DC Books to Prisons — a Spark in the Dark in 35 States

by guest writer Barbara Cornell

It’s Wednesday evening, and we’re in a church basement. The walls are crazy-crammed with books–from foreign languages in the far corner to business and science by the door. Busy people buzz around us.

Why have I brought you here? Joseph’s letter says it best: 

“A book or magazine is a major event in my 8×10 universe, and I would not have that spark in the dark if it were not for free.”

Joseph’s 8×10 universe is a prison cell in Woodville, Texas. And you are at DC Books to Prisons in Washington, DC.

If social justice is what love looks like in public, then DC Books to Prisons shows how love brings people together to push back against the darkness.

Our little group of volunteers—and we are all volunteers—is one of a handful of organizations around the country that sends free books to people in prison.

DC Books to Prisons serves 35 states, so we know how hungry prisoners are to read. We will send more than 16,000 books and other reading materials this year. 

If social justice is what love looks like in public, then DC Books to Prisons shows how love brings people together to push back against the darkness.

Barbara Cornell

But that’s only part of the story

We send Spanish books to children in immigration detention centers. We provide books and magazines for children visiting federal prisons, collect books for prison book clubs and build prison library collections. 

Hundreds of caring people give us books and the money to mail them, free space, free storage, free supplies. 

Sending even 16,000 books is a tiny act against the damage of mass incarceration. But choosing humanity over inhumanity is at least a spark in the dark.

“If we can act with courage and choose humanity over inhumanity, it does not seem that it can affect the larger trajectory of history,” said Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. “But I believe it can.”

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Location of other prison book programs (click for details).

Take Action!

Explore  DC Books to Prisons .

Support DC Books to Prisons with a donation.

Find similar programs near you using this map

Learn more about mass incarceration.  “Being involved in Books to Prisons made me want to know more about mass incarceration in America,” Barbara said. Here’s a fact sheet by the Sentencing Project.

Read about progress being made. There has been some progress to undo some of the factors that have contributed to mass incarceration, but there are still many more issues to tackle such as money bail

Visit previous blog posts:  
Carla Trier Brings Heaps of Love to Sheridan, Wyoming by Way of the Foster Parent Exchange
“Gillette Against Hate” Stands Up to Violent Speech and Actions

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Barbara Cornell lives in Washington, DC.

pataBee’s Mission — Sustainable Living and Reducing Single-Use Plastics

Yesterday I stopped at our windy, Wyoming mailbox and discovered an envelope from pataBee in Europe.

I was both curious and confused.

Mel and Patrick, owners of the Swiss-based company, pataBee, eating sandwiches in beeswax wraps.

Inside were two stainless steel straws, a straw cleaner, and a hand-written tag that read, “Thank you.”  

And the accompanying note said the straws “. . . will come in handy on your ongoing journey to reduce plastic waste.”\

A couple of years ago owners Melinda and Patrick gave handmade gifts to their families.

And it was that act that inspired the small, Swiss enterprise to form and focus on reducing single-use plastics with a sustainable living approach to commerce.

I feel good about the company and better about the lonely business that sometimes accompanies efforts to live sustainably. 

Their products offer alternatives.

Beeswax wraps take the place of plastics.

Small cotton bags eliminate grocery store throw away ones for produce and fruit.

And portable, reusable bamboo cutlery makes plastics spoons and forks unnecessary.

Organic beeswax, jojoba oil and GOTS (global, organic, textile standard) cotton form the bulk of the ingredients.

Last year on Amazon, I made two purchases from pataBee.

And I know I’ll buy from them again.

Because of the beautifully-crafted letter and useful gift, I feel solidarity and a deep appreciation for their mission.

Resonating with sustainable products and values

My values align with pataBees.

And that feels like a win for all of us. 

To pataBee I am a valued customer. 

And at the same time, I feel good about the company and better about the lonely business that sometimes accompanies efforts to live sustainably. 

Besides all that, I now have sunny faces to link to a business that’s helping me live consciously.

I return thanks to you, Melanie and Patrick.

And I share in this post a 20% discount for Patabee on Amazon.com:  ECOANGEL

.   .   .

Take Action!

•  Read about the only-if-you-ask-will-you-receive plastic straw policy at Sweet Melissa’s Vegetarian Cafe in Laramie, Wyoming.

•  Watchow to use, and reuse, pataBee beeswax wraps.

•  Take a look at Blue Willow if, like me, you enjoy a good cup of tea. Ali Roth is the owner who responsibly sources the teas.

.   .   .

Ellen is a native of northern Maine. Her interest in getting to know Wyoming focuses on ways people and organizations help and protect individuals, wildlife, beauty, and rights. She is a HeartMath® trainer and coach, a Connection Practice trainer and coach, and a biodynamic craniosacral therapist. Her website is:  EllenSynakowski.com and her email is EllenSynakowski@icloud.com.

“Remember that justice is what love looks like in public.” – Cornel West

“Pain should not be wasted”— Deep Gratitude to Three Parents Who Have Not Wasted Their Pain

Dennis and Judy Shepard, parents of Matthew Shepard.

Holocaust survivor, Gerda Weissmann Klein said, “Pain should not be wasted.”

And I am deeply grateful to three parents who live that wisdom.

Karen Ball began the Sturge-Weber Foundation when her daughter, Kaelin, was born with Sturge-Weber Syndrome accompanied by a significant facial port wine stain.

Because this Foundation was there when my son, Byron, was born with the same syndrome, we were not alone.

Karen continues to blaze trail after medical trail in service to others.

The Shepards of Casper, Wyoming

And then there are the Shepards.

Their son, Matthew, was murdered 20 years ago this month.

It was a hate crime for being gay.

Judy channeled her anger and pain and created good:  The Matthew Shepard Foundation.

And for two decades, she and her gentle husband, Dennis, have traveled the country and the world erasing hate, promoting tolerance, and heralding human rights for all.

“This is not about courage or some higher calling; This is what happens when you piss off a mother.” – Judy Shepard

We spent this week-end in their presence.

On October 26, 2018 at 10 a.m., a public celebration of Matthew’s life will precede his interment at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.

His remains are still not safe in Wyoming.

And that is unimaginable.

The Shepards model both public anguish and resilience as they counter the injustice of Matthew’s death.

And though their service to humanity cannot be measured, award after award attempts to quantify the shift their work is creating.

As Judy said during the Shepard Symposium for Social Justice in Laramie last spring, “This is not about courage or some higher calling; This is what happens when you piss off a mother.”

And for me, a mother still fighting for me children — sometimes out of fear, occasionally from anger, and mostly out of love — I spill tears every time I’m close to the energy that swirls like tornados around Judy and Dennis.

Because beyond the LGBTQ community, the work they do emphasizes justice for all human life on the planet.

“Pain should not be wasted.”

And for Judy and Dennis and Karen it hasn’t been.

•  •  •

An excerpt from Dennis Shepard’s trial statement:

“You left him out there by himself, but he wasn’t alone . . . First, he had the beautiful night sky with the same stars and moon that we used to look at through a telescope. Then, he had the daylight and the sun to shine on him one more time — one more cool, wonderful autumn day in Wyoming . . . And through it all he was breathing in for the last time the smell of Wyoming sagebrush and the scent of pine trees from the snowy range. He heard the wind — the ever-present Wyoming wind — for the last time. He had one more friend with him. He had God.

“I feel better knowing he wasn’t alone.”

Take Action!

•  Learn more at the Sturge-Weber Foundation

•  Help Erase Hate at the Matthew Shepard Foundation

•  Read about growing up in a moderately-tolerant town

•  •  •

Ellen Synakowski (she/her/hers) lives in Laramie, Wyoming. Her website is EllenSynakowski.com. She is a Registered Craniosacral Therapist (RCST), is on the Board of Directors of the Biodynamic Craniosacral Association of North America (BCTA/NA), and has been practicing Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy since 2013.

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.  — C. West


Allan Turgeon, Thank You for Your Decency*

My husband, Ed.

I don’t believe it.

And I won’t stay silent when people say, “Boys will be boys.”

My husband isn’t and never was like that.

Nor is my son.

My son, Byron.

And I’m certain my father never passed through an abusive phase on his way to becoming a fine man.

And neither did Allan Turgeon.

Decency in College

As with most of my 40+ year-old memories, what I recall of Allan is a little fuzzy.

Allan as a young frat guy.

When I was a freshman at the University of New Hampshire, he was a senior.

Or was I a sophomore?

Both of us were part of the business school, and each of us grew up in Maine.

And for some reason I can’t recall, one week-end we drove to New York City  —  Allan, me, and his classmate and friend, Joey Nocero.

When we arrived in the wee hours they permitted me to stand between them like Debbie Reynolds flanked by Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor.

Then we danced down Broadway in the rain.

That memory is clear.

I won’t stay silent when people say,
“Boys will be boys.”

And the other thing that remains vivid is the hotel room we shared with its solitary, double bed.

When I first saw the layout, I didn’t experience fear or panic so much as a rush of concern.

But the feeling didn’t last.

Allan and Joey said the bed was mine as the two of them grabbed pillows and slept on the floor.

True Colors

The next time Allan showed his true colors was at the end of his last semester.

He invited me to a fraternity dance, and I joined him there wearing an outfit I’d sewn in high school along with stilt-height wedge heels.

But memories of the party itself are unclear.

I know it was crowded and loud.

Thank you, Allan. Your decency helped ensure that I experience life without lugging around heavy scars.

And I’m sure alcohol was a dominant feature.

By the end of the party I was ready to crash in Allan’s room and call it a night.

But he refused.

“You’re not staying here.

“You can’t be around these drunk guys,” he said.

So he drove me to my dorm where I sleepily, if innocently, said good night.

In Hindsight a Gift

I am one of the two-out-of-three women in this country who has been spared sexual assault.

Yet I know the anxiety that accompanies fear of violation.

What woman doesn’t?

Allan near the end of college.**

And whether that alarm bell is taught or acquired, I can’t say.

I didn’t have it growing up, and it’s not part of life now.

But in between, worrisome moments were frequent.

So thank you, Allan.

Your decency helped ensure that I experience life without lugging around heavy scars.

And while I understand that feeling safe in the world isn’t shared by all humans, it’s only recently I’ve come to appreciate how rare my reality may be.

Take Action!

•  Thank someone who made your life easier or better.

•  And read about the simple lessons Mr. Rogers exposed us to.

•  •  •

Ellen Synakowski (she/her/hers) lives in Laramie, Wyoming. Her website is EllenSynakowski.com.

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.  — C. West

This post was written in beleaguered anticipation of the Kavanaugh Supreme Court vote.

** Allan Turgeon still lives in Maine. He has been married 37 years, has two sons, two very young grandchildren, and, I imagine, he’s still doing the right things.

Mr. Rogers, It’s Time We Bring Back What You Taught Us

How do you feel when you see Mr. Rogers’ face as he sings to or looks at a child?

Does your heart open up like a big, all-in hug?

It takes me back to sitting on our living room floor in Lincoln, Maine and watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood after school.

Four o’clock, I think it was.

And though there are oodles of counter-joy messages in TV land these days, we can always go back to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

That’s where we can hear Tony Bennett sing to Lady Elaine.

Or watch Margaret Hamilton discuss pretend witches as she ties on her Wizard of Oz skirt.

Or be reminded of who knit all those zippered sweaters.

We could let ourselves empathize with the uncertainty of vulnerability.

And then feel certain that having a friend matters fiercely, as it did the day Lady Aberlin and Daniel sang, “Sometimes I Wonder if I’m a Mistake.”

We could picture ourselves living as compassionately as Mr. Rogers did, like the time he and Jeff Erlanger sang, “It’s You I Like”.

Mr Rogers, It’s You I Like

The 2018 PBS documentary, Mr. Rogers, It’s You I Like, is narrated by Michael Keaton, one of The Flying Zookeeni Brothers on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. (If you click the link, he’s the one in the white hat.)

Sarah Silverman says, “You know what I loved about him? He never lied to kids. He leaned right into it and he always told the truth.”

And John Lithgow falls still as Mr. Rogers sings, “Sometimes people get sad, and they really do feel bad. But the very same people who are sad sometimes, are the very same people who are glad sometimes . . .”

Whoppi Goldberg calls Fred Rogers a subtle civil rights advocate.

You could see it the first time he invited Officer Clemmons to share his wading pool.

It was during a time vicious messages promoting segregated swimming were pervasive in the U.S.

And again years later they cooled their heels while singing, “There are Many Ways to Say I Love You,”

Mr. Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, never strayed from his message of love.

“Love is at the root of everything. All learning, all relationships. Love  —  or the lack of it.”

And how evident that was when he and the signing, silver-back gorilla, Koko, exchanged words of love.

When I was the parent of young children, I wanted them to to know that the simplicity of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood could go with them anywhere, and that they didn’t have to do or be a certain way for me and others to love them.

“The greatest thing we can do,” he said, “is to help somebody know that they’re loved and capable of loving.”

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Treating yourself to the newest documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, qualifies, I’d say, as profound, self care.

And ditto for taking time afterwards to sit quietly with the feelings it evokes.

Surprisingly, the moment that may have spoken loudest to me during this film was when Mr. Rogers chose not to speak during a speech.

In a commencement address at Dartmouth he invited reflection then paused:

I’d like to give you all an invisible gift. A gift of a silent minute to think about those who have helped you become who you are today.
. . . wherever they are, if they’ve loved you, and encouraged you, and wanted what was best in life for you, they’re right inside your self.

So I’m making the suggestion that as you read this, you stop for a moment to also remember.

I’ll do it, too.

and dad
and Byron
and . . .
. . .
. . .


And when your minute is up, remember:

It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive, it’s such a hap-py feeling you’re growing inside, and when you wake up ready to say, I think I’ll make a snappy today. It’s such a good feeling, a very good feeling, . . .”

Take Action!

•  Be kind to someone today just because.

•  And notice all there is to be grateful for from sunrise to sunset. Once you start looking with those eyes, what comes into focus is pretty spectacular.

• And take action when you see something that is just plain wrong.

•  Read about Climb Wyoming, the organization demonstrating to adult, single moms that “they are loved and capable of loving.”

•  See how one small group banded together, Gillette Against Hate.

•  •  •

Ellen Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming.
Her website is EllenSynakowski.com

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.1  — C. West

Better Business Bureau’s Torch Award for Ethics — Does That Imply Valuing Justice, Too?

Yesterday I drove up behind a roofing repair truck.

It said in light blue letters on the tailgate, “BBB’s Torch Award for Ethics.”

I noted the company, Capitol Roofing, for the minor roof work we intended to do.

And honestly, who needing roof repair could see the ethics award sticker and not give them a call?

Then I became curious.

Is there a logical connection between ethics and justice, that idea that occupies so much of my thoughts?

The Oxford Living Dictionary says ethics are “moral principles that govern a person’s behavior . . .”

And justice is defined as “. . . the quality of being fair and reasonable.”

Even Plato tied these together by saying happiness, the ultimate goal, requires morality.

And morality involves wisdom, courage, moderation, and, yes, justice.

I read that this particular ethics award is nearly impossible to earn.

The website for the Better Business Bureau (BBB) of Northern Colorado and Wyoming explained.

A Torch Award “shines the spotlight on businesses and nonprofits that exemplify outstanding ethics.”

A company is ineligible if it has less than a “B” rating and any unresolved complaints.

Capitol Roofing knows well the rigors of making the cut.

And that is probably why their 2014 win is prominently displayed.

By the second or third red light the truck and I shared, I felt settled.

My logic said an ethical company also values social justice.

And that brings me comfort.

But just in case I’ve misunderstood Plato or the dictionary, I won’t be running my theory by a philosopher.

Simply put, my conclusion works for me.

And if happiness comes to the owners and workers at Capitol Roofing, all the better.

Take Action!

•  Read about the BBB Torch Awards for Ethics

•  Take a look at Capital Roofing in Cheyenne, WY

•  Read about Ethisphere, which gives out awards to the most ethical companies world wide

•  Re-read about two non-profits I’d like to see win ethics awards, Climb Wyoming and Hole Food Rescue.

•  •  •

Ellen Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming.
Her website is EllenSynakowski.com

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.1  — C. West