On a chilly October afternoon, warm house lights and crimson crushed velvet seats welcomed attendees into Victory Gardens Theater on Lincoln Avenue. A set piece of uncertain completeness filled the performance space. Two-stories of weathered paneling, flanked on either side by its exposed frame of two-by-fours. At the edge of the stage: a semicircle of empty chairs.  

In spring 2018, the same space looked like this:

Victory Gardens Theater, 2018

This careworn couch and crumpled pizza box are the accoutrements of a fictitious halfway house and the setting for much of the play Lettie, which depicts the title character’s travails upon re-entry to society following incarceration.

Today, however, Lettie has ceded the stage to Victory Gardens’ staff and the women of Grace House, a real-life residential program for women exiting the Illinois prison system.


A Model of Empowering Partnership

True partnership is decidedly not a zero-sum game. Thoughtful, values-driven collaborations have immense potential to create mutual benefit for all involved. With humility, empathy, and mission-alignment, all parties involved can – and should – derive value from collaboration that would have proved impossible independently. Co-hosted by Victory Gardens Theater, a playhouse specializing in independent or first-run productions, and Grace House, the Chicago Ideas Week Lab “Story Circles Workshop” provided a profound example of this principle.  

This CIW Lab focused on a collaboration between the host organizations related to Victory Gardens premiere run of the play Lettie. Before Lettie premiered in the spring of 2018, Victory Gardens staff connected with Grace House staff to offer some tickets to a showing. The Grace House team took time to review the script, and then suggested the potential for deeper conversation and collaboration. This led to playwright Boo Killebrew and the cast of Lettie spending a day visiting Grace House and engaging in mutually-affirming conversations known as story circles – defined by Theater staff as “interviews without an outcome.”  

Through their story circles framework, Victory Gardens facilitated authentic conversations that honored the experiences and perspectives of Grace House residents. Lacking a preconceived agenda, the approach doesn’t home in on anyone’s strengths, weaknesses, pains or traumas, but it leaves space in the discussion for any and all of that – and much more. These authentic conversations developed greater empathy among all involved, and inspired rewrites to Lettie’s script to better reflect the lived experiences of women from circumstances mirroring Lettie’s own.


Grace House | St. Leonard’s Ministries

Established in 1994 on Chicago’s Near West Side, the Grace House residential program provides interim housing, emotional and spiritual support, and professional counseling to women exiting Illinois’ prison system. The organization, itself a division of St. Leonard’s Ministries, operates from the foundational belief that men and women recently released from prison want to lead productive and whole lives – and that they deserve to live in a setting that supports achieving this goal. Grace House residents, alumni and staff were honored in the recounting of their organization’s collaboration with Victory Gardens. A significant portion of the program staff present were themselves graduates of Grace House programming, and shared readily about how they daily apply their own experiences in encouraging other participants.  

Empowering Structures

Many non-profits parade out sob stories to provoke sympathetic paddle raises. Program participants or beneficiaries often have to suffer through the discomfiting experience of sharing their lives’ worst moments. And much philanthropic fundraising strategy seems rooted in the belief that donors’ heartstrings and purse-strings are intimately connected. At least from the perspective provided by this CIW Workshop, this partnership successfully avoided those patronizing tropes – and left both organizations and those they serve better as a result.

Funding followed mission – not vice versa.

Victory Gardens staff provided an overview of the play and the collaboration with Grace House/St. Leonard’s during the creative process for the play Lettie. But then they left the stories of the partnership’s impact to the stakeholders whose voices should matter the most. The event’s featured panel was comprised entirely of Grace House residents, alumni and staff. Each woman in attendance from Grace House had the opportunity to share (if they felt inclined to do so), and were encouraged to give voice to what they wanted other audience members to know about them and their experiences. In word, deed, and structure, the “Story Circles” event delivered on the promise of empowerment.

panel of seven women from grace house seated onstage
Panel of women from Grace House

Incarceration in Context

Many of the women present from Grace House spoke candidly of how intimately Lettie’s story mirrored their own – especially her struggle to regain custody of her teenage children following her release from prison. Three out of four panelists who had participated in Grace House’s programming specifically connected with Lettie’s disorienting experience of separation and reunification with her children. Unexpected – and perhaps even more acutely painful – were their initial experiences reuniting with their children on the outside. Behind bars, each had eagerly anticipated and longed for a return to close relationship. However, once released, they found that leaving prison did not immediately erase the distance that time and space apart had created.

For most inmates, the well-documented trauma of prison ends abruptly with the clang of a gate and a bus ticket to nowhere in particular. Re-entering citizens are routinely thrust back into precisely the same situations that were instrumental in their incarceration – albeit typically with fewer financial resources and employment opportunities, thanks to their criminal records.

In this miasma of obstacles, individuals reentering society confront the challenges of rebuilding their lives and mending relational rifts with those they left behind on the outside. The multi-tiered trauma of this experience hits the families of incarcerated mothers particularly hard. In the Illinois Department of Corrections, there were 2,591 incarcerated women in 2017 (a 1993% increase since 1974), and 80% of female inmates are mothers. Considering the barriers to healing and setting a new life trajectory, it’s no wonder that roughly 35% will return to prison with 3 years of release. But with interventions and supports provided by Grace House and similar programs, the expectations for recidivism reduce to 5%.

Impactful Storytelling

Each woman from Grace House repeatedly described the empowering, humanizing experience of sharing their stories with a receptive, engaged audience – and within the context of a similar story being celebrated on stage as poignant and venerable.

“That was my story. That play was me.”  

During its 2018 run at Victory Gardens, Lettie’s story – and the real-life accounts from Grace House that helped inspire it – reached tens of thousands of theatergoers. Grace House representatives noted that only a few dozen visitors will personally tour Grace House’s facility in a given year. All involved clearly appreciated the opportunity presented by this collaboration to acquaint people with the issues and stories lived out by women exiting incarceration. There were practical outcomes or benefits as well, including a special showing of Lettie that raised funds benefitting Grace House. But the accounts of increased confidence and empowerment for all involved from Grace House stood out as the most significant result.  

Rochelle, former resident and current staff member at Grace House summed it up best when she described her experience of watching Lettie’s story unfold onstage: “That was my story. That play was me.”

A model for impact and empowerment

The Story Circles Chicago Ideas Week event – and the collaboration it recounted – should serve as a model to others looking to cross lines of privilege and experience in search of authentic perspective and mutually-affirming learning opportunities. Even in non-profit work, there’s never-ending tension [pressure] to follow the money. But, in this collaboration between Grace House and Victory Gardens, funding followed mission – not vice versa.

“How can [your organization] be a catalyst for change?”

Want to see similar impact and collaboration in your own work? Start asking questions like the one driving Victory Gardens’ social justice and community impact initiatives: “How can our theater be a catalyst for change?”

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