Defy Ventures | Nebraska Correctional Center for Women

Documenting the Defy Ventures Program Kickoff

Nebraska Documentary Photographer

In February I was blessed with the opportunity to document the Defy Ventures Program Kickoff Event at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women in York, Nebraska.  This is the third women’s facility in the nation that Defy Ventures has gotten its program into. It was an experience I’ll cherish in my heart forever.

(Take me straight to the photos.)

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a few weeks now, but have been caught up in this circle of having so much to say that I couldn’t get any words out. My heart is so abundantly full that it’s choked me up frequently since I spent the day there.

Now, this is actually the 8th event I’ve photographed since June of 2017 with Defy (which also means I have a LOT to catch you up on later). When I said “yes” to photographing my first event with them in the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, I was anxious about it, I have to admit.  I got a lot of questions from peers, family, and loved ones about why I would voluntarily enter a maximum security prison.  But I KNEW I needed to be there. My heart was being pulled there.

Real talk...in 2017 I made the conscious decision to start saying “yes” to things that made me uncomfortable (which was becoming nearly everything). Not many people know that. It was an actual decision I had to make to get myself out of a mental place that was pretty quiet and lonely.

I know a lot of people that know me will think this sounds absolutely ridiculous, because I’ve always been an outgoing person to them.  However, as we all know, what we see on social platforms is just scratching the surface layer of a person's life. I’ll get more into that another time, but somehow, deep down, I knew I needed to say yes to this. So I did, and it’s affected me deeply.

When I arrived in York, Nebraska at the Women’s Facility I had no idea what to expect. And to be completely transparent, I was more nervous to enter the women’s facility, than any other facility I’ve been in. Let me assure you, I’ve always felt 100% safe and welcomed in every facility I’ve been in. I was just in my own head about this one.

It was the dreariest day...the prison was small, quiet, and literally in the middle of a cornfield. I met the Defy and prison staff at the entrance and went through my now normal routine of equipment inventory, guest list confirmation, and pat down.

We were escorted to the tiny chapel on the grounds where we would be setting up for the day.  The chaplan escorting us said, “They’ve been waiting for you guys to come here…” I had no idea what the weight of those words would actually be.

We walked into the chapel with roughly 30-35 women, all ready to learn about Defy Ventures. Two kind women, Laurie and Chelsy, helped me set up my step-and-repeat for the day. As we were setting up, a woman came up to me and had tears in her eyes.  She shook my hand with both of hers and said, “I’m Amanda. You’ve photographed my son. He just graduated from Defy in Tecumseh and has been writing me letters all about this program. His name is Russell. Defy changed his life.” Tears were streaming down her face. I was covered in goosebumps.

I knew exactly who Russell was. Russell has always been a stand out EIT (Entrepreneur in Training). FULL of life, kind, helpful, talented beyond measure, and quite possibly one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met. He was also a Voice of Defy. At the Tecumseh graduation he performed a rap and spoken word that left me full of tears as I hid behind my camera.

These are just a few words of his that have stuck with me...

You don’t know what I’ve been through. You don’t know what I lived through.
If I spill my guts will you spill yours?
I just want to feel your breath. You raise the hairs up on my neck.
I just want another chance at freedom.
You don’t know what I’ve been through. You don’t know what I’ve lived through.
When I messed up you had me singled out.
I’d die for you. I’d cry for you. I’d thrive for you. I’d survive for you.
I took my disguise down for you.
So I step up and Defy for you.
— Russel
 Tecumseh, Nebraska EIT performs his spoken word and rap in his graduation cap and gown before being presented with his Baylor University program completion certificate.

Tecumseh, Nebraska EIT performs his spoken word and rap in his graduation cap and gown before being presented with his Baylor University program completion certificate.

Amanda proceeded to tell me that her son has been writing her letters all about Defy back when he started the program in June. Telling her, “I wish you could get Defy there, mom...you guys need to get Defy.”

When Amanda caught wind of the program actually making its way to their facility, she became Defy’s own ambassador and we didn’t even know it. Amanda had talked to nearly everyone in the facility to get them into the chapel that day. Through her own son’s success story, she was so excited to submerge her heart into this program and bring 30+ women with her.

The morning started out with the Defy staff giving the women the history of the program, what they do, and why they do it. Sharing success stories of their EIT’s inside their facilities and outside on the streets, giving them a solid representation of what this program can and will do for them as EIT’s.

One of my favorite moments of a Defy event is when the volunteers arrive for the day. Once the EIT’s get settled into what they’re about to experience they form a tunnel of cheers, hoops and hollers. The volunteers enter with high fives as if they’re headed into a state championship pep rally.

Once they arrive, the EIT’s and volunteers only have a few minutes to find something in common with each other.  Immediately finding common ground. They’re also challenged to go beyond the easy questions:
Are you from Nebraska?
Do you like music?
Do you like sports?
Etc.

I LOVE this process. Not only is it great in the setting we’re in, but for ANYONE’s social skills in general. This exercise has really made me think about how many boring and mundane starter conversations I’ve had with people I’ve just met. This exercise has challenged ME to become a more interesting, noteworthy, and deeper person from the start.

Throughout the program kickoff, Defy guides the EIT’s through a series of exercises designed to tear down emotional walls, build quality connections, and develop common ground with each other.

They stress often, “How would you feel if you were only known by the worst thing you’ve ever done.” This hits me hard every time. It’s not about having pity...it’s about empathy, understanding, and second chances.  And sometimes, third chances or more.

It’s about allowing yourself to have a second chance. I think many people, very much myself included, put themselves in their own purgatory of sorts. Being so swallowed up by the mistakes they’ve made that they never believe they deserve a second chance. Defy strengthens you to put the past to rest and change your today.

Once the walls are broken down and the women and volunteers are connected, Defy spends time easing the EIT’s into the entrepreneurship training they’ll begin. The EIT’s sit down with each volunteer to discuss their talents and possible business ideas. They start to learn how to communicate with future employers and how to conquer the dreaded interview question, “Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?” (Honestly, I wish this could be a pre-employment course everyone takes.) This is only a little piece of the HUGE puzzle they’re building together.

I can never speak highly enough of the volunteers that give their time, money, and efforts to the Defy program and the EITs. I love watching them be deeply engaged, honest, supportive, and PROUD of the men and women they mentor throughout this program. These volunteers are some of the most successful, loving, and insightful people I’ve ever met...and I feel lucky beyond measure to get to know them. They give themselves selflessly.

I also can’t say enough good things about the staff at the York Women’s’ Center. This is a staff that is unbelievably encouraging and supportive of these women. They believe in success, rehabilitation, and giving them the tools they need to move forward in life. It warms my heart to know that these women have a staff dedicated to that.

And as always, the staff of Defy. I’ve never met such caring, strong, and lionhearted people. They are committed to their EIT’s and their purpose. They are smart, wise, and have an incredible gift of connecting people to people. Not “prisoners” to people. They are warriors in their field and I am honored to be trusted by them and equally loved on by them. Each of them have touched my life in ways they may never know, but I am grateful for them.

At the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women I was fortunate to witness a room full of women who support each other. A group that came together during the hardest moments and celebrated through the best. A room full of women who’ve held onto each other emotionally throughout their years. A room full of women who are dedicated to grow with each other and make a difference in their lives regardless of their circumstances or what the future holds for them. A room full of women that are talented and eager to be given a chance to share that with the world.

When the event was done I heard praises of EIT’s and how they started out skeptical, but were leaving the day with more hope than they’ve ever had in their lives. They were even pulling women out of the yard and into the chapel to get them involved too. It was a magical transformation to witness.

As the photographer for these events I spend a lot of my time connecting with both the EIT’s and the volunteers.  My goal isn’t to photograph a series of events, but to document how a person feels in the moment of an event. I need to connect to their story and know who they are inside beyond the surface level. I need them to know that I’m going to tell their story through images in a respectful and honorable way. It’s a story far beyond volunteers coming from the outside to teach the incarcerated about entrepreneurship. I observe and wait for the little moments to make images that show empathy, support, common ground, success, and second chances. THIS is the story of Defy and their EIT’s.

I believe in the underdog. Most days, I’m one of them. I believe in encouragement and putting your past to rest. I believe in being a strong woman that encourages other women to be strong. I believe in empowering someone with a past and teaching my son to do the same. And I believe we all have a legacy of joy and hope to leave behind and that it’s worthy of documenting...regardless of where you’ve been.

For those of us on “the outside”...true success isn’t measured in likes, shares, or audience engagement. It’s not measured in the house you have, the car you drive, or the money you’ve made. It’s measured in the lives you’ve impacted...it’s measured in the little wins you give yourself just to get through the day. Success is measured in the hope you give others and the lessons you’ve learned.

One of my good friends and photography peers, Tyler Wirken, once said, “If at my funeral they only say I was a great photographer, then I failed at life miserably.” I know that I want to leave a legacy that said I was a listener...a unique mother with an open heart. A partner and friend that gave as much as she could, but her whole heart in the process. And just happened to have a camera. What’s the legacy you want to leave?

If you’d like to “come to prison” with me, I would love for you to join me. If you’d love to hear more about Defy Ventures and how it’s transformed my heart, shoot me an email and I’ll eagerly tell you more about my experience and get you in contact with the right people.

If you’ve made it this far into my post, thank you. Your time means the world to me.

- McKenzie