Last week at San Quentin, EPP received some of our most treasured gifts of this holiday season. We have been offering our course there since 2016. Before the pandemic, we had become pretty cozy in our classroom nook off the yard. We relished our work with the students each week. In 2018, the Community Resource Manager called EPP one of the most popular programs at the institution. We regularly worked with a waitlist of over 100 people.
When we returned in August, it had been thirty months since we had been forced to stop programming due to COVID. We showed up carrying our stack of blue books with enthusiasm, and bursting with the joy of being able to program again. The men-in-blue met us with curiosity as they said “Ennea-what?”
We realized immediately that we needed to re-establish trust. The population at San Quentin has changed dramatically since early 2020. Many people were released during COVID, and new residents with shorter sentences have taken their place. People with life sentences are now doing time with “short-timers.” The administration cautioned us that it would be hard to pull a class together. Our veteran students stopped by to share their hurt at our absence. We got to share our own regrets for this unwanted gap in programming, and remind them that we have not gone anywhere.
Since then, week by week, we have navigated the usual pitfalls of prison programming. Lockdowns, fog lines, and quarantines made it so our 12-week program took 20 weeks to complete. One morning we arrived to learn that an officer died on duty, and the entire prison came to a halt. We have three Deaf students, and occasionally an ASL interpreter was not available or present for class, resulting in a reluctant and necessary cancelling of class. Undeterred, month by month, we grew from a straggling five or six students to 38 dedicated ones who filled two classes. Last Wednesday, we asked the graduating students, “What is one surprising thing you learned from this class?” Their unscripted answers showed us how much of the Enneagram they have truly taken to heart.
Many said they were surprised to know that they were not alone. Indeed, the Enneagram shows us “our people,” those who see the world just as we do, and eight more perspectives who see reality an entirely different way. It reassures us about the intelligence of the strategies we employ to help ourselves.
A Type One said, “Seeing that my traits have a name.”
A Type Two said, “Knowing I have a type is a validation for me. Naming these things means I can conquer them.” Another Two said, “I loved learning that I have a divine operations manual, and I feel that EPP and my group was a family and my tribe.”
A Type Three said, “That I’m okay.”
A Type Four who went on a journey of trying on three types before landing in their type shared, “I create my identity based on my feelings.” Yes! And another acknowledged that “We are all unique.”
A Type Five shared how, for years, he refused someone who wanted to send him a “package” - a collection of items from the commissary. Many men stand in line for hours in the cold with the hopes of receiving such a thing, but not a Five who is stuck in a stance of withholding. He told us that he finally relented because he learned that “Sometimes being generous is about allowing someone else to be generous.” The other Fives shared how reassuring it was to know “I’m not weird!” No, not at all.
A Type Six said, “When I was on the panel, I learned that I can be myself and discover myself at the same time.” Another Six named what a spiritual journey this class took him on and how he now understood how not to blame himself for all that had happened to him. And yet another Six, who is new to self-development work, said, “I was surprised that I came to all these classes!” We were tickled when he said he intends to take the class again.
A Type Seven said, “I learned that the answers are on the inside.”
A Type Eight said, “I learned to tone it down. I’m practicing knowing when to be assertive because it’s not always time for that.” Another type, Eight, who has done nearly three decades of time shared, “I can get over my fear of being vulnerable. I shared things in here that I have never shared in 59 years.” Another sage student who has been exploring the Enneagram for years said he was considering that he might be a different type. This takes a lot of courage to acknowledge.
A Type Nine said, “The voice in my head is changing. It is getting kinder and more encouraging. My little triumphs along the way."
As if we needed further testament to the "work" working, six weeks ago, EPP Ambassador and Board member Alex Senegal, who spent 26 years in and out of prisons and was a resident of San Quentin himself, received clearance for a year in order to support our classes. Alex is a striking man who dresses to the nines and owns every noble bit of his six-foot-two, former football player’s frame. He greets the officers respectfully and stands tall in his smokin’ shiny shoes. Each week we pull open two huge, heavy, and foreboding iron gates and stand side-by-side in the sally port when the doors clang closed. Holding up our IDs for the officer behind the glass, I take a deep breath and thank my lucky stars that I have the privilege of working next to such a special soul.
The first time I witnessed Alex cross the threshold of those gates into San Quentin’s courtyard, I saw his strong shoulders heave with tears of release, having realized a freedom he used to only dream about from the other side of them. Now, week after week, without fail, when Alex steps into the yard, he begins to chuckle and looks up with a look of undeniable gratitude. He is a handsome man whose gentle giant demeanor and all-white beard no doubt helped him land a role as Santa with a local nonprofit this month. He enters a room and is instantly friendly with anyone. The moment he took up a seat in our circle, he infused the classroom with a living, breathing example of how the Enneagram helps us find freedom on the inside, in ways that neither my co-guide, Cynthia, nor I, ever could.
When the check-in question made its way to him in the circle, “What is a surprising thing you learned about yourself” Alex took a breath. I heard something catch in his throat. I’d been on zoom meetings with him all week, witnessing the same striving to regulate his emotions. This past week marked the anniversary of the death of his wife and his mother. He said, “The Enneagram has allowed me to speak up. This is the first time I have been above-the-line all week. But today, I can allow myself to feel. Doing time, I never allowed myself to process grief. I now know that this feeling of disconnection doesn’t go away just because I’m not in here anymore. I know how to allow myself the freedom to feel what I need to feel.”
Our students on the inside, Alex, and our Ambassadors are the living, breathing proof that when we get present to ourselves and know how to pause, we are empowered to make new choices and bring all of who we are to the life before us.
Thank you for being such a beautiful part of our EPP Community, and for making it possible for the work to go on and on. We have not only outlasted the pandemic, but we have come through it even stronger. Our foundation is solid. We are back at it, and our future never looked more promising.