The Year of the Woman: Oklahoma Edition

By Devin Hiett

A record number of women ran for office in the last midterm election cycle, and as more women than ever won elections, 2018 became dubbed the “Year of the Woman.” 

Historic victories took place across the nation, including in Oklahoma, which is now ranked 43 out of 50 for the percentage of women in the state Legislature —  the highest ranking Oklahoma has held in the past three decades. 

Before the 2018 elections, Oklahoma was ranked 48th, with 12.8 percent of total seats in its Legislature held by women. Now the percentage has increased to 21.5 percent, and women hold 32 of the 149 total seats in the Legislature, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. 

One of the women who helped Oklahoma get there was Rep. Merleyn Bell, a Democrat who represents District 45 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. 

Bell’s desire to run for office was fueled in part by her son, who started kindergarten this year. 

A native Oklahoman, Bell worried that her son would not receive the same quality of public education that she did while growing up in Norman. By serving in the Legislature, Bell hoped she could improve public education in Oklahoma, which is ranked 43rd in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. 

Bell considered the idea of running for office before her son was born, but was never confident she was qualified for the job. After graduating from OU in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in geography, Bell started her own design company and worked as the art director at World Literature Today, an international literary magazine based on OU’s campus. 

Bell did not consider this to be a typical path for someone who wanted to run for office, so she questioned her ability to launch a campaign and serve as an elected official.

“I’m not an attorney. I’m not a policy wonk. I haven’t studied government the way that I think other people must have, so I’m not the right person,” Bell said she told herself. “I sat in that place for a really long time.”

However, Bell’s perspective changed after Congresswoman Kendra Horn encouraged her to run. 

Horn made history in 2018 when she defeated two-term incumbent Republican Steve Russell for Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District seat. Horn won the tightly contested race with 50.7 percent of the vote, making her Oklahoma’s first Democratic congresswoman. 

Before running for Congress, Horn served as the executive director of Sally’s List, a nonprofit based in Oklahoma City that recruits and trains women to run for public office. During that time, she met Bell and encouraged her to run for the state Legislature. 

“She really helped open that door for me,” Bell said. “I think I would have still been wishing I had run had it not been for other women saying ‘I can see you doing this, and I can show you a path forward.’” 

Research has found that bridging the gender gap in American politics is largely dependent upon women having people in their lives who encourage them to run for office. 

A study from American University found that women’s underrepresentation in politics can be traced to seven major factors. One of these is that “women are less likely than men to receive the suggestion to run for office – from anyone.” The study also found that women are much less likely than men to perceive themselves as qualified to run for office.

While campaigning, Bell said she had to put self-doubt aside and believe in herself more than ever. 

“You know that running tape that we have in our minds, the things we tell ourselves?” Bell said. 

“I really made the best tape ever for myself when I was running and said you are the most qualified person you could think of to do this, and I’ve got to start hammering that into myself.”  

Bell, like many women working in traditionally male-dominated spaces, dealt with imposter syndrome while campaigning and after winning her election. 

Harvard Business Review defines Imposter Syndrome as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.” A 2011 article from The Journal of Behavioral Science estimated that about 70 percent of people have experienced impostor syndrome at some point. 

Bell said having female role models who have been through the same situation helped her overcome feelings of doubt and inadequacy. 

“You still need those people there even after you succeed in getting elected,” Bell said. “It’s great to have women on your side saying ‘I get it, and you’re going to make it.’” 

Lauren Schueler, director of NEW Leadership and civic engagement at the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center, runs a program that provides undergraduate women with a robust network of female mentors and allies working in public service positions. 

NEW Leadership is an intensive five-day program that takes place on OU’s campus each year. Its goal is to educate and empower undergraduate women to be active participants in politics and public service. 

Participants in the program have the opportunity to engage with more than 50 local women leaders from public life to help give them the understanding and tools to become professionals in areas like politics, law and public service. 

Schueler, who has been director of the program for three years, believes that “you can’t be what you can’t see.” That is why it is crucial to expose young female leaders to other women in leadership positions, Schueler said. 

“A big picture goal of the program is to fill that pipeline of women that have the potential, the expertise and the knowledge to run for office and to step into those leadership roles,” Schueler said.

Since NEW Leadership was brought to Oklahoma nearly two decades ago, about 600 women from over 40 higher education institutions have graduated from the program. Ten alumni have run for office and four are currently serving as elected officials, Schueler said.  

Emilie Tindle, a 2019 NEW Leadership graduate, recently began her 2020 campaign for Oklahoma’s 11th state house district. 

Tindle, a 24-year-old history student at Oklahoma State, was drawn to political life after participating in the Oklahoma House of Representatives High School Page Program as a teenager. Back then, Tindle imagined herself running for office later in life after pursuing other careers and raising a family.

However, her timeline changed.

Tindle lives in Collinsville, which is a part of the Tulsa metro area. Her state house district has not had a general election since 2006. 

In 2018, no Democratic candidates ran in the primary for District 11 and the general election was cancelled once again. By then, Tindle was tired of watching candidates in her district run unopposed for over a decade. 

“I felt like it was the right time for somebody to show up and nobody had,” Tindle said. “And I see the value in having a nontraditional student run for office, and I see the value of having a young woman run.” 

Growing up, Tindle was homeschooled and raised in a community where most women stayed at home. The expectation was for Tindle to get married by 20, become a mother, and raise and homeschool her children. 

Women who worked outside of the home were expected to enter service professions such as teaching or nursing — nothing executive, administrative or creative, Tindle said. 

Although Tindle did not grow up surrounded by women in politics or similar professions, she loved to read and found inspiration from the heroic female characters in her favorite novels. The women Tindle read about could do anything, and they helped her realize that she could, too.

Running for office while pursuing a bachelor’s degree was never part of Tindle’s plan, but she knows that no time will ever be perfect. 

“If you want it, build it into your life and don’t let other people’s expectations or rules keep you from doing what you feel called to do because that desire is true, it’s strong and it will guide you in that direction,” Tindle said. “It’s there for a reason. Not everybody feels it, but if you do, it’s really important to lean into it and go with it.” 

One thing Schueler has noticed in her recent years running the NEW Leadership program is the shifting expectations around when women can and should run for office. When Schueler first became involved with the program in 2010 as a graduate assistant, many women felt compelled to get married and raise children before considering a career in politics.

Schueler believes that expectation is dying out. 

“I think women are starting to push those barriers and saying why do I have to wait? Men don’t have to wait. I can do these things,” Schueler said.

In 2018, a record number of millennials — those born between 1981 and 1996 — were elected to Congress. There are now 26 millennials serving in the House, up from only five who were serving at the beginning of the current Congress in 2017, according to Pew Research Center

The country saw another historic first in 2018 when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected to Congress at 29, making her the youngest Congresswoman in United States history. The median age for House members today is 58. 

Tindle aspires to join the ranks of Ocasio-Cortez and other young women around the nation who are breaking political barriers. She hopes her unique candidacy will show constituents in District 11 that she would bring a fresh perspective to the job. 

“I think people are excited somebody young is showing up because there’s this expectation that youth won’t show up and do the work, which is funny because we’re not old enough to have done the work yet anyway,” Tindle said. “But I think there’s a lot of excitement surrounding young candidates.”

Although Tindle is hopeful she will win the 2020 election, she recognizes that it’s a longshot. 

Tindle is a young Democratic woman from a nontraditional background without a college degree. She is running against an older Republican male incumbent with multiple degrees in a seat that has not been held by a woman or a Democrat during Tindle’s lifetime. 

But for Tindle, winning is not the only point of running.

“I think what might help women run more is the idea that you don’t have to win ― and you might not ― but it’s about the process of doing it, the process of being visible, of making space for the person who comes after you,” Tindle said. “It’s less about are you immediately going to create change and more about what’s the long-term change in the community that comes from a female presence in office.” 

In many ways, Tindle’s candidacy resembles that of another young woman who ran for the Oklahoma House of Representatives in 2014. 

Cyndi Munson, who was in her late 20s at the time, ran as a Democrat in District 85 against an older, Republican male incumbent in a traditionally Republican district in Oklahoma City. 

Munson was a first-generation college student. She was an Asian-American woman running in a district that was more than 80 percent white and only 3.9 percent Asian. She knew her chances of winning against incumbent David Dank in the 2014 election were slim. 

“Many times we are so afraid of failure we’ll keep ourselves from even trying, and I’ve certainly done that in my life,” Munson said. “But this time I felt like it was worth it.”

In the end, Munson lost the 2014 election by more than ten percent. Though she was disappointed, Munson immediately knew she wanted to run again.

After the seat she ran for in 2014 unexpectedly became vacant in 2015, Munson took the opportunity to run again only a year after her first attempt. 

Running one campaign had given Munson the tools, confidence and experience to run another one, but she remembers feeling nervous about the prospect of losing again. She thought that losing once was acceptable, but losing twice? That made you a loser. 

Ultimately, Munson decided to take the gamble. 

She won the 2015 election and became the first Asian-American woman to serve in the Oklahoma Legislature. She was reelected in 2016 and 2018. 

“In the end, I told myself, what do you really have to lose? You can try again and yeah, you could lose and learn more about yourself ― or you could win. And I won.”

Munson hopes her story will help the next generation of women realize that if you want something enough, you shouldn’t let the fear of failure stop you from trying. And trying again. 

“You just might surprise yourself,” Munson said. 

American Promise: A Unifying Cause

By Devin Hiett

It’s his day off after a hectic weekend conference in Washington D.C., but rather than relaxing at home Azor Cole has come into work. Sipping coffee in his boss’ office, Cole is content soaking in the empowering energy that helps fuel his passion for Democratic reform. 

Cole is the state manager at American Promise, a cross-partisan nonprofit that organizes and empowers Americans from across the nation to advocate for a 28th Amendment to the Constitution. Passage of the 28th Amendment would repeal the controversial Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision, a 5-4 ruling in 2010 that extended First Amendment protections to corporations by classifying corporate political spending as free speech. 

American Promise is using a state-by-state approach to garner national support for the 28th Amendment. Citizen activists in over 15 states have started regional American Promise Association chapters and over 800 cities and towns that have passed local resolutions in favor of the 28th Amendment. 

Once a year, American Promise activists from around the country come together in Arlington, Virginia, for the National Citizen Leadership Conference, the nation’s largest event devoted to passing a 28th Amendment. On Oct. 19, over 200 citizens spawning the political, geographical and generational spectrum came together for the third-annual conference with the goal of decreasing big money’s influence in politics. 

One of these citizens was Jim Rubens, a former Republican state senator from New Hampshire. Rubens describes himself as a principled conservative and has the physical aesthetic to match. Tall and slender with wispy white hair, Rubens could often be found at the conference coaching fellow activists on how to market the 28th Amendment’s appeal to Republicans.

Rubens has been fighting against what he calls “special interests oversized political influence” since the ’90s when he pledged not to accept PAC money during his race for New Hampshire State Senate in 1994. Throughout his four years serving as a state senator, Rubens co-sponsored bills to create public financing for elections and served on multiple study commissions researching the impacts of unchecked political spending. 

For decades, Rubens said he and his political colleagues “could see the immense weight of special interests even at the state legislative level,” although he believes the stakes are higher now than ever before. 

“The problem has become bigger, the amounts of money have become bigger, and so the policy implications have become bigger,” Rubens said. “That’s another incentive for entities to play in politics, because when the stakes get higher things become more intense.” 

Another change Rubens has noticed during his past two decades of advocacy work is a decrease in the public’s trust in government, he said. 

This observation was supported by a 2019 Pew Research Center report, which found that citizens’ trust in government has been steadily declining since the 1960s. According to the study, 75 percent of Americans say their trust in the federal government has been shrinking and 64 percent believe citizens’ trust in one another is also decreasing, making it increasingly difficult to solve many of society’s problems. 

Rubens believes American Promise has the unique potential to amass support across the ideological spectrum since the political influence of big money affects citizens equally regardless of political affiliation, he said. 

“In this unlimited spending regime, there are big spenders on all sides of all issues advocating for  every point of view,” Rubens said. “Facing this mega-issue of political corruption is in the best interest of most or all of us, so we have to decide as a group that we’re going to do something.” 

Rubens has testified on behalf of various organizations advocating for campaign finance reform over the past decade. When American Promise’s 28th Amendment bill came to New Hampshire over a year ago, Cole recruited Rubens to testify before the state legislature. 

The bill ultimately passed, making New Hampshire the 20th state to call on Congress to allow limits on political spending. For the 28th Amendment to become part of the constitution, it needs to be passed by 18 more states to reach the threshold of  38 out of the 50 states needed to ratify a constitutional amendment. 

So far, bills in support of the 28th Amendment have been ratified by states like Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Maryland, Washington and Vermont. Likely future targets include Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan.

The people behind the movement

Ann Drumm, a climate activist from Dallas who organized the first American Promise Association in Texas, hopes her state will soon follow suit and call for the 28th Amendment. 

Drumm’s advocacy for campaign finance reform began while she was volunteering as an environmental activist with Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a nonprofit organization that advocates for national policies to address climate change. 

Citizens’ Climate Lobby uses a conservative, market-based policy approach to address climate change, yet struggle to gain Republican support for its cause. This seemed suspicious to Drumm.

“I started asking myself why because they (conservative legislators) should be all over it, so I started educating myself. I started reading,” Drumm said.

After reading books like “Dark Money” by Jane Mayer and “Republic, Lost” by Lawrence Lessig, Drumm realized her goal of achieving meaningful action on the climate crisis was directly tied to the influence of big money in Congress. So she began getting involved with nonprofits that focused on issues like campaign finance, gerrymandering and ranked-choice voting―an electoral system that allows voters to rank candidates by preference.

In 2018, Drumm learned about American Promise, which uses the same cross-partisan advocacy model as Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Drumm said she was comfortable with this type of advocacy and is passionate about nonprofit work that emphasizes humanity and cooperation over partisanship and the politics of difference. 

“Coming together to fight for a common cause doesn’t require us to agree on everything,” Drumm said. “I can work with people that I have some substantial political disagreements with if we can agree on some basic values and some steps forward that are built on that agreement.”

When it comes to cross-partisan support for the 28th Amendment, a recent national study from the University of Maryland found that 75 percent of survey respondents — including 66 percent of Republicans and 85 percent of Democrats — support decreasing the influence of money in politics.

Drumm realized there was an unfulfilled need in Texas for an organization working  systematically to pass a constitutional amendment addressing big money’s influence. She also knew Texas faces a unique challenge when it comes to reform advocacy. Unlike many other states, residents in Texas do not have the power to create statewide ballot initiatives or referendums, because in 1914 Texas voters rejected a ballot measure that would have allowed residents to place new legislation on a popular ballot.

This all led Drumm to decide she would devote her time and energy to American Promise. She appreciated the organization’s commitment to a single issue and one cohesive policy solution.

“I think when organizations get involved advocating on a lot of different issues they run the risk of spreading themselves too thin,” Drumm said. “I like to really focus on just learning to be the best on one issue.”

After forming the North Texas American Promise Association chapter in January 2019, Drumm has been helping create American Promise teams in a dozen cities across Texas, each working to pass city council resolutions in support of the 28th Amendment. So far, Austin is the only Texas city that has passed a resolution, but Drumm expects this to change by the end of 2020. 

“My overall hope for the movement is that together those of us who are working on democracy reform — whether it be money in politics, gerrymandering or voting rights — that together we build a more responsive democracy that is able to address the myriad substantive issues it is not currently addressing very well,” Drumm said. “And I personally hope that with the 28th Amendment we can change the dynamic of the conversation around climate change in this country.” 

Like Drumm, Cole’s background in environmental advocacy helped ignite his passion for Democratic reform. 

While studying public relations and geography at Syracuse University, Cole worked as an environmental columnist for his university’s newspaper. His interest in political journalism exposed him to “stories with the consistent underlying theme of corruption and of people organizing together to combat legalized corruption.” 

After graduation, Cole was interning in upstate New York with Public Citizen, a consumer rights advocacy group, where he was assigned to write a testimony for his boss to deliver about the importance of the 28th Amendment. 

Jeff Clements, founder of American Promise, heard Cole’s testimony and encouraged him to apply for a new position American Promise was creating. Cole got the job and within a few months he relocated from his hometown of Seattle to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where American Promise is based. 

For Cole, working to decrease the influence of special interests in politics is essential and empowering work, as he believes this is the critical issue “underpinning so many of society’s ills.” 

The Supreme Court’s interpretation that money is synonymous with free speech has created a dysfunctional political system unable to achieve meaningful action on issues like the opioid epidemic, gun control, healthcare and climate change, Cole said. 

Cole, who describes himself as someone who is “constantly questioning if what I’m doing is the most efficient way to solve a problem” believes that a constitutional amendment is the most effective way to remediate the problems plaguing American democracy, he said.

While Cole acknowledged that the threshold to ratify a constitutional amendment is “rightfully high,” he believes that just because something is hard does not mean it is impossible or not worth trying for.

“It’s supposed to be hard,” Cole said. “We have 27 amendments — if people think it’s too hard, they should look at history and history will tell them that even though it’s hard, it might be possible. Many of our country’s biggest achievements have come by way of constitutional amendments.”

Cole’s overall hope for the movement is to create a functioning democracy where voter interests are prioritized over corporate ones, he said. 

“The thing I’m most excited about is a decrease in voter apathy and an increase in civic participation where people’s votes will count for more,” Cole said. “Elected officials will be more reliant on their constituents than their donors and people will feel that their votes count for more and vote more frequently because of that.” 

The movement in Oklahoma

Robert Kerr, Ph.D. professor of media law and media history at The University of Oklahoma, became interested in the influence of corporate political media spending while he was researching his graduate thesis at OU.

When Kerr began researching the legal history of corporate political influence, he was open minded. Researching a dissertation requires spending a lot of time analyzing all sides of an argument and studying myriad related cases, he said.

His research ultimately led him to conclude “that the court had already protected corporate expression in many ways and that to go any further would almost certainly not be good for democratic processes,” Kerr said.

Since earning his Ph.D., Kerr has devoted much of his career to creating a body of First Amendment research that includes two books, a law review, a book chapter and more than a dozen refereed publications focusing on the legal and policy-related implications of the Citizens United decision and the increasingly powerful political influence of corporations. 

American Promise became aware of Kerr’s research and invited him to get involved. Kerr is now actively involved with the organization and helped co-host events in Oklahoma City in support of the 28th Amendment and attended events in Tulsa, where Oklahoma’s first American Promise Association was founded in 2017. 

One of Kerr’s major advocacy goals is to inform his students in the Gaylord College of Journalism & Mass Communication about the legal history of corporation’s political rights and how the Citizens United decision influenced corporate spending in the media. 

Kerr also travels around the state to teach Oklahomans about the legal ramifications of Citizens United. He said there are a lot of public misconceptions regarding the case. Often, someone attending one of the events Kerr speaks at will tell him they support the Citizens United decision because they are a pro-business conservative, but they usually do not have a full grasp of the case’s legal consequences, Kerr said.

“The main thing that changed in terms of law is that for the first time ever the court said corporations can spend their stockholders money,” Kerr said. “If I invest in a corporation and if I’m anybody — if I’m the most conservative person in the world — I’m hoping to make money and I probably don’t want them spending stockholders money for political candidates.”

Sometimes people will respond to Kerr by saying they might be OK with their money being spent by corporations on political campaigns if they support the same candidates. However, corporations are not legally required to inform investors or the public about which campaigns they donate to, Kerr said.

“Most corporations have decided it’s not in their interest to reveal who they’re supporting because they want to sell to everybody,” Kerr said. “You might be investing in a company that’s using part of your shareholder money to support a candidate you oppose. You’re never going to know who your money is going to.”

Kerr said this has dark implications for the future of American democracy because it gives corporations more power than citizens to influence elections.

“Corporations have this way to dominate democratic processes and ordinary individuals have less influence,” Kerr said. “They just don’t have that powerful tool. A corporate executive can dip into the company profits but 99.99 percent of everybody else can’t.”

Kerr believes the most promising avenue for Oklahoma to become one of the states calling for a 28th amendment is through a ballot initiative. In Oklahoma, the number of signatures required for residents to create a ballot measure depends on the percentage of votes cast for governor in the last gubernatorial election. In 2018, the number of valid signatures required to put state questions like medical marijuana on the ballot was 65,987.

“If it (the 28th amendment) should ever make it to the ballot as a referendum and there was some way that the public could really, truly hear both sides I think that even in a state like Oklahoma it could pass,” Kerr said. “And if it even came close in Oklahoma that would tell the nation this issue has real legs.” 

“I sincerely feel it’s a matter of people actually knowing what the court did and what it means rather than just the catch phrases they tend to hear from partisan sources,” Kerr said.

Ellen Stackable

By Devin Hiett

Each class begins with the students setting rules on how they can make the space a refuge for writing and sharing their work. The teacher leads intentional breathing exercises and tries to lighten the mood with an icebreaker activity. Once the women seem less nervous, volunteers help prompt ideas and soon it comes time for the main event: The women begin to write. 

Ellen Stackable has dedicated the past 20 years of her life to helping students find their voice through writing. She has taught English at the Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences since 2001, but the women in this class differed from the sea of teenage faces she typically spent her days with. They were more inquisitive than her usual students, more appreciative and often more willing to take a risk even though some of them had never written before.

Stackable hoped her classes would serve as a safe space and beacon of hope for these women. She wanted to help some of the most voiceless women in society find their voices―women in prison. 

In 2014, Stackable founded “Poetic Justice,” a nonprofit that offers restorative writing workshops that emphasize hope, voice and the power of change to incarcerated women. 

“Our classes are looking at who you were, who you are today, and who you want to become,” Stackable said.

Poetic Justice launched in the Tulsa County Jail in March of 2014 as a small operation that included Stackable and a team of about five volunteers who came to the jail twice a week to teach classes. Over the past five years, they have expanded to every women’s prison in Oklahoma and reached over 2,000 incarcerated women.

The classes last for six to eight weeks and the Poetic Justice volunteers collect the women’s handwritten poems each week to type up. On the last week of class, volunteers spend their own money to print the collection of poems in the form of a book they hand out at graduation. It was important to Stackable that the women in her classes would be able to tell friends and family they are officially published poets by the time they graduate from the Poetic Justice program.

“It’s amazing. For a lot of them, not only have they never seen their name in print―many of them have never finished anything before,” Stackable said.

Stackable’s efforts to bring healing and meaning into the lives of women in Oklahoma prisons led her to being honored as a top 10 CNN Hero in 2018. But if you ask her about the award, or about her Tedx talk, she will humbly reply: “It’s not about me. It’s about getting the story of these women to other people because honestly they inspire me.”

It all started in 2013 when Stackable was doing research for her graduate thesis at OU. She learned that Oklahoma imprisons women at twice the national average, at a rate of 151 out of every 100,000 women. That’s more women per capita than any other state in the country―a record Oklahoma has held for almost 25 years. She was also disturbed to learn that roughly 80 percent of these women are locked up for nonviolent offenses. 

Once she realized how severe the issue of women’s incarceration was in her home state, Stackable knew something had to be done, although at the time she had no idea what that “something” would be. 

A passionate writer and teacher, Stackable said she has “always been hardwired with the power of voice and helping students find their voice through writing.” So that’s where she started. 

A Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences colleague told Stackable about a spoken word poetry night he was putting on at the Tulsa County Jail and she thought this was perfect. She attended one of the poetry nights and asked if anyone was working on a similar program with the women―but was told no. Going by the jail’s rulebook, women were allowed to help with men’s classes but men were not allowed to assist women’s programs, so her male colleague was unable to extend his spoken word nights into the women’s sector of the jail. 

Stackable began brainstorming a program she could bring to the women in Tulsa County Jail. While she enjoyed the spoken word poetry nights, she wanted to create a program for incarcerated women that was “more therapeutic and restorative,” since the majority of women incarcerated in Oklahoma have been victims of domestic and childhood abuse. 

She felt that if she was going to truly make a difference in these women’s lives, she would need to cultivate a safe place where women could overcome their trauma and pain and open up to one another. 

“The reason I love poetry is it has this wonderful no-rules writing style so even people who have never written before find themselves writing,” Stackable said. “And as they start to write from the heart, pen to the page, healing inevitably comes and so does an incredible eloquence.”

Many of the poems written during Poetic Justice workshops focus on transformative moments and self-reflection, like the piece entitled “Dear Younger Me” which reads:

“There will come a time in your life when you think that life isn’t fair and you want to quit. 

Don’t do it.

It gets better.

There will be a time in your life when you think the bad people in your life won’t go away. 

Don’t do it.

It gets better.

There comes a time in your life when you fall deeply in love, but the love of your life doesn’t feel the same. 

Please don’t do it. 

It does get better.

There comes a time in your life when you break, and you think that your life isn’t worth living. Please don’t do it. 

It really does get better.

There comes a time in your life when you are urged to slow down and are eventually forced to stop. Find the glue and piece yourself back together. Spend time finding yourself, and then thank God that you didn’t do it, because it did get better.

Because you got better.”

The poem was authored by a woman known as M.G.―Poetic Justice uses only the author’s initials for identification once their work is published.

Although Stackable now boasts that people “would be blown away at some of the poems these women write,” she did not initially anticipate how talented many of her students would be when she launched Poetic Justice.

Walking into the Tulsa County Jail five years ago, Stackable said she came with “all kinds of implicit biases” that have since proven unfounded. 

“I assumed they would not be very literate, and I was wrong,” Stackable said.”I assumed I would feel unsafe a lot of the time, and I never did.” 

In fact, Stackable said that throughout her 20 years of teaching, incarcerated women have been the best, most gracious students she’s ever had.

“They are so grateful, they’re so focused in on the moment, so attentive and it makes it hard sometimes honestly to go back to teach high school the next day,” Stackable said. “Like you guys, you don’t know how lucky you are.” 

Hannah Al-Jibouri, president of the Poetic Justice board of directors and volunteer coordinator, was a student of Stackable’s during her high school years. After high school, Al-Jibouri attended Hendrix College before moving back to Tulsa to teach elementary school. She was scrolling through Facebook one day when she came across a post from her former English teacher asking if anyone was interested in accompanying her to the Tulsa County Jail to teach writing classes.

Al-Jibouri was part of the original group of women who helped launch Poetic Justice, and she had no idea what to expect the first time she stepped into Tulsa County Jail.

Five years ago, she could never have anticipated the deep connections she would cultivate with many of her students. Often, the most challenging aspect of her work is remembering to focus on the positive changes she is helping create in these women’s lives rather than dwelling on the unfair circumstances that landed many of her students in prison to begin with, Al-Jibouri said. 

“I could choose to get really jaded, but the truth of it is to remember what do I have in my control? What power do I have and how am I using that power? Yes, sometimes of course it’s very difficult, but rather than staying in that state you have to think OK: How can my power help in this situation to make it better,” Al-Jibouri said. “It’s a lot of learning how to balance those feelings because they’re very real, they’re always there, they never leave.”

For Al-Jibouri, the most fulfilling part of working with incarcerated women is getting to know them on a personal level and forming meaningful relationships with the women―women like Sophia Carbajal.

Carbajal had been incarcerated at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center―a maximum security prison in McLoud known for having the highest sexual violence rate of any female prison in the country―for almost five years when she met Stackable in November 2016. The pair met only three days before Carbajal was issued parole. 

Most of the women incarcerated at Mabel Bassett at the time were familiar with Stackable even if they hadn’t taken her classes, Carbajal said. This was largely because of the fact that Poetic Justice filmed their documentary “Grey Matter” there.

Stackable believes it’s not a coincidence that prisons are often situated in rural, sparsely populated areas. It’s intentional because people don’t want to see prisoners. People don’t want to know what’s happening, Stackable said. 

Mabel Bassett, which is located in Pottawatomie County, Oklahoma, near McLoud is no exception. That’s part of why the Poetic Justice team chose to film their documentary there. 

“It’s harder to throw somebody in a prison in some rural place that you’ve never seen if you start to see them as human beings,” Stackable said. “If people could recognize who these people are―that they’re not just people who have done something wrong so they deserve everything that’s coming to them, but people who have done something wrong who almost always regret it and want more than anything to live past that.” 

The film explores how Oklahoma, the nation’s prison capitol, leads the country for female incarceration rates. It was created to show the public how writing has served as a creative, therapeutic outlet for the women at Mabel Bassett. The documentary features interviews with legislators, employees and volunteers at the prison, as well as currently and formerly incarcerated women.

Carbajal, who struggled with substance abuse and was sentenced to prison for drug trafficking charges, said programs like Poetic Justice are essential to helping incarcerated women be able to express their feelings and discover where their struggles come from. 

“Most of the women that I was incarcerated with have gone through such abuse, such trauma that has haunted them for a majority of their life which caused them to start with drugs and alcohol,” Carbajal said. “And these women in prison, many of us had that in common. I think they need counseling, they need more programs that will help them have healing through all that they have been through.” 

At 39 years old, Carbajal was sentenced to 15 years in prison. She was released on parole five years into her sentence and now works as the manager at She Brews Coffee House in Claremore, which employs formerly incarcerated women and helps give them the second chance Carbajal feels she was given. 

Carbajal believes that if more incarcerated women have access to programs like Poetic Justice, they will be able to reunite with their families and hold steady jobs once they’re released from prison, just like she has.

“It’s hard for many who have been abused to verbally express what we went through and writing helps you. It’s a form of release, and it’s a form of healing,” Carbajal said. “It’s just amazing the work Ellen does. That someone could be a voice for the voiceless.” 

Carbajal has accompanied Stackable to events to talk about what it’s like to be incarcerated and share the power of voice and writing. Stackable hopes that Poetic Justice will help more women like Carbajal work through their trauma to find healing and lead fulfilling lives outside of prison. 

Poetic Justice currently offers writing workshops in Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud, Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Muskogee County and Kate Barnard Correctional Center in Oklahoma City. They also offer classes at Las Colinas Detention Facility in San Diego, California and at La Esperanza in Tijuana, Mexico. 

Stackable’s long-term goal is to bring restorative writing programs to every facility in Oklahoma and create a foundation that will allow others to start these types of programs throughout the country.

Back in 2014, Stackable thought she would be the one helping her students heal, but she has since learned that healing goes both ways.

About a month after her mother passed away, Stackable went to class at Mabel Bassett―not realizing her students had somehow found out about her mother’s death.

When she arrived at the prison, a group of around 25 women were waiting for her in the yard, ready to shower Stackable with love and affirmation. 

“I think what got to me is that they don’t have that luxury themselves. They don’t get to be at the side of a family member when they die, they don’t even really have space to mourn, and yet they were willing to extend that to me,” Stackable said, “It was really, really touching. As somebody who grew up with five brothers and no sisters, I felt like I had sisters.” 

An Unbelievable Story of Rape: Story Behind the Story with Ken Armstrong of The Marshall Project and ProPublica

By Devin Hiett

Ken Armstrong was a Seattle-based reporter living 15 miles south of Lynnwood, Washington, when he first heard about Marie.

The Seattle Times broke the story.

Eighteen at the time, Marie was raped at knife point by a masked man who broke into her apartment. He bound and gagged her with her own shoelaces before raping her for hours. When he was finished, he took her sheets and forced her into the shower, careful to leave the scene without a trace of DNA.

The story was unbelievable.

So unbelievable that the detectives from the Lynnwood Police Department tasked with investigating the crime turned on Marie―citing discrepancies in her story and charging her with false reporting. She had to pay a $500 fine, attend mental health counseling and go on supervised probation.

For three years, Marie was branded a liar, a slut, a selfish foster kid who’d gone too far in her desperate plea for attention. She lost her job, her housing and the few friends and family she’d had to begin with. For three years, Marie was alone.

Then, in February of 2011, a serial rapist named Marc O’Leary was arrested in Lakewood, Colorado. 

Detectives Stacy Galbraith and Edna Hendershot teamed up to investiage a series of Colorado rape cases that led them to O’Leary’s door. When they arrested him, they found photos of the women he had abused―photos he vowed to use as blackmail if they told the police what he’d done. The Colorado detectives recognized all the victims in the photographs. All but one.

Among the photos of the women attacked in Westminster and Golden was a photo of a young woman, the youngest of all the victims, bound and gagged with her learner’s permit placed on her chest.

It was Marie.

Soon, the news went viral. The Western Washington woman who had been smeared as a liar by police and journalists years ago was one of O’Leary’s victims. 

Armstrong learned Marie had been falsely accused of lying and that she was now suing the Lynnwood Police Department. 

“What wasn’t known was how the police investigation went wrong, so what I wanted to do was to reconstruct the police investigation to see how it went sideways,” Armstrong said. “Where did the doubts start? How did they spread?”

Armstrong hoped that since years had passed Marie might be willing to talk with him. He wanted to figure out what went wrong in Lynnwood, and he wanted Marie to finally be heard. 

One thing Armstong didn’t want to do was to overwhelm Marie, or alarm her by reaching out as a reporter. Instead, he opted to contact her attorney and have him contact Marie on his behalf. He sent Marie questions over email and awaited her response to his inquiry for a real interview. In the meantime, he got to work.

Armstrong was working with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit online news organization that focuses on the U.S. criminal justice system, when he learned another reporter, T. Christian Miller from ProPublica, was also investigating the case. The two teamed up and began designing a story template for their piece. Both journalists knew they wanted to tell the story using “a braided narrative.”

“One of the things that always drew us to the story was the idea that we could juxtapose these two investigations. One that goes horrendously wrong and one that is executed brilliantly,” Armstrong said. “We thought the contrast would make the story more meaningful and more powerful.”

The two revered Colorado detectives, Galbraith and Hendershot, were willing to speak with Armstrong right away. Talking with them was basically reconstructing how a successful police investigation should work from beginning to end, Armstrong said. 

He anticipated it would be much more difficult getting the Lynnwood police to talk. They were the ones who botched Marie’s investigation, after all. But to his great surprise, Armstrong found that the detectives and members of the Lynnwood P.D. were willing to be interviewed.

“It’s very rare to get police to talk to about their mistakes. Very rare to hear police acknowledge what they did wrong and to apologize for it and to be so candid in how they got it wrong,” Armstrong said. 

Armstrong said he “gives the Lynnwood police a lot of credit for being willing to do that.” 

He extended the same empathy to Marie’s two former foster mothers, both of whom did not initially believe she’d been raped and shared their doubts with police. They were the ones who planted the seeds of doubt in the Lynnwood detective’s minds to begin with. 

The foster mother’s actions painted them as villains in the eyes of many readers, but Armstrong said he tried to convey to his audience that the reason people are able to read about them in the first place is because they were willing to talk honestly and openly about what they did wrong. 

“It’s really hard to get people to talk about something for which they have so much remorse and that rocked them as much as this did,” Armstrong said. “They understood that they made a mistake and they want other people to learn from it so that those same mistakes aren’t repeated in the lives of others.”

“They have apologized to Marie, Marie has accepted their apology, she has forgiven them and she has moved on.” 

Armstrong and Miller’s article showcases how multifaceted and complex a person can be. It shows how someone can make a horrible mistake without being a horrible person incapable of repentance.

The only person in the story who is never portrayed in a forgiving light is O’Leary.

Armstrong and Miller interviewed O’Leary at the Sterling Correctional Facility in the remote northeastern corner of Colorado where he will remain incarcerated for the rest of his life. O’Leary is serving the maximum sentence allowed by law of 327 ½ years in prison for the Colorado attacks and another 68 ½ years for the Washington attacks.

Armstrong describes the interview with O’Leary as “jarring” and “unsettling…because he spoke so candidly about the monstrous things that he had done.”

They wanted to interview O’Leary for the same reasons the FBI did, Armstrong said.

“To find out how he had avoided being caught for so long. What were the gaps, the vulnerabilities in the way police investigate crimes that he was aware of and that he was able to capitalize on. Because the greater your understanding of that, the more likely it is that you can close those gaps and catch the next Marc O’Leary more quickly.”

It took seven months before Marie agreed to an interview. Armstrong and Miller were working with The Marshall Project, ProPublica and This American Life for the story. Marie wanted to know about all of those organizations and the journalists themselves before she was willing to talk. When she agreed to speak with Armstrong, he interviewed her for an entire day.

When the story was published, it immediately went viral.

“An Unbelievable Story of Rape” went live in mid-December 2015. It took the story less than two weeks to become the most shared story of the year before 2016 came around, Armstrong said. Armstrong and Miller’s efforts landed them the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting.

“It struck a chord with a lot of people, and it’s understandable because what happened to her is just unthinkable and it wasn’t a story just about a wrongful conviction or wrongful prosecution. It was a story about brilliant police work at the same time, so it had so many lessons in it that people could draw from,” Armstrong said.

After the story went viral, offers from filmmakers came flooding in. They got queries from the makers of “Spotlight,” and “all kinds of people in Hollywood” Armstrong said. The rights to the story were owned by ProPublica, The Marshall Project and This American Life, who let Marie make the decision on whether she wanted the rights to be sold for a movie deal.

Leaving the decision up to Marie was “respectful and right” and Armstrong and Christian were grateful the companies did so, he said.

In the end, screenwriter Susannah Grant, who wrote “Erin Brockovich,” authored the eight-part Netflix series “Unbelievable” that came out in September 2019. Armstrong and Miller were cited as producers on the show, although Armstrong claims they were really consultants more than anything else. 

“We weren’t involved in the writing of the script because it’s dramatized and that’s just a different world from journalism,” Armstrong said. 

The journalists provided the filmmakers with the public records they had collected throughout their reporting and answered questions about how different events and details of the case unfolded. Armstrong and Miller also co-authored the novel “Unbelievable,” which was published in 2019 and contains much of the in-depth reporting the two journalists spent nearly a year working on.

Armstrong still lives in Seattle and works as a senior reporter at ProPublica. He has won multiple Pulitzers, six IRE Awards, a Peabody Award, the John Chancellor Award from Columbia University for lifetime achievement and the Edgar Allan Poe Award for nonfiction. He is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard and the McGraw Professor of Writing at Princeton.

He regards Marie’s story as one of the most consequential works of his life and plans to continue on his path of advocacy journalism that makes a tangible difference in people’s lives.

For more information on Marie’s story, you can read Armstrong and Miller’s original article “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” their book “Unbelievable,” the Netflix series with the same title, and the This American Life episode from 2016 entitled “Anatomy of Doubt.” 

Bailey Lewis

By Devin Hiett

Bailey Lewis is a senior journalism student from Flower Mound, Texas, a former News21 fellow, and a news editor at The OU Daily, but according to her “those are kinda all just titles and shit.”

Our conversation delved beyond these titles to explore Bailey’s life, passions, struggles with mental health and advice to those facing similar challenges. 

Devin: So, tell me about yourself. 

Bailey: I really, really love to write obviously―that’s why I do what I do, but I’m also really interested in biology and the medical field. So I’m really nerdy in the sense that I read a lot of medical case studies and biological case studies on my own and that’s kind of what I want to do in the future is write about those kinds of topics. Yeah, but other than that I’m just a student and I’m working constantly and I have a pet hamster named Scooby and she’s the light of my life.

Devin: How would you ideally see your passions for science and writing converging for you someday?

Bailey: Potentially writing at maybe a magazine, something to where I could do more longer form stories―kind of what National Geographic does where it’s kind of these long-form stories about scientific discoveries or even things like astronomy. You know, things scientists find out even if they’re not long-form and they’re just breaking stuff. Anything really in the science realm is stuff that I’m interested in and I want to write about that specifically. 

Devin: What came first, your love for writing or science?

Bailey: That’s a good question. So I was always that kid growing up―you know how some people are more of a science, math brain and some people are more of an English-y brain? I was always more of the English brain type of kid and I’ve always had a natural―not gift―it’s not like I’m amazing or anything, but writing always came easier to me than some other kids. It was always easy for me to write and science and math were things that I was not good at growing up, and then as I got into high school I started really getting interested in science. I started to really appreciate that side of things, the less creative side, and the fact that it’s very logistical and to the point and fact based. 

So I have this weird conundrum where I’m really interested in this logical fact-based type of topic and then also the creative form where usually people are more one or the other. And I’ve grown to intertwine the two, so to answer the question I feel like it probably started out with writing and then slowly I started doing my own research and I got interested in science.

Devin: I feel like science and writing are both ways of explaining the world and learning more about it, so do you think maybe you love both of these things because you’re a naturally curious person?

Bailey: Yeah, I think that would definitely make a lot of sense because I’m a very curious person and I’m very much a problem solver. Like whenever people come to me with an issue immediately I console them, but I’m like let’s figure out how to fix it. Let’s figure out the best way to make you feel better by finding an actual solution to it. So I think my brain is always working like that and science has given me an outlet for that because my beliefs are in science and facts so that to me is a way to not control the curiosity but make it make sense. Especially when you get into things like astronomy and you think about everything that we don’t know and how there are just all of these planets that are lightyears away and just how tiny we are in the actual scheme of the entire universe it’s really freaky. I feel like thinking about things like that it helps to conceptualize it by learning about it. And it’s still mind boggling to think about, but you learn more and you’re like oh OK there are all these theories about if there’s going to be alien life and things like that and it’s really interesting and it gives you a perspective on how to try not to take things too seriously and enjoy where you are.

Devin: Do people often come to you for advice?

Bailey: Yeah. When I was growing up I was dealing with a lot of mental health issues, so I was never that person that could be there for other people. People always had to help me. So now that I’m doing a lot better I want to help everybody else around me. And I don’t just want to say “I’m sorry that sucks,” or whatever. I want to actually find a way to make someone feel better―a way to fix the issue even if it may not work. I at least want to try because when I was going through stuff I felt like I never got genuine advice that helped me it was all just words of encouragement. That’s just the person I am. I love to listen to people talk, I’m very empathetic and I have this way of being able to relate to people’s emotions and understand how they’re feeling to the best of my ability. I try to use that as much as I can to actually help people because I feel like that is something that’s kind of lost in our world, especially with social media and everything. I’m super introverted so I don’t talk to people as much as I should. I’m not very outgoing, but at the same time when people come to me and they genuinely need my help I’m there for them and I will do whatever I can to make their situation better. 

Devin: Is there a specific time you can think of when the transition happened from you being the person that needed help to you being the person that other people ask for help?

Bailey: It almost feels like it just happened. My whole journey with mental health is kind of like that in a way where you feel like you’re always kind of drowning until you just think to yourself one day holy shit I’m doing great right now. And then all of a sudden I got to this place where I was like I’ve really become an advocate for the people in my life and I’ve become the person that people always were in my life. Now I’m using that to help others. So there wasn’t really a transformational moment. It’s just one of those things that’s very consistent with how my recovery―and not full recovery obviously, it’s something you always struggle with―but recovery from mental illness, it’s just kind of like you’re always under and then all of a sudden you see the light at the end and you’re like wow I’m doing so much better now.

Devin: On the days you’re still feeling “under” what do you do?

A: I was born with mental health issues because it’s very genetic for my mom’s side of the family so it was always a part of me and I didn’t start medication until I was 19 which is way, way later than I should’ve. But I was scared and I didn’t want to be dependent on something like that. I wanted to take care of it myself but that’s honestly the worst thing you can do and I didn’t learn that until way later. I know a lot of people are hesitant of medication because of side effects and thinking it’s not healthy to put that in your body, but the reality is if your brain lacks certain neurotransmitters you need it. That’s the only antidote―that mixed with actual therapy and talking with a psychiatrist to actually learn how to cope with that kind of stuff. 

That’s really the only way that you’re ever going to get better because if you just keep ignoring it and keep thinking oh I can push through it sometimes you might feel OK but then you’ll go right back down again because you’re just letting it start to pile up. So I guess my biggest advice to anyone is if you genuinely feel like you’re struggling do not ever hesitate to go see a doctor and talk about medication. Even if it’s scary, you just need to try something. You don’t want to get to the point like I was where I was finally just like I don’t have a choice anymore, I have to do something. I was mentally on my deathbed and you don’t want to have to get to that place. 

Devin: What made you realize you were at that place of being mentally on your deathbed?

Bailey: When I was 13 I tried to commit suicide. Sometimes you don’t know when you’re in a dark moment and that was absolutely my darkest moment struggling with mental illness. Even then―I was suicidal and that wasn’t a wake up call for me. But when I was a freshman here at OU I went home for Christmas break and the change of being a freshman compiled with all of these issues I’ve had my whole life just started deteriorating me mentally. I had literally lost 20 pounds by the time I got home for Christmas break. I was a walking skeleton. You can’t see mental illness and so when you actually look at yourself in the mirror and your ribs are poking out you go holy shit I’m literally killing myself physically and mentally. I wasn’t even trying to lose weight I was just genuinely that anxious that trying to eat made me feel sick and that’s when I finally was just like OK I am literally never gonna get through this unless I do something and I can’t just keep letting this happen to me because it’s not healthy and now it’s literally starting to show.

Devin: Do you feel like you’re in a much better place now?

Bailey: Yeah, definitely. I mean I can’t say that it’s ever perfect. Anxiety will literally be a part of my daily life forever but it’s something that I genuinely feel like I can control now. To go on the medical side of it, what’s really interesting about antidepressants and anxiety medication― specifically the type I’m on it’s an SSRI―it’s called Prozac. Everyone has heard of Prozac, but what’s interesting about them from what I’ve noticed is you just start to think more logically because when you’re dealing with mental health issues everything’s emotion based. And emotions are great and they’re very important, but when you have too much of it it’s a huge, huge problem. So I’ve just noticed over time as that medication has bumped up my serotonin levels that I’m starting to think very clearly and logically and I’m not just clouded with emotions.

Now whenever something overwhelms me it’s not just complete panic it’s like OK let’s list this out, let’s figure out how to do it, let’s attack it this way. So that shift in brain chemistry has been exponentially beneficial to my mental health and how I approach everyday tasks. Sometimes if I haven’t been sleeping well or whatever I notice that I get overwhelmed and it still happens on occasion, but for the most part I know how to get through the day. I have what’s called Generalized Anxiety Disorder which sadly means you’re literally scared of daily life. Growing up, I was scared of playing on the playground, riding a bike, swimming, literally everything that normal kids do. Then I get to high school and I was a hypochondriac for a while which is when you think you always have cancer and stuff like that. It’s horrible. It’s literally one of the worst periods of my anxiety I’ve ever had, but now I’m in this phase where even though I’m on medication my brain has kind of latched onto being very worried about school and grades. It’s not horrible, thank God. If it weren’t for the medication it would be really, really bad but my anxiety goes in stages and when I talked with my psychiatrist about it she told me that’s very consistent with what I have and I didn’t know that until literally last year. Other things make me anxious too, but there’s always that one overriding subject or topic that’s just a huge trigger for me. So with school that’s still where I can find my anxiety for sure, but I’ve learned how to control it by not letting myself get overwhelmed and by problem solving. Just putting out what I need to do and attacking it as needed. Sorry that was long. I get so passionate talking about this stuff. 

Devin: Is there anything else I haven’t asked you about that you wanted to talk about?

Bailey: I don’t think so. Oh yeah― shoutout to my pet hamster Scooby. She’s 2-years-old and she’s really cute and I’m about to adopt a black cat so I’m going to have to keep them separated but you know, it’s all good.