Black of Red & Black

Although I am known for speaking my mind, I have never been one to publicize my passion projects. I get involved because I believe in what I am doing – not because I want others to know of my involvement. Decades ago, it was Make-A-Wish, but once we started Red & Black and detoured into the worlds of education and criminal justice, I added new projects. And “soapboxes”.

And, I saw how education and criminal justice were intertwined. Which is what compelled me to write a letter when the Texas Legislature held a hearing about a house bill related to programming within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) and invitedpublic comment. It was the first time I ever went “on the record” (comments are in the public domain), but I feel very strongly about the topic, and specifically the lack of women’s educational programming.

When I sent a copy of my letter to Red, the self-proclaimed mere mortal, she was adamant (not a typical trait for her) that my words needed a wider audience than the legislators and people who follow legislative bills …

Mandy S. Williams
HB 3227 (86R) Comments
Women’s Programming In TDCJ

As a retired oil and gas executive, my background and expertise are in neither education nor criminal justice, so I am not sure how I got here, but we all know that life rarely goes as planned.


I spent my entire life trying to stay out of prison, so imagine my surprise when a book I co-authored with my sister, intended as the basis of a sitcom and launched by Neiman Marcus, detoured into the world of education at KIPP Houston High School (resulting in it being approved as a Personal Financial Literacy textbook by the Texas State Board of Education) and then was embraced by the Chaplaincy Department of TDCJ.

The initial “Red & Black Personal Finance & Life 101” program at TDCJ was championed by Dr. Leticia Watkins, chaplain at the Stringfellow Unit. Based on the overwhelmingly positive feedback (both qualitative and quantitate, and available upon request) from the men, TDCJ allowed a film crew to interview the pilot group (the powerful video is available at, and the program was expanded within TDCJ.

The first women’s program occurred at Plane State Jail as part of their prostitution and human trafficking initiative. Even before the program was started, demand for the program exceeded the initial book supply, and additional books were requested. (Please note: our programs within TDCJ have been fully funded by my friends and business associates as once we saw the impact of the program, it became a passion project for me.) Again, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive (and available upon request), but what resonated with me was the dramatic impact educational programs have on the women’s self-esteem. And, the one quote that still haunts me is, when asked, “What, if anything, did you learn that you plan to share with your family and/or friends?” one woman replied,

That I am of value.


My sister, a straight-A student who went to Wake Forest University on an academic scholarship, was totally clueless about money (and, I would say, about life) when her husband was suddenly fired. The fact she was well-educated did not mean she was prepared for life, and as I started to guide her through her “crisis” (her word, not mine), I realized it was probably the best thing that ever happened to her as it forced her to learn life lessons she had managed to avoid. Today, she agrees, but adds, “The most important thing is that if I hadn’t learned these critical life lessons, I never would’ve been able to teach them to my daughters.”Take a moment to stop and think about that. And the ripple effect of knowledge.

In terms of people who are incarcerated, my sister believed in what are probably typical stereotypes – they are bad people who committed crimes. After reading the feedback from the men, and watching the video, they became people who had made bad decisions. A very different mindset. And, after meeting the women at Plane State Jail, she could relate to them as women who would do anything for their children, and wanted to learn what she had – to take control of her life versus having her life control her.


Many program participants are questioning why these lessons were not taught in schools, and many indicated if they had, they might not have ended up incarcerated. They are also asking where people in the free world can take this program. I am amazed how many men and women are sharing the stories and “lessons” in the book with their families on the “outside”.However, the bottom line is … you should not have to go to prison to learn these lessons. But, the fact remains … participants in the program are trying to change the trajectory of their lives, as well as their family members.

If the education has failed them, that is not their fault. If we fail to offer programming to help them, that will be our fault.
Photo courtesy of Red

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I know that you’ve been involved with Make-A-Wish for decades, and it’s an amazing organization, but I’m not sure why you made such a big deal about the recent Texas Gulf Coast & Louisiana chapter ’s dedication of its building. I appreciate that you were part of the planning group, but with all due respect, it’s just a building.

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I don’t expect you to remember that it all started in 1980 when Tommy Austin wanted to do something special for a young boy, Chris Greicius, who was battling leukemia and wanted to be a policeman. That wish became a reality and the start of The Make-A-Wish Foundation.

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That story has always inspired me as it makes you realize the difference that just one person can make. But the building wasn’t named after Chris or Tommy, so I’m still confused.
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I may not celebrate Rosh Hashanah by going to temple, and now that the girls are no longer home for the holiday, I don’t prepare a seder with the traditional foods . But I know and appreciate that it’s one of the most important Jewish holidays, as it’s a time for reflection on the past and hope for the future. And this year, between world events, where I feel surrounded by so much negativity, and on the personal front, with Mom’s passing, it seems more important than ever before.


Although Rosh Hashanah is filled with traditions, like apples dipped in honey because it is believed apples have healing properties (think of the rhyme, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”), and the honey signifies the hope for a new year that will be sweet … it is still incredibly relevant. In today’s hectic world, a contemplative holiday where you stop and think about the road you have traveled over the last year (including any wrong turns) and where you would like to go in the future may be exactly what we all need.

We wish everyone who celebrates Rosh Hashanah a happy and sweet New Year. And remember, you don’t have to be Jewish to look back and reflect … and then try to do better in the future.

Design by Sawyer Pennington, Underlying photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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So, I had to smile when Sawyer came to visit us at Mom’s estate sale. And even though I had seen her only a few hours before, I gave her a hug.

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Yes, you make it rather obvious that you are warm and fuzzy. And, a hugger.

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But what made me laugh was when she greeted you by acknowledging that you weren’t a hugger. Now there’s an understatement.

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No, it is merely a fact.

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I never realized, though, just how much both Natasha and Sawyer are like you. Although they begrudgingly let me hug them, they’d both be just as happy with a handshake. If that.


Maybe a fist bump?
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