The following was written by Grady Mitchell. Grady is a Roots of Success instructor, master trainer, and Board member, and recently joined us as Corrections and Reentry Outreach Coordinator. Grady was incarcerated in Washington state prisons for 37 years and was finally able to return to his family and community on January 28, 2021. 

This week I had the opportunity of speaking at a local rotary club meeting here in Washington. There was a volunteer, Mary, that I met and befriended when she came to volunteer in the prison. A few weeks ago, she extended the invitation for me to come to the rotary club meeting and speak to the members about my experiences.

The rotary club certainly isn’t my usual crowd– Some are lawyers, some bank managers, mostly white collar workers and retirees. And I know interactions with people after incarceration can sometimes be tough. I know many will have preconceived notions about me. But all my years with Roots of Success have prepared me to feel confident in public speaking. I’ve learned to always maintain respect and professionalism, even in the heat of the moment. That’s the way we’ve always taught the Roots of Success class. Anxiety and distress from the prison never entered the classroom. We treat people equally and everyone’s voice is heard, no matter people’s culture, age, ability, or background. I decided to just be myself. If I was going to speak at all, then I was going to speak my truth.

Sitting in on the rotary club’s meeting was a great experience, because they are so involved in the community. They make donations to good causes, they have a book club, they even go sailing together! When it came time for me to speak, I began by telling them the story of my incarceration. I spoke about my mindset in the early days of my incarceration, which was very negative and unsustainable. It was an us vs. them mindset, and it was ingrained in me, and many incarcerated people, by everything in the surrounding environment. But in 2008, I was able to shift this mindset. It had gotten old. I wanted to stand up for myself, to prove myself. I remember telling my wife “I’m done with this. I give you my word.” 

You have to change slowly, and with a strong commitment. After deciding to make that change, I started standing up for myself. Once, I was promised a facility transfer after two years, but time went by and I still hadn’t been transferred, even though I maintained a perfect behavioral record for those two years. So I decided to write a letter to headquarters advocating for myself. I made my case to one of the administrators, and it worked. I was transferred to Stafford Creek In 2013, where I found Roots of Success. I completed the training, and after that, things took off for me. No looking back. 

Then I shared some of my achievements in prison, including my work with Roots of Success. I emphasized the importance of empowering programs in prisons. I explained the governor commutation process, which is a very extensive process. In large part my commutation is due to my involvement in Roots of Success. Now that I’m out, I’m able to work with Roots of Success, as well as give talks like this one, telling people how important these programs can be in people’s lives. Finally, I spoke about the panel discussion Raquel and I led at a conference with Yale and Boston College. 

They listened to me speak, and had some great questions afterwards. One gentleman, a lawyer, asked me about the possibility of doing pro-bono legal work to support incarcerated people. Another gentleman at the meeting shared that, by coincidence, he realized he had watched my clemency hearing when it was broadcast on tv! We talked about the importance of family, my transition to reentry, even religion. I told them how my religious beliefs are part of my story– so many things in my life I consider to be amazing and miraculous. I feel blessed to have the wife and support network that I have, and to be entering into employment with Roots of Success. 

The next day, I sat in on a Roots of Success teacher training over zoom, to get a feel for how the trainings work now that many are virtual. I learn something new every time I speak with Raquel or do a Roots of Success training. This time, I thought about just how much Roots of Success is able to give us. Raquel extends such a high level of trust to us, it’s humbling, and it’s an honor and a pleasure to be part of this community. The teacher training is so important because it gets people to think about the nuances of the classroom experience, and how to read between the lines, like how one word can change a sentence.

At the end of the day, it’s all about people. The love we extend to each other at Roots of Success is the reason people are drawn in and transformed. That’s the flame for the moth.