Community Building in Prison

While I prepared for my first vision quest in 2005, a ceremonial leader named Black Horse (Andrew Soliz) asked if I’d like to join him at a community building workshop at San Quentin State Prison. Black Horse held sweat lodge (“inipi”) ceremonies in the California prison system and was invited to be a guest in the community building workshop by Bill Thatcher, who organized the program.

As a guest in a community building program at San Quentin, I learned that any group of people can form an authentic community, or choose to remain isolated from each other.

Community building as an intentional practice emerged from the work of M. Scott Peck, whose book, The Road Less Traveled, was read by pretty much everybody when I was in high school. He followed up with A Different Drum, which outlined his approach to creating authentic community.

I spoke with Bill in advance of the workshop and asked how I should prepare. He said I should just show up and do my own work. He said that’s what he did, and it served him well.

As we walked through the many layers of security toward the exit after the first day of the workshop, Bill said I should be careful driving to the hotel. He said I would likely be in an “altered state.” He was right; I felt like I was driving on Mars.

By the end of the three-day program, I experienced authentic community, possibly for the first time in my life. The fact that it could be brought about intentionally, through specific practices and protocols that strengthened each person’s sense of self and boundaries, was a revelation.

I felt a deep connection to the thirty incarcerated men, and I believe that connection was shared. I trusted them completely and knew that the trust was reciprocated. I learned that a prison is a structure containing people, just like an office, a hospital, a school, a church, or a home, bar, or a gym. We each have our own dramas, traumas, visions, and gifts.

Over the past fifteen years, Bill and I talked about ways to create authentic community online and in the wild (businesses, schools, clubs, and neighborhoods), outside the confines of a workshop setting. Today, Bill Thatcher is the Executive Director of the Scoby Foundation, and the Scoby Society Director of Partnerships. Working together, we’re closer than ever to each other and to reaching this goal.