In 2007, I was asked to assist with a work release/court-ordered drug treatment facility which was suddenly experiencing difficulty dealing with a sudden increase in the number of women inmates. I ended up working there for 5 years; teaching Life-Skills, providing Staff Trainings and completing Mental Health Assessments on the residents. Most of the women there had young children who would visit if they were fortunate enough to live close by or had relatives who were willing and able to bring them in. Approximately 80% of the women incarcerated in jail or prison have had to leave behind young children when sentenced. If no relative or friend steps in to help out, the state temporarily takes over mom’s parental rights. In order to regain custody, these women have to beat almost insurmountable odds by securing adequate housing and finding jobs that will provide food and shelter for them & their children as soon as they are released.
During that time, I read “The Tending Instinct,” by Dr. Shellye Taylor who describes a pattern of behavior in women that “From an evolutionary standpoint …is a plausible account of female responses to stress.” She states that as social animals, women produce increased levels of oxytocin, a brain chemical that helps them feel safe & secure, after spending time in the company of other women. Tending & befriending includes the act of coming together to share stories, help out, empathize & sometimes mentor the young or those in need. Dr. Taylor goes on to build the case that women are hardwired to connect with each other and require ample opportunities to express and satisfy this instinctual need.
Private practice has shown me that we live in a society that inhibits tending & befriending through its devotion to safety, competition and independent lifestyles. Men & women live, often isolated, behind locked doors and children grow up feeling the fear.
A few years later, someone recommended Anita Diamant’s novel, “The Red Tent.” By then, I had incorporated Dr. Taylor’s information in my workshops; teaching others that the need women often feel to talk through problems with loved ones or professionals was instinctual & that satisfying this urge would ultimately benefit families and communities. Reading “The Red Tent” reinforced my belief that something needed to be done to better enable women in need to meet this need; preferably a grassroots effort to encourage and empower women to schedule in & protect time spent in the company of other women. Diamant’s story, set during Biblical times, describes an actual red tent where women could stay when ill, depressed, alone, grieving or afraid, a place where young & old women or children could share stories, wisdom, and compassion. Where is our red tent now? What happened to this tradition that benefitted men, women & children and brought about a sense of community & togetherness?
Six months after reading this book, I walked a block & a half from my house to shop at an estate sale. Within 10 minutes I realized that something was very odd about this particular sale. It felt as if the owner had left that morning & never returned. I asked my neighbor if he knew the story behind the sale and he explained me in a low voice that the owner had killed herself recently & that her daughter was sitting by the front door, managing the sale. It seemed as if everything she had owned was for sale; the comb that still had her hair in it, her worn-out teapot & even a 1/2 bottle of her favorite perfume. I decided to leave but before I turned to go, I felt pulled to walk through her bedroom to get a better understanding of why she had taken her own life. And, there on her nightstand was a copy of “The Red Tent.”
Her book now sits on my office shelf; reminding me that this woman might have made a different choice if there had been a red tent to go to when the world closed in on her. Since that day, I have worked to provide women with a safe place to come together in; my own small attempt at creating a red tent where women could reach out for help, share stories, mentoring the young & in need. In other words, a nurturing, healing place where they could come to tend & befriend.
At this point in time, The Red Tent Women’s Initiative provides classes 3 days a week in our local, Pinellas County jail where female inmates come together to learn new skills, create art, benefit from guest speakers who share their wisdom; and in other words “tend & befriend”. In 2017, we collaborated with Pinellas Technical College allowing our instructor to open educational doors to the women who participate in jail while still incarcerated and upon release. The St. Petersburg Free Clinic, in collaboration with Red Tent, has generously provided a Clothing & Accessory Boutique for any woman in need to shop for free at their beautiful Baldwin Residence in St. Pete. We purchase bus passes through the PSTA Disadvantaged Program for any participant in need of transportation before she is released.
In 2016, after numerous requests by participants for continued involvement with Red Tent after release, and under the umbrella of PERC, Pinellas Ex-offender Re-entry Coalition, (www.exoffemder.org) we opened a community support group for any women in need of support. Now, Red Tent sponsors 3 weekly ongoing support groups in Clearwater at Perc’s Continental Hotel, at Pinellas Hope through the Catholic Diocese and at the Baldwin Women’s Residence.
Many of our participants have continued creating crafts such as bags, pillows, bath scrubs, and jewelry after release and looked to us for opportunities to sell their wares to supplement limited incomes. In 2018, thanks to Perc’s generosity & support, we are opening a storefront and crafting space on 16th St S in St. Petersburg for any women to create and sell crafts in the company of Red Tent staff & volunteers using donated supplies and materials. We welcome your questions and support. Please Contact Me with any thoughts, questions, concerns or requests for more information; I’d be happy to assist you. On behalf of the women we serve, thank you so much for your interest in the Red Tent Women’s Initiative. Sincerely yours, Barbara Rhode, LMFT