From Prep School to Prison

Much gratitude to the Hotchkiss School Alumni Association’s Board of Governors for the school’s 2013 Community Service Award.  Below is my speech to the Hotchkiss community on April 12, 2013.

To the Hotchkiss School Alumni Association’s Board of Governors and to the Hotchkiss community, I offer my most heartfelt thanks for this 2013 Community Service Award. I accept it on behalf of the more than 1,000 men who’ve participated in the Insight Garden Program at San Quentin State prison and whose lives continue to be transformed through connection to nature.

I also extend my love and gratitude to my family and friends, and the faculty who are here today – and some who taught me many years ago — and who have, in many ways, been part of my journey.  And to all of the current students who are planting the seeds of future care, community service, and building a better world.

I’d like to start off with quote I first discovered when reading “The Little Prince” – in my prep year French Class, taught by our dear Bob Hawkins – “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

So I’d like to briefly share the story of how I got from Hotchkiss to San Quentin State Prison.

For some context, I grew up in these bucolic hills of Lakeville, CT…playing in the streams, wandering the woods, and sailing on the lake. Nature was then, and still is now, my refuge.

When I entered Hotchkiss in the early 70’s, the school had just welcomed girls for the first time only the year before. These were years of great transition. In my first year, there were only four girls in my prep class. We were, upon reflection, pioneers and faced some interesting challenges in those early years of co-education.

Those were also times of great national and international upheaval. We had Watergate and an oil crisis. As the  “outside” world swirled around us – in this bubble – we remained somewhat protected and only remotely aware of the massive shifts underway. Back then, we didn’t have email, computers or cell phones to connect us — only television, radio, and each other.

And as part of that larger “Shift,” I shifted too, thanks to an evening in the Walker Auditorium with then consumer advocate Ralph Nader. He spoke passionately about the auto industry in the context of consumer rights and large corporate interests — at the expense of our environment and people. At that point, I didn’t even know what fossil fuels really were, where they came from, or why I should care. But he stood up for the rest of us, demanding large systems change, and predicted back then what is now our current state of environmental degradation, the gaps between the rich and the poor, and important issues of social justice.

For me, he planted a seed. Although I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I “grew up” after graduating from Hotchkiss and even college, I did feel a restlessness to make a difference. What I did know intuitively was that I wanted to integrate my love of the natural world with my work.

So over the years, as an activist, I began to find my place in the world. I dabbled in politics, and ran social marketing for federal programs in Washington DC. In some of those arenas, my head and heart weren’t always aligned. For me, it was uncomfortable to be doing someone else’s bidding…corporate public relations is where I ended up working after I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1990s.

So in 2001 when jets flew in into the World Trade center, I finally woke up.

From then on, I knew I had live a life more aligned with my heart. To do that, I would have to reestablish my faith in human capacity for transformation and goodness.

Through a serious of synchronistic events, the year following 9/11 actually led me straight into prison. I wanted to practice “being present” with what I thought then would be a difficult population – prisoners. When I was asked to start a gardening program there, despite all odds, we did.

In those beginning months, the staff was steadfastly against any gardens on a prison yard. Why would they care? Coming from a fear-based frame, they assumed prisoners would plant weapons instead of flowers. But at the helm of San Quentin in 2002 was a woman, Warden Jeannie Woodford.  She had faith too, that working in a garden would be therapeutic at most, and at least keep men busy. With her leadership, she championed our effort for a garden on a prison yard in an institution highly resistant to change.

So after a year of planning and some false starts, on winter Solstice of 2003, we planted a gorgeous flower and herb garden there…an experiential lab for men to learn landscaping skills and to tend to their “inner gardens.”  The men worked quietly in their new garden on winter solstice, installing what for them might become a path to salvation.

Over the years, our garden has become a place that represents connectedness and of interrelation and wonder. It is a place prisoners name the bugs, pet the bees and tend to themselves and each other. They literally stop to smell the roses. They learn about landscaping and gardening, food, farming and urban agriculture, human/eco connections, and green jobs. And it’s the only place on the prison yard where the races mix without fear of retribution. With all of this, seeds of compassion, forgiveness, and care are nurtured both in the garden, and in our classroom circles.

For the men, their “shift” happens somewhere between understanding that they alone are responsible for their behavior and feelings and for how they show up in the world. When they stop blaming others for that which binds them they gain a greater level of consciousness and the healing can begin.  We are about restoration, not punishment.

Although these men come from backgrounds we can’t even begin to imagine – they have a second chance — sometimes a third of forth. Whatever it takes. We are willing to hang in there with them, because we realize that growth and change is a lifelong possibility and process.  When those in our program leave prison, most of them don’t come back.  They become productive members of society – and have a new commitment to caring for each other and our world.

So along with our garden (where nature teaches us everything we need to know), these men are my teachers. When they can touch their own humanity, they open up to the possibility of transformation. They offer me hope, time and time again, in the human capacity for change and for good in the world.

So being here, today, in front of all of you feels like coming full circle 30+ years after my Hotchkiss experience. I am so touched to see the evolution an institution which has evolved in into a community, deeply committed to service, environmental care – and, of course, a lot more women. You are all a great reason for hope. You CAN follow your heart, dare to be different, take your leaps of faith, and let your passion for the things you care about guide your life. We have to be the change we want to see in the world – and we have to do it together.

I’d like to close with a quote from Steve Jobs…who while struggling with cancer, offered these words of great wisdom to Standford University students:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” [Stanford commencement speech, June 2005]

Again, thank you so much, on behalf of all of us at the Insight Garden Program.

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About Beth Waitkus

Gardening as a revolution. More than 8 years ago, I founded and continue to manage the Insight Garden Program at San Quentin Prison, a rehabilitative organic gardening program designed to re-connect men to themselves, their communities, and the natural environment. Building on that work and my experience in communications and organizational consulting, I plan to help transform people, communities and organizations (outside the prison industrial complex) through connection to the natural world... To become environmentally aware, all people need is a little time in the garden, or outdoors -- nature teaches us everything we need to know.
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One Response to From Prep School to Prison

  1. Congratulations! Well done!

    I thought of you recently in Portland (City of Roses) when we stumbled upon a vintage store called Avant Garden.

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