31 July, 2023

A President's Vision

The twentieth annual Speak Easy Gavel Club awards and swearing-in banquet was held in the visiting room at Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center yesterday afternoon. It's tradition for the incoming president to give a vision speech that gives club members a sense of what they might expect to see in the coming year. Here is the vision speech that I delivered to my fellow Gaveliers and the prison's Institutional Activities Coordinator, Deputy Warden, and Warden. Afterward, the warden twice said to me, "Let me know what you need." I'll take that as a sign that the club put our best face forward.

* * * * *

In the five years since I joined this club, I've witnessed a lot of changes in our fellow members, in our leadership, in our meeting times. My earliest meetings were attended by a VIC, a Volunteer in Corrections, Mr. Dan Curry, who came every week and not only oversaw our activities but walked the Toastmasters education path alongside us, fulfilling assignments in the manuals as he worked toward his Competent Communicator and Competent Leader certification. The enthusiasm he displayed was inspiring to a new member like myself, especially since I didn't fully know what possessed me to sign up for an organization that I always thought was for corporate management wannabes and aspiring youth pastors.

That's not me. I never had corporate ambitions or a yearning to spread the Word. The fact is, as some of you know, I'm a bit of an oddball. I grew up kind of quiet, kind of quirky, more solitary reader than team leader. Yet here I am, speaking to you as the president of the Speak Easy Gavel Club, at our twentieth annual banquet.

I don't want this to sound like an icebreaker speech, because those of you who are members already know me. I assume you do, anyway, and that that's why you asked me to run, then elected me to this office.

In the past year and a half, first as an interim officer, then for a full term, I served as this club's Vice President Education. I loved being VPE, and I think my experience typifies what the club experience is about. You know that old saying about there being those who are born great and those who have greatness thrust upon them? It's the same with leadership. I never wanted to hold office in anything. Then a previous VPE pulled me to the back of the room and basically told me to perform his duties for the three months before he went home. People saw that I was doing his job, so they made his job my job.

This is how it is, a lot of times. One piece of wisdom that I took from Mr. Curry, the VIC I mentioned a moment ago, was to ask of every situation, "What have I learned from this?" The thing I learned from being thrust into the office of VPE was that we often don't know what we're capable of until someone says, "Do this." How will you find out what you can do if you never try?

As VPE, I tried to introduce a variety of special meetings about one per month that stretched the boundaries of what members thought themselves capable, or of what they believed might be interesting, but still involved the communication skills and quick thinking that Toastmasters is known for. It was the belief of Mr. Ralph Smedley, who founded Toastmasters in 1924, that we learn best in moments of enjoyment. In that spirit, I tried to bring fun into the meetings while staying true to our educational mission.

My one-year term as VPE ended on the first of this month. I had to pass the responsibilities along, so I did that in the same way as it was done to me, by pawning the role off on some poor schmuck. Thank you, Mr. Peirano, for taking the mantle and bringing your attentiveness to that important position.

So, the presidency. The membership has chosen me to lead our club into 2024. I had an opportunity last Friday to meet with what incoming board members we currently have, and at that meeting I made clear my expectations of as well as my hopes for each of them as club officers. To sum this up in three words, that's: persistence, professionalism, and perspective.

Think about these clichés. "You get what you give." "It works if you work it." "You get out what you put in." Is there anyone in this room who doesn't believe that we'll improve ourselves if we fully embrace our responsibilities in this club? Is there anyone here who thinks we're in anything other the business of self-improvement? What I tried to do as VPE, and what I will continue to do as president, is remind every member of this club as often as I can that we became Gaveliers to improve our communication and leadership skills.

Okay, maybe that's not entirely true. Transferred here from a facility on the opposite side of the state, I signed up to meet people and to network. You might ask, "Why not just do that on the yard? Why sign up for a callout?" The answer's simple: a Gavelier has at least a spark inside that they're trying to coax a fire from a fire of enthusiasm, a fire of rhetoric, a fire like a phoenix, rising up from the ashes of another, former self, the self that came though that gate one, two, twenty, or however many years ago.

This club is a tool for self-betterment. We can use it to its fullest extent, but we that means work. And this involves more than just showing up every week, maybe being asked to serve as timer or to count speakers' crutch words or to deliver a TableTopics speech. It means planning what you're going to do and then doing it. I see a Gavel Club that's not afraid of taking personal risks if you were at our April membership drive event, or you saw it on TV, you see the superhero aerobics-class improv skit. That was silly, and those guys who got up to participate threw everything they had into the bit. That's the kind of fearless energy I love to see in meetings. I'd like to see it displayed more outside of the club, too.

I have a vision for this club that lies outside the scope of what we've been comfortable with so far, and what previous ERDCC administrators have allowed. I see our members not as mere Gaveliers but as future community organizers, business managers, peer counselors, heads of families, influencers, church leaders, city councilpersons, and so much more. I plan to invite guest speakers from outside and inside the facility, to host seminars that break down barriers and encourage productive conversation across boundary lines, and to nudge us all past our comfort zones to find the places where real growth takes place. I want to make an independent leader out of every single member of this club.

That's my vision, but how do we achieve it? How do we travel from one place to another? How do we build a house? How do we start a movement? How did I, as a new club member, become Vice President Education, or President, for that matter? How does a person do anything? It's actually the easiest thing in the world. You do the thing by doing it.

I want to do the thing, and I want you all to do it right alongside me. I see changes coming to ERDCC, and more importantly, I see a real hunger among its population for positive activity and meaningful structure. This club is uniquely positioned to give them both. That's the thing. I want to do it. Who's with me?

14 July, 2023

Swing, Batter! Suffer, Byron!

One of the most popular XSTREAM Media programs is easily Game of the Week. This in-house production produced by my coworkers and me is nothing more than video footage of a Recreation Department-sanctioned team sport being played in the previous seven days of its broadcast. Sometimes the game is Pickleball, at other times it's basketball. Whatever the sport, I dislike having anything to do with it.

For years, every annual "King of the Hill" sports event at ERDCC was recorded with a single video camera, then broadcast without graphics on the person's closed-circuit TV system and it was fine. That all changed when one of my coworkers bragged about the last prison he was at, saying in our boss's presence, "Back at Potosi, we used to tape every basketball game." It wasn't a week before the boss bought two $1,200 shoulder-mounted Panasonic video cameras and told us to start producing weekly sports broadcasts. So we do. I designed a logo for XSTREAM Sports that transformed the head of our vaguely menacing octopus logo into a basketball. Then I made a Pickleball version. Then I did one for softball. If they ever allow prisoners to play soccer in Missouri, I'll probably have to make a version for that, too.

If only that's where my responsibility ended. Every Tuesday, because no one else is available, the three members of Team XSTREAM who are too nerdy and/or crowd-averse to play team sports
Ridhwan, Jason, and myself gear up and head out to the diamond to record another "exciting" round of ball-and-stick. For the record, for those who don't know me or haven't followed this blog long enough to know, videotaping a summer softball game is pretty close to being as un-Byronic as an activity can get. (Attending the performance of a Journey cover band, accompanied by two excitable children, would be one that goes a step further.) I'm basically a human-mushroom hybrid and thrive in cool, dark places. There are three simple reasons why: (1) I don't tolerate heat, (2) I quickly scorch when exposed to direct sunlight, and (3) I don't understand the rules nor the mass appeal of sport in general. Nevertheless, there I go, every Tuesday, up onto the volleyball stand, to train a camera over a fence and record two back-to-back games of slow-pitch softball. The camera I run sits just beside the batting cage. The commentators who mike up and feed audio into my camera are a couple of wise-asses intent on roasting every player they can: "His teeth look like he just ate a box of Cheez-Its and didn't brush." "Here comes Charles Manson up to the plate." "Armstrong is a terrible player. Terrible." "His pants are so tight, they're cutting off circulation to his brain." "It's Sammy's birthday today. He's 88 years old and still pitching." And so on. About half the time, I get a headache hearing their yammering through my headphones for two hours at a stretch. It would help if they were at least funny.
Alas, sunburn and a sore neck seem to be my weekly lot in life now. It's a peculiar place to be. We don't have Nielsen ratings, just word on the yard. Like I said, though, the population seems to like it which is what really matters.