Tag Archives: The Evergreen State College

Highlighting the Many Successes of Nichole Alexander

Text by Erica Benoit, SPP Special Projects Manager.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Nichole Alexander, former SPP Butterfly Technician, on the 2-year anniversary of her release from the Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women (MCCCW). We spoke briefly about the impact of her SPP experience on her trajectory post-release, and even more about her long list of accomplishments in the last two years, including her graduation from Evergreen Tacoma.

Nichole Alexander presents on the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly program to a working group in 2018. Photo by SPP staff.

Nichole, pictured above, spent three seasons in the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly program at MCCCW before she released in April 2019. She said the most impactful part of her experience with SPP was the opportunity to work within a tight-knit team of individuals and across federal and state agencies, an experience in which she felt respected and valued. She also spoke to the therapeutic benefits of the program. Speaking of some major life events that happened while she was incarcerated, Nichole said,

“Being able to go out to the butterfly lab every day…the routine of being able to be in a work environment, an educational environment, to actually feel like we are giving back to the community, bettering myself and laying the foundation for my future, my kids’ future, was huge to pull me through some of the worst times that I have been through…I was actually able to find a light within myself in a very dark place.”

In addition, Nichole expressed that her experience with SPP laid the foundation for what she would accomplish next. In particular, she credits Kelli Bush, SPP Co-Director and Keegan Curry, former SPP Butterfly Coordinator, for providing the encouragement and support to apply to the Evergreen State College’s Tacoma campus while still incarcerated to attend post-release. In her opinion, they reminded her that she had potential.

Nichole Alexander and fellow technician Susan Christopher search for wild Taylor’s checkerspot larvae at Scatter Creek Wildlife Area, a reintroduction site for the butterfly. Photo by Keegan Curry.

She then jumped straight into finishing up her last quarter to earn her Associates Degree in Business Administration and Management from Tacoma Community College before starting her Law and Policy degree at Evergreen Tacoma. While pursuing higher education, she has also been heavily involved in giving back to the community. She organized a book drive for the youth residing at the Echo Glen Children’s Center and also worked with World Central Kitchen to provide thousands of meals to the homeless population. Professionally, she has worked for Ventures nonprofit as the Ready for Release Coordinator & Instructor. In this position, she briefly taught business & marketing to the incarcerated women at MCCCW before the program was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, her professional endeavors focus strongly on providing support resources for the unsheltered population around Seattle. She works for REACH as their Waterfront Outreach Care Coordinator, as well as JustCARE’s Street Outreach Program Coordinator. But her work does not stop when she goes home, as she has worked hard to connect her academic studies with the practical reality of what she has witnessed through her jobs.

Nichole handing out meals with World Central Kitchen, while representing the organization she works for, REACH.

Nichole has now successfully completed her undergraduate coursework at Evergreen Tacoma and is set to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Law and Policy. She speaks highly of the support she received while attending Evergreen and said she cannot praise it enough for how welcoming they were to her. She especially appreciates the patience and support from some influential professors, like Dr. Gilda Sheppard and Dr. Anthony Zaragoza, and essential support staff as she navigated challenges related to re-entering society. Even more, she emphasizes the sense of community gained there. It’s clear that she made the most of her community involvement at Evergreen Tacoma; she helped start the Justice Involved Student Group there. She also spoke excitedly about her dedication and involvement in organizing Evergreen Tacoma’s virtual graduation ceremony in 2020, which was featured in a New York Times article. It was important for her and her fellow coordinators to go out of their way to make the graduates feel that their success was seen and celebrated. To do this, they organized custom gift boxes from a local party supply company, local flower bouquets, and family meals prepared by local restaurants for each of the graduates. The emphasis on supporting local businesses in this effort was especially needed in the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic. We only hope she is able to feel the same sense of accomplishment at her own graduation ceremony.

Nichole is not planning to slow down anytime soon. She was recently accepted into the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program, a recent expansion to the Evergreen Tacoma campus. Nichole plans to start that program this coming fall. She also communicated her plans to address issues within the carceral environment, including efforts to reduce recidivism and connect incarcerated mothers with their children. While incarcerated, Nichole helped organize the annual Girl Scout Beyond Bars (GSBB) sleepover to visit their moms at MCCCW. In particular, she helped connect the visiting girl scouts (including her own daughter) with the SPP butterfly program where they got to participate in fun activities that helped them earn badges! She continues to be a GSBB troop leader and expresses the importance of these opportunities in connecting girls impacted by incarceration with their mothers. In addition, WA Corrections recently featured Nichole and her daughter in a story about the importance of parent teacher teleconferences, a hopeful sign for future endeavors related to this effort.

Nichole shows her daughter, Brooklyn, around the SPP Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly program at MCCCW. She said it was so fun to bring her daughter to work because she had the coolest job in the world!

Speaking of the differences in her journey before and after incarceration, Nichole said “If you hear my history, for that person there’s no hope…Then to sit in the meetings that I sit in…and to work with the people that I work with today, there’s no ceiling. It’s unstoppable where you can be and how you can give back.” With that outlook, we know there are many more great things in store for Nichole Alexander, as well as those her life and work impacts.

Adapting During Challenging Times: a Check-In from SPP

By Erica Benoit, SPP Special Projects Manager and Kelli Bush, SPP Co-Director

We at SPP are all deeply aware of how difficult this past year has been. It has been especially hard for the people living and working in prisons. We acknowledge the loss and suffering experienced by incarcerated people, their families, and corrections staff.  Our thoughts are with our fellow humans everywhere—may we all have better days ahead.

Like many organizations, SPP has also faced a slew of competing challenges. Over the past year we have shifted to working remotely, navigated major staffing changes resulting in a smaller team size, and supported multiple team members through health issues. We are continually processing the overall health and safety impacts of COVID-19 and loss of in-person interaction with students, partners, and our small team at Evergreen. Despite these challenges, we are hopeful for better horizons. We are reaching out to share how SPP is making the best use of these challenging times; we are simultaneously practicing patience and resilience every day.

Human health and safety are our top priority over program operation. As a result, the vast majority of SPP programs have been suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We are still supporting operation of a few programs, but only where interactions with SPP staff can be masked, socially distant, primarily outside, and with access to proper resources for hand washing and cleaning high touch surfaces. Programs which have continued under these circumstances and in accordance with approved COVID plans include the prairie conservation nursery at Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW), the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly program at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women (MCCCW), and a few peer-led education programs at various facilities.

Keegan Curry from SPP safely helps out with the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly program at MCCCW. Photo by Marisa Pushee. 

Despite major program suspensions, SPP staff have still been hard at work on projects in three main focus areas: remote education, proposal development, and policy/guidance work. We hope that the behind-the-scenes work done in these areas will have lasting benefits when programs are able to safely restart. Brief details on some specific projects (most still in progress) are provided below.

Remote Education

Beekeeping

  • Curation and delivery of monthly educational packets to all facilities
  • Development of higher-level beekeeping certification (in progress)

Peer-led Gardening Curriculum

Ecology Curriculum

Prairie Conservation Nursery

  • Standardizing education materials and adapting for remote access (i.e. remote presentations, limited contact education, and/or peer-led components)

Peer-led Composting Curriculum

  • Identifying funding and planning for development of curriculum for statewide use

Solar Energy Education

  • New partnership with Olympia Community Solar that allows donors to sponsor solar energy education packets to be sent to prison facilities

Proposal Development

Funding

  • Provided budget for potential new education and training program in partnership with WA Department of Fish and Wildlife
  • Developed and submitted a funding proposal to complete the next phases of gardening and composting course and to pilot in another state
  • Developed and submitted a funding proposal to expand Evergreen education in prisons

Planning and Organization Improvements

  • Improving processes and guidance related to development of education materials
  • Developed new SPP program planning templates to improve operations and clarity among partners
  • Identifying more reliable mechanisms for delivering remote education
  • Developed general partnership resource document for guiding all types of successful prison programs among multiple partners (in progress)

Policy/Guidance Work

  • Tracking and testifying in support of HB1044 Pathways to Post-Secondary Education in Prisons
  • Working with Washington Department of Corrections and education organizations to develop policy and guidelines for successful peer-led programs in prison (in progress)
  • Working with The Evergreen State College to draft new policy to that will support granting college credit to currently incarcerated program participants successfully completing SPP certificated internship programs
  • Research to address barriers limiting access to fresh produce in prison and considering development of food handling education to improve ability for prison kitchens to utilize fresh produce from facility gardens (longer-term project)

Lastly, we are actively drafting our latest Annual Report, which is expected to be published sometime in spring. Be on the lookout for this report for full updates regarding SPP programs and initiatives from July 2019 through December 2020.

Learning so much from MES & SPP

By Carly Boyd, SPP Butterfly Program Coordinator

I first heard about the Evergreen State College as a junior in high school. Unfortunately, I quickly decided it wasn’t possible to attend; no one (not even me!) was ready for me to move across the country from Maryland to Washington State.

Carly and her fiancé hiked in Rocky Mountain National Park in CO while visiting her best friend in Denver.

Instead, I attended a state school in western Maryland. I graduated in 2018 with a biology degree and plans to get my Master’s. When I realized Evergreen has a Master of Environmental Studies (MES) program, it felt like a second chance for me

I was working and living with my fiancé and pet cat Kiwi in Virginia. To take that second chance, I moved to a state where I knew no one. Not once have I been afraid or worried that I had made the wrong choice.

During my first year at Evergreen, what I have learned about people and how the world works has been invaluable and so different from the education I received in Maryland. I expect my time with SPP as the Butterfly Program Coordinator will be just as surprising and important.

Left: Carly holds a wild saw-whet owl; she participated in a long-term research project called Project Owlnet. Right: During her time working for Virginia State Parks, Carly holds a blind, one-winged barred owl who helped with environmental education programs.

Before SPP, I have worked with people from all walks of life and I’ve learned so much from those experiences. The most valuable skill I’ve gained is versatility: being prepared and able to change my approach to better suit whoever I’m working with. Already, this skill is serving me well in the SPP butterfly program. Efforts to keep everyone in the program safe amidst the COVID-19 crisis requires a lot of adaptation.

It is often difficult to start a new job and this one brings the challenge of a completely new environment for me. On top of that, as a part of an utterly changed world, I need to scrutinize my every action for safety, especially when working with an at-risk population. I recognize that I have to hold some responsibility for the technicians’ safety and health. At the same time, I hold some responsibility for keeping the program going as long as we are able; the technicians deserve to continue the work they value.

Most of Carly’s photos are of her loved ones, pets, and nature. Here is rare picture with her in it! enjoying her exploration of Juneau, Alaska while there visiting family.

As a program and as an organization, we remain open to change. We continue to discuss the best and safest way to move forward for everyone involved.

Working with incarcerated individuals is changing me as a person. It’s very different from the work I’ve done in the past and honestly very different from what I ever saw myself doing. It is an unexpected opportunity that forces me to rethink what I am able to do professionally. My perceptions of the prison system and the incarcerated individuals inside are shifting. The position is helping me to rethink what I’m capable of and what I want to dedicate my life to.

In the bigger picture, working with SPP reinforces what I know and who I am. I believe humans are resilient and that, deep down, we all have a passion to learn and to contribute to a deeper collective. Also, I think we have an innate desire to be close to nature, in whatever way we can. Even in such a time of uncertainty and fear, I want to help our incarcerated partners connect with nature… so long as they, and we, are comfortable making it possible.

When crisis inspires greater teamwork

Text by Marisa Pushee, Joslyn Rose Trivett, and Kelli Bush
Photos by Marisa Pushee

In these unprecedented times, we are adapting to meet the new needs of the community we serve. This has meant suspending the majority of in-person programs in favor of remote education.

Early in the pandemic, following the general pattern, the Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly Program partners suspended the program. But then, partners asked Could it be possible to restart? Everyone agreed that human health and safety had to be the top priority. Also, we heard from the Washington Department of Fish & WildlifeMission Creek Corrections Center staff, and incarcerated technicians that the program was very important to them. They asked that we problem-solve together, to collaborate on figuring out if there was any combination of rules and protocols that would allow for a re-start.

Technician Erin Hart works in one of the greenhouses, following best practices by wearing a face mask, social distancing, and implementing extensive cleaning protocols.

Following all COVID-19 safety protocols, we met several times and discussed a potential restart. Prison staff demonstrated that they were eager to prioritize the health and safety of the incarcerated technicians, willing to adapt program practices, and could support increased remote communication as SPP-Evergreen limited our prison visits. Technicians requested the program be restarted and expressed that, in the program space, they felt a reduced risk of contracting the disease. The lead wildlife biologist agreed that operations must be contingent on new protocols to reduce human health risks.

An adult Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly rests in an oviposition pot where she will lay her eggs.

Ultimately, all partners agreed that the program could re-start with new safety protocols in place. A key element of the re-start plan was to continuously reevaluate program safety, to ask each other regularly and often what could be done to make it safer and, most importantly, was it really safe enough.

The butterflies came back to Mission Creek. Social distancing, masking, and disinfection protocols were meticulously followed. Commitment to safety and open communications were fulfilled. The rearing season was successful for the butterflies and for the people involved.

Butterfly program coordinator Keegan Curry holds a rearing enclosure called an oviposition pot (a Plantago plant with a net over it) near the back door of a greenhouse.

Student Impact Statement

By Graham Klag, SPP Prairie Conservation Nursery Coordinator and MES Student

Graham recently presented on the SPP-supported project at an International Association for Landscape Ecology – North America conference; see his virtual poster here.

The team examines and discusses new root growth; two of the technicians, Ronald Snider and Toby Erhart, seen here with Graham. Photo by Shauna Bittle.

The Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP) affords Master of Environmental Studies students an endemic and indelible academic and professional-development opportunity. My experience as the Prairie Conservation Nursery Coordinator for the programs at Stafford Creek and Washington Corrections Center for Women (SCCC and WCCW) gave me the chance to promote my academic and professional passion: promoting the restoration and enhancement of marginalized populations of Pacific Northwest prairie plant communities. While I contributed to the ecological functions of the Pacific Northwest’s most endangered ecosystems, I also learned how to better support the basic human functions of endangered and marginalized populations of people.

Working with incarcerated technicians continually revealed their resourceful creativity and their desire to meaningfully contribute to the society from which they have been disconnected. Masters students such as myself support technicians’ connections to ecological concepts, while we also connect our (my) consciousness to our nation’s culture of incarceration.

In the project, this was the first violet to bloom! Photo by Graham Klag.

My thesis research project uses coconut coir mats for the restoration and enhancement of the early-blue violet (Viola adunca) for the larval development of the Oregon silverspot butterfly. The project has been possible only due to the combination of resources and partnerships that SPP has afforded me. As part of my work coordinating SPP’s Prairie Conservation Nurseries, my position helped me access hoop house space, seed, materials, staff, input, and other resources that have led to the success of my research project. The experience allows me to see the value of project-based adaptive management, scientific research, and education to advance the skills and education of technicians and myself.

The team discusses trials of mat substrate types; Toby Erhart and Bien Van Nguyen are the most-visible technicians. Photo by Shauna Bittle.
SCCC’s place-made prairie; the technician holds the garden’s design template. Photo by Graham Klag.

During my time with SPP, I have learned that this connection to place is a basic human need. While dealing with incarcerated technicians’ unfortunate connection to the place of prison, we fostered their connection to other ecosystems — ones that need our help. The fortune of those rare ecosystems can be found from more and more connections to conservation science.

I see restoration ecology as a place-making process. Through my research design and implementation, technicians and I shared in the scientific method, connecting us to the coastal prairie environments of the Washington and Oregon coast. As part of that process, this year we constructed a prairie garden inside the facility at SCCC; we planted extra prairie plants that we had grown for various restoration sites within the Salish lowlands and created a bit of prairie inside the prison.

At the basis of all life’s functions is the need for connection. My position with SPP combined with my studies provides me a connective power. I wish to share that power with individuals disconnected from our modern society. SPP is a true asset to The Evergreen State College’s mission and core values, providing academic and professional empowerment opportunities to students, staff, and the greater community. I feel lucky to be a part of this special community experience and reflect on human ecology and empathy. I have new insight into how the landscape reflects how we treat each other and the good life of being a Greener.

Graham at the Rock Creek coastal prairie research site with ready-to-plant plugs of early blue violet (Viola adunca), Roemer’s fescue (Festuca roemeri), and coastal strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis). Photo by Rolando Beorchia from Institute for Applied Ecology.

Are you right for the garden & is the garden right for you?

By Carly Rose, Curriculum Development Coordinator at SPP-Evergreen

Gardeners work together at WCCW. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

What makes a garden in prison worth tending, and how does an incarcerated person know that gardening is a good fit for them? The history of agriculture in the U.S. has encompassed both incredible advances in supporting human health while also contributing to historical oppression. Especially given that history, whether or not to garden should be the decision of the gardener. Especially in prison, how does an incarcerated person know that gardening is a worthy part of their journey?

Horticulture students at Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW) harvest potatoes. Photo by Joslyn Rose Trivett.

I have created a list of conditions that I believe signify that the person is right for the garden and the garden is right for them. These principles may be considered by any gardener, whether inside or outside of prison.

1. You want to grow plants.

Two gardeners wash and bag bok choi harvested at WCC. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

2. You find joy in growing plants. Gardening is an act of dedication, patience, and surrender, and not everyone finds joy in such a commitment. When you are in the garden, if you lose track of time, if you find yourself reveling in the small details of the garden,  if you find yourself a student of the garden, then the garden is for you.

3. The act of gardening reflects your inner self. You can see yourself in the cycles of the garden.

4. Your body, mind, heart, and spirit want you to tend the garden.

Ben Aseali poses in his garden at Stafford Creek Corrections Center. Photo by Marisa Pushee.

5. Gardening connects you to your community. Whether you produce beautiful flowers and food for people, animals, or insects, aquatic plants to oxygenate bodies of water, shrubs, and trees to oxygenate the air, you will be able to sense the ways that gardening connects you to your world.

6. Gardening connects you to your culture. In almost every culture of the world, people cultivate plants to feed their community. If gardening connects you to your culture, it is a gift to you and your loved ones.

A gardener steps on her shovel at WCCW. Photo by Benj Drummond & Sara Joy Steele.

Gardening is not everyone’s cup of chamomile tea – and it shouldn’t be. As a collective, we are made stronger through a diversity of interests and talents, and gardening is only one. For those of you who are willing, joyful, and overwhelmed with the beauty (ok…and work) at harvest time, I hope the seasons are kind to you this year.

The garden crew shows off a prize cauliflower at Washington Corrections Center. Photo by Don Carlstad.

Like honeybees, we are working together

Honeybees often form chains while they are building honeycomb. Some beekeepers call the chains a “festoon,” suggesting a decorative garland; visually, it is a beautiful metaphor for teamwork.

Text by Carrie Hesch, Beekeeping Liaison for Washington Corrections Center for Women
Photos by Sandy Faranara, President of West Sound Beekeepers Association

Honeybees destined for the program at Washington Corrections Center for Women are settling in well to their temporary foster home. They are under the expert care of foster parent Sandra Fanara, program partner and president of the West Sound Beekeepers Association.

Due to COVID-19, Sandy and the bees have been unable to come into the facility. The incarcerated beekeepers and I are excited for when we can start caring for these new hives. In the meantime, Sandy is adding to our shared story by sending us photos and updates frequently.

The image of the workers forming a chain between the frames makes me think of how we are all working together around a common goal to preserve life. Despite everything, the bees are an iconic view of resilience. Have an inspired week!

The hive’s queen, named the Queen of Diamonds, is labeled with a blue dot (helps beekeepers take special notice of her). You can see some of her eggs in the cells behind her; they look like tiny grains of rice.

An earlier story about this program: Bringing honeybees back to WCCW.

Welcoming the bees back to WCC

Photos by Jenn Bullard, Washington Corrections Center
Text by Joslyn Rose Trivett, SPP-Evergreen, Laurie Pyne, Centralia College, and Jenn Bullard

WCC’s Intensive Bee Management Unit buzzes with new honeybees.

Joslyn Rose Trivett: Last week, Washington Corrections Center (WCC) welcomed bees back to the program. While it is still tough for volunteers and contract staff to give support in-person, this bee program is blessed with experienced beekeepers and supportive corrections staff. April 18th was the day to receive and install the new honeybees; here are a few photos and thoughts from partners.

This is a 3-pound “package” of bees with a queen….a common way to start a new hive. These bees belong to the Italian subspecies known for its calm temperament.

Jenn Bullard: What a great afternoon! The sun was wonderful, the air was fresh, and the bees were absolutely amazing! They were calm and collected, which was great. ☺

After pouring a package of bees into the hive, a beekeeper carefully places the frames. Notice the queen cage sitting on the edge of the hive box (upper left), waiting to be installed next.
Beekeepers placed added quart jars of sugar syrup to the hives. These will feed the bees while they get established in their new home.

The 4 incarcerated beekeepers did a great job installing the hives–each one got to empty the box into the hive, and they all did a fantastic job!

Laurie Pyne: It’s a very jazzy thing to install a package of 10,000 bees into a hive on your own…and a real confidence builder.

Thank you, Jenn and Andy [Williams], for all you did on the ground there to make today happen. I so appreciate you both and the ongoing support for the beekeeping programming at WCC.

Another beekeeper eases frames into a newly-populated hive.

Letter to in-prison partners

By Erica Benoit, Kelli Bush, Carl Elliott, and Joslyn Rose Trivett, SPP-Evergreen

As is true for so many folks, recent weeks have been demanding. Responding to the 2019 Novel Coronavirus Outbreak (COVID-19) in Washington State has presented challenges. Every SPP program is a partnership, but maintaining these partnerships and programs is more difficult from a distance. Despite this, we continue to find innovative ways to maintain our commitment to SPP programs and maintain our partnerships with staff and incarcerated individuals.

To provide some insight on how SPP is adapting during this time, we share a letter sent to corrections partners. This general letter was also adapted for different partners and programs to provide next steps for each programs. As has been the case generally, our plans will likely continue to evolve as the situation changes. If you have specific questions related to SPP programs at this time, please contact spp@evergreen.edu.

Dear SPP technicians, students, educators, and corrections staff,

We want you to know that we are thinking of all of you during this challenging time. Your safety and well-being are our highest priorities. To reduce the risk of spreading infection to you and in alignment with Governor Inslee’s executive order to “stay home,” SPP staff program visits with incarcerated people have been suspended. We will resume our in-prison interactions when it becomes clear that we can do so safely, and based on advisement from Centers for Disease Control and WA Corrections Administration.

During hive cleanup in early March, bee program liaison Carrie Hesch holds a piece of honeycomb that broke off in a heart shape. Can’t think of a more fitting recipient — her approach to teamwork is compassionate, life-affirming, and productive. Photo by Shohei Morita.

Over the years and in partnership with many of you, we have found ways to offer innovative science and sustainability education programs in prisons. We care deeply about our shared efforts and your role in this partnership. We don’t want to lose what we’ve created together. These challenging times call for further innovation, compassion, and resilience.

To make the best of the current situation, we are turning our attention to developing more education and training materials.  We are working to identify safe ways to continue education and program operation as we can. For most programs, we plan to follow up with ideas for projects you can be involved with, as you are in good health and available to participate.

In a photo from last year: a member of the lawn and garden crew at Stafford Creek shows care one of his peers. Photo by Shauna Bittle.

We welcome your ideas for safely maintaining programs, education, and partnerships. We’ll do our best to respond to letters and other communications from you as quickly as we can. 

Thank you for your understanding and patience in this uncertain time. We are thinking of you and your well-being.

Sincerely,

Sustainability in Prisons Project Staff at Evergreen