Bitty & Beau’s: More Than Just a Coffee Shop, Brewing Up Change

What are some of the things you consider essential in your life? Lots of people would rank their morning cup of coffee pretty high on the list, right? But dig a little deeper for a moment and think about some of the essential things that you might sometimes take for granted – not just food, water, shelter, etc, but a sense of dignity and purpose in your life, as well as a feeling that there are opportunities available to you. That’s something that we don’t just crave, but that we need to really thrive. 

Now what if you combined those two things? Sounds like a recipe for perfection – and it’s exactly what Amy Wright, founder of Bitty & Beau’s Coffee has done. So what does coffee have to do with dignity, purpose, and opportunity? Well, it depends on who’s serving it up: at Bitty & Beau’s all of the employees have intellectual and developmental disabilities, and they, as well as the shop, which now has multiple franchised locations, are doing great.

“A Fire Is Ignited in You”

Amy's husband with Bitty and Beau smiling
“I just feel like they’ve made us better people. They’ve made us care about things that we didn’t even know about before.”

Amy Wright and her husband, Ben, feel extremely lucky. Their four children, two of whom (Bitty and Beau) have Down Syndrome, and one of whom is living with autism, are the light of their lives. Not only that, but Wright’s children have also changed the trajectory of her life, and have been the driving force behind her passion to make a difference. Wright put it simply and beautifully in her acceptance speech when she was named the 2017 CNN Hero of the Year: “I would not change you for the world, but I would change the world for you.”

And she told “I just feel like they’ve made us better people. They’ve made us care about things that we didn’t even know about before. It’s just like an appreciation for humanity. It’s far beyond people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It’s caring about every life and the value that every person’s life has. When you watch your child go through being marginalized, being discriminated against, being overlooked, a fire is ignited in you. And you start wanting to change the world, not just for them, but for any other group of people that’s ever been marginalized that way.”

But that’s not to say it’s been easy – nothing worthwhile ever is. As Wright told CNN, “When Beau was born, we were thrust into the world of special needs. So, we’ve been trying to advocate in different ways since then, and that intensified after (we had) Bitty. But it’s so hard to get people to change their perceptions. It felt like we were swimming upstream. People are scared of what they don’t know, so that’s why we’ve decided to live out loud and to show people what our lives are like.”

And Wright and her husband didn’t stop at advocating for their own children. When they found out that anywhere between 70% and 80% of adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) are unemployed, they were shocked, and wanted to include as many people living with IDD as they could in their quest to change perceptions. So Ben began hiring people with IDD in his office, and Amy started a nonprofit to help people with IDD get jobs – but she “had hundreds of people who wanted jobs and could barely find an employer who would even give one of them an interview.” But Wright didn’t give up, she simply had to take matters into her own hands and become the employer herself.

“When Your Passion and Your Purpose Collide”

Amy Wright
Amy Wright, founder of Bitty & Beau’s Coffee.

So what would be the perfect venue for the Wrights’ vision to not only create jobs for people with IDD, but also change perceptions and bring communities together? “It hit me like a lightning bolt: a coffee shop!” Wright said. “I realized it would be the perfect environment for bringing people together. Seeing the staff taking orders, serving coffee – they’d realize how capable they are.”

The only issue? The Wrights had no experience running a retail business – but again, Amy wasn’t going to let anything stop her. She talked to people she knew who were coffee roasters and spent hours on the internet researching how to open and run a coffee shop. “We just started drinking from the fire hose. We just had a lot of faith that it would work out. I just believed that it was what we were supposed to do with our lives and it became our passion. When your passion and your purpose collide like that, there’s no stopping you.”

And thus the first Bitty and Beau’s was opened in 2016 in Wilmington, North Carolina (although it was originally just Beau’s Coffee until Beau’s 12th birthday wish was to see his sister’s name “put up in lights, too”) with 20 employees who trained for two weeks to get ready for their new positions. They didn’t need any experience, just a willingness to learn and a dedication to the vision of the shop. The rest Wright took care of, becoming impressively adept (especially considering her lack of retail experience) at matching the right person for the right job. 

“We just kept role playing and practicing until we figured out, ‘Where is this person most comfortable? Where do they feel confident?’ … Hiring people with IDD, it’s really no different than hiring people that are typically-developing. Everybody has talent, everybody has skill sets. It’s identifying what those talents are and finding out the way that you can plug them into your business.”

“Radically Inclusive”red ribbon about to be cut with the bitty and beau shop behind it

The first Bitty & Beau’s location was an instant success, with lines out the door; today they have 23 franchised shops across 12 states, and they have partnered with corporations to open shops in their world headquarters. They also have a range of merchandise for sale, including mugs that say “radically inclusive” and hats that say “not broken.” 

So what’s the secret of Bitty and Beau’s success – why are their coffee shops so popular in a world that can feel a bit oversaturated with coffee shops? It’s partly that people are eager to support the mission of the shop, but it’s also the unique warmth that their shops exude: there’s a greeter at the door (who once upon a time gave hugs), and the staff uses playing cards (instead of the usual mangled name on a cup) to identify customers’ drinks, as well as to help the employees practice their numbers.

Wright made it clear to CNN that the admirable mission behind the shops is one thing, but her employers are what make things work like “a well-oiled machine”: “Every single day, people say, ‘You made my day. Thank you.’ There’s something so pure about our team. They genuinely are happy that you’re there, and they make you feel that way. That’s a feeling most people don’t get anywhere that they go, and I think it’s what draws people back.”

“It’s More Than a Cup of Coffee – It’s a Human Rights Movement”

The profits from Bitty & Beau’s go to Wright’s nonprofit, Able to Work USA, but what the shops are achieving is much more than financial support. First, the jobs that they supply to their local community are about more than just employment. As Wright points out, “Having a workplace that makes you feel proud of yourself and gives you a sense of community is something we all want. For our employees, I feel like it’s the first time they’ve had that…It’s given them purpose and a sense of being valued in ways that we take for granted.”

Second, the goal of Bitty & Beau’s is not to tug at your heartstrings, or make customers feel like they’re being “charitable.” Wright wants her shops to build bridges, so what she hopes is that customers who frequent Bitty & Beau’s will become so comfortable and familiar with people with IDD, that their disabilities are not what they notice or think of when they interact with them. “Creating this has given people a way to interact with people with disabilities that (they) never had before,” Wright told CNN. “This is a safe place where people can test the waters and realize how much more alike we are than different. And that’s what it’s all about.”bitty and beau's employees standing together in the coffee shop

So Bitty and Beau’s goes from strength to strength, breaking down walls as they open up doors to new shops: franchises have just opened in Bethlehem, PA, Charlotte, North Carolina, and New Athens, Georgia. But Amy Wright knows she can’t hire every person with IDD in the country – but then, the goal is for her to not have to do that. The goal is to change minds and make sure everyone is valued and given opportunity, no matter how they are abled. After all, it’s all about respect: “We always say, it’s more than a cup of coffee. It’s a human rights movement; the coffee shop is just a vehicle for making that happen.”

We’ll leave you with Amy Wright’s words to, which seem to perfectly sum up what one radical coffee shop franchise is achieving: “We can’t open enough coffee shops to affect the unemployment rate. We’ll keep trying, but what we can do is change the way people see people with IDD. Once people value people with IDD, the way they do typically-developing people, then all the opportunity will just flow. We hope the big takeaway when people learn about us or experience the shop is that they go away thinking, ‘You know what? That person with Down syndrome, their life has just as much value as mine does and I need to find a way to include and accept them in my society.’”

If you want to know more, find a location, learn about franchise opportunities, or snag some Bitty & Beau’s merchandise, head to their website.

The Fugees Family: Reaching Goals for Refugee Kids

There are some things that are all around us, yet we don’t necessarily see them. For example, if we are lucky enough to live a comfortable life, without ever having had to experience the horrors of war, the heartbreak of having to flee our home, or the struggles of being an outsider in a new country, we might not look around us and see that there are many people in our own communities who have had to deal with all of these things. 

Millions of refugees have been settled in the United States over the last four decades, but it sometimes takes a big news story, like the recent crisis for Afghans, for us to look around and see what has been there all along. This has not been the case for Luma Mufleh, however, who herself left behind the country where she was raised and started a new life in the United States. A chance encounter one day with some children playing soccer in her community led her to found an organization that aims to give a new life to the most vulnerable of all refugees. 

The Fugees Family, which began as a soccer club for refugee children, now not only gives children survivors of war a social way to cope with their trauma, but has grown to become the nation’s only school dedicated to refugee education, and to ensuring that these children can reach their full potential.

Luma Mufleh
Luma Mufleh, founder of The Fugees Family.

“I’ve Experienced Being an Outsider”

Luma Mufleh has always had a personal connection to displaced children: while Mufleh was raised in Amman, Jordan, she is the daughter and granddaughter of Syrian refugees. Not only that, but she herself left behind everything she knew in Jordan after she came out as gay to her parents; they disowned her, and knowing that being gay is considered a crime in Jordan, Mufleh fled to the U.S. to start a new life for herself, and was eventually granted asylum here. 

As she told CNN: “I’ve experienced being an outsider because of having to leave my country and having to start with nothing. So there’s empathy that I have that allows me to relate. When you’ve left your home, your family and everything you know to start new, that is very difficult. You don’t have the education, the language, and you don’t have someone that can broker things for you.”

Mufleh managed to build a life here, despite having to deal with the above unimaginable stresses, as well as the difficulties of what she calls the “broken” immigration system. She finished college and opened a coffee shop – but it was a random wrong turn one day in 2004 that led her to her true calling. 

“This Is the One Place They Get to Be Kids Again”

Mufleh’s wrong turn led her into the parking lot of an apartment complex in Clarkston, Georgia, where a group of young boys was playing soccer with a beat-up ball, some barefoot, using rocks as goal markers. The scene reminded her of home, where she had played soccer in the streets with her brothers and cousins – in fact, Mufleh was one of the only girls who had played soccer at her school in Jordan. She felt drawn to these children, and got out of her car, offering them a nicer ball, and asking if she could join in with them. 

hands on top of each other in a huddle
The Fugees team became more than just a pastime for the children involved, it became sort of a family.

Over the next few months, she continued to play soccer with these boys, who turned out to be refugees from Afghanistan and Sudan, and eventually, the “Fugees” team was born, and began playing competitively in Georgia. This team became more than just a pastime for the children involved (and for Mufleh herself). It became a sort of family and a way to feel part of something, as well as to help boost the mental health of children who had been through so much. After all, the sad fact is that refugees can suffer under the stress of their situation, with anywhere from 4 to 40% dealing with anxiety, 5 to 44% dealing with depression, and 9 to 36% dealing with PTSD, according to 

But also points out that these issues don’t have to be long-lasting, and the Fugees team has had a big effect on the kids involved. As Mufleh (who is a Top 10 CNN Hero for 2016) told CNN: “When you have a kid that has fled their country, has had a horrible experience, comes to this strange country, the one thing they understand is soccer. It’s always been an escape for them…You see kids…who have been struggling for months. And when they come here, their faces light up when they’re on the field. For kids that were robbed of their childhood, this is one place they get to be kids again. They feel comfortable. They feel confident and happy. You see the transformation begin when they’re around a group of kids that have shared similar experiences and they help each other adjust to their new lives.”

“I Had Barely Scratched the Surface”

drawing of a person with their name spelled out and words identifying each letter.
Luma’s mission is “shifting the narrative around refugees away from the current fear-mongering frame to one of courage, resilience, and creative potential.”

But, while the soccer program has meant so much to the kids involved, Mufleh began to realize that it could not solve all of their problems. To start with, they were dealing with the very practical, material issues that come from being forced to flee their home countries to a new place, sometimes with only the clothes on their backs, and almost always with very little education.

As Bethany Letiecq, associate professor of human development and family science at Maryland’s George Mason University, told NPR of refugee families, “If you are a refugee, coming here with very little, English might be limited, job opportunities can be limited, trying to just meet your family’s basic needs can be a full-time job.” In fact, Mufleh recounts a story on The Fugee Family website of a young boy on her soccer team who complained of being hungry one day as she took him home from practice. She thought she would bring him to his house and simply help him get a snack, but instead she found a house with cupboards that were completely bare, despite his mother working as hard as she could to make a life for her child. 

As Mufleh says on the website: “I realized that I had barely scratched the surface. I felt so naive and helpless. Children living less than five miles away were going to bed hungry, because their parents weren’t getting paid enough to make ends meet. This is just one of many experiences with my players that has completely changed the way I see the world.”

“Stellar Performers”

So what could Mufleh do to even begin working toward a solution for these children? The answer to her was education: she realized that they needed to be given a way to reach their full potential, and change their futures. What she saw was not only parents who weren’t getting enough support, but children who weren’t being given the tools they needed to move forward from that situation:

“You’ve experienced conflict. You’ve seen war. You haven’t had food security. Then you get to come to the United States, and you’re super excited. And then you come here, and there’s a rude awakening. Academically, they’re not ready. A lot of the kids have had little or no formal education, and they’re plunked in the age-appropriate class. So you have a kid who’s 14 or 15 and is put into ninth grade and expected to do algebra and read Shakespeare when they don’t know the letters of the alphabet, and they don’t know how to add. So they’re feeling like failures at school.”Luma sitting down with young boys holding books in their handsAnd so the Fugees Academy was born, which educates refugee students, no matter how far behind they are, offering classes for sixth through twelfth grade. As The Fugees Family website points out, the children they serve go from being at risk of “drop[ping] out of school and never learn[ing] English, develop[ing] fundamental academic skills, or identify[ing] themselves as a valuable part of American society” to children who “don’t just catch up – they become stellar performers who can meet rigorous academic standards.” 

In fact, the academy has a 100% graduation and college attendance rate, and sees a 137% and 187% increase in growth targets for math and reading respectively for their 6th and 7th graders. All of this means that the Fugees Academy has become so popular among the refugee community that Mufleh receives nearly three times as many requests for enrollment as she has space and resources. 

“Courage, Resilience, and Creative Potential”

In the last few years, the Fugees Academies have expanded to include a location in Columbus, Ohio, and are hoping to expand their unique model of education nationwide, with Cleveland being the next planned location. The schools integrate soccer into their academic program, because as Mufleh says, “Soccer is the one thing that’s very familiar to them and the one thing that is normal. It reminds them of home,” and the Fugees soccer team is still going strong. picture of many children in graduation gowns sitting down on stairs with Luma in the middle With all of that hard work, the overarching Fugees Family nonprofit has reached more than 1,200 vulnerable kids from more than 22 different countries, “empowering refugee children to use their voices to reclaim and tell their own stories – shifting the narrative around refugees away from the current fear-mongering frame to one of courage, resilience, and creative potential,” as their website says. 

What Mufleh and her organization are doing is bringing a sense of hope, belonging, and faith in the future to children and families who have come to us to find a better life – and she is also facilitating their successful integration into society. As Mufleh pointed out in an opinion piece on, “With the right support, refugees routinely make incredible strides in America. We are upwardly mobile, more than tripling our household income after 25 years, according to the immigration advocacy research group New American Economy. The communities where we settle become safer; between 2006 and 2015, 9 of the 10 cities with the highest resettlement rate saw their crime rates fall. And nearly 350,000 refugees are essential workers, from health care to the food supply chain.”

But beyond all of that, she’s letting kids be kids, and seeing them for who they are, not just refugees: “They’re just like most kids,” Mufleh notes. “Yes, they’ve had experiences that children typically don’t have. But they have so much to contribute to this country to make it great and to teach us all about how grateful we are to be here.”

If you’d like to learn more, or find out how you can help, head to the Fugees Family website, or to donate, click here.

Lighting a Candle in the Darkness: How Thistle Farms Is Giving Women the Sanctuary They Need

There’s an old proverb that says: “It’s better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.” And what could be truer than that? Instead of despairing over a problem you see, take whatever small action you can to make things better – or, in the case of Becca Stevens, founder of Thistle Farms, start small and just get bigger and bigger, helping more and more people. Stevens started with a desire to help women who have been trapped in the dark world of trafficking, drug abuse, and sex work, and has ended up, more than two decades later, with not only a series of residential homes that get women off the streets, but also a successful business that sells candles and body care products, run by and benefiting the women who need it most. 

“That Horrible and Hard Ground”

Becca Stevens smiling
Becca Stevens, founder of Thistle Farms, residential homes that get women who have been trapped in the dark world of trafficking, drug abuse, and sex work, off the streets.

Becca Stevens’ own journey began in a dark and difficult place. When she was just five years old, her father, an Episcopal minister (Stevens herself is an Episcopal priest), was killed by a drunk driver, and the man who stepped in to help their family, the head of the church elders, began to sexually assault her. The abuse went on for years, but instead of breaking her, it flipped a switch of compassion in her, and gave her a drive to brighten the lives of others. 

As she told us in an email: “That horrible and hard ground: that’s where the seeds were sown to do the work of Thistle Farms. Looking back now, a half a century later, I can see with the clarity of hindsight the wonders of my resiliency and compassion, not in spite of what happened, but in part because of what happened.”

Fast forward to 1994, and Stevens was working with vulnerable women in Nashville, in shelters and through ministry on the streets, women who she would discover she had a deep connection with, despite their very different backgrounds. They shared a painful history of exploitation – some studies suggest that well more than half of women working as prostitutes were sexually assaulted as children, and according to Thistle Farms’ website, “Most of the women we serve first experienced sexual abuse between ages 7-11, began using alcohol or drugs by age 13, and first hit the streets between the ages of 14 and 16.”

But it was something more than that: “When I began working with women coming off the streets and out of prison, I quickly learned I was meeting myself. These women and I had similar imperfect qualities that I found endearing and beautiful. I was free to laugh and share with them in a way I couldn’t with any other group of friends. Early on, I knew I was doing the work alongside survivors, not for survivors.”

Stevens began to seriously think about opening a two-year residential “sanctuary” for women looking for a way out of trafficking, drug abuse, and prostitution – after all, some studies show that up to 80% of women in prostitution report current or past homelessness – but it never seemed to be the right time. Then she got what she feels was the sign – literally – she needed to move forward. 

“The idea of opening a two-year free sanctuary for women survivors had been simmering for years. But with the demands of work and a growing family that idea was just sitting on the back burner. Then late one afternoon in 1994, I was leaving work and putting my four-year-old son in the car seat when he looked up at me and asked, ‘Momma, why is that lady smiling?’ The billboard he could see was a huge image of a stripper in a catsuit, smiling. The question broke my heart, because I knew one day he wouldn’t ask it. The sign would just fade into the landscape where women are bought and sold without notice. On that day I felt a fire burning in my chest and knew I needed to open the first home for women who have survived lives of trafficking, addiction and prostitution.”

room with 2 beds in it and a dresser
Becca created a housing program that helped transform the lives of more than 200 women, with 75% of graduates living “healthy, financially independent” lives.

“It Takes a Community to Welcome Them Home”

So, in 1997, Becca Stevens started Thistle Farms with one residential home where five women with histories of prostitution, drug abuse, and trafficking came to live together and begin the hard work of transitioning from struggling to survive to living empowered lives of their own choosing. The organization has since expanded to include five residential communities in Nashville, which provide various services for the women that take part, such as medical and dental care, therapy, substance abuse treatment, legal help, and education. 

This housing program has helped to transform the lives of more than 200 women, with 75% of graduates living “healthy, financially independent” lives, and Thistle Farms now also has 92 sister organizations, offering more than 500 beds for women who need them. And what makes their residential programs so unique? They are completely survivor-led, with no “authority figures” living in the house and running them; these homes are truly communities for the women who live in them.

As Stevens told CNN (she is a Top CNN Hero for 2016), “None of the women ended up on the streets by themselves. And so it makes sense that it takes a community to welcome them home.”

And while Stevens’ overarching philosophy for the work she does has always been that “love heals,” she also saw that when you have to struggle to survive, you can’t really live. You need the practical things in life, like a safe place to lay your head at night and a steady paycheck, which can also go a long way toward giving you the confidence you need to get back on your feet, and allowing you to make your own choices in life. The women she was working with couldn’t get jobs because of their criminal histories, so she took matters into her own hands, and began the social enterprise side of Thistle Farms, a company making candles and bath and body care products.

“[The first five women in the residential program] changed my understanding of what love looks like. In the beginning, it was all about keeping the bills paid, getting women to the doctor and therapist, doing outreach on the streets and jail, and building relationships in the community. We began the social enterprise part in 2001 because the residents were doing great, but couldn’t get jobs because of their criminal history. There is no long-term healing without economic independence so we started making candles and body balms in a small church kitchen to provide women [with] income.”candles with the words "love heals every body"

Why body care products? “It made perfect sense to me to make body care products that were about healing bodies – bodies that had been used and abused for so long,” she told CNN.

These days, Thistle Farms has grown to a $2 million business that helps fuel the nonprofit; it employs more than 75 people, two-thirds of whom are graduates of the residential program, and the products are sold in more than 500 stores. “The women have built the business. They run sales, accounting, manufacturing, shipping, and they keep growing the company so that more women can come through and be a part of it.” 

“Something to Embrace and See Beauty In” 

When asked about the name “Thistle Farms,” Becca Stevens told CNN, “I love thistles. Some (people) think of them as a noxious weed, and yet they have this beautiful purple and deep center. When we were going down to meet the women on the streets, that was the last wildflower that was there. So it made sense to name our company after it and remind us all that something to be discarded is (also) something to embrace and see beauty in.”

African American woman holding thistle smiling
Gwen, marking almost 16 years clean, is a manufacturing manager, and candle maker at Thistle Farms.

What grew out of Stevens’ “horrible and hard” experience, for her, is not just something to be discarded, but something that has given her the drive to change the lives of others who have walked that same ground., and not been so fortunate. And there is no judgement, no asking “What did you do?” to get where you are, just a shared sense of humanity; no one is left behind or forgotten.

For example, Stevens told us the story of Ty: Her experience of sexual assault started with a family member in middle school. She quickly ended up on the streets and the way she tells her story is that when other girls were thinking about what dress to get for their prom, she was trying to figure out which cars to get in and out of. She was running drugs too, for her pimp, and was involved in a sting. She came to us directly from prison and was doing really well. But she still had one charge pending and about a year after she started with us she got sentenced to fourteen more years.

 It took a lot of advocacy and work but she came back to our community after three years and was completely free of addiction. She got married and had a child with her husband. These days she directs the manufacturing at Thistle Farms. When the women come in she trains them to make these beautiful lavish products – candles and healing oils. She’s a joy and is completely fearless.”

To hear more from the graduates and employees of Thistle Farms in their own words, check out their stories here. There is much to learn from them, and one of the most powerful lessons is how similar we all are. As Becca Stevens points out, “Truly, the lines that separate any of us are thin. There’s so much more that we hold in common, and we are better when we all come together.”

To learn more about Thistle Farms, and to find out how you can help or how to purchase their products, go to their website. To donate, click here.

Poetic Justice: Giving Incarcerated Women Hope and a Voice

I think many of us have suspected all along that English teachers change the world. You often meet people in that profession who have a certain passion for making a difference in the lives of their students. Sometimes, though, you meet one who really goes above and beyond the call of duty. Ellen Stackable, co-founder of the nonprofit Poetic Justice, is without a doubt among them. Her organization, which turned 7 this past March, brings creative writing classes to women in prison – but it’s so much more than what that simple sentence conveys. Poetic Justice offers a safe space for women who have never had the benefit of a safe space, and gives them room to work through trauma on their own terms and discover just how much they are worth as human beings. 

“How Can This Be?”

Ellen Stackable, who has been an English teacher for more than 20 years, grew up knowing the power of stories and that the world isn’t always a fair place. She grew up in Colorado, where according to her, “my mother was a school social worker in some of the worst schools in Denver, and she would come home and just tell stories about it, so I think I just grew up hard-wired for social justice because of her.”

Ellen Stackabe holding multiple packets
Ellen Stackable, co-founder of Poetic Justice, delivering distance education packets to Creek County Jail.

Stackable herself would go on to teach creative writing and literature, but did not forget the lessons of her mother. The written word was a way to bring change to people from within, and eventually she would decide to find a way to bring creativity and social justice together. According to Stackable,  “I’ve always felt really strongly that writing is a powerful outlet and tool for healing and processing. So when I was working on my masters degree, I ended up down this rabbit hole of research about incarcerated women in Oklahoma, and not growing up here, I was just aghast…The more I read, the more I found out, the more I thought, ‘How can this be?’”

What she found out was that her adopted state of Oklahoma has the highest rate of female incarceration in the country; in fact, the state incarceration rate for females currently stands at 157 of every 100,000 inhabitants, which far exceeds the national average of 57 people incarcerated for every 100,000 members of the population. Native women are incarcerated at triple the rate, and African American women at double the rate of the population. 

But, for Stackable, it’s not just about the astronomical numbers of women being put behind bars in one state. It’s about our cultural expectations of women, especially certain women, and how gender can play a part in enforcing certain laws. “If you’re poor and from a small town, you’re at a huge disadvantage. You are much more likely to get a harsher sentence and to be sentenced…I think it’s probably a series of complex cultural expectations for women…it just seems like in general people are more forgiving of men who are felons than they are women. Kind of like a woman should know better.”

Stackable cited some fascinating and disturbing examples of how she has seen the law applied to certain women. Not only does she point out that the women Poetic Justice works with – and women in prison in general – are often living with childhood trauma and “a lot of times the charge they have is not even something they have done, but someone they’re with has done it,” but the laws seem to be enforced in a very gendered way.  

For example, one 19-year-old woman was sentenced to 30 years in prison in Oklahoma for “failure to protect” her child from the abuse of her partner, while her partner was sentenced to only 2 years. In another instance, a woman was pulled over and, because she didn’t have her children in carseats, was told should could either go to county jail for 30 days on the spot and lose her children in the process, or face an uncertain outcome at a trial; she chose not to give up her children and ended up with a felony child abuse charge.

So where can we even start when it comes to these distressing statistics and stories? For Stackable, after going down her “rabbit hole of research,” “I started thinking, well, maybe I could do something. I started looking for a way in.”

“It Takes Tremendous Courage to Tear Open That Scar”

Ellen Stackable eventually found her “way in”: “I finally ended up… [working] with a spoken word poet at the Tulsa County Jail, that’s kind of how we started.” Stackable and her poet partner led spoken word poetry classes, but eventually Stackable would transition to classes in what she calls more “therapeutic and restorative writing.” According to her, “I think spoken word is very powerful, but it’s also kind of like shaking up a bottle of soda and releasing it. It’s fine if you’re there to help pick up the pieces later on. But we really felt like we needed to offer more, almost like, think about the bumpers on a crib! How could we help them so that when we’re not there they could still process.”

women in orange jumpsuits sitting in an open circle
“We sit in a circle, they make the rules for making it a safe space, and we write with them when they write.”

What Stackable really wanted was to move away from the more “confrontational” spoken word performances and move to classes that felt “welcoming,” where the women write their pieces, share by choice, and then ask for either questions, comments, or just silence. “Everything we do has what educators call ‘the hidden curriculum.’ So there’s the curriculum, and that’s the outside part of what you’re going to do in the classroom, and the hidden curriculum, it’s kind of like an iceberg, it’s bigger underneath than it is on top. And our hidden curriculum is that everything we do from the moment we walk in to the moment we leave has this message of you are a person of worth and you matter in this world.”

While, as of my time speaking with Ellen Stackable, the program is still operating remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic and restrictions on volunteers entering prisons, when in-person classes are up and running, they are not, as Stackable says, like “a normal class.” “We go in as facilitators, we don’t call ourselves teachers, and the idea is to really kind of demolish the hierarchy that the women have always been at the bottom of. So we sit in a circle, they make the rules for making it a safe space, and we write with them when they write. It’s really an exploration. We use poetry because there’s no rules to poetry and it’s so forgiving. It’s like group therapy….I think it takes tremendous courage for them to go back into their pasts because almost all of them have very traumatic childhoods, and to go back, and in a sense tear open that scar to find healing, I think takes a lot of courage.”

“Hope, Voice, Change”

For each class, Poetic Justice gives the participants both an entrance survey to get a sense of who they are and what they want out of the class, and an exit survey to see how the class affected them, as well as how they felt about the class and if there is anything that could be improved. The first thing that Stackable found from the exit surveys was that the women all wanted more classes! 

two women in gray clothes writing on a piece of paper.
Poetic Justice gives the participants an entrance survey to get a sense of who they are and what they want out of the class.

And it’s no wonder: the program seems to have an extraordinarily positive affect on their lives. They are instilled with a sense of agency that perhaps many of them had been denied in earlier life. They end each class in a circle, holding hands and repeating “I have a voice, I have hope, I have the power to change,” and they end each 8-week session with a booklet of all of the participants’ poems, a graduation certificate, and the words “Now you’re a published poet.” 

The difference in the participants’ lives is actually visible and measurable: Stackable has been working with the Book Research Center in Oklahoma to use her entrance and exit surveys to measure the increase in “hope, agency and positive affect” that Poetic Justice has. And, according to Stackable, “We see a significant change in the end…in so many ways. We see them go on to further education, they finish their GEDs or even go on to do college classes. We see them reuniting with their families, by sending them letters and actually telling them, ‘I’m doing something that matters now. I published these poems.’ We see them become leaders within the prison for good. They are becoming tutors in the GED program…when we’re in the county jail, where women come and go a lot, what the correctional officers tell is us is that ‘It’s always calmer when Poetic Justice comes!’” 

Stackable gave a powerful example of one of her students who has been part of the classes from the beginning. Jax, a gifted writer, is serving a life sentence, but has chosen to dedicate herself to the other women she is serving her time with. For example, after learning the story of Cody, a fellow prisoner who had been blinded by her father, and who wanted to get her GED but was told she couldn’t because of her blindness, Jax got to work. She didn’t just tutor Cody, she taught herself Braille to make her study cards, and made Cody an abacus when she was told she couldn’t have a speaking calculator for the test. Cody went on to pass with flying colors, with some of the highest scores in the prison.

“I’m Not Going to Give Up”

While the work that Poetic Justice is doing is amazing and hopeful – they have reached over 3,000 women in Oklahoma and now California, and they currently serve 15% of Oklahoma’s female prison population, Stackable knows going up against the prison system is an uphill battle. She feels that the correctional system is “fundamentally broken” and “isn’t out there to correct people,” and should be focusing more on dealing with mental health issues and drug rehabilitation, instead of separating women from their children. 

As Stackable pointed out, “I think being in prison is really hard, and I think reentering society is really’s an unusual person who can succeed.” But the women that Stackable and Poetic Justice’s volunteers reach, and who spend those 8 weeks repeating the words “I have a voice, I have hope, I have the power to change” are given “a sense that they matter…and if you can have those 3 things [hope, a voice, a feeling like you can change] when you walk out the door, then you are 10 steps ahead of most people who leave prison. We are not the end all be all for reentry but what we do makes a difference in everything they choose to do. To have a sense that your voice matters and that you are a person of worth and you can express yourself in both writing and speaking, are super powerful. We’ve had input from the parole board, they say when your women come up before us they’re more eloquent than anyone else we talk to.”text from a former poetic justice studentAs of this writing, Poetic Justice is continuing on, despite restrictions to having volunteers in prisons, and has paired over 300 women (as opposed to the 60 they can reach in-person)  with “writing partners” who exchange writing through good old fashioned snail mail. But Stackable is hopeful that they will be reentering prisons for in-person classes soon, although she would like to continue the distance learning aspect. She has discovered that some women are more likely to participate in the remote program because they just wouldn’t feel comfortable in a class setting. “You know, it’s kind of like when you’re in middle school, and you walk into a class and you’re like, oh my gosh, I can’t believe that person’s here! That’s amplified exponentially in prison.” 

Feedback for the remote program has been very positive, with the participants making it clear that it has helped with their mental health and has given them the sense that “someone on the outside actually cares about them.” This has been incredibly important over the past year, as, according to Stackable, “They feel more acutely anything happening in the country, they feel a lack of control and wonder ‘Does anyone care about us?’”

The women that Ellen Stackable and Poetic Justice work with know that there are people out there who do care, but, more than that, the program allows them space to explore how they can care for themselves. And whatever happens, Stackable is going to keep going and keep making a difference, despite what can seem like insurmountable odds. “I think about the people that I love on the inside [of prison], I have a couple that call me every week, you know I just can’t go too much into all that is broken or I would give up. And I’m not going to give up.” If you want to help, go to Poetic Justice’s website, and consider providing a scholarship to one of their participants.

Supporting the Girls: How One Nonprofit Is Giving Women What They Need

Imagine having to live on the streets or in a shelter because of your economic circumstances, or having to flee your home because of violence or a natural disaster. It’s hard to wrap your head around something of that magnitude, isn’t it? But it might be even harder to imagine what your actual day-to-day life would be like in that situation. What necessities would you have to go without, and what seemingly little things that maintain your dignity would you lose access to? For women, it could mean going without the most basic hygiene products, or without the comfort of a clean bra. While many of us might not stop to think about these “little” things or might not know about the need that is out there, Dana Marlowe, founder of the nonprofit organization, I Support the Girls, is here to spread the word – and all the donated the tampons, pads, and bras she can get her hands on to women in need.

“Those Four Words Were Seemingly Innocuous…”

Dana Marlowe holding up two bras, one pink and one multi-colored
Dana Marlowe, founder of I Support The Girls nonprofit.

Dana Marlowe is no stranger to thinking about how to make the world a more equal place. Since 1994, her work – and her passion – has been making sure that the digital tech space is accessible for all. She audits websites, software apps, and mobile apps to make sure that tech is usable for everyone, and that everyone has equal access to education, social interaction, shopping, tourism, and everything else that technology has to offer its users. But menstrual equity (or the right of equal access to menstrual hygiene products) or the right for all to clean, comfortable underwear? That wasn’t on her radar so much. That is, not until one fateful day in a suburban mall.

“This is not the normal kind of weight loss success story,” Marlowe told me. Her story started out in a familiar way: after the birth of her second child, she realized she had gained some weight, so she changed her lifestyle, and was successful at dropping an impressive 35 pounds. But that’s not the success she means; her weight loss inadvertently led to her founding I Support the Girls. 

“After losing weight, I needed new bras, and I had lost so much weight that I didn’t really know what size I was. So I went to the local mall, got fitted, bought some new bras…and realized I had all these perfectly good bras that didn’t fit me anymore, so I asked the sales associate what I could do with them. So she told me in this tiny little dressing room, ‘homeless women need bras.’ Those four words were seemingly innocuous, but they basically changed my whole course – and I didn’t anticipate that happening while half naked in a dressing room in a suburban mall!”

As an obvious woman of action, Marlowe got on it. She contacted a local shelter in Washington D.C. and asked if she could donate, and how she could go about doing it. “The guy immediately said, ‘How soon can you get them here?’ And I was like, ‘Oh! If I didn’t know that homeless women need bras, what else don’t I know?’” So she asked what else they might need and, without missing a beat, the man at the shelter told her, “We REALLY REALLY need pads and tampons.” According to Marlowe, “I had never thought up until that moment what it must be like to be living on the streets and have your period, a whole week at a time and not have any extra products to help you manage it.”

“Don’t Ever Underestimate the Power of Neighborhood Moms’ Groups!”

Realizing that not everyone has access to hygiene products was a sobering thought for Marlowe. So she went to Costco, stocked up on hygiene products and put them with her pile of 16 freshly washed, gently used bras. Then she had another fateful encounter, this time with her best friend. While taking a walk, she told her about her plan to donate. 

hundreds of different colored bras on a long table.
When shared on social media, “People went crazy to donate.”

“My friend said, “Oh my god, I didn’t know that you could donate your bras! Can I give you mine?’ She’d had three children, and had lots of different bras in different sizes – and we ended up with 46 bras altogether! Now, my friend is a lawyer, she’s smart and savvy and she didn’t know about this need, so I figured maybe most people didn’t think about this. So I posted on social media, asking for donations. I figured I’d do a two-week collection. That was back in July 2015, but I’m still doing it! Don’t ever have me project manage anything!” she laughed.

Her post exploded, and was shared hundreds of times. “People went crazy to donate,” according to Marlowe, and what started as two friends gathering a few supplies turned into ever-growing porch pickups and collection sites around D.C. and Virginia, at coffee shops, yoga studios, and schools. Boxes even arrived from overseas. In the end, her first donation totaled an unbelievable 1,000 bras and 7,000 hygiene products. 

Three things had become clear to Marlowe. These products were very, very needed; people were willing and able to give (“Moms always have bras shoved in the backs of their drawers that they never use!” according to Marlowe); and this one-time collection didn’t need to be the end of her involvement in this issue. She was getting lots of attention for her work: people in other cities were reaching out, other social service agencies were getting in touch with her, and even the Washington Post picked up her story. And thus, Dana’s Bra Project was born. “But Dana’s Bra Project wasn’t quite right so I called it I Support the Girls because of the double entendre.”

Marlowe knew that I Support the Girls’ model was scaleable, and she set out to prove it was replicable, with an FAQ page and guidebook on her website, as well as four pilot studies. She found it was not just a local need, and that her model could absolutely be replicated. From there, she launched ISTG’s first program: their affiliate network. Now, ISTG has 50 affiliate chapters in the U.S. and 4 in other countries, and they’ve donated 12.5 million products to date.

In addition to the affiliate network, ISTG also branched out into specifically supporting women affected by natural disasters (“Periods don’t stop for hurricanes!”) and women fleeing domestic violence situations. According to Marlowe, “Domestic abuse victims don’t usually have hygiene products in their go bags. No organization tells them to pack them in their go bags, and we realized this was a big issue.”

So how does she credit the immediate success of I Support the Girls? According to Marlowe, “Never underestimate the power of neighborhood moms’ groups!”

“These Are Real Conversations That People Have to Have”

every body is worthy of armor written with bras and menstruation products around.
A lot of people have to choose every month between pads and a hot meal.

So what is the impact of all of this? Well, the numbers are one thing, but it’s hearing the stark reality of what it means to be without basic necessities that makes you realize just how much ISTG’s work is needed. “We hear heartbreaking stories all the time. A lot of people have to choose every month between pads and a hot meal. People have to choose between feeding their children or getting pads, or getting pads for their teenage daughters. These are real conversations that people have to have.” Considering that the average woman spends around $120 a year on hygiene products, and knowing how much a new bra can cost, it’s no wonder that these conversations are happening all over our country.

And when women and girls have to go without? Lack of menstrual products can contribute to loss of educational opportunity for impoverished teens, and many menstruators experiencing homelessness have reported infection caused by prolonged use or improvisation of menstrual products. Not having a bra to wear can even impact a struggling woman’s ability to get a job.

Hearing Marlowe talk about what women are going through is tough to hear. “Women are using bras that are 10 years old, the underwire is poking out and making them bleed, the sweaty, grimy straps are chafing their shoulders. Many women that I’ve met are keeping their breasts up with old cracked leather belts or are managing their period with ripped up cardboard, insides of mattresses – that’s not ok!”

But there is hope. I Support The Girls is growing, and is making a difference in women’s lives. For example, Marlowe told me the story of one woman, Crystal:

I met her in DC at a homeless shelter…and I asked her a few questions. I asked her what she wanted, she said nobody ever really asked her that. She said, “I’d really love a red lacy bra and I also want a sports bra. While we’re looking for the right ones for her, she said you know, I’ve had the bra I’m wearing for 9 years, but I’m always afraid to wash it because then it’ll be wet…I just want a red sexy bra so i can feel sexy too. You always see those models on magazine covers wearing them and I want to feel sexy. And the thing about a bra is it’s always under your layers” –  and she was in sooo many layers that day – “my life isn’t always safe, but nobody has to know it’s there so it won’t make me unsafe, but I’ll know it’s there and it’ll be close to my heart. And I asked her why she wanted a sports bra. She said, “Well, again, shelters are not safe and I don’t have a safe place to keep my most treasured possessions.” See, she used to be an artist, and she had a treasured painting that she kept with her, all folded up, and she wanted to keep that and all of her valuables in her sports bra – she got all of it! 

no taxation on menstruation written with a megaphone underneath it.
“Reach out to your legislature to find out if there’s a tax on hygiene products. 35 states still have taxes on hygiene products.”

“It Needs to Be Normalized”

Dana Marlowe and the organization that she “started by accident,” as she says, are proof that a small realization can spark a big movement. But it’s also up to all of us to help make change. So what can we do? In practical terms, Marlowe asks us to “Find those old bras, wash them, and mail them to us! If you’re able to donate hygiene products, that’s awesome!”

We also need to use our voices, if we’re in the position to do so. She urges us to “Reach out to your legislature to find out if there’s a tax on hygiene products. 35 states still have taxes on hygiene products, so they’re just not provided for free in public spaces. You can also ask if there’s a bill on the table that includes providing free menstrual products in public places, just like toilet paper.”

There’s also something that’s both easier and harder for us to do: be part of the incremental change toward normalizing periods and the products that women – more than half of our population! –  need. “There’s still a huge taboo and stigma that persists around the topic of menstruation – like using euphemisms like ‘Aunt Flo’, hiding tampons up your sleeve in class so nobody has to see it, but these perpetuate the stigma and the taboo – so part of it is to keep talking about it on all different types of platforms, social media, etc,” said Marlowe. 

It’s easy to talk on social media, but not so easy to change thousands of years of culture. But we have to keep trying. Said Marlowe, “How does change happen? Slowly sometimes. But think of this, my son was so proud that he knew all of the period facts and could answer all of the questions when they were talking about the subject in school. So, on the quick side, all 20 of those kids in his class saw that a boy knew all of the period answers and it normalized it for them! He said it the same way he said ‘I’d like a cheeseburger and fries’, it normalized it for all of those kids.”a pink and blue van with information of I support the girls organization

So we’re getting there. In the meantime, we can help Dana Marlowe and I Support the Girls provide much needed necessities, comforts, and dignity to women in need. To learn more about I Support The Girls, and find out how you can help, head to their website.

“Showing Up” for Young People: How One Nonprofit is Choosing Guitars Over Guns

Some kids get to live their dreams. Some, well, they fall through the cracks. Some have access to programs that challenge them and bring out the best in them, while some look around and see nothing but low expectations and indifference, or worse. Dr. Chad Bernstein, founder of Guitars Over Guns, may have been one of the lucky ones, but, for the last 12 years, he has been using that privilege to lift up at-risk youth in Miami and Chicago. 

Guitars Over Guns, which Bernstein founded in 2008, offers kids in vulnerable communities a chance to participate in a music education and mentorship program that aims “to help them overcome hardship, find their voice and reach their potential as tomorrow’s leaders.” His organization, which has professional musicians both lead music classes with at-risk youth, as well as provide a one-on-one mentoring relationship, has been wildly successful. They are proving that the secret to engaging with the kids that seem the hardest to reach may not be such a secret after all: as Bernstein says, you just have to “keep showing up.”

trombone with a musical sheet in front of it
Through his tough times growing up, Dr. Bernstein found his refuge with music and the trombone in the school band. 

“A Refuge and a Voice”

While he was growing up, Dr. Chad Bernstein, like many kids, found a safe space in the arts. He suffered the normal childhood slings and arrows, dealing with bullies, self-esteem issues, and disengagement at school. When he discovered the school band and the trombone, though, his world changed. Playing in the band gave him a place to be himself, and to find an enjoyment in going to school that he hadn’t found before. Music has always been my identity, even when there didn’t feel like there was anything else in the mirror that I could hold onto,” Bernstein said. “It gave me refuge and a voice.”

For Bernstein, his access to an engaging school music program led him down a path full of opportunities to do what he most wanted to do. He attended the college of his dreams, The University of Miami Frost School of Music, where he also went on to receive his master’s degree and doctorate. He has been able to tour the world and record with top musicians, as well as help create the sound of Miami with his two bands, Suenalo and the Spam Allstars. But it was one small favor for a friend that led him to what seems to be his true calling: changing the lives of young people through music.

“The Power of Music As an Escape”

In 2006, a friend asked Bernstein to speak and perform at a career day for young people in a juvenile detention facility. The visit got off to an unpromising start, and it seemed as if Bernstein was in for a depressing day. First, some of the instruments his band had brought along to play were taken away: “We couldn’t bring our guitars in, or anything with strings, because [they said] the kids might use them to strangle us,” remembered Bernstein. 

different types of musical instruments

Things didn’t seem to improve from there. When he got up to speak, the kids’ eyes glazed over. “They had zero interest in what we were saying…We were in a room with 40 kids convicted of God knows what. Nothing was landing, there was no connection,” he said. But then the band started playing. “Then they started listening,” said Bernstein,” They got into the moment. It was beautiful to see the power of music as an escape for whatever they were going through.”

Kids started nodding along, engaging in call-and-response, then chanting, then rapping. Something amazing happened: they made the song their own and everyone began jamming together. Bernstein felt that same excitement he had felt when he had first encountered the school band, and another amazing thing happened. Bernstein decided that he wanted to use music to reach the kids in his community who most needed to be reached. 

“You Have to Prove It” 

From that one favor for a friend, that started out so discouragingly, Guitars Over Guns was born. It began as an informal, volunteer-based program, with Bernstein and others mentoring young people and offering them music instruction. But when he saw the results, Bernstein decided to dedicate more of his time to it; he sought help from his father and turned Guitars Over Guns into a formalized nonprofit organization.

Bernstein, like many of us, was aware of the bleak prospects for kids who fall through the cracks. The kids he saw when he started volunteering had no one to connect to, and some were experiencing traumas way beyond their years. They were “working through trying situations — homelessness, attempts to be set on fire in their sleep by their parents, some who drive themselves to school because their parents are alcoholics,” he said. 

black and white picture of a hand on a fence.
The kids he began working with were in danger of dropping out of school or ending up in jail.

The kids he began working with were in danger of dropping out of school, as approximately 1.2 million children do every year in the U.S. Not only are young people who dropout of school likely to earn almost $400,000 less than high school graduates, and approximately $1 million less than college graduates over their lifetimes, but they are far more likely to end up in very bad circumstances. According to recent studies, on any given day, 1 in 10 high school dropouts is in jail or juvenile detention. They are also more likely to live in poverty, give birth at a young age, and suffer from poor health.

But where others might see hopelessness, Bernstein saw an avenue for reaching at-risk kids before things became, well, more risky for them. He realized that “all” you have to do is be there for them, 100%, and show them that they’re worth your care. According to Bernstein, “Nothing you can say can build that trust and create that vulnerability to create a relationship. You have to prove it and it takes a long time,” he says. “Give your word that you’ll be back even though they might flip the bird and tell you to go fly a kite … in less nice words. When you come back it says more than you ever could have.”

So Guitars Over Guns kept coming back, matching students with mentors, all of whom are professional musicians, and getting the kids to engage in music lessons (with healthy doses of affection, fun, and discipline). With all of this hard work, Bernstein saw kids’ lives changing for the better. The numbers bear that out: of the more than 4,000 students the program has reached since 2008, 94% improved their GPAs and school attendance records, and 99% have been promoted to the next grade on time. In surveys, 91% of participating students say they’ve learned to better appreciate their own talents, 94% report improved decision-making skills and 98% report increased confidence and self-esteem.

“The Freedom to Choose a Path of Their Own”

The numbers above are not only promising, they’re astonishing. The success of Guitars Over Guns exposes the truth that, as they state on their website, “It’s not that [children in underserved communities] don’t hold the same promise as other students. And it’s not that they don’t have dreams of their own. It’s that, due to circumstances beyond their control, they don’t always know that they have the freedom to choose a path of their own.” Bernstein’s solution is clearly art. As he says:

[Art is] a reflection of a place where people see themselves represented and feel they’re the authors of that space, tell their story, share their culture and celebrate who they are freely. The arts are both the best representation of that and the embodiment of what that spirit and culture is. Music has always been a blank canvas for those to speak up, particularly if the table doesn’t have space for them. People are able to unload, at least in moments, through music, and it’s one of the most sacred things we have. Sometimes those opportunities to escape and be immersed in it is what helps many of us get through the day.

And the kids Guitars Over Guns has reached? There are many who offer their very positive take on their experience with the program, including Junior Pierre, who was once in continual danger of failing out of school. After participating in Guitars Over Guns, his grades and engagement improved, and he eventually went on to not only graduate, but receive offers of scholarships to prestigious music schools. When speaking of Bernstein, he said: “Chad has seen something in me that I probably would have never seen. Guitars Over Guns has shaped my future desires and what I want to get accomplished.” class of teenagers with different musical instruments in their hands

The students who work with Guitars Over Guns see the same benefits to music that Bernstein sees, and it is so inspiring that this organization has given them the voice (and the refuge) to find that “space” and ability to “tell their story” within themselves. According to another program participant, Jakaree Whyms, “One thing that music does is help you understand what you can and what you can’t control. Because you can put stuff in lists and into bars and put those into music and you start to understand the bigger picture.  What you couldn’t convey first, [you learn] because you were misguided with anger and all these emotions that you couldn’t understand.”

If you would like to help out, you can donate to Guitars Over Guns here; head to their website to find other ways to get involved with them.