Facilitator Spotlight: Lindsay Porter
Wednesday, July 16th, 2014 04:33 PM
by Anita Dacanay
While I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting Lindsay Porter face to face, we have had several long phone conversations about her work with Still Point. Lindsay’s warmth, compassion, and enthusiasm for the women she serves through Still Point’s Persephone Project were impossible to miss in those conversations. The Persephone Project originated in 1998 with a pilot program at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago. Building on the success of that program, Still Point has continued to provide performing arts workshops to women incarcerated in various correctional facilities in the Chicago area. Facilitators lead participants in a twelve week program exploring creative writing, improvisation, and acting. The sessions culminate in a special on-site performance for fellow inmates, prison staff, and invited guests. For the facilitators, the work is demanding. Dealing with the institutions and operating within the rules of the system can be a challenge in and of itself. Working with women whose lives have included any and all manner of personal trauma, dysfunction, and tragedy, as well as the heavy consequences of their own problems and mistakes, is not for the faint of heart. It takes a special type of person to perform the job with finesse, to keep the focus positive and not get mired in the more grueling aspects of the work. Lindsay first became involved with Still Point in 2008, through her friend Maia Morgan, who was a Still Point facilitator at Lake County Jail at the time. Interestingly, Lindsay told me that she remembers having a strong desire to work with people in prison from as early as about eight years of age. “It was just always something I wanted to do,” she remarked. In light of that, it is not too surprising that once Maia started sharing about her work in the jail, Lindsay’s connection with Still Point developed pretty seamlessly from there. Maia suggested Lindsay as a facilitator, she came in for an interview, and the two began working in collaboration shortly after that at Lake County Jail. When asked to relate some of the more memorable moments with the Persephone Project, Lindsay recalled an experience that she and Maia had early on. There are two “pods” at the facility – dormitory style housing units with individual cells opening to a large common area. The facilitators had worked with a group of women from one pod and were preparing to have participants perform their original work for the other pod, which was made up of women who had had discipline issues at the jail. Lindsay was struck by the grim, defiant faces of the audience members as they filed in. She recalls feeling that everything in the demeanor of these women was communicating: “I dare you to affect me.” She wondered how their work would be received. The performance was created from writing developed in the workshops, and the participants would be baring themselves with a vulnerability not often seen in the jail environment. At some point during the performance, Lindsay saw that a box of Kleenex was being passed around the room. The formerly resistant audience members were weeping; they were laughing; they were having an undeniable experience of empathy and catharsis through watching women like themselves sharing honestly and bravely about their own lives and experiences. This story helps to illustrate the ripple effect of this programming. Not only were the women directly involved in the workshops served, but the many women who witnessed the performance had a rare opportunity to allow themselves to feel deeply: to analyze their lives and situations from a safe perspective, and to feel and express an honest and open response. The jail environment is inherently dehumanizing, and Lindsay reiterates what many other Persephone Project facilitators have shared: time and again, the women involved express their profound appreciation for having one time per week when they felt that they were treated “like a human being.” In creating a safe space in which to be fully human, these women are afforded an opportunity to build self-awareness and life skills that can have a profound effect on their future lives, whether in or out of jail. Lindsay comments on the fact that many women in these workshops have not yet learned how to be accountable or responsible for their behavior. In the group creative process used in the Persephone Project, all members are expected and encouraged to be present, to give deeply of themselves, to share their stories and support other group members in doing the same. Lindsay thinks that part of the key to the process working is presenting a non-hierarchical model. As a facilitator, Lindsay is indeed using her skills as an artist and instructor to provide structure and direction for the process. Yet, she is also participating in the activities herself as a member of the group, and encouraging an organic creative process integrating what the women themselves choose to focus on. This model of operation calls on the participants to each take responsibility for their part, and to be accountable to the other group members. “It’s team work,” comments Lindsay, “but it goes even deeper than that.” I asked Lindsay about the rewards that she has personally experienced in being involved in this work. As a writer herself, she remarked that her own skills have improved through the discipline of doing all of the writing exercises along with the women – the collaborative process allows her to grow as an artist while she supports the participants. Lindsay also confides that despite a certain balance that must be struck in terms of how involved or attached she becomes with participants, she feels that she has made authentic and deep connections with other women through the work. In one group, Lindsay encountered a number of women who were deeply troubled by past traumas. They all managed to rally around one another not only to provide moral support, but to provide practical information regarding resources and services that could be useful to one another. The receiving and spending of commissary money is a significant part of life in jail, and each penny spent is considered with great care. Therefore, when this particular group of participants presented Lindsay and Maia with flowers that had been purchased from pooling their precious commissary allotments, it was a profoundly moving experience. Those flowers represented a great sacrifice on the part of the givers, and were no small comment on the significance of what was given to the women in those weeks of classes. Lindsay’s dedication, enthusiasm, and sensitivity are qualities that make her a wonderful facilitator, one that we are truly lucky to have on the Still Point team. In her capacity to share the full depth and breadth of her own humanity, she helps others to see theirs.