Building Community in the Unlikeliest of Groups: Breaking Barriers from the Inside Out

user Sarah Holliman
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This article was originally published in Thrive Global.

Ex-cons…successful entrepreneurs and businesspeople. Mutually exclusive? Irreconcilably different? A couple of weeks ago I would have thought so. To be honest, I wouldn’t have thought much about it at all, because I wouldn’t have been able to imagine these two seemingly incompatible groups of people together in a room. But, spoiler alert…I was wrong. I recently had the opportunity to participate in an Outside Circle Intensive event—and it was unlike any I’ve attended before. For the better part of two full days, I sat alongside 40 or so other people to break down the barriers that constrain us. And what I discovered was that we are all just people living behind our own bars, some literal…some mental. But one and the same, dealing with our own, well…crap. To say it was life-changing would be an understatement of epic proportions.

Outside Circle is the manifestation of a group of formerly incarcerated men from Folsom Prison who, while on the inside of the system, came together seeking a way to change. They recognized that the system in its immediate form wasn’t working…that to reduce recidivism and violence of all kinds required that they reform their entire way of being. That they look deeply within and confront the assumptions and beliefs that they’d long held to be true. And that entailed something more radical…a support group.

It may not seem that revolutionary when you think of it as a “support group.” But consider this. The first group—which at Folsom Prison they refer to as “Inside Circle”—was comprised of rival gang leaders, mortal enemies who would not speak to each other on the yard, much less cross the imaginary boundaries separating one gang, or race, from another. Yet when they came together in circle, they shared their most vulnerable moments…their deepest feelings…and they confronted them passionately, viscerally, unapologetically, and confidentially. By listening to one another and working through the thoughts and beliefs that held them back, they found ways to heal.

Inside Circle became a lifeline and created ties that bind. I witnessed it firsthand. The opening evening of our event, one of the leaders of the group, Eldra Jackson, shared that a Folsom friend had recently passed away while still imprisoned (although somehow the word “friend” doesn’t feel adequate). The emotion you could see from all that knew this man was palpable. And by the end of the weekend, I completely got it.

Outside Circle is run by an organization named for the original group, Inside Circle. And it was started to help these men—many who were in prison for life—continue the work that they had started while on the inside (which is documented in a 2017 film of the same name). But it is so much more than that. It brought together people from all walks of life—entrepreneurs, lawyers, psychologists, social workers, actors, businesspeople, coaches, parents, larger-than-life personalities, and yes…ex-cons. We spent the weekend in small groups of ten, and with the help of a couple of facilitators per group (many of the best, among the formerly incarcerated) worked through our own personal issues. Through tears, screams, imagery, and intensely physical techniques, we confronted demons. We exposed the most humiliating corners of our souls and were met with love and compassion. What I discovered from this community was that we all deal with the same issues and fears—failure, rejection, not being seen, not being liked. We all worry about not being good enough. We are all scared that we’ll pass along some of our own insecurities to our children and that they’ll make the same mistakes we have made.

What I discovered from this community was that we all deal with the same issues and fears–failure, rejection, not being seen, not being liked.

For the last year I have worked for The Trium Group, a company that uses some of these techniques—albeit perhaps less intensively…or at least intense in a different kind of way—to create sustainable change for business leaders and their companies. And after participating in Outside Circle, I couldn’t be prouder to be with a company that helps leaders put the humanity back in their companies by addressing business issues from the inside out, one leader at a time.

At a time when our society seems broken—when the country is divided politically…when there are intensely emotional and polarizing issues around gender, race, and culture—a place like Outside Circle is a haven. And it is a reminder that we are more similar than we are different.

The love I felt for this group was overwhelming. From complete strangers we built relationships in two+ days that are likely to transcend the years. I know that mine will. Ex-cons… successful entrepreneurs and businesspeople. I discovered over the course of the weekend that they aren’t mutually exclusive. They could be…and were, in the case of the men in my room…synonymous. At the end of the day, we are not the adjectives people use to define us—we are all just people.

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