Words & Banter

Black Feels This Is … Criminal

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 http://youtu.be/426TrZ_N_sA), 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.

When Red first heard Black talking about the importance of "soft skills," she didn't even know what she was referring to, let alone that they would be important to her life. So, Black explained that it was a term used to describe intangible but essential skills, such as critical thinking and problem-solving, communications, and conflict management.

Red, trying to be sarcastic, then asked if there was such a thing as “hard skills,” Black matter-of-factly told her those are tangible and technical skills such as computer skills.

Of course, Black couldn’t pass up an opportunity for sarcasm and explained that although there’s consensus about the importance of soft skills, there’s debate about what they should be called, with her favorite being the Texas Education Agency (TEA) calling them "21st Century Skills" – although she's old enough to remember they were important in the 20th Century, too.

But would anyone call them “Mom Skills”? Well, Red couldn’t help but remember the time Black told her, “Your job is every bit as demanding as a corporate position, and, in fact, you use many of the same skill sets.”Not something Red could ever have imagined, but it made sense once she better understood what soft skills are and how they are used. But then Black took it a step further,

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Red was your typical straight-A student, getting great grades starting in kindergarten straight through to graduating from college.(Black’s grades were less than stellar, plus she was a discipline problem – some things never change.) And then, excited and proud of herself, Red thought she was done. Black, on the other hand, thinks of education as something that never ends, and much to the chagrin of students, will tell them,

Homework never ends; it just is called “research” when you get older.

Over the last few years, Red has come around to Black’s way of thinking and realizes it’s a mindset. And that education is more than the classes you take in school.

September is when students of all ages are back in school, but it’s also National Literacy Month, which is about so much more than reading and writing. Literacy includes things like Digital Literacy, Financial Literacy, Health Literacy, and even News Literacy. (As the linked Conversation Starters indicate, Red was the “poster child” of a highly educated person who lacked many of these basic literacy skills.)

So, we challenge you to find a topic that interests you or one you could benefit from learning (personally or professionally) and start doing your homework.

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For many of us, Labor Day marks the end of summer (temperatures aside), and as we switch from a summer holiday mindset back to the “real world”, we can’t help but feel overwhelmed.

You don’t need us to tell you how falling back into a work or school routine can be challenging, especially if you’re facing a backlog of tasks and responsibilities. And, if that wasn’t bad enough, the “silly season” is just around the corner. (Red has been seeing Halloween decorations since mid-July, which means Thanksgiving and all the winter holidays aren’t far behind.)

But you don’t need us to tell you why you feel overwhelmed; you need help dealing with being overwhelmed.

When our new website goes live next year, one of the major sections will be THE DAILY HELP, where you’ll find easy-to-implement tools to get your day back on track and feel more in control.

But that doesn’t help you … NOW. So, here are a handful of our favorite posts to help you deal with daily challenges we all face. (Red admits that she picked the ones she felt she needed to reread.)

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