By Joan Schweighardt
Bloomers Blazing is a regular feature at BLOOM, presenting interviews with (and stories about) people who found their life’s passion after the age of 40.
Blazing Bloomer Denise Allan Steele had her first novel published after the age of 50. But that wasn’t the only thing she did in later life. Having been an educator for many years, including working in parole centers, she decided to take the next step and begin working with pre-parole prison inmates. Denise and her business partner, Mildred McKinney, a Mississippian transplanted to the Bay Area, grew the idea over cups of tea and apple crumbles. The result is a very successful program called Open Gate, which provides prisoners on their way to parole with opportunities to receive college educations and/or targeted vocational training.
Joan Schweighardt: When did you know that you needed to start your own business?
Denise Allan Steele: I actually remember the moment. When my children were in elementary and middle school, we moved to the San Francisco Bay area from a hundred-year old farmhouse in the north east of Scotland. Our lifestyle in Scotland had been very rural. We had well water, septic tanks, fields of wheat and daffodil for miles, fifty students in the village school, library and banking services via a van once a week, and no streetlights! I was brought up on the west coast of Scotland, in a small harbor town with a thousand-year-old castle. This was the town from which the coal-fired ships used to depart for the new world of America, which is exactly what I did.
My husband is a petroleum engineer and is gone for weeks at a time, so I was really a single parent in a new country. For the first twelve years I was a stay-at-home mum who taught adults to read at the local library during my children’s school hours. On the day my youngest child graduated from high school I thought to myself, OK, job done! What’s next? Just after that, the parole center in Oakland called the library asking if they could “borrow” one of their literacy teachers, and that teacher was me!
JS: Open Gate, which you and Mildred opened in 2013, was the first jail-to-college pipeline in California. Were there programs in other states at that time that you were able to look at as examples?
DAS: There are programs in U.S. colleges and universities for formerly incarcerated students, but as far as we know, we are the first to teach college readiness classes to inmates and then facilitate their transfer to our college program upon their release. Our Jail-to-College pipeline flows from Santa Rita Jail, Dublin, CA, to Chabot College, Hayward, CA.
JS: How are you funded?
DAS: We are funded by Chabot College. But we also accept donations to pay for student lunches, bus passes, school supplies, etc., and safety glasses, gloves and boots for those entering vocational training programs.
JS: What is the focus of the classes you provide?
DAS: We teach two classes for about 30 inmates each, using a targeted curriculum that we wrote. Our College Readiness program covers Personality Types (based on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator); Learning Disabilities, and how students can expect to be accommodated in college settings (ninety-five percent of our students have a previously undiagnosed learning disability); and how colleges work and how students can create strategies to succeed. We also discuss Title IX, which provides the new standards of gender equality and awareness.
JS: Do your services include trying to find housing and jobs for the parolees too?
DAS: Our students get Federal Financial Aid, and we connect them with relevant community services: Transitional Housing, Department of Veterans’ Affairs, our campus Veteran centers, rehabs, and a multitude of additional organizations. We also hire some of our students as Federal Student Workers on campus, and we provide resumes and interview workshops for others. We have over 50 former students in full-time employment.
JS: How do you select the students for your program?
DAS: Most of our inmate students are low-security and are selected by the deputies when they are within six months of being released. However, we also recruit directly from the prison population, and many of our recruits had been involved in serious offences. In fact, our campus coordinator spent 22 years incarcerated in San Quentin State Prison, where he worked on a restorative justice project. Since his release, he has given TEDx Talks on Restorative Justice and has received multiple awards including a SOROS Fellowship. We also employ released lifers as mentors and counselors on campus, giving our younger students strong and stable role models. Our program has zero percent recidivism.
JS: What impact has Open Gate had on you as a person?
DAS: I really believe now that there is always hope. As long as we are breathing, we have hope. We work with men and women who made huge mistakes that damaged other people, their communities, their families and themselves. I now see those men and women working night and day for no financial gain to restore what they took, to build up their communities, to create successful groups that advocate for healing and restorative justice and non-violence. I see them working hand-in-hand with law enforcement, going into juvenile halls to reach out to young people who are on the wrong path and affirm that there is nothing cool about incarceration, that there is another choice: the choice of education and employment and productivity and freedom.
JS: Switching gears here, tell me about your fiction writing? When did you begin?
DAS: I wrote my first book when I was eight years old! Timmy the Talking Dog was about a dog who could talk only to me. I wrote it in pencil and drew the pictures in crayon to go with the text. My brother, teacher, and dog all thought it was very funny!
My children often amuse themselves by asking me about my life in Scotland, what it was like growing up there in “the olden days.” So I wrote a short story about what my real-life best pal and I did on the day that Elvis died in 1977, when we were 15 years old. I typed it up sent it to her in Sydney, Australia, where she is a nurse, and she locked herself in the toilets during her break at the hospital and laughed until she cried as she read it. I incorporated that story into my first novel, Rewind.
JS: What will you write next?
DAS: I’d love to write a sequel to Rewind based five years after the first story, when Karen and Carol, the main characters, are turning 50 and dealing with what life gives you at that age!
Joan Schweighardt is the author of Before We Died and other novels.
homepage photo provided by Denise Allan Steele