Henry Frank was rotting in prison alone with no escape. Then, everything changed. In our conversation we talk about the heavy lift of imagining a different future, becoming an artist, discovering true friendship, and embracing his Yurok and Pomo cultures.
And I was like, I refuse to die in prison. And from that point forward, I started my journey of introspection through the arts, through education, through workshops, through self-help groups to really become comfortable with the ugliness that I had at that time, and really confronted and release it by talking about it.
So, I started learning more about my culture all because, I want to put these things into my painting, which opened up this box that I didn't even know it was in there that was empty. And then it just started filling up. And in my case, it really helped me connect back to my roots, to my culture, to my heritage, and to give me that thirst for more knowledge of where I came from and the history of my people.
I was just thinking like, how did we lose our language? … And when I'm in the sweat lodge it's connected for me. And it's just man, the brutality. That my people, indigenous people, not just here, what they had to go through to be afraid to speak their own language, to be afraid, to do their own ceremonies, to be afraid to show who their children are so they can't beat them and make them do something. It was just, it was a mind opening.
It's oh, this man cares about me... cause he knew how much I cared about him. He was my elder and my mentor and my teacher. And he was the one who changed my mind about the outside. And I'm just like, wow, I never had a friend before, a real friend.
Don't go in thinking that you're going to change, somebody, and don't go in thinking you're gonna save somebody and don't go in with judgment, I did that for 35 years of my life and it got me into prison with a life sentence.
Hey, none of us are trash. None of us are unredeemable. … if you give us the opportunities and you give us the right environment and you give us the right teachers that we all, can be better. We can all evolve, and we can all learn how to be better people…
I have really benefited from non-violent communication. Learning about how not to be violent with yourself, with your thoughts and how to really cherish express and just honor what you're feeling in a moment…
Red Tail Art: This is Henry Frank's artist website. Here is how he describes his practice: I enjoy bringing art into existence, I love the entire process, creating the backgrounds, finding the perfect image that fits the background, choosing the right colors to bring it to life, picking up the paintbrushes and mixing the colors and finally putting brush to canvas. It is very calming and relaxing, I go into a meditative state when I am the zone.
The Museum of the American Indian: “Located in Marin County and situated on a site of an actual Miwok Village, the Museum is dedicated to providing the people of Northern California with programs and exhibits that deepen understanding and appreciation of Native American cultures.”
Yurok People: “The mission of the Yurok Tribe is to exercise the aboriginal and sovereign rights of the Yurok People to continue forever our Tribal traditions of self-governance, cultural and spiritual preservation, stewardship of Yurok lands, waters and other natural endowments, balanced social and economic development, peace and reciprocity, and respect for the dignity and individual rights of all persons living within the jurisdiction of the Yurok Tribe, while honoring our Creator, our ancestors and our descendants.”
Pomo People: “The Pomo are an indigenous people of California. The historical Pomo territory in Northern California was large, bordered by the Pacific Coast to the west, extending inland to Clear Lake, and mainly between Cleone and Duncans Point. One small group, the Northeastern Pomo of the Stonyford vicinity of Colusa County, was separated from the core Pomo area by lands inhabited by Yuki and Wintuan speakers. “ Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomo
William James Association: “The William James Association promotes work service in the arts, environment, education, and community development. Our work has been primarily centered around transformative arts experiences in nontraditional settings, serving men and women in and after prison and high-risk youth. Acting on the conviction that the fine arts enrich, heal and unite communities, the William James Association has brought exceptional artists into prisons throughout California and other states since 1977.”
Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude, “Napoleon Hill: Oliver Napoleon Hill (October 26, 1883 – November 8, 1970) was an American self-help author. He is best known for his book Think and Grow Rich (1937), which is among the 10 best-selling self-help books of all time. Hill's works insisted that fervid expectations are essential to improving one's life. Most of his books were promoted as expounding principles to achieve "success". Wilkipedia
AKTA Lakota Museum and Cultural Center, Pine Ridge: "The land that makes up Pine Ridge Reservation is an integral part of the Lakota culture and the economic base of the reservation. The reservation is situated in southwestern South Dakota on the Nebraska state line, about 50 miles east of the Wyoming border. The area includes over 11,000 square miles contained in seven counties; Bennett, Custer, Fall River, Jackson and Oglala counties in South Dakota."
First Peoples Fund: “We believe art and culture are essential to life. Art embodies Native peoples’ culture, our understanding of who we are and where we come from. Artists and culture bearers give us the power to connect with our past and chart our future. We center the inherent rights and freedom of native peoples. We recognize that Native communities know what they need best to flourish. Native peoples are not defined by colonization or genocide, but by the strength and beauty of our own identities, cultures, and leadership.”Yurok Language Revitalization: “When the language revitalization effort began the use of old records helped new language learners. However, it was through hearing fluent speakers that many young learners fluency level increased. When the Yurok Tribe began to operate as a formal tribal government a language program was created.”
Graton Rancheria: “The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, formerly known as the Federated Coast Miwok, is a federally recognized American Indian tribe of Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo Indians. The tribe was officially restored to federal recognition in 2000 by the U.S. government pursuant to the Graton Rancheria Restoration Act “
Bill Cleveland: Imagine yourself as a life-long gang member with a 29 year to life sentence, rotting away alone, at San Quentin Prison expecting to die there.
That’s pretty depressing, so let's now imagine you change the channel and find yourself in an alternate universe as a proud cultural leader, a respected artist and educator whose depth of wisdom and experience is recognized by your community as essential to its health and vitality.
I’m sure you would agree that these two stories couldn’t be more different. and, given the Change the Story theme of this podcast you have probably guessed these are, in fact, two parts of the same story.
In our Episode 6, world renowned book Artist Beth Thielen said this about her students at San Quentin:Beth Thielen:
“These people that I meet in my classes. They have a whole generational span of experiences in prisons, and they meet it with courage, and a generosity, and a strength, and it's these people who are living in this horrible situation, and have for such a long time, that are adapting to where we need to go faster than the rest of us. They are like a species living at the edge of sustainability, where there's adaptation occurring, where there's mutations occurring that allow them to adapt and change, and these people bring so much imagination to lack, and for me, that's the way that we have to go if we're going to solve our problems with the environment, with prisons, with our communities, post-pandemic. So, for me, the hardships they have endured give us a way to our future if we can accept and not be afraid of the hard knowledge they have won.”BC:
This episode's guest, Henry Frank, was one of the incarcerated artists Beth so eloquently describes in that clip. He also lived both chapters of the story that started us off; rotting in prison alone with no hope of leaving, and living in what we call the free world, making his mark along with the rest of us, sharing what he has learned along the way. In our conversation we touch on the important milestones of that journey, the heavy lift of imagining a different future, becoming an artist, discovering true friendship, and embracing his Yurok and Pomo culture.
This is Change the Story, Change the World: a Chronicle of Art & Community Transformation. My name is Bill Cleveland.
Part One: I Refuse to Die in PrisonBC:
Let me begin by asking you how you describe your work in the world, your mission, in a sense, your path, particularly to people who aren't really familiar with what you've been up to.Henry Frank:
I'm Henry Frank, and I'm calling from Navato in California, and I am currently on the ancestral land of the Coastal Miwok. I happen to be the board president for the museum of the American Indian here, and so I got to really engage and learn about the people that were here. And myself, I'm Native American as well, I'm Yurok and Pomo from Northern California, and I have that connection of that spiritualness when I go to a new place and offer my tobacco just to introduce myself. Other than that, I work for the William James Association as the programs and communications assistant, and then also as an artist instructor now.
And so how I describe myself is, or the work that I do in the world is as an influencer or contributor to give visibility to the Native American and . Currently incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, as myself, I spent 20 years on a 29 to life sentence. At one point, you know, I just thought I was going to die in prison, and I accepted that as my fate, and I never thought about getting out, never dreamed about what it would be like to get out and start a family and work and all that.
Then one day my friend Arlis was coming out to yard with me, and it was in San Quentin. We were on the upper yard and we were, he was looking out, I was just looking down at the ground. That's where we have our sweat grounds. And he's like “wow! What about those deer, Hen?” And [I’m like] “what are you talking about? He's PBS last night, what are you talking about?” He’s like “no, look right out there. Look out there. Why don't you look out there?” He's like “you don't see those in there?”
It was a big old buck and two does , clearly you can see them and I'm like, “wow, that's cool.” He's like, “how come you don't look out there and he's like for an intelligent man, you are sure a dumb MF”. And I'm like, “what?” He's like “I don't understand you. You take all these college courses, so you take all of these self-help groups, but you can't see yourself out there”. And he stopped, we stopped in the middle of the steps and he looked at me and he said, “Henry, look at me”. And I'm like, yeah. He said, “if you can't see yourself outside of these walls, you'll never be outside of these walls”.
And it took me about two weeks, just soul searching and some sweat lodge ceremonies in there, and it connected me back to when I first got incarcerated and I cut off my family in my mind cause I was protecting them, but really I didn't want them to embarrass me or shame me and all that stuff from what I was doing.
But when I got incarcerated, [is actually] when my family came to my side, and my father sent me this book called Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude, by, I think, Napoleon Hill. Anyways inside it there were all kinds of great nuggets, but one of them that stuck with me was “whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe he can achieve.”
And so when Arlis said that, like I said, it took me about a week before that to pop back in my head. Creators started 15 years ago to get to this point for this man to tell me that, to understand like that's true.
From that point forward, I started watching these shows and I was like I wonder what it would be like to go for--, I wouldn't drink alcohol, but to go for something after work and just talk about the day or talk about our families or whatever it is, before we went home and then started thinking, oh wow. It would be like being in a relationship now, and what would it be like not to die in prison, and I was like, I refuse to die in prison. And from that point forward, I started my journey of introspection through the arts, through education, through workshops, through self-help groups to really become comfortable with the ugliness that I had at that time, and really confront it, and release it by talking about it.BC:
That is a heck of a lot of work. How did your interactions with outside artists and volunteers mix with the introspection that you are describing here?HF:
That set my journey to like “why are these people coming in?” I'm talking about the volunteers and the free staff and dedicating their time to come in and teach us convicts that are going to die in prison at one time, and then it's just that they want to make a difference and this is how they do it in their life.
And [I was like ] “now that's cool, they must not have a life out there”, but now that I'm out here and I'm in the similar job, and I have a life and I have things to do, but yet I still need to take the time out to give back to the people, that gave to me and that I want to hopefully give back to the guys inside. Knowing that I can't change them. Knowing that I can't live their life for them, but I can be a role model like people were role models for me.BC:
When you tell that story, which is a, I think a powerful story that anybody who hears it Would take some inspiration from, but it reminds me of a story from St. Quentin. When I was working in arts and corrections, I remember being in the art room at St. Quentin, and it was a beginning drawing class and the teacher was new and made a mistake based on a certain assumption. And the mistake was saying “I'd like you to imagine something out there in the world that you would like to draw, and write down what it is and then, we'll set about figuring out how to draw that”. A bunch of those guys looked at him. One guy, in particular, looked pretty mad and he said “I'm not interested in going there. And I don't appreciate you assuming that we're all just on the same train. We live in a different place than you do, and I don't actually like to do a lot of imagining.”
And I realized then, that our job was first of all to honor that, and second of all, in the most respectful and safe way possible, to re-introduce people to the imagination that you reconnected with when your friend asked, "Can you place yourself out there? Not just here?"
Could you talk a little bit about how your experience with artmaking and imagination helped you on your path down that road?HF:
Oh it really, I started off pretty much drawing animals and baskets and stuff, and stuff that I knew when I grew up, but not really exposed to and that's because of my grandmother and the Carlisle schools and going through the atrocities that she had to go through. So she didn't really pass it down because she was trying to protect us. And then I got into the prison system where you got to choose where you're going to be at. Well, I went to the native American circle. I mean, there was a huge thing behind it cause I was a former gang member as well, and I had to make a choice.
And then I just figured, you know what, I was born Yurok and nothing, nothing changed since then. So I went with my people. And then I got in there and I started sweating and I started hanging out with everybody and people talked about their Rez experience and I spent time on the Rez just on the summers though, like on our property and just, slept on, down on land, played in the field with the grasshoppers and running in the creek, playing with the crawdads, and my brother and stuff. So I get in there and I just started. drawing that stuff.
Then I found somebody who taught me some watercolor, and then fast forward to when I got to San Quentin and they had the arts and corrections and they had a room. Uh, I mean, you know, high-quality artists that are well-known in the region and, across America and some even, internationally.
So it was just like, wow, some people that are there that really know what they're doing so I trusted them and I just was a blank slate, [and told them to] teach me.
Then also there was an artist facilitator. His name was Steve.BC:
That was Steve Emrick who was coordinating the program at San Quentin, at that time right?HF:
He was really just encouraging and supportive of what we wanted to do...
Part Two: A Treasure Chest at San QuentinBC:
So, how did the art program and your personal-cultural journey come together?HF:
I started doing some sweat lodges, and started understanding some of the basket design. So, I started writing to my tribe, and asked them, “Hey, can you send me this stuff, this information?” It took a while because they were sending things I couldn't have, which I didn't know.
Steve called the tribe and said, "Hey, you have a tribal member here ." And he let me speak to him. And he said, “We sent you stuff. Keeps on getting sent back.” And I said, “what are you sending?”
And then he told me, and I said “I can't have DVDs and I can't have hardbound books”. And so they cut it off and they took out the DVDs and then I received it and I was like, oh, it was a treasure chest, I was like, oh my God. And just the exposure to it. And that's through the arts, cause I want it to create more art. But when I did get this, I started teaching myself the language and I started reaching out to Humboldt State, getting their language course, that breaks it down like we were in elementary school to learn it. And then some archival photos, and so I just started putting them into my artwork.
We had a lot of people that came through Humboldt county, which is my home county, and then I'm also Pomo, so I met a lot of my cousins there, but they were teaching me about the stomp dance and bouncing, which is another style to answer then the brush dances, the white scare dance.
So I've started learning more about my culture because, I want to put these things into my painting, which opened up this box that I didn't even know was in there that was empty, and then it just started filling up. And in my case, it really helped me connect back to my roots, to my culture, to my heritage, and to give me that thirst for more knowledge of where I came from and the history of my people, which eventually extended over to my Pomo side. That's a different story because it's about eight years after that that I found out I had another whole.BC:
Wow. Wow. I was thinking about language. I speak one language and I fumble with that language [so] I was wondering if, as you became introduced to your mother language, if it affected the way you saw, or heard, or experienced the world?HF:
Uh yeah, because I realized, I didn't know anything. I mean, I grew up with my grandma. We spoke in the house a little bit for food and maybe roles (father, grandma, son, and animals). And we knew, ‘be careful’ and we knew ‘behave’ and that's kinda about it. I never really thought about, you know, cause I was a kid, you know, so I never really thought about “why are we only knowing this stuff and not really understanding that? Why am I not speaking Yurok in this house right”. Until years later when I started learning it. And I'm just like, wow. And all of the people that know how to speak it. And there was only at that time, cause I did the research and the tribe, let me know.
There were only like five people that spoke it fluently, and maybe thirteen people that did it moderately, and there was no one beginning. But since then they have done a language revival, and so now it's taught in the elementary schools, it's taught in the high school at McKinleyville, and they had the course at Humboldt state, ironically under foreign languages, and then now they're doing it on the reservation, and at the elder communities, having these beginning classes, and the latest, I believe this year we have 22 fluent and we have about 80 moderate and then 200 beginnings. But to think back to, and I was just thinking like, how did we lose our language?
And I'm doing this because I'm doing my carving on my block paint when I'm painting things, and when I'm in the sweat lodge it's connected for me…BC:
Yeah, I would imagine connecting to that history, there were some painful moments as well!HF:
The brutality. That my people, indigenous people, not just here, what they had to go through to be afraid to speak their own language, to be afraid to do their own ceremonies, to be afraid to, show who their children are so they can't beat them and make them do something. It was just, it was mind-opening.
So I started ordering books on the Pomos and Yuroks, and then native people in general and just learning what they went through. And then when I went through I think it was philosophy, one of my classes and one of the missionaries wrote a book but detailed what they did to the natives when they got here. It made me mad, and it made me sad, and it made me like, wow, what we had to go through, to get here. But also understanding that the people around me are not accountable for that, their ancestors are.
And to really understand too, I was going to the native groups and their workshops, and I started really understanding the post generational trauma about how I am, and when people are like “I feel so bad that my people treated your people so bad”, and this and that, and they go into detail and they're really genuine and heartfelt and I'll be always, “you know what, it's not your fault. It's okay”. And then one day, like, why am I comforting you for what your ancestors did to my ancestors? Just acknowledge it. But don't sit there and try to get sympathy from me. I do my best just to let them know in the most gentle way “Hey, I accept your empathy, you don't need to hold on to that, and I'm not going to like try to make you feel better about it, but just know I don't hold you accountable but thank you for acknowledging it.”BC:
I spent some time in Piner Ridge and what they taught me was that there’s some in the white community that want to get away with an apology and then be hugged and comforted. And they (the Pine Ridge members) were not in any way, mean or antagonistic, in saying, “That's not actually our agenda. Our agenda is we have people here who live in substandard housing, we have kids who aren't getting a really good education, we have very high unemployment. Let's just work on that stuff. If white folks are interested in helping out, there are some very practical ways in which our lives can be better, and then, we can break bread around the good work that we do, but this sitting around talking thing, isn't getting the hole on my roof fixed. It's just not.” And its, its an important lesson, I think its a tremendously important lesson.HF:
I just like to add, there are people who go out and build houses. There are people who donate food and all this stuff. We're talking about the government who is not willing to say, “Hey, we messed up and we need to fix this and start putting some money towards infrastructure in, in the native communities, in the native societies, more than just a box of food that just says cheese on it, and pork on it. Give some real sustenance, I know at one time I believe. Creighton Rancheria, I was talking with the United States government and they wanted to make reparations, and how do you do it? They propose that, all right, just give free education to any Native American in the United States that wants to go to any college, and a university in a masters program, doctors program, [etc] and that's it. That would be cool. Just give us free education until we don't want to take it anymore.
I know, we will not do that. And I’m like, “Wow!” Hearing that, I'm like, “That's like a slap in the face.” But. I understand where they're coming from, because an educated Indian is a dangerous Indian. If you understand how the infastructure works, you can deconstruct it.
And we've always been that way. That's why there's a Bureau of Indian Affairs, and no other bureau of any other heritage affairs, except for us because they know what they did. But, let's figure something out where you don't have to have a Bureau of Indian Affairs. Then they try to tell us like, “Oh, we're doing it for your safety, so we know that nobody is taking advantage of the system.” We know who the Indians are. So anyway, I just like to just clarify that, that, yeah, it's just not every white folk.BC:
That is absolutely true. And that's a lesson actually working in the prison environment which was certainly a place where you had to take each person as a human being. Some folks are dangerous, some folks can be your friend, you know, in a difficult place to have any kind of friendship. I really appreciate that. One of the questions [that I ask] is if you have any stories, and you've told quite a few already, that personifies the path that you're on.HF:
What got me on my path was really through my introspection of who I was, and what I was doing, and understanding that the energy that I put into the negative stuff and the painful stuff in my life is the same energy I'm using now to heal and to do positive things and uplift people, and support people.
It's actually not as hard to do that as it was to stand on people and put down people, and hurt people, and make people do things that I wanted them to do and not understand that they got their own agendas in life too, they're trying to make a name for themselves.
So I would say I didn't acknowledge the compassion that I had or the empathy that I had, because I didn't want to be seen as weak, where today I see the empathy, and I see the compassion, and I see the connection, the community just shared understanding as a strength. And what my idea of a man was back here was, what I did, the deeds that I did, and having people fear me, and having people talk about me, where today, is true to his feelings. If he needs a cry, he needs to cry. If he needs to say, hey, you hurt my feelings. ‘Cause he was going to say, you hurt my feelings. That is what for a man is no different from being a woman, You're just being the best human being that you can be at any moment, and then hopefully acting on the things that can help the next person, and support the next person, and help that person and grow. You know, as a person to the best of your ability, and just being there and sometimes sitting there and just listening.
Part Three: The Best ChanceBC:
So at some point in your time with the William James Association, you decided to return the favor back, to go back inside as an artist, which is not a small thing for a returning citizen.HF:
It wasn't an easy decision to go back inside of a place that I had some good memories of, like you said, friends. My first real friend, which I classify as a friend, was in prison. The first time I accepted myself for being a good-looking man and not just a fat, lazy bastard was in prison.
The first time when I started loving myself was in prison. The first time I really had self-worth and self-confidence, and I'm not saying the prison did it for me. ‘Cause you know, in my opinion, they're there to do their job. They're there to make sure we don't kill each other and I'll leave it at that. Other than that, they don't care. But the people that come in, they care, and once I saw that then I can identify others that were in the same yard with me, or in the same block with me. Oh, wow. Look at that.
But what proved it to me was my friend Arlis, may he rest in peace. He passed away, but he did get out. So I was happy and we spent a couple of years together while he was out here, running them around, we had a great time. But when I was inside one day he got surrounded by three other people and threatened to kill him, but he didn't tell me. And so three days later, another Indian was up in my cell talking to you. He's like yeah, “that's crazy the way they threatened Arlis”. And I'm like “what are you talking about?” He said, “yeah, this went down”. I said, “what, how, why don't I know, I'm his best friend”, and I'm mad. So I take off, I go down to the yard, I'm like, Nope. He's oh, so he must be in a cell house. So, I ran back up, he’s in a cell and the doors are unlocked during the day. So I open up, come in and sit down and I said, “we need to have a talk.” And he's like “about what?” And I said, “no, you tell me he's what is it?”
I said, “First of all, are we not friends? Are we not brothers? Are we not family?” And he's like yeah. I said “how come I found out three days ago that these three people threatened your life? I don't understand it, I'm not going to tolerate that.” And he looked at me and said “Henry. I told you, cause I know what you would do. And now that everybody here in this whole Indian community, you have the best chance of going home. And I am not going to be responsible for taking that from you.” And I was like, “wow” it blew my mind.
I did not expect that answer from this person because he was hardcore. He was okay with stabbing people, making materials afterward, but here we are, and I'm just like, whoa, I've never had that before. And I said, “alright, that's cool. I appreciate that. Let me go back to my cell, and I just [thought] about it like, wow. And I didn't really understand the power and understand the dynamics of it, probably for a while.
But I was like, “Woah, this man cares about me.” You know, and I think he cared about me because he knew how much I cared about him. He was my elder, and my mentor, and my teacher, and he was the one who changed my mind about the outside. And I'm just like, wow, I never had a friend before, a real friend when I didn't have to worry about, didn't think about, what is he trying to get from me? What is, all this stuff, all of that was gone and, it changed our relationship again, it enhanced it. I used to, like I said, I used to watch Boston Legal and at the end of it, I don't know if you ever saw it, but at the end of it, they always sit outside on the patio, they're in their office and they would drink their scotch and have their cigars, and they would just talk about the day. And I just wished oh, I want to experience that one day.
Every night, Arlis and I, we'd be the only ones that would go down to the grounds in that yard, and just sit on the grounds. If it was raining, no matter what, we were out there, we were always out there, and I'd have my cup of coffee and he'd have a cup of coffee and we'd just sit there and we'd just talk about the new brother that came. We’d talk about the sweat, then we talk about how he's dealing with his medical cause he was a diabetic, and then I had my chest pain and I was just like sitting there. And one day I was just sipping it and I was like “Woah, I'm living this, in the middle of this prison yard I am living in. I wanted it and the creator gave it to me.”
So I'm like alright, that even made me want to get out and just start putting my energy into it because I didn't put a whole lot of energy into this and the creator gave it to me.
So I was like, “What can it hurt, what can it hurt? What can it hurt to have hope?”BC:
Absolutely. And Henry, that story is so powerful, and so heartfelt, and thank you for sharing it. It reminds me of a couple of things. Number one, what a hell of a journey to go from? What many men learn is that nobody will respect you and unless you threaten them. That's an early message that a lot of little boys learn right, right away, and to actually be able to turn the corner on that, in a place where there's a lot of that going on. It's not exactly a nurturing, empathic place.
But the other thing inside or out, I imagine there are many. Who would give their teeth to have a friend like yours, to be able to tell a story like that. Those are two precious things in the world, wherever you are. What a gift now that you carry that with you in your work. and in your life, and in your relationships with the community that you live in. It's. That's a gift. That's a gift.
So if you were at a table with younger people who go “well, Henry, I’d like to follow in your footsteps, in the best of them. And, you're on the verge of being an elder, and elders do pass on important wisdom to people who are coming up behind them, what would you share?HF:
I think I shared earlier, don't go in thinking that you're going to change somebody, and don't go in thinking you're gonna save somebody, and don't go in with judgment. I did that for 35 years of my life, and it got me into prison with the life sentence and when I stopped judging people, and stopped making up my own stories about people, and started actually communicating with people to understand their life and understand where they've been, and where they want to be, and where they would like to go, imaginary or real, just to have a future plan instead of just, dying in prison, like I had.
Just go in to be the best person that you can be who you are. And don't think that you're perfect. Know that you're gonna learn. You're gonna learn from them. You're gonna learn from yourself. You're not learning from the experience. You're gonna learn from the reaction of when you tell people what you're doing. You're gonna learn from that. You're going to grow from it, or you’re going to react from it, and just look at it when that happens and understand why you're having this reaction. What is it that you're telling yourself about the work that you're doing?
So for me, this is my way of giving back since I'm formerly incarcerated. My way of letting the staff know, “Hey, none of us are trash. None of us are unredeemable. If you give us the opportunities, and you give us the right environment and you give us the right teachers, that we all can be better. We can all evolve, and we can all learn how to be better people in the sense of being functional within society, being functional within a community, being functional with the people around me,
And I didn't share this before, but when I was in arts and corrections, as an inmate, a person experiencing incarceration. We want to be mindful of our words as well and make sure that we understand there are human beings and not dehumanize them. When I was in there, and I was painting, and I was sitting there with other people drawing, but over time, I learned about their families. I learned about their dreams. I learned about what weighs on them. And then also watching them interact with the free people, the instructors, and seeing how they see Black Gary, see Mexican Felix, eventually it was just Felix, and eventually just Gary, and then it's just like my fellow artists, printer, or the acrylate guy, or the guy who just puts so much detail in his painting, like every piece of hay, it just came to that.
And then also understanding that there was different cultural, there was different religious background, and none of that mattered, we just were sharing our lives with each other. And at that moment, I didn't realize the social dynamics of it until years later, like probably a decade later when I'm out here and I was talking about it on a panel. Like “What did Arts in Corrections give to you?” And that's when I realized everything that was given to me besides just great art instruction, but myself confidence again, and getting myself worth, seeing myself more than just a piece of shit as the officers would tell you quite often, and that I'm an artist. And if I'm an artist, I'm a human being! And so, with a person coming in the free instructor that comes in and call me by “Henry” instead of “J28”, started humanizing me. And so just have an open mind, open heart, and an open spirit, and just be there because you want to be there and just do as much good as you can do. And that's it, the rest will do itself.BC:
So the thing you mentioned there, which is so powerful, is that this is a place that is designed to create adversaries in many ways, and accentuates all those differences that you described. For anybody who was not aware of this, we certainly have extraordinary tension in our everyday lives, in the free world around difference and judgment, but that's nothing compared to the way in which our correctional institutions, these prisons manifest. They take humans and they push them in the most intense way against each other, and to be sitting at a table and have a black man, a brown man turn into a human being in front of your eyes, inside your head, and to be arguing a watercolor technique, rather than whose gang's going to take on who's gang, I think there are people who know prison who would say that’s a miracle.HF:
Yeah. Yeah. It is definitely a place that wants you to be a certain way, and it's up to you to be something else, as much as you can. And so in there I was learning, and people were giving it to me, and at one point I thought, I just said, “I think I'm real, I'm ready to give back. I'm wasting away here. My life has been thrown away by my deeds. Don't get me wrong, by my deeds. But I have so much potential, and you're just letting me rot in here.” And I carried that until one day I said “I'm going to be the best person I can be. I'm going to help the people that are around me.” And so that's when I started getting into those leadership positions, and I can lead by example as well.
And I've had struggles, don't get me wrong and part of getting me through it was remembering that I had this position. And if I did do this, those people who are holding me as the role model are going to be like, “If he can't do it, I can’t do it”.
Part Four: Being FreeBC:
So Henry, you learned a hell of a lot inside. What has being on the outside taught you?HF:
I have been out for eight years now, and I took me about two years to get rid of all the tics, and physical reactions that I had, that I didn't realize that I had until I was like walking down the street, and then all of a sudden I’d get tense and everything, and had to identify what was going on. And sometimes it was just quietness. Sometimes it was loud noises. Sometimes it was just the position of a person moving too quickly or something like that.
And about the end of the second year, I'd always had this feeling of somebody is going to get me and I was a gang member, and then I was in prison, and so you're always on. You're always watching everything. You're always ready for whatever's going to happen. And so I had just taken my friends to the airport in their van and unloaded the whole back, got them to the thing, and got back in the car. And I was driving back over the Golden Gate Bridge, and I just felt like somebody was back or ready to just choke me out or something. And I'm just like, I know nobody's back there. There is nobody back there because I emptied the van, and I just started tearing up.
“Creator, why are you doing this to me? What did I do?” And I just went quiet and as I was driving and I think for the first time in my life, I was like, I am safe. I am safe. I am not doing anything to aggravate some yacht, not in tagging anybody out. Nobody knows who I am or who I was. I am. Wow. And that night where I live with the couple they never locked their doors.
And, but when they were gone, I'd always locked the doors. Cause you know but that night I was like, I'm not going to lock the doors. I went upstairs and took me a minute to get to sleep. But I, it's just wow. And that really led me not too long after that I met my wife,BC:
What a beautiful thing.HF:
So it takes a toll on a person. And so just have some compassion when you're around a returning resident and having some patients in, just talk to them, that's it, just like a regular person because they are regular.[:
My final question: Many of the things that we encounter when we are on the inside are more and more showing up on the outside; judgment, antagonism, a lot of fear, and given what you have learned, what do you have to offer to a world that needs to heal, and find common ground?HF:
It's a simple, but most hardest thing is to listen. Is to state your case without trying to win your case, and then to listen to someone out state their case without believing that they're trying to persuade you to their place and then see where that common ground. And work towards it. Like you're saying about the reservation, it was like, oh, we're sorry.
Okay. It doesn't do anything, but if you're sorry and you start putting support into that community, however, it may be, then some healing can happen.. Will it be complete forgiveness? Maybe not, but at least they would be some healing and some mending where you can actually see each other as a support.
And instead of an oppressor or a suppressor are two-face, the fork, tongue, whatever you want to call it. And so your action must match your words. I think we need to start in. The elementary schools.
I have really benefited from non-violent communication. Learning about how not to be violent with yourself, with your thoughts, and how to really cherish express and just honor what you're feeling in a moment and be, and feel safe enough where you can express how you feel where the other person can have that space and not judge you for it. And just take it in. Okay.
Respond in the best way that you can, is it through empathy, through action, through a request, and people are more in tune with who they are, where they're not lashing out and trying to deflect all these things, to find out what your defects are, what you are ashamed of and just be open, and have people accept that.
And that is so hard in today's society. And, No kindergarten all the way up, because there are the haves and have-nots and that you can instill, be proud and you can still have self-worth and all of that stuff. And a person can have all the money in the world and not have that self-worth not have that self-confidence because everything was done for them. It's not their fault either way, but I'm just saying to just have that communication open where you can. Just honestly and genuinely to share what's going on in your life. And. Yeah, let it go where it may and just do the best to support them, and say, “Oh Hey, why don't you come over my house?”BC:
And Henry. One of the privileges I have in having these kinds of conversations is that I get to do the thing you were just describing, which is to listen. You have told a story that is both spiritually, and I think very materially manifests that idea that stories are powerful things and they can hold you hostage and they can set you free. And I really appreciate your you're sharing it with us. I really do. Thank you, Henry.HF:
Oh, I just like to offer my appreciation to that. My gratitude. And just thank you for having this. Just for me, but for everybody that you're going to have here to, let those people share their stories so they can be seen. I just am grateful. Thank you.BC:
Grateful is a good thing to be these days and we are very grateful o both our guests and our listeners. We know your lives are, well, probably complicated these days, so thanks for taking to time to tune in. And if you like what you’re hearing we ask you to take a moment to do two things. First, share our podcast with your network of friends, and second, click on the subscribe button on your podcast player. These are simple things, but for us, they make all the difference.
CSCW is a production of the CSAC, if you are curious about what that is, check us out at www.artandcommunity.com. The show is written and produced by yours truly Bill Cleveland, our them and soundscapes are by the incomparable Judy Munsen, our editor in chief is Andre Nnebe, and, as always our inspiration rises up from the mysterious UKE 235. So, until next time, Stay Well and spread the good word.