Picture This - Leading in Prison

I am part of a group which volunteers at a local women's prison to support their running program.

The volunteer arrangement started with a few runners visiting the prison to talk about running and evolved into formal events.

Some of these events include a graduation 5K after each session, annual participation in their Heart Walk and Breast Cancer efforts, and even a marathon that involved 91 laps around the recreational field.

Many of the activities I do have a sizable social media component. If I visit a legislator's office for Shot At Life, I am expected to post pictures to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and my blog. Because I am a Fitfluential Ambassador and Charity Miles All Star, every workout gets its companion image on social media.

Although a staff person takes pictures of the races at prison and those pictures are shared publicly, much of our work is not preserved for posterity. Whether there are pictures or not, the leadership behind that work is as fueled by dedication and girded by organization as any I have ever seen. Three different types of leaders contribute:

People Who Are Paid To Lead

The prison doesn't have to have a running program. The program started because one warden, who was a runner himself, believed that running would benefit the inmates. Beyond the warden, staff members expend effort far above the minimum required to help us civilians clear background checks and receive training. They handle the logistical challenges of having 15-20 civilians on the premises professionally and cheerfully.

They could say why bother and keep on doing the minimum required of their work and collecting paychecks. Instead, they share a commitment to fulfilling the institution's mission, to helping the women deal with life while they are completing their sentences and to helping the women prepare for life on the outside.

People Who Lead One Another

In almost three years  of working with the prison running group, I have seen firsthand how women who have been stripped of whatever titles they held prior to their incarceration make it their business to empower others.

Women who have experience in the running group encourage those who are hesitant to take the first step. Women who have excellent organizational skills sit at a table in the full sun checking off laps of marathoners in order to provide support. Faster runners go back to encourage slower runners through the finish line.

People Who Volunteer To Help

As I have watched Mary Jean, my friend and fellow runner who coordinates our efforts, recruit runners to volunteer and liaise with prison staff to organize our activities, I have seen the power of persistence.

She has set the tone, making the statement: "show up at 6:30am for an hour of required training before our 7:30am 5K" sound almost pleasant. More importantly, she has been the link between the staff and the inmates, patiently working around bureaucratic hurdles and shepherding every interaction back to let's put one foot in front of another and run.

We don't have any pictures, for instance, of yesterday's visit where we informally spoke to 20 women in the running club. What we do have is the echoes in our heads of the woman who said, "I think I can do this" and her fellow inmate who said, "yes you can and we'll help you."

Three types of leadership, all taking place in an environment more commonly associated with punishment. Pictures are nice when we get them, but no one needs pictures to develop a richly rewarding takeaway.

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