Phenomenal Woman Project

This semester, I had the honor of facilitating a partnership between the University of Minnesota Women’s Chorus and the Voices of Hope women’s prison choir from the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee.  The project took on a life of its own, growing into something much more meaningful than I had imagined.  It culminated in a joint concert at the prison on February 12.  The UMN Women’s Chorus repeated this concert on their own, even though the Voices of Hope were not able to be present.  While their voices were sorely missed, their absence spoke loudly, and the second concert was a remarkable experience unto itself.  You can view that concert in it’s entirety here, or read my pre-concert reflection below:

Dangerous, angry, manipulative, unrepentant, unempathetic, inhuman.  Six months ago, Women’s Chorus reflected on the stereotypes of people who are incarcerated, as we prepared to partner with the Voices of Hope women’s prison choir.  “What will they think of me?” asked Women’s Chorus.  “What will they think of me?” asked the Voices of Hope.  It was the first thing we shared in common – the basic human longing to be loved and accepted.  Both choirs spent time unraveling stereotypes and opening their minds to the possibility of forming relationships in a most unexpected place.  

Finally, it was time for the two choirs to meet, and nervous energy was high!  My teacher Kathy jumped right in, breathing new life into an old choral warmup.  “It’s pronounced ‘Hah-LO’ – German for hello,” Kathy explained.  Hallo-o-o-o-o – was the tune, and we were invited to shake hands between choirs, mingling around the room as we sang.  That tiny physical connection was a powerful gift for the women at Shakopee, who are not allowed physical contact of any kind in their day-to-day lives.  Christy looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “That was so awesome.”  To be honest, I never really liked that warmup until that moment.  The allowance of a handshake at the beginning of class was a brand new rule, so even for me – this was the first time in a year and a half of leading music at Shakopee that I was able to physically connect to my choir.

Next, the Voices of Hope taught the Women’s Chorus a simple canon about beauty.  “Beauty before us, beauty behind us, beauty above and below and all around.”  I tried to take the energy of the room and focus it into a unified sound, saying, “We’re going to sing it again, and this time, I’d like you to think about something beautiful in your life as you sing.”  The resulting sound was so different, so much more intentional.  I asked if anyone was willing to share what they were thinking about, and without hesitation, Jill from the Voices of Hope pointed to the student next to her and said, “I was thinking about her boots!”  The room broke into laughter, as the Voices of Hope went on and on about the many stylish shoes in the room and how eager they were to dress themselves again one day.

We were 15 minutes into our newfound friendship, and the nerves were long gone.  We were a bunch of sisters!  Singing, laughing, crying, sharing stories…  It was hard to get the attention of the room as everyone was so eager to get to know one another, but I had one more activity in store.  In the spirit of our program, “Phenomenal Woman,” we went around the room and introduced ourselves, naming the Phenomenal Women in our lives.  Many women called forth names of their mothers or grandmothers, sisters, children, or even other women in the room.  I don’t think I was alone in feeling both incredibly vulnerable and incredibly powerful.  And what fertile ground for music to enter in, take seed, and grow.

Dangerous, angry, manipulative, unrepentant, unempathetic, inhuman.  The stereotypes we have for people in prison are not based off our interactions with that population.  But we’ve watched enough NCIS and Orange is the New Black to somehow feel confident in making these judgments.  The fact is, for many people – both men and women, the path to prison almost certainly involves trauma of some kind.  In the case of women in prison, more than 60% were abused, 17% grew up in and out of the foster care system, 75% are dealing with mental illness, 33% grew up with parents who abused drugs or alcohol, 50% grew up in a one-parent household.  The statistics could go on and on, but as we all know, life is complex, and no one’s story can be so easily told.

The Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee is the only state women’s prison in Minnesota, housing over 650 people from across the state, no matter the level of crime they committed.  It’s worth noting that the prison is designed to accommodate about half the number of women who are there, so the result is serious overcrowding, lack of sufficient staff, and lack of resources.  The situation at Shakopee is comparable across the United States.  Between 1980 and 2014, the number of women in prison increased by more than 700%.  This rapid rate of growth has outpaced men by more than 50%.  Yet it is far too easy to ignore this growing population; out of sight, out of mind.   

Many of us have grown up with the privilege of not needing to give the incarceration system any thought.  But whether we know it or not, this system affects us.  There are about 2.3 million people in prisons and jails across the country, and most of them will rejoin us in society.  Our attention to the rehabilitative practices of prisons matters.  And, if I might be so bold to suggest it, people in prison have a thing or two they could teach us about rehabilitation as well.  It is this interest in learning from one another’s differences that led me to creating a partnership between Women’s Chorus and the Voices of Hope.

The two choirs have paired off as penpals over the last couple of months, with all letters funneling through me for security purposes.  I can’t tell you how much I have enjoyed reading these letters, as women share favorite books, music to listen to, inspirational quotes, and even recipes with one another.  They are continually surprised by their commonalities: shared interests in law, or nursing, or baking; deep compassion for family and friends; similar insecurities and fears; even a shared feeling of being swamped with schoolwork (as most of the women at Shakopee are working towards some kind of degree)!  They encourage one another.  They lift each other up.  They offer praise and admiration at each other’s strength to persevere.  They are each phenomenal women.

 Tonight’s program is crafted around four Maya Angelou poems.  Her words have spoken to me for a long time.  I admire her honesty and openness about tough subjects like racism and sexual abuse and am in awe of her resilience and determination to rise up.  Her acceptance of self has set an example for all women, and served as my inspiration in the creation of this program.  The four poems you will hear shape our concert in a way that might resemble the experience of many of the women in the Voices of Hope – a journey from darkness to light.  Their voices will be sorely missed tonight!

We had the opportunity to perform together at the prison a couple of weeks ago, for an audience of 100 incarcerated women.  The program you will hear tonight is the same we presented, poetry and all.  It was an evening filled with incredible joy and transformation.  Both choirs sang with abandon and raw passion.  And – I should mention – they looked so sharp in matching tshirts, which the Voices of Hope were miraculously allowed to pull over their gray uniforms.  By the end, everyone in the room was clapping and dancing and cheering.  I think we had all forgotten we were even in a prison!  I was eager to debrief with the two choirs and glad we would have an extra half hour after the concert to sit together and chat.  And then, amidst the final applause, my supervisor at the prison came up to me and whispered in my ear that he needed to make an unfortunate announcement: “I’m glad everyone had such a great time tonight.  You’re going to need to hold onto that positive energy because during the concert, there was an incident in the prison and we are on lockdown.  Everyone needs to return to their rooms immediately and stay put for the rest of the night.”  

Just like that, we snapped back to reality.  The Voices of Hope took off their bright blue tshirts and disappeared into a sea of gray.  The evening came to a close far too quickly.  

But for Women’s Chorus, their work is just beginning.  The Voices of Hope, staying true to their name, infused these students with a new understanding about the power and purpose of music.  We look forward to sharing this with you tonight, but even moreso, there is a greater calling to “rise up” in our interactions with people who are different from us, and to imagine the possibilities of a world where everyone is truly valued.  It starts with the way we think about our own selves.  It starts with our ability to say with confidence, “I am a woman, phenomenally.  Phenomenal woman – that’s me.”