What these men who’ve spent time in jail taught me about assumptions

I gave a talk the other night and, truth be told, I was nervous. Here’s what was running through my mind as I walked up, “How on earth could I possibly connect with a group of returning citizens – mostly African-American men – who had done time for a crime and were now learning to turn their lives around?” Turns out, a lot.

Sometimes, I have doubts. I’ll admit it. Yes, I am an Anchor and Reporter for a CBS station in Washington-freaking-DC. Yes, I gave a TEDx Talk on the power of your negative words and labels. Look at me and you’ll see a white, blonde woman, who looks put together in her sheath dress and funky-yet-appopriate-for-work sandals. But, that’s on paper, and frankly, superficial. On the inside, where it counts, I know I have a story to tell, and a connection to share. And I can’t let my own negative self-talk and perception of how I think this group might size me up roadblock me. If I let that nagging doubt win, I’m done. And that is EXACTLY the message I needed to share with the eight men and women in that room. This is what I came for.

These men and women are all part of a group called Changing Perceptions. It’s a DC-based non-profit. They have paid their debt to society and are now aspiring entrepreneurs. Some are IT specialists, some are caterers, some are teaching financial literacy.

Everyone greeted me warmly, and I introduced myself. They had already watched my TEDx Talk, and knew a little bit about my background. The fact that I dropped out of high school. The grocery store I first worked at. The now-dead ex-boyfriend who drove to Spanish Harlem to score drugs. My life-changing 9/11 experience. My hard work to get where I am.

“What labels do you use to define yourself,” I asked the group. The first words that came from one gentleman’s mouth, “returning citizen.” Next, I asked, “what labels do you want to be?”

We went around the room. Each person shared one label better than the last. And then a few more. Within minutes, we had 44 labels written down on the white board. I read them off. It took a few minutes.

Community leader
Good dad
Go getter
Role model
….and my favorite….
Positivity seeker
Those are just a few. Reading those labels aloud, one after another, was the closest I’ve ever come to embodying a preacher. The entire room was inspired. What we had created within an hour of talking and sharing was momentous. The gratitude in the room was palpable.

We talked about a lot more. Many had insightful questions about how I had gotten where I am. I answered them with vulnerability and honesty. We connected.

It was not lost on me that I had doubt when I approached the door. And that I’d tossed it in the trash. That I had thrown out my perception of who they were and how they might perceive me. And went in wholeheartedly. That is exactly what I came there wanting to impart. That you have to throw out what you think others might think of you. Throw out those old, bad, unworthy labels that are holding you back. When I finally walked in, I was embodying the labels of speaker, inspirer, role model, and connector. And then I became them. This was an important lesson, not only for these eight soul-searchers, but also for me.

Our learning is never done on this earth. But, the more we do it, the more we’re cognizant of when we’re getting in our own way. I got out of my way that night. And met 8 inspiring people who have a lot to offer the world. I’m so excited to see what they’ll do.

I want to talk to your group. Whether you work with at-risk children, domestic violence survivors, college students or CEOs. Invite me: you can email me here


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