2021 Rutgers Mountainview Community Alumni Speech
Congrats to the Mountainview Community Class of 2021, and thank you for having me here today. For those who don’t know me, my name is Lauren Reed, I work for the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison and live in Denver, Colorado. When I was asked to deliver this speech I was incredibly honored to have this opportunity — and then I kind of panicked about what I was going to say.
I thought back to all the periods of growth I’ve had since first entering the prison system. Those seeds planted in my life way back then changed who I am today. It just so happens that graduation season closely aligns with the season of Beltane. I recently learned about the seasons during a women’s group at a Denver sober bar. The Solstices, Equinoxes, and midpoints between — — also known as the Cross Quarters — — have been celebrated by a variety of cultures around the world and across the ages. The word “Beltane” is derived from the Celtic god named Bel, and the Gaelic word “teine” which means fire. Together Beltane means “Bright Fire.” Beltane is the time when spring is celebrated, all the previously planted seeds are now blooming, and we can see growth all around us — the flowering of life.
As I talk with you today, I am reminded of sitting in my own graduation ceremony in 2017. I was unsure of my next steps. At that time, I didn’t know life would get harder and become nearly unbearable. I thought I had entered my own season of growth; however, these difficulties made it clear that I still needed to plant more seeds. I needed more time to grow into who I am today. At that time, I wasn’t honoring myself and all that I had accomplished. I pushed forward and despite my intuition telling me to take a break, I just kept working towards the unrealistic goals I had placed on myself. This toxic cycle was fueled by missing years of my life. I felt like I had to catch up to my peers and realize all the dreams that had been deferred by my incarceration. I wanted to do everything I had missed and do it on my own.
The thing is, I didn’t lose those years. I did live them in a state of survival mode mixed with daydreams of freedom. We all know living in a prison is hell, yet there is real growth that can happen there. I learned the art of building relationships with the people living with me, and I made lasting connections. I started college and began to see the value of education in a way I hadn’t appreciated before. I gained clarity on the failure of our criminal justice system, which I never could have learned anywhere else. I looked for opportunities to cultivate my mind even though my body was confined. Your presence here today tells me that you are on that same path.
Since that time, I have met people who have been incarcerated all over this country. I hear from all my friends and colleagues about how they have been coping since their release. I’ve heard so many times that they feel they aren’t doing enough, that they need to make up for lost years, and how they have to keep pushing forward. We have a fire inside us to make a change in this world, yet we are all pushing ourselves to the point of burning out. This is not unique to our population, but I believe It’s on a deeper level for those who, like myself, experienced incarceration.
I have learned the skill of self-care. It took a long time, but I was able to understand that rest was the only way I could push forward and keep the flame inside me lit. It took seven years before I rested. I stopped holding myself to extreme expectations. I am privileged to work in a field that I have a passion for, but I have also learned that my passions outside the field of higher education in prison are what enable me to do this work. This is a recent realization for me, I didn’t take a break until November of 2020. It took me seven years to take a pause — Reevaluate my priorities, and find my way in this life outside the walls — And truly live it.
The world can be brutal outside of prison. I have learned I love to make connections with people and value the times when I can actually do that. I learned to put down my phone and focus on the people in my life at the moment. I know traveling feeds my mind, body, and soul so I do that as much as I can. In Maine, I learned the value of barefoot hiking. I know it sounds weird, but connecting to the earth and really feeling the ground under your feet brings you back to center in a way I had never experienced. I let go of this immense shame and guilt I had over leaving my family and moved to Colorado. Here, I grew into the person I am today. I live my life for myself and have learned to put my own happiness first. I can’t help anyone if I am living an inauthentic life. I recently learned that when you are selfless in the act of living for others, you become less of yourself. There are times to be selfless but there are also times to be selfish. I have found people in Colorado who are a part of my community. I didn’t think they would accept me but I have this innate ability to be unapologetically me and they seem to love me for that.
I wish to leave you with this: Not honoring yourself is the biggest tragedy of all. Make sure you are taking care of yourself and your soul, plant those seeds, and make them grow. We are in the season of blooming. I want to see you all thrive and make this world a better place. I encourage you to be the Bright Fire in this world and, as Dr. Bettina Love says, “Give them HELL”. Congratulations Class of 2021. Thank you.