Life Beyond the Cell

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“Last May, I retired from my position as a senior editor at The New York Times in order to fully embrace my new company, Resilience Multimedia., and to raise my own voice as an advocate for the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated. These days, as I read the stories that will find their way into the “Think Outside the Cell Series,” I know that I’ve closed the circle on the search that brought me home from foreign shores years ago. I have found my purpose.”

In a corner of my office are bags brimming with real-life stories written by the incarcerated, the formerly incarcerated and their loved ones. Some are typed, many are neatly handwritten in ink on notebook paper, and there are even a few produced with pencil. The stories, many of which I plan to publish in my “Think Outside the Cell” book series, tackle several topics:  the optimism and fears surrounding reentry to society, prison, the complexities of prison marriages and relationships and the trials of the heart.

Each and every story speaks to the yearning in each of us to be heard, to be considered, to be understood.

 And the stories speak, too, to my personal journey of discovery, a journey that led me to leave a successful career as a journalist at one of the most prestigious newspapers in the world and to become a publisher of books designed to present a fairer, more balanced image of men and women who have prison in their backgrounds.

My journey began in the late 80’s, when I roamed Africa and, later, Europe as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. Bearing witness to famine and coups, the raging hatred of apartheid and the rise and fall of dictators, I found myself on a search for purpose. In 1991, that search led me home to the United States.

“Think Outside the Cell: An Entrepreneur’s Guide for the Incarcerated,” was written by Joseph Robinson and published in 2007 – the first product of Resilience Multimedia, which was created and founded by Sheila Rule, a former senior editor at The New York Times.


 

At the outset, purpose was little more than a vague yet nagging notion that for all that I’d been blessed to receive in my life, I wanted to give back. I started out by doing volunteer work with the formerly homeless—I served as a human safety net of sorts as they made the transition to public housing—and with teenage girls at a group home in Brooklyn. I also became a board member at a New York City social services agency that helped vulnerable children and families. Before heading to my overseas assignment, I had spent several years as a Times Metro reporter, and of the various beats I covered, the homeless and social services were the beats that seemed particularly suited to the inclination of my heart.

During this time, my son and I would often make our way to Riverside Church on Sundays; I’d been attracted to the church because of its reputation for championing social justice causes. It was at Riverside in the fall of 2001 that I was set on a path that would take me in an unexpected and enriching direction.

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It was Homecoming Sunday, a day when Riverside’s various clubs and organizations put up tables, display their literature and talk up their activities in the hope of attracting new members. At one of the tables, there was a poster for the Prison Ministry. I read the organization’s brochure and listened as the no-nonsense representative told me to get involved. I recall simply thinking that perhaps there was something I could do to help, especially since so many of the incarcerated are black people, my people.

I joined the Prison Ministry, and I was asked to correspond with incarcerated men and women who wrote to the ministry. And so I did. Although viewed by general society as faceless statistics or frightening stereotypes, the people I came to know were multidimensional, complex human beings, much like the rest of us. More than a few were skilled and talented in a range of disciplines, from writing and music to business and law.

And there were those who’d clearly used their time in prison to rethink and disavow the values and belief systems that had brought them there.

One of the incarcerated people with whom I corresponded was Joseph Robinson, a self-taught expert on business who had personally schooled hundreds of incarcerated men about personal finance and entrepreneurship.


Joe Robinson and Sheila Rule

 

In the course of corresponding, Joe and I fell in love, and we eventually married. And with his smart guidance and encouragement, I started my publishing company, Resilience Multimedia. As part of its mission, Resilience seeks to present a more balanced view of the incarcerated through books that allow them a voice, that feature their success stories and that help them tackle some of the hard challenges they face.

My company’s highly praised first book, “Think Outside the Cell: An Entrepreneur’s Guide for the Incarcerated,” was written by Joe and published in 2007.

It garnered a number of strong reviews and endorsements, including one from John C. Whitehead, a former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs and former U.S. deputy secretary of State, who wrote: “This no-nonsense, step-by-step guide offers a golden key to successful reentry by teaching inmates and former inmates how to use their entrepreneurial talents to realize their dreams.”

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