Why the caged bird sings


I didn’t realize I was holding my breath until the guard asked us where we were from. I was visiting a community center in a local men's prison with a colleague to discuss the possibility of creating a financial literacy program there. I was a little anxious, not knowing what to expect and eager to learn more.

As we walked down the hall to the community center, I noticed the visitor’s room, full of families reconnecting with their loved ones. I thought about the strain it must put on them, their relationships, and the communities torn apart by incarceration.

We continued down another hallway passing the commissary and cafeteria where many of the inmates were lined up outside waiting to enter. I exchanged glances and smiles with several of them, and I couldn’t help but wonder what they were thinking. Was my presence a painful reminder of the outside world, the freedom I so often take for granted?

A free bird leaps

on the back of the wind

and floats downstream

till the current ends

and dips his wings

in the orange sun rays

and dares to claim the sky.

When we got to the community center, we were met with the director and several friendly faces of inmates who were excited to show us around and I could feel myself relax. They shared more about the programs they offer: theater and writing workshops, yoga and meditation, Spanish, social and emotional development, trauma-informed care, workforce development and other basic life skills. There was such a sense of pride and commitment to the programs, often organized or led by inmates.

The rest of the morning was spent in a circle listening to and learning from the inmates. I expected to be met with some skepticism or a lack of trust. But from the moment we walked in, I felt completely accepted and welcomed. They were friendly, open, and eager to talk with us, share their experiences, and ask us questions about finances.

Every single person in that room spoke about their desire to learn and grow, to be a better person, and to use their knowledge to help break unhealthy and often generational patterns in their families and community. Each of them had different stories and experiences that led them to that prison and to that room. I didn’t know what they were in for and I didn’t care. In those few hours, we connected as humans, from a place of inherent dignity and worth. I was struck by their passion, sense of humor, and desire for self-improvement. It reminded of just how similar we all are at the core, in need of belonging and love. And yet, our opportunities, realities, and outcomes were much different simply because of where we grew up, our socioeconomic status, and our skin color.

But a bird that stalks

down his narrow cage

can seldom see through

his bars of rage

his wings are clipped and

his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.

Our time together seemed to fly by. I left with two main thoughts that remain heavy on my heart. First, I couldn't help but wonder how different things might have been if only these types of programs had been available to them before they were incarcerated. Over and over again we heard how helpful this personal finance education would have been to them or their families, if only they could turn back time and teach their younger selves. Many of them shared that the reasons they are in prison today directly resulted from financial instability and the hopeless and desperation it created.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams

his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream

his wings are clipped and his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing

Secondly, I can’t stop thinking about how quickly our society tosses these lives aside, forever stained by their transgressions in a way that often creates insurmountable challenges to rehabilitation and reentry. The fullness of their stories and experiences, their talents and potential, are reduced to reflect their crimes, as they become more and more invisible to society. Many of these men, if and when they get out, will leave with no more than $75 from which to create a life. That doesn't take into account the barriers they will face in finding a job or a place to live, or the psychological issues from the isolation of social stigma and broken relationships. It is no wonder, then, that the rates of recidivism are so high. These men deserve the opportunity to reenter society with a real chance to make a positive difference.

The caged bird sings

with a fearful trill

of things unknown

but longed for still

and his tune is heard

on the distant hill

for the caged bird

sings of freedom.

I'm not sure yet how our work together will unfold. But, I know that I am the one that walked away with new lessons learned and a bigger heart, forever impacted from meeting each one of those men. Our awareness, compassion, and humanity grows only through proximity to other people's pain and to situations so different from our own. What a gift it was to witness the powerful impact of community and restoration and healing. If only that wisdom didn’t have to be discovered within the walls of a prison.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou

A free bird leaps

on the back of the wind

and floats downstream

till the current ends

and dips his wings

in the orange sun rays

and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks

down his narrow cage

can seldom see through

his bars of rage

his wings are clipped and

his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings

with fearful trill

of the things unknown

but longed for still

and is tune is heard

on the distant hill for the caged bird

sings of freedom

The free bird thinks of another breeze

an the trade winds soft through the sighing trees

and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn

and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams

his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream

his wings are clipped and his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings

with a fearful trill

of things unknown

but longed for still

and his tune is heard

on the distant hill

for the caged bird

sings of freedom.

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