Sharon and I spoke for close to two hours one Saturday morning last December via FaceTime, and I immediately felt that I was sitting for coffee with a close friend. Sharon is open, generous, and wise—wisdom gained through traveling a very tough road. A formerly incarcerated individual, who served twenty years in a correctional facility for a domestic violence related case, Sharon has made her life’s work helping other women who have walked a similar path. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Reentry Rocks: “one of the first re-entry programs in the country that is specifically designed to meet the unique and complex needs of survivors of intimate partner violence and other forms of gender based violence.” http://reentryrocks.org She is also the Founder and CEO of Just Soul Catering, which Sharon describes as “a justice involved social enterprise, relentlessly striving to serve our customers with delicious food and affordable prices.” Yet food is only one of the ways Just Soul Catering feeds its customers and community. Sharon envisioned running a company whose employees were all formerly incarcerated individuals. Not only do her employees prepare and serve the meals, they tell their stories, leaving not a dry eye in the house. Sharon has realized her own dream and has helped to make the dreams of many reentering women come true as well, an inspiring story, indeed! http://www.justsoulcatering.com
Diane: I want to thank you for doing this interview, Sharon. Every month I like to interview an inspiring woman, a woman who follows her passions, and you’re the perfect example. Just look at your websites! They’re awesome—Just Soul Catering and Reentry Rocks. You say that your work is informed by your life experience. Can you share some of that experience with the readers?
Sharon: Sure. I spent 20 years in Bedford Hill Correctional Facility–from 1990 to 2010. I went to prison because I was charged with murder in the second degree and conspiracy in the first degree for killing my abuser. I had four codefendants. A gentleman who was living with us at the time saw the abuse going on, and he took it upon himself to do this. He and three of his friends—they jumped my abuser and killed him. When all the information was put together and given to the police, the police came back and charged me with those crimes.
“It’s So Emotional For Me Because A Life Was Taken. Not Just One Life, But Two Lives—His And Mine”
At the time, I was a corrections officer, and I believe in my heart that because I was a corrections officer, because I was black and a woman, they did not want to hear anything I had to say about what led up to what happened. I’m not saying I would not have spent any time in prison. I would have. But if they had listened to the evidence of abuse, I would not have been sentenced to 20 years. It’s so emotional for me, even to this day, because a life was taken. Not just one life, but two lives—his and mine. Two families lost people and a third family comes into play because my children were left with my mom. She had to give up the life she was leading to become a mom again, not a grandmother, and raise my kids while I was in prison.
“… At Some Point—And I Can’t Tell You Exactly When—I Began To Look At My Time As A Gift”
I kept hoping and praying, thinking that I was going to be let out earlier, but I wasn’t—not until I did every day of my 20-year sentence. It took a while, but at some point—and I can’t tell you exactly when—I began to look at my time as a gift. I know that may sound totally crazy, but I have gotten so much out of doing my time, and I was able to turn it around and give back to so many people because of the time that I did. I didn’t know this would happen from the beginning. Who knew? But because the years have gone by and because I am who I am today and have collected so many presents from the Universe, I feel so blessed. I am so humbled. I get so excited whenever I have the opportunity to speak about this experience, this journey that I went through.
Diane: I feel your passion, your excitement, and your gratitude, and it’s really moving to hear that. How old were your kids?
Sharon: My daughter was 8, and my son was 2 at the time.
Diane: Wow. That must have been unbelievable.
“Each Of Us Had Our Own Story Of Why We Were There, And We Focused On Becoming Better, Taking Responsibility For Our Actions”
Sharon: It was horrifying. When you enter into the criminal justice system, people tell you that you can appeal this or that and go home. I kept appealing and the doors did not open. It was not until my seventh or eighth year that I decided to get my associates degree, then my bachelor’s degree, and then to take the clinical pastoral education course. It was a pilot program from Albany that brought together people of all faiths. The program changed my life by allowing me to connect to so many other people. I realized that we shared an experience. We came from our own walks of life yet connected on that level. Each of us had our own story of why we were there, and we focused on becoming better, taking responsibility for our actions. The clinical pastoral program changed our lives—all our lives. It was just amazing. My journey continued. Before I knew it, I was on the other side of the time I had to do—the time was getting shorter, and I was becoming a better person, a more spiritual person, a more connected person. I became a better mother, a wonderful daughter, a mom to so many girls inside, an educator, a teacher. Wow.
Diane: Wow is right.
“I Walk In, And With, Grace. And I Thank God Every Day”
Sharon: And who knew what my freedom was going to be like? I wanted to be free. Right? I wanted to go home, and these were the expressions I shared with the parole board. No one knew that a business was waiting for me, that a non-profit was waiting for me. I just recently purchased my own home! No one told me that all of things were going to happen for me. So, I walk in and with grace, and I thank God every day. And I am very, very humble, and I tell people—this is the part I’m most passionate about—to remain humble and to not elevate themselves above their experiences. The gifts that I give out, and the gifts that are circling back to me, we have to thank God for every day. We have to say thank you for grace because grace means that you are forgiven for the wrongs that you have done and that you can still have goodness in spite of the wrongs, so I remain in that space always.
Diane: That’s wonderful. Wonderful. Also, on your website you mention the “unique and complex needs of survivors of intimate partner violence and other forms of gender-based violence.” Can you tell me what those unique needs are and how to best serve them?
Sharon: The unique needs of gender-based violence, or any violence in the home that women have been exposed to are hard to explain. You cannot even imagine how one person gets there. I think about my family. I was raised in a Western Indian background. My dad was from Trinidad, my mom from Barbados, and my grandparents were English-raised. When I think of the upbringing they gave me, I wonder how this happened to me. But I also grew up in Brooklyn, in Bedford Stuyvesant, in an area where you couldn’t even go around the corner. I had friends who were poor, and I was exposed to the streets, exposed to boys and men that were doing things that eliminated the protections I had from the kind of family that I grew up in. If my parents had kept me off the streets—my mom wanted to send me to school in England—if they had done those things, maybe my life would have been different.
“People Don’t Have The Right To Ask Questions Like, “How Could You Allow That To Happen?” Why Don’t They Ask Questions Like, “How Did You Survive That?”
I walked in a line of fire—gaining wisdom from the streets, from the drugs, the alcohol, the negativity. When I went to prison, I met people who had the same story and worse. Violence in the home and violent relationships can lead you to do things that you would never do under other circumstances. Domestic violence (DV) happens to people from all walks of life. I saw this. I’m home now, and I believe in paving the way and setting up a place where women can come get help—not to identify as the poor victim. I don’t want DV to define us. People don’t have the right to still judge us. They don’t have the right to ask us questions like, “How could you allow that to happen?” Why don’t they ask questions like, “How did you survive that? And, what are you doing today, to come around a table with people like yourself?” We can do storytelling. And we can tell others, so it won’t happen to them.
Diane: So, I’m a writer and I’m actually working on a book now about formerly incarcerated men and their life stories. I know the power of story. Can you tell me how you use that in your program? Is that one of the major ways you help women?
“When They’re Standing There Eating This Girl’s Food—It’s Not Just Food—It’s Soul Food, With A Story—They Can No Longer Lift This Macaroni And Cheese To Their Mouths Without Honoring The Girl’s Story”
Sharon: Storytelling is part of the catering business. Defy Ventures—I graduated from a program at Defy Ventures, a nonprofit that helped me get Just Soul Catering off the ground. Social justice is a huge component, and at Soul Catering, it is connected to storytelling. We used to sit at the feet of the elders, the wiser, and listen to their stories, so we could learn from them, so when we were on our journeys, we could use the seeds that were planted and wouldn’t have to stumble on the same things. We all create our own stories, yet, if we learn from those who walked before us, it would help us on our journey. The story telling piece brings trust. When women talk to me, I can say that I have been down that road, walked where they walked. I have worn [prison] green. When I talk about the worst of the worst, that someone lost their life, the room becomes silent. I begin to share stories about the kind of family I had, the background I had. I know what it is to smoke crack. I know what it is to sniff cocaine. I know what it is to have been a corrections officer. I know what it is to have sold drugs to my coworkers. I know what it is to be in relationship after relationship, people who were good for me, others not good for me, and then end up in prison. The room becomes silent.
“Storytelling Changes Lives”
People listen. They are no longer listening just to be nosey. There’s an impact of words coming at them a hundred miles a minute. And when they’re standing there eating this girl’s food—it’s not just food—it’s soul food, with a story—they can no longer lift this macaroni and cheese to their mouths without honoring the girl’s story.
Storytelling changes lives. It’s inspirational. It moves people, changes people. It makes the people who did not care, or who had judged, different when they walk away. I guarantee you that if 25 people are in the room who all entered that room with their own agenda, at least one half of them, three quarters, will leave different. This is what we do.
Diane: So, you come in and cater the food and tell stories, is that how it works? It’s an evening of catering and storytelling?
Sharon: Right. When you use that part of the catering piece. That’s what we do.
“We’ll Tell Our Stories … There Is Never A Dry Eye In The House.”
Diane: Oh. So, you provide traditional catering too, but if people want the stories, you are happy to make a program.
Diane: That’s amazing. That’s fabulous. I’ve never heard of anything like that. Was that your idea?
Sharon: It was not just my idea. I was in a car with four colleagues. We had just come from a DV seminar, and in the conversation, I came to this idea. I went home and asked myself “How? How? People are not going to understand this. I’m going to have to pitch this.” I found a way, and when I was sent to the west coast for a competition, I came in first place and won $10,000 for my business because of the way I pitched this thing.
Diane: What kind of competition?
Sharon: It was from Defy. It’s called the Capital Call Competition in CA. I won that money and did great things for my business. I love food. I love storytelling. I love the journey. I love the excitement. The emotion. That’s the greater part of this.
Diane: So, give me an idea. Let’s say someone hires you. They have a group of 20-50 people. What would the evening look like?
Sharon: Let’s say someone is having a graduation party. They would go to our website and click on the booking part. We would cook whatever they ordered, and I would take one or two other workers with me. We would serve the guests, and then whoever booked the event would have me and the other workers come up and start the storytelling. I would start: “Hi. I’m Sharon Richardson, the owner of Soul Food Catering, which hires formerly incarcerated women. I’m also the founder of Reentry Rocks, a nonprofit organization, and this is the reason we do this work. And then we’ll tell our stories, sometimes around the theme of the event. There is never a dry eye in the house.
Diane: And you do this just in the city? Or in the boroughs, too, the suburbs of Long Island, Westchester, New Jersey?
Sharon: We go all over. We had a call last week from CA. A guy wanted to know if we had Just Soul Catering in CA.
Diane: He wanted to book you for an event!
Sharon: We’re not that big!
Diane: Not yet, but the wheels could be turning!
Sharon: From your mouth to God’s ears!
“Models Don’t Have To Be Perfect. They Can Be Broken. They Can Be Wounded.”
Diane: I love it! So, what I’m getting about you from talking to you is that when you get an idea, you don’t just sit on it. You move. I do the same thing. That’s how things happen in the world. You are a model for women who have been through DV but also for women in general—you are a model for all human beings. Who were your models? I know there was Sister Mary Nerny.
Sharon: My models stem all the way back. My grandmother, my mother were my models. Models don’t have to be perfect. They can be broken. They can be wounded. I see my grandmother. I see my mother. Coretta King. I see the books. The people who wrote those books. Iyanla Vanzant, Maya Angelou. I see her. I read while I was inside. I went to school when I was inside. They became my models.
“I Have Become My Own Model. I Have Stepped Outside Of Myself And Looked Back And Said, “I Can Follow You Now.”
I’ve met many women, incarcerated, who became people I looked up to. There was a rabbi. I heard her speak and went back to her office and said, “Can I sit by your feet? I need to speak with you. I need you to feed me.” She became my model. My two pastors in Bedford. My pastor when I came home, Reverend Herbert Daugherty from the House of the Lord Church. He became my model. I have become my own model. I have stepped outside of myself and looked back and said, “I can follow you now.” I’m writing a book. The cover of my book is going to be three-dimensional—the title I’d love to use is Shatters. I picture three-dimensional glass—you’ll see the corrections officer, the woman in green, and the woman now—all one person.
Diane: So, your book’s a memoir. You need to write a memoir! Are you working on it now?
Sharon: When I have the time—not doing a great job at it right now.
Diane: It takes a lot of time, but what a story! Tell me about Sister Mary.
Sharon: Sister Mary Nerney was my model. She was like a mom to me. We called her the Legendary Sister Mary Nerney. I met her when I first got arrested. She was in what we call the bullpen of the court. And she came. And she talked to me. And she said, “I want to help you. I want to help you not go to prison.”
“I Had To Walk Another Journey, And Sister Mary Walked It With Me And Taught Me Everything I Know”
It didn’t happen, but she started to come to Riker’s and to Bedford Correctional and talk to the women. That’s how we became very close. She stayed with me and stayed in touch with my family as my children were growing. She was there for me when I got out and gave me my first job. I worked at STEPS to End Family Violence. We created a reentry program and I became a reentry specialist. We worked together closely, developing and moving and moving and developing, until she became ill.
Diane: Your first job was at STEPS?
Sharon: I actually first worked at my church as a reentry coordinator—from May 2010 until September when I went to work with Sister Mary at STEPS.
Diane: What did you do? What does a reentry specialist do?
Sharon: I didn’t know! I told Sister Mary, “The nerve of you to hire me when I didn’t even know how to write an email!” But I made it work. I had to walk another journey, and Sister Mary walked it with me and taught me everything I know. Before I left the church doing reentry work, there was a woman named Roberta who taught me how to use my experience, my storytelling to help gain people’s trust. So I took all of that to STEPS, and I just grew. I grew into myself. Now, I don’t even work for STEPS anymore. I’m the executive director of my own nonprofit—Reentry Rocks.
Diane: Tell me how that started.
Sharon: I had wonderful bosses named Anne and Julia. They saw my vision and the hard work I was doing and put their feet at my butt and said, “Go girl!” The Wind Beneath My Wings—that song is so beautiful. They encouraged me to get my 501c3 along with my partner at the time. I wrote a grant, got the grant, and was able to pay my salary and hire three other people to get it all going. Reentry Rocks!
“I Could Be Sitting Outside With My Two Dogs And My Grandkids, But I Don’t Think That Would Be Enough For Me. I Have To Do This”
Diane: When did it open?
Sharon: I got my 501c3 in 2015, but we just started flying with Reentry Rocks and Just Soul Catering in Sept 2018.
Diane: Wow! So what kind of services do you offer at Reentry Rocks, and how does a woman hear about you? Is she referred?
Sharon: She can hear about us through parole, probation, the court system, word of mouth, or other organizations affiliated with us. I know a slew of people, and the word is out now that we exist and about what we’re doing. I’m running the entrepreneurial culinary training program out of Reentry Rocks. We just graduated our first class!
Diane: I heard!
Sharon: That was great. We have two creative arts programs. One is the culinary. The other is the Sentenced to Dance—our dance group. We have a DV support group and an anger management group.
Diane: When you reentered, what was your biggest challenge?
Sharon: I couldn’t swipe my Metro card—even the bus driver asked me where I was from.
Diane: So, the everyday stuff.
Sharon: The email. I still can’t get it right! Yes. Everyday stuff.
Diane: Learning how to be in the world twenty years later. It changes a lot. When did you realize that this was your life’s work?
Sharon: I think the realization came after something woke up in me and let me know that this had been there all my life. I just needed to step outside myself and say, “how could you not?” I have a home now. I could be sitting outside with my two dogs and my grandkids, but I don’t think that would be enough for me. I have to do this.
Diane: It’s a wonderful thing to have something that you have to do. Gets you up in the morning. It’s a wonderful thing.
I have some more global questions for you: How do we combat DV on a societal level—what’s the answer?
Sharon: We need to educate people and the educators need to be people who have been through it. Stop hiring actors to play us. If judges and lawyers would only humble themselves to sit at our feet. We have the wisdom now. It would move the mountains, crack the ceilings, separate the waters.
Diane: Sharon, I have to tell you. I love the way you use metaphors. You are a poet!
“We Need Some Men Who Have Been Abusive And Have Healed Themselves To Gather Up Young Men And Talk To Them”
Sharon: I want to do a round table, and I’d like you to be on it.
Diane: A round table? What is that? First, I’m saying yes! Now you can tell me.
Sharon: Have you ever watched The Real? It’s four black women—YouTube it. I want a round table of reentry. Powerhouses, women survivors or DV, women who have been incarcerated, and other women. We can have our own show and educate the world with real stories—not like Orange is the New Black!
Diane: Sign me up! I don’t know what I’d have to offer.
Sharon: Whatever you write—how you put words together—just let that come from your mouth. Let that be present in the room when we fill up people’s cups. I want to create a space where people in the audience will say, “you’re telling my story.” You have that in you.
Diane: Thank you!
Sharon: We want a mixture—not just a panel of formerly incarcerated women. We want women of all levels of education, social workers, writers, black, white—all types of women.
Diane: So, on a societal level, we need education. But how do we reach young girls who are starting to date—what do you say to young boys, to mothers?
Sharon: It takes a village to raise a child—we need to come back to that. And we need the men to step it up. We need some men who have been abusive and have healed themselves to gather up young men and to talk to them.
Diane: That’s very powerful. I watched the movie Crime After Crime. I have the chills just saying the name. (Crime After Crime is the award-winning documentary featured at Sundance Film Festival about the “battle to free Debbie Peagler.” Ms. Peager’s story is incredibly similar to Sharon’s. https://www.amazon.com/Crime-After-Debbie-Peagler/dp/B079WMRCPC
Sharon: They had me speak at the opening—Google Crime after Crime and Sharon Richardson, it should come up. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IMyZMAmdvxs Her case was like mine, but she got out and then she died. The story never ends. You could put five women in separate rooms and put all the notes together, it would be the same story. The NoVo Foundation (a major nonprofit dedicated to ” … reversing the old paradigm predicated on hierarchy, violence, and the subordination of girls and women” https://novofoundation.org/about-us/) purchased the Bayview Correctional Facility in Chelsea and is transforming it into The Women’s Building. We’re going to be part of that—creating a space for young women and girls, creating a new legacy. I’m hoping that Just Soul Catering could be one of the cafes there. Reentry Rocks needs to get an office in that building too!
“You Are Not Defined By Your Past. Your Memory Is A Gift, Not A Punishment”
Diane: This has been such a joy and inspiration. I say that from my heart. Do you have any final thoughts? Wishes for women?
Sharon: The metaphor of the caterpillar and the butterfly. I didn’t know that you can’t cut open the cocoon. The caterpillar has to go through the whole process—the struggle in the cocoon helps the wings get stronger and stronger. Nothing comes easy. It’s from struggle that great things come. Take responsibility. When you do break through, you will be able to walk in glory, in truth. People will have to accept you. You are not defined by your past. Your memory is a gift, not a punishment. Don’t let people judge you. Stay in your cocoon until you’re ready. Then fly.
Diane: Beautiful—what a wonderful way to end. This has been an honor and a delight and an inspiration. I have a new friend and collaborator! Thank you, Sharon! Thank you for all you do and for being you.
If you’d like to learn more about the important work that Sharon is doing at Reentry Rocks—or to make a donation to support that work, here’s the link: http://reentryrocks.org And, if you’d like to learn more about Just Soul Catering, explore their delicious menus, or book them for an event or party, here’s where you can check them out: http://www.justsoulcatering.com
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Please leave a comment or send me an email! I will pass them along to Sharon too!
Have a wonderful week!
See you next Friday!