For this two-part series, Grassroots Change interviewed Beth Waitkus, Founder and Executive Director of the Insight Garden Program, which works to transform prisoners’ lives through a connection to nature and hands-on gardening programs in prisons. During the past 15 years, the Insight Garden Program has expanded across California, to two prisons in Indiana and a reentry program in New York State.
Part 1 of this interview covered the inception, history, challenges, and initial successes of the program. Part 2 covers the growing national movement that Insight Garden Program has inspired.
In these times, grassroots movements have to work together to strengthen and grow our civil society. It is collaboration between communities of care that will ensure a brighter future for all.”
-Beth Waitkus, Executive Director, Insight Garden Program
This interview has been edited for length.
Part 2: Building a Movement for Change
GC: What were the initial goals of the Insight Garden Program (IGP), and how have they evolved over time?
BW: The initial goal of our program was to build a garden on a prison yard and see what happened. Over time, however, I realized that connection to nature is critical for people to get reconnected with themselves and their communities, and could be a truly healing experience for people in prison.
Over the past few years, our goals have evolved to bring the Insight Garden Program to as many places as possible. Our work is now ending ongoing cycles of incarceration. Our advocacy for criminal justice can only happen if we begin to connect with like-minded partners across the country.
GC: What factors do you see as being key to your success?
BW: Some external factors that have been key to our success are that criminal justice reform is a bi-partisan issue, so we have support from both sides of the aisle. Through the American Correctional Association we are also gaining access to more people in corrections and communities nationwide, and gaining a wider audience of supporters.
GC: Have you seen social or policy change within the prison system since the start of IGP?
BW: Nationally, the conversation has changed quite a bit. New laws have been passed that have positively impacted the system, including California’s AB 109, aiming to reduce the prison population in California. There’s a bail reform process going on at the federal level as well, and hopefully more legislation on the state and national level that will help reduce ongoing cycles of incarceration.
I do believe IGP has had an impact on policy change. My sense is, if it weren’t for programs like ours – real programs that are creating real transformation – the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation may not have progressed as quickly on some of their recent policies and we wouldn’t be where we are today. Most real change takes time. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and we still have a long way to go.
GC: What does “grassroots movement” mean to you?
BW: To me, a grassroots movement means finding strength in community and other organizations that have similar missions, and who can carve out the time to work together. It means that we have to make the time to work together to create a more powerful movement that includes all voices at the table. It’s the “large systems” approach to change that ensures long-lasting, positive change is sustainable.
For this grassroots movement to succeed we need to connect all of these pieces and move forward together in a way that’s powerful and influential, and can make a difference on every level. In these times, grassroots movements have to work together to strengthen and grow our civil society. It is collaboration between communities of care that will ensure a brighter future for all.
GC: Do you view yourself as a “grassroots leader”?
BW: At this point in our evolution, I would imagine so. The type of leadership that I practice is focused around tenacity and patience, and having a bigger vision and wanting to collaborate with others. Part of being in a leadership role is also stepping back, and this also has been my challenge since we became a non-profit a few years ago – and my volunteer work shifted to Executive Director. I’ve been learning to step back and let other people be empowered to do the work.
I’ve learned that accountability, commitment, and the ability to have tough conversations are huge. Stepping back and empowering other people to take the lead is critical in propelling a movement forward. True leadership is about creating citizen leadership, and it takes communities coming together, not just one person.
GC: What would you say has been IGP’s role in building a national movement?
BW: Our role is that we’re becoming increasingly involved with other organizations, associations, and politicians from the county, state, and federal levels. They are beginning to listen to us because we’ve been in the trenches for years, and have measured success. Collaborating with larger organizations and politicians at the intersection of environmental, criminal and social justice is helping to pave the way for systemic change.
As part of this effort, we’re associated with a group of prison program providers – and organizations that support returning citizens – whose goal is to have more influence on the legislative process as well as strengthening efforts for criminal justice reform in California. As a group, we’re getting involved at every level. We’ve met with the Inspector General of CA’s office, the CA Senate Budget Committee, the Governor’s office, and of course, with leadership at the CA Department of Corrections.
GC: Grassroots movements and social change take time. What do you think has contributed to the success of the movement over time and what could accelerate the adoption of these new programs?
BW: What has contributed to the success of this movement has been maintaining patience and tenacity through a systems lens, and finding collaborators in corrections who believe in ending cycles of mass incarceration. We’ve had to let go of assumptions and preconceived notions of people who work in prison systems to succeed in our work.
For me personally, understanding the impacts of mass incarceration on people, their families, their communities, and society has been really critical and is helping us to reframe our vision. I didn’t come into this work to shift a whole system; I came into this to build a [prison] garden. However, now it’s clear that we are making a difference on a much larger scale. These days, especially, I feel committed to continuing this work in the face of chaos on a national level. If the grassroots can work from response versus reaction, and really gets connected, our collective movement will grow and flourish.
GC: What advice do you have for people who are looking to get involved in programs like IGP, or advice for navigating the system and joining this grassroots movement?
BW: My advice is that movement building takes a long time and requires an immense amount of patience and tenacity. We also don’t want to recreate the wheel – so knowing what else is out there, and who has already done the work is critical, too. If people deeply believe in something and move toward a common goal and work together, they can get there. But for real change to happen it often takes years, if not decades. There’s always going to be resistance, and having the ability to find new ways to deal with challenges while not giving up is critically important.
What it takes to be a real leader is the ability to not only care for the people you serve and your staff and volunteers, but also the ability to care for yourself. Empowering people to be their own citizens is really important, I think we have to stop depending on our leaders to lead us and start leading ourselves.
GC: What advice do you have for other grassroots movement leaders?
BW: My advice is that now more than ever we have to come together. We need to work around our own personal interests to create common goals and accomplishments, appreciate our differences, and know that compromise and collaboration are critical to success.