"How do I love me?" asks Nesha, a Mesa woman in her 20s, incarcerated for fraud.
Responding, she tells the audience at Estrella Jail in south Phoenix: "Let me count the way ... Sometimes I love me too much ... Well that is what other people would say."
Nesha joined more than 20 incarcerated women, many from the East Valley, at the facility Feb. 26 as part of this year's performance of Journey Home, a rehabilitative arts outreach program sponsored by ASU Gammage in conjunction with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and Life Paradigms Inc., a Phoenix-based company founded by Fatimah Halim to help women discover and express their inner worth to benefit themselves and their families.
Through dance, the visual arts, poetry and storytelling, the women told their life stories during the one-hour performance before family and supporters. This year's event, Who Am I Becoming?, was organized as a three-phase journey: past, present and future, from destructive behavior and toward constructive identity.
"Journey Home has allowed these women to develop creative tools that can help them make positive choices and encourages them to break the negative patterns that lead to incarceration," says ASU Gammage executive director Colleen Jennings-Roggensack. "We are the only performing arts venue in the country doing work like this within the prison system. It goes back to our mission of connecting communities."
Michael Reed, senior director of programming and cultural participation, said that ASU Gammage is known in the Valley for staging Broadway shows, "but Journey Home is a prime example of our outreach arts and community work. This program sends the message that the arts play a powerful role in our everyday lives."
The women, selected for the program by the sheriff's office, rehearsed their dances, stories, poems and planned their artworks six weeks prior to the public performance. Under Halim and her staff's guidance, the inmates met weekly to rehearse - often foregoing Saturday family visits.
"Journey Home gives the inmates an opportunity to express themselves in ways that other programs do not," says Officer David Cook, the temporary program coordinator for Estrella Jail. "And, as a group, they had to come together and work through any differences in order to make the presentation work."
At the MCSO, Cook works with Margaret Brazel, the inmate programs supervisor, to facilitate the program, which this year included the largest number of participants in its 10-year history.
Halim coordinates the creative writing and storytelling. Assisting her is Teniqua Broughton, who helps choreograph the dance and movement components of the performance. A former ASU Gammage employee, she is the director of the Phoenix chapter of Free Arts of Arizona, a program for homeless and abused children. Their associate, Imani Muhammad, a psycho-therapist and visual arts facilitator, helps the women with many of the psychological issues that often become more pronounced during the pre-performance workshops and rehearsals.
Many of the women are at the Estrella facility for drug-related activities - often tugged into criminality by friends and family.
One, Mesa resident Teresa, is in her 40s and has been at Estrella for nine months. She hopes to return home in a few months to live with her two children. Through the catharsis of writing poetry, she says she has benefited from the program. "I see that I am a child of God," she says. "The program is making me a better person and a better woman."
A third Mesa woman, Kristie, in her 30s, has been in jail for about 13 months and says she will be spending about seven more months at the Perryville Prison in Goodyear, west of Phoenix. "The program has been enlightening," says the mother of three. "It has allowed me to see the errors of my ways."
During the performance of Journey Home, she wore an apron painted by her and a partner: Three large words - Despair, Desire, Divine - express their movement from the past into the present and into the future.
In 2001, dancer/choreographer Pat Graney began the Keeping the Faith prison project in Washington. Halim was one of the participating artists, and ASU asked her to create a similar program in the Valley that year. She is looking forward to the next Journey Home, scheduled for January through April 2012. "I continue to be motivated by these women and inspired by them," she says.
The program is working, Reed says, noting that the sheriff's department has reported a significantly lower recidivism rate for the more than 300 women who have participated than that of Estrella's general population.
Teresa, for example, hopes to go back to school in computer science, possibly at Mesa Community College - and take courses with her daughter.
Kristie plans to start college courses at Perryville, where she is already assisting other inmates through drug counseling.
Nesha also wants to return to Mesa, where her mother, grandmother and four children are waiting for her. She is going back to school to become a social worker.
"Journey Home has allowed me to understand that, although I don't have physical freedom now, I have spiritual freedom by choosing it," she says, her face painted in multi-colored sparkles. "It has given me the opportunity to love me."