THE IMPERFECT SHOW NOTES
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These show notes come via the Otter.ai service. The transcription is imperfect. But hopefully, it’s close enough – even with the errors – to give those who aren’t able or inclined to learn from audio interviews a way to participate.
Kathie Klarreich 00:00
It’s our mission to go into exchange for change classes with the idea of imparting communication skills, but it’s also our job to work with the community to help them understand the humanity of the people inside who will return that will be our neighbors and people in our restaurants and our service people and all of that. So, it’s forced me to continue to confront my own biases and prejudices.
Achim Nowak 00:30
Hey, this is Achim Nowak, executive coach and host of the MY FOURTH ACT podcast. If life is a FIVE ACT play, how will you spend your FOURTH ACT? I have conversations with exceptional humans who have created bold and unexpected FOURTH ACTS, listen, and to be inspired. And please rate us and subscribe on whatever platform you are listening on. Let’s get started. I am so happy to welcome Catherine Claridge to the my fourth act podcast. Cathy is a journalist and the author of Madame dread the tale of love, voodoo and civil strife in AD, Cathy spent half of her 24 years as an investigative journalist living in her report from Haiti had been featured in The New York Times Time Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, ABC, CNN and the list goes on and on and on. Katherine, in 2014, founded exchange for change a nonprofit that offers semester long writing classes in South Florida correctional institutions, and also runs letter writing exchanges with local academic institutions. I cannot wait to have this conversation. Hello,
Kathie Klarreich 01:55
Kathy. Hello. So nice to be here.
Achim Nowak 01:59
My immediate judgment of you is and I mean, there’s a positive way as, as I read it out loud, is that you are an adventurer and explorer and not fray afraid of that. And I’ve led this similar life. So before we go to Haiti, I’m always curious when you were a young girl growing up? What were your ideas about what you were going to be as an adult and what you are going to do?
Kathie Klarreich 02:28
This is really, in some ways, embarrassing to say, but I did not know I didn’t think about it. I loved the outdoors. I’ve always loved the outdoors. I was always curious. And I remember my mother saying, when we were little, I had three sisters. And my parents put us all for all four girls in the back of a station wagon and drove to California. And as she said later, I don’t know what I was thinking. But along the way, we stopped at a farm. And I think we were there for about a week. And she said I could have left you there. Like you never paid any attention to us. You cared about the water and the lake and the fish and the animals and the rest of us were immaterial to you. So I knew that whatever I wanted to do was or I thought was going to be outdoors. But that ended up not actually been the case.
Achim Nowak 03:21
So what took you to journalism?
Kathie Klarreich 03:23
I fell into journalism. You know, I didn’t study journalism didn’t think about journalism, journalism was a product of my environment. I gone to Haiti to buy handicrafts. And shortly after I got there, there was a government overthrow. And the fatal conversation I had with my mother was, well, you could either get involved or come home, you know, assuming that I was going to come home, and I didn’t and I ended up staying there for 10 years.
Achim Nowak 03:57
My first sort of conscious thinking of ad was from a grandly novel called The comedians was made into a movie with his glamorous guest, Richard Burton, and Elizabeth Taylor and so on. But it really went into the corruption, politics, the Voodoo part, which can also be glamorized and trivialize that they went into all of that. And I must say, when I saw that I immediately was fascinated and went, Oh, I want to go to movie even though it sounded like not such a great country, right.
Kathie Klarreich 04:36
We could have been friends back then I keep the same sort of perspective,
Achim Nowak 04:42
given the fact that the problems and he had been well documented and you became one of the documentaries to your journalism. Most people might go get me the hell out of here. And you said I’m staying Can you explain that to our listeners?
Kathie Klarreich 05:04
Yes, I think when my mother said that to me, she thought, okay, she’ll be on the next plane coming home. And then we don’t have to worry about this anymore. I look back now and it’s been 30, some years, I was looking for meaning, I had thought the meaning would be buying the handicrafts. I had a store back in San Francisco. And I would be able to support what was happening in Haiti through the purchase of handicrafts, because it is something that they do well. And when I couldn’t do that, I recognized maybe subconsciously or unconsciously, an opportunity to witness history being made. It was several years after the fall of the Dubai dictatorship. And there was such excitement about, really the birth of a nation with women’s groups and labor groups, and people coming out of the shadows to live their lives in a way that they hadn’t been able to, during a very repressive dictatorship. And I was there and it was an opportunity to, to document it. So I had a friend in San Francisco when the first coup happened, the first overthrow, and she said, Well, I got a friend at the San Francisco Chronicle, maybe you can write a piece for them, because you’re there. And that really opened up what eventually became my career as a journalist, I was in the right place at the right time. As I was told later, by my family, you’re finally getting paid for asking questions. You know, I was curious by nature. And it wasn’t easy, obviously, you know, I didn’t speak the language and didn’t know how to report didn’t know how to formally put something together. But a lot of it’s common sense. And I was able to observe, and then from observations to, you know, try and put the pieces together for people to better understand what they’re hearing through the radio and through reports, you know, newspaper and magazines.
Achim Nowak 07:10
This is not a perfect parallel, but when I was 35, I moved to Tobago with Caribbean island, also post colonial country like eating, I was very aware of being a white person in the village where I was literally for a while the only white looking person. So I’m aware that you were a witness in the observer, but potentially also to people, you know, all sorts of stuff can be projected onto you as to who you are as a white female. With any that consciously or unconsciously played out the fact that here’s this white woman from at hanging out writing about us. I’m just curious.
Kathie Klarreich 07:51
I think several things contributed to lessening that stigma. One is that I ended up falling in love and marrying the Haitian. And so I got some street credibility. And that’s actually was the title of my memoir, Madame dread. So if you married someone from Haiti, they would call her Madame IChemE. Right. So my husband had dreadlocks. And so the street kids called me madam dread, which was the title of the book. So there was that I and I was not one of the parachute journalists. Right. I was living there. So the I think those two things helped mitigate a little bit of the projection. But yes, certainly, I was more privileged had more access. And I’ll tell you, I remember one time some other journalists took a picture of a street demonstration. And he goes, Look, Kathy, there you are. And I was walking in the steep street demonstration. And of course, I’m white, you know, and I stood out. And I, it was the first time I had sort of a visual of what I must look like to everybody else, but I was just sort of doing my thing. I’m not unaware like, I don’t think you can, in a country like Haiti, where there is so much class division. And in the Constitution, there’s dozens of classes, depending on your skin color. So, you know, I don’t want to downplay it, but the other things also helped to make me feel more like I was a resident of Puerto Prince.
Achim Nowak 09:35
As I listened to you, I remember when I lived in Tobago, again, not a perfect correlation at all. The foreigners of Trinidad Tobago were treated differently based on whether they lived there or there were choices. And there were situations like that somebody wanted to overcharge me for a taxi ride and it’s like wait a minute. They live basically the subject I suppose Don’t fuck with me. And at the same time, I realized the idea that I was actually a local was my own delusion, I was still a foreigner being married to an Asian, how far do you think you became in terms of becoming a local? Were you seen as a local or this is the tough thing we navigate as foreigners in foreign countries, right?
Kathie Klarreich 10:25
I mean, I was always aware of as I made friends, depending on who it was, so if it was another expat, that didn’t play into my position, but making friends with Haitians, I had to have always been looked at as someone with resources, someone who could potentially help with a visa, someone they could come to if they were in financial straits. So I was definitely aware of that. And it was uncomfortable often, because you’re always wondering, are they friends with me because of who I am, or because I’m an American with resources.
Achim Nowak 11:09
In my experience, as well, I never got away from that. So I fully fully understand. Now, I want to invite you to just take us into two different ends of your Haiti experience. If you have a moment where you, that stands out for you where you go, this is why I stayed. This is a moment where I realized this is why I chose to stay and be a voice and be the observer. But I know there are always those moments where you go, what the hell am I doing? And I can’t imagine that you didn’t have those either. Can you take us to both of those experiences?
Kathie Klarreich 11:47
Yeah. Why I stayed is it can’t be one answer, because there were so many things that played into it. One is that I think I’m particularly stubborn. If I make a commitment to something right. And I committed to my marriage, and I committed to being a reporter. And I got incredible satisfaction out of being a reporter and being able to document life in Haiti was not boring. At the same time, during this period, when I loved being a journalist. There were periods when we would go for weeks on end without electricity, and I was raising the young son. And so I had to be very resourceful. And what I think it did was allow me to go deep. And the going deepest the reason that I stayed, it was a sense of community. I didn’t have family there, we didn’t have many resources. So it was the lifestyle of being part of a group, knowing I had friends that I could count on. Life was in some ways, much slower. You didn’t have many options to do things. And so you had to be very resourceful. So I’d say that was a big draw for staying there. Leaving when I said, What the hell am I doing? I had two thoughts. And then the second time I did actually leave. And the first time was when they shut down all the flights. And they closed all the borders. And I was raising my son and my stepdaughter. And I thought this is incredibly irresponsible. I could get out as a journalist I could get on the plane of I was working for NBC at the time. So I could leave, but I’m not going to leave my family behind. And should we have gotten on that last flight? So there was that question. I didn’t leave, obviously. But the second time was when I was held up at gunpoint for the third time. And it wasn’t so much. It’s embarrassing to say it wasn’t so much that I was actually had a gun at my head. It was my reaction to it. I was working as a fixer for NBC, we have a Dateline crew. And we were cut off by a van in front of us and the guys from the van got out. There were four of them. Each one had a gun, they took each door. And the guy at the driver’s side, opened the door and put his hand on me and said get out. And I thought they were plainclothes policemen. I thought they were going to shake us down. I’ve been through this many times before and I took his hand and I threw it off me. And I said very abruptly and Creel Don’t touch me, and I got out. And then he got in the car. And then I realized, oh my goodness, he’s going to drive away and so fortunately, the camera people the sound person and the journalist also got out of the car, the guys got in the car, and they drove away. And I thought that split second decision when I threw his hand off me and heavy been another kind of person. He could have shot me taking the car and driven away and I thought you know what, my instincts are not good anymore. I put. I put obviously myself but I put these other people in danger. It’s time to leave. And within two weeks I was gone.
Achim Nowak 15:06
When you mentioned the last flight, and should I get on it? To me that was both literal and metaphorical. What are our personal last flights and knowing, knowing when to get out of something, maybe we can relate this later to the folks you serve with exchange for change, right, that question of what do I need to get out of? Thank you for those details. Now, let’s jump ahead to you found it. An extraordinary or extraordinary organization that has changed but change where you, you and people you work with go into correctional facilities in South Florida. And you, I want to say writing workshops, my understanding is you do actual writing programs, it’s just done on one offs. You really work with folks who are incarcerated, and you do a whole semester where you you support them in writing, and we’ll get to the letter writing in a second. Where did that come from? Or how did you come up with that, Kathy?
Kathie Klarreich 16:17
Well, again, you know, I’m not one to plan ahead too much. After I came back from Haiti, the first time where so I lived there for 10 years, I came back after this incident. And I said, Okay, I’m done with Haiti like this, is it right, I just need to move on with my life. And I continue to do reporting from here. But Haiti was in my blood. And I wanted to do something with my love of Haiti and my language skills and my understanding of the culture. But I didn’t, you know, living in South Florida, I didn’t want to go to Little Haiti, because they don’t need a white woman working. I mean, there’s plenty of Haitians who can work in Little Haiti. And I thought, Where is there an underserved patient community. And I thought about going to the women’s prison, teaching a writing course for patient women in Creole. And I approached an organization that was working inside the prison at the time of an organization that’s no longer around called Art spring. And I asked the executive director, Leslie Neal, can I do a writing class? And so we worked out this thing, and she said, Sure, but then not enough Haitian women signed up for the class. So I said, alright, well, let me try my hand at just teaching writing, which I did. And then the earthquake, the 2010 earthquake happened in Haiti. So I left and I ended up staying in Haiti for three years that time, then I came back, and it’s a long answer, because it’s how the evolution of exchange for change started, I went back into the prison. And honestly, I came, it was shocking, because everything in my world had been turned upside down by the earthquake, streets that I knew like the back of my hand, my home, or where I lived, destroyed, right? I didn’t recognize anything. And it took, you know, it took years, it’s still not really rebuilt, right. But everyone has a story, everyone was traumatized by it. And I was traumatized by it. And I came back and went into the prison when I returned, and it was the same was orderly people wearing the same uniforms walking the same path with the yellow line on their left or their right. And, and I thought, you know, it looks the same, but it can’t be the same, because three years have passed. And I don’t want to tell other people stories anymore. I want them to tell their stories. That was the genesis of figuring out how to create an organization that it’s more than you know, Kathy, going in and teaching one class, but how do we expand it to get lots of people going into teach lots of classes, not that I ever thought we would eight years later still be doing what we’re doing in expanding because I don’t did not have that vision. I just thought more people doing this is more people we can reach.
Achim Nowak 19:09
I just had this this is I’m listening to you this this very odd thought as you tell the story and you contrast it at in prison that the perhaps sad predictability of prison life can also be a container for for making something happen or some learning and some discovery. And that’s always the ideal of any way that that presents day is a chance for renewal and that you are through your work as a contributor to that. And that there may be monotonous structure, actually is a door to those things that you do. For somebody who is going I can’t even Imagine like what a writing class in prison looks like? Where do they need? How many people show up? And how often do they meet? And you just take us into the specifics of what this actually looks like?
Kathie Klarreich 20:12
Sure. So our program is we deliberately designed a program, that response to a lack of opportunity in sight. So the only thing the state of Florida is required to provide in terms of education is a GED. So people get their GED. But then, or at least back then there were very few options. We were not affiliated with an academic institution. So we couldn’t go in and teach college level courses for credit, although that’s another subject where other people are now able to do that. So we thought at least let’s provide some academic and intellectual stimulation for people who have their GED. That is the only stipulation and we actually have never even asked if someone has a GED. What we want to provide are courses that help people fall in love with learning. So writing seemed like a very valuable tool to improve communication and understanding of themselves. And eventually, should people want to take a course they’re back in the system, right? They know how to study all the things that go with them, academic learning. So all we did was say, Okay, we’re going to offer these classes. So we put up signups in the dorms, and people decide whether or not the classes interest them, we then hold an orientation for those people who signed up and tell them a little bit about our program and what we would expect from them. And the courses last in the spring in the fall the same as a semester at an academic institution. So it’s about 12 weeks, we meet on a weekly basis, either, actually we meet wherever they have room for us to meet. So we try and meet in the education building where there’s an actual classroom. Sometimes we’re in the library, sometimes we’re in the chapel, sometimes we’re in the visitors Park, we fight for space for some institutions that have a lot of programs. And I give our students tremendous credit, because they have to go through about four steps to get to the classroom, right, they have to be led out of the door, then they have to be led out through the center gate that takes them from their living quarters to where the programs are being held, then they have to get into the building itself. And anywhere along the line, something could go wrong, and they can’t get there. But for the most part, they’re very creative and determined. And our class can be between eight and 25. Students, depending on the subject. And we have three rules. They’ve got tons of rules. So we try and keep ours to the minimum. One is that they participate 100%.
Achim Nowak 23:09
A word from your sponsor, that’s me. I invite you to go to the website associated with this podcast www.my, fourth act.com, you will find other equally inspiring conversation with great humans. And you will also learn more about the my fourth act mastermind groups where cool people figure out how to chart their own fourth acts. Please check it out. And now back to the conversation. I made an assumption which is in this writing class. And I want to test this that people write personal stories. It’s memoir Ristic writing, they talk about their lives. And that could be a wonderfully cathartic experience. But is that true? Or do you do other kinds of writing as well?
Kathie Klarreich 24:02
So we do every kind of writing you can imagine. And yes, we do exactly what you’re talking about. We also teach Shakespeare debate, journalism and songwriting, play writing science fiction, short stories of Hemingway like we offer, you know, think of the population inside as a microcosm of the world outside. So their interests are as diverse and our classes are really limited by who we have available to teach them. And the more diversity we have from our instructors, the better we’re able to respond to the diversity of our student body inside.
Achim Nowak 24:45
So eight years, so far is a long run. The assumption I’m making you wouldn’t be sustaining us for a year if there wasn’t a demand for it in that the classes work and people like them but at also requires I would assume fundraising, you know, all the tedious stuff of having an organization? How do you manage being the mama of an organization and being responsible for all of the organizational aspects of this beautiful work,
Kathie Klarreich 25:17
I would say, for me, that’s my biggest challenge. I’m someone with lots of ideas. And you know, a small percentage of them can actually be executed. So I get frustrated, because I can’t do them all. And you can’t always find people who want to buy into your vision of what you want to do. I’ve learned a lot of skills that I didn’t have managing human resources, right, because we have currently about 30 people who want to teach for us for the fall semester. And we have a board of directors and we are not financially stable to the point that we can do all of the programs that we want to do so. And I want to teach because that’s the whole reason I got into it. So I am known for not being the most organized person, and probably not the best at time management. Somehow we’ve stumbled along and we’re still alive eight years later. And you know, I hope that we get the financial stability that we need so that this program is institutionalized because Florida’s got the third largest prison population, you know, we’ve reached in eight years, about 1000 students, and there’s 90 90,000, some, so we have a lot of work ahead of us.
Achim Nowak 26:40
So you already to some of the things that you’ve learned. But what I’m curious, what have you learned about life, maybe through your interactions with your students? Because I’m used to you, I’m going, you created tremendous learning opportunities for yourself. And at now you’re working in prisons? So working in prisons, what are you learning about yourself about life about the world?
Kathie Klarreich 27:07
You know, when people asked me where I grew up, so I grew up in Cleveland, but then I would say, I actually cut my teeth in Haiti, and started to learn about life. And now I feel the fourth act that I’ve had this opportunity to really dig deeper, spending so much time in carceral settings. And the humanity that I find in my classrooms and amongst my students, has made forced me to look even deeper about my own prejudices and judgments. And I’ll tell you, I keep one of our tenants for our facilitators is to not look up the crimes that people committed, because you can’t ever undo that, right. So as a matter of course, I don’t do that. I haven’t done it. It did in the beginning, which was a mistake. But then I learned so I haven’t done it in years. And we had a student, one of our very bright, articulate students, who is part of this special program that hopefully I’ll have a chance to talk about. And I saw him in class on Wednesday, and Friday morning, I was told that all the charges against him had been dropped, and he was released, and he was back out in the world. And I had no nothing, I know nothing at all about him. I still don’t know what he was accused of. But on Wednesday, he had a 40 year sentence. And on Friday, he had no sentence he’d been inside for three and a half years now had I known what he’d been accused of, even though he was exonerated in all charges, that still sits in your mind. And we as a as the public. Still think about that when people are released, and they are not the same people. So it is our job, not only to educate, not our job, it’s our mission to go into exchange for change classes with the idea of imparting communication skills, but it’s also our job to work with the community to help them understand the humanity of the people inside who will return that will be our neighbors and people in our restaurants and our service people and all of that. So it’s forced me to continue to confront my own biases and prejudices.
Achim Nowak 29:31
With you please talk to us about the letter exchange program. Yeah. That’s how I first heard about you. I was so intrigued. My understanding is that there’s a program where where folks who are in prison, create an exchange with students who are in academic institutions and it’s it’s a sponsored activated letter exchange. What’s the power of that and if you Give us some examples of how that plays out are some stories like the one that you just mentioned? I’m really curious.
Kathie Klarreich 30:07
So the idea is that second part of our mission, right, which is to help educate, and I say that lovingly educate the public about who the incarcerated population is made up of. So let’s say you’re teaching a course on leadership. So you have a text. So your students, and my students both read that text on leadership, and they respond to it, then both sets of students take on a pseudonym. And they exchange papers through us, so that don’t actually ever have direct contact, and then they respond to it. And then they respond to the response to the response to the response. So the entire semester is this exchange of two writers, two thinkers in two different institutions that get to know each other as individuals. And what usually happens is that the student on the outside thinks, oh, I’m going to educate the incarcerated student. And let me tell you, for the most part, people on the outside don’t write letters. And particularly students, so everything that they write is academic, they’re writing it for a grade, or to impress their professor. Now they have to write a letter that comes from the heart. And our incarcerated students are really good at that, because they write letters, because it’s a way of communicating with people. So it forces the outside students to start to look at the things that matter to them in a way that’s not related to a grade or performance or anything else. And they learn about their own biases and prejudices and stereotypes about the incarcerated population. And for my students, it is a gift, it is an opportunity for their voices to be heard and recognized and validated in a way that the other 20 Some hours of their day are pigeon holed to being an inmate with a Department of Corrections. Number
Achim Nowak 32:09
two, do you or some of the many teachers who work with exchange for change? Do you maintain relationships with students who have left the institution where they are?
Kathie Klarreich 32:24
Yeah, I mean, the person that I was just referring to the one who was in for three and a half years that was exonerated. When I spoke with him three or four days after he got out, he said, I basically have had my fan my feet in the sand. I’ve been by the ocean, I don’t think I’ve slept more than four hours. And the joy that you get from hearing that another student of ours just got released. She’s out in Texas, I’ve been in contact with her. So we get to watch the reintegration and the struggles of which there are many but incredible satisfaction.
Achim Nowak 33:01
Beautiful. Because part of the forth that you represent is it can invite us to think about what else we desire for our own lives. You know, other yearnings, we have desires, just like I would say to the folks who have been released from the incarcerated are facing their dreams and desires. But us on the outside, especially as we get older, you know, and we don’t have that much to prove to the rest of the world. The question is, so what else do I really want for my life? Or are the things I haven’t pursued? So, Kathy, are there any things for you or you go? When I’m really honest with myself, this would interest me that would interest me what comes to mind?
Kathie Klarreich 33:44
Oh, my God, I have so many interests, I feel like I needed like another, you know, 6070 years to do everything that I want. I would like to pass this organization on to someone who shares the same vision but will bring new blood, it’s really important to me that it doesn’t die. I recognize the potential for it to expand. And I don’t think it should be me that takes it there. So I’d love to figure out how to do that. That’s the first thing. I’m really big into pottery. I like getting my hands I like centering on the wheel. It’s I feel like it’s a little bit of a metaphor for my life is to try and stay more grounded and centered. I have two books that I’m you know, 100 150 pages in that I may or may not ever finish. I want to do a little bit more travel, want to watch my kids blossom in their career. So yeah, I mean, I keep I could go on and on and on. But honestly, I feel and I have to say this, of all the things that I’ve accomplished. The thing that probably means the most to me, is raising my kids and feeling like they’re good people and they’ll go out in the world and do good things. And I think that’s where I feel like I’ve had the most influence and the most personal satisfaction.
Achim Nowak 35:05
Are your kids in AD? Or are they in the United States? They’re both in Miami. All right. Now based on what you’ve learned in your very powerful journey, if you had the chance to whisper some words of wisdom to young, Kathy’s ears, not to change the course of her life. But if you were to be like the wisdom whisperer, what would you want her to know about life that might be helpful for her to know
Kathie Klarreich 35:36
that it’s hard. I’d say two things to stick with your moral compass, to know what your bottom line is on what’s morally and ethically right for you. And then continue to pursue your passion. Because life is just too short and shouldn’t be spent doing things that really don’t give you joy.
Achim Nowak 36:04
Wonderful guidance, I can’t imagine that we don’t have a whole bunch of listeners who want to learn more about exchange for change and the work that you do. And you’re also very clear about support as well come, where should they go and look and find you.
Kathie Klarreich 36:19
So I’d say the easiest thing is go to our website, which is exchange for change.org, with hyphens in between. We’re also on Twitter, and Instagram, and Facebook. And if people are interested, there’s opportunities for you to come in and go on what we call a prison visit. So you can sign up for an afternoon and come in and sit for two hours with our students and have a one on one conversation. It’s called Prison visits for change. And that’s also on our landing page at our website. If you’re interested in teaching, you can contact us if you’re interested in fundraising or working on one of our many projects. So we love volunteers. We’re also looking for board members of people who have different areas of expertise. So you want to get involved. There’s tons of opportunity.
Achim Nowak 37:06
Thank you for the gift of the compensation, the gift of your work. To be continued, I
Kathie Klarreich 37:14
hope. Thank you so much Jackie.
Achim Nowak 37:18
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