker questions than “where are you from” and “what do you do for a living?” I learned that, in reality, those are such empty questions.
I learned that if I’m ever asked if I like rap music, I sure as hell better know the name of the rappers I like. :)
Lastly, I learned that I have a lot more in common with a room full of men who made bad choices than I ever would have imagined.
Defy Ventures...thank you. Thank you for being the good. Thank you for changing the lives of these people. And thank you for changing mine.
If you or someone you know would like to hear more about Defy Ventures or to volunteer, please visit their website at www.defyventures.org.