Women's History Month with Topeka K. Sam, The Ladies of Hope Ministries
Topeka K. Sam is a force that is leading the movement to end poverty and incarceration of women & girls. Hear her inspiring story of creating The Ladies of Hope Ministries while still behind bars herself.
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Elizabeth Grojean: Today I have the pleasure of speaking with someone who's fighting for the dignity, decriminalization and decarceration of women and girls. I can't think of a better way to celebrate and honor Women's History Month than to highlight a woman who's bringing the faces and voices of women in prison to the public in order to bring awareness and change to our criminal legal system. Topeka K. Sam witnessed firsthand the epidemic and disparity of incarceration on women when she was in prison herself. This experience led her to found The Ladies of Hope Ministries, an organization working to create alternatives to the status quo model of incarceration, decarceration, and post-incarceration with access to education, entrepreneurship, and sustainability through advocacy. Topeka is a force, bringing so much positive change through heart and lifting others up. And I'm so happy to have the chance to meet you today and thank you so much for having the time to talk to us.
Topeka K. Sam: Thank you so much, Elizabeth. I appreciate the opportunity.
Elizabeth Grojean: Yeah, so first of all I just wanted to ask if you would share your story with us, how this began.
Topeka K. Sam: Sure. So the organization was birthed while I was incarcerated. I was incarcerated in federal prison for three years, was arrested in 2012 for federal drug conspiracy charge. And while I was there, is when I saw all the disparities that were happening, specifically around women of color, within the criminal legal system. And so, while there, just listening to the stories and seeing all the faces, I was like, if people really, really knew and understood why women were in prison, what were the drivers that led women to prison, what were the outcomes and the barriers that women faced when they were home, that we could actually change and end poverty and incarceration of women and girls. And so I was released from prison in 2015 and hit the ground running from there.
Elizabeth Grojean: So how did you get started? What was the first step?
Topeka K. Sam: So the first step really was when I was inside. So talking to other sisters, finding out what drove them to incarceration. And I learned that 90% of all women who were incarcerated were survivors of sexual trauma and violence, that 85% of women were mothers who were incarcerated. And that close to 99% of all women who were incarcerated, struggled with some type of mental health issue, which ranged from anxiety or depression, all the way to maybe schizophrenia, bipolarism, or something more severe.
And I learned that 90% of all women who were incarcerated were survivors of sexual trauma and violence, that 85% of women were mothers who were incarcerated. And that close to 99% of all women who were incarcerated, struggled with some type of mental health issue, which ranged from anxiety or depression, all the way to maybe schizophrenia, bipolarism, or something more severe.
Topeka K. Sam: A lot of times we don't think about what happens to the families when a woman goes to prison and when women were coming home, there were no real resources that were for them. And so it was placed on my spirit, I was a woman of God and I was raised in the church so found my way back home. And God gave me the name of the organization, The Ladies of Hope Ministries, told me I needed to create platforms for women to use their voice so that we can shift national conversation about what was happening and also create Hope House, a safe housing space for women and girls coming home from prison or jail.
Elizabeth Grojean: And were there any obstacles or roadblocks for you when you were first getting started, or even along the way, the biggest kind of bumps in the road, or has it been sort of a blessed mission calling that just takes you over any kind of obstacles?
Topeka K. Sam: Well, I would say it definitely has been a mission calling that has taken us over obstacles. However, with missions and with huge fights, there are always huge obstacles and huge barriers. So I would start first by, in the very beginning, when we opened our first house in the Bronx, there was a whole campaign that happened. People like, Oh, what you're doing is great, but not in our backyard. It was really upsetting to me because where we were in the Bronx, specifically. It was the Bronx, as the borough in New York is one of the top boroughs where women are released from prison or jail. The numbers are one in three adults has had a person impacted, immediate person in their family impacted by incarceration. And so I was like, wait, here's the house that there's up to eight women that may live in it.
Topeka K. Sam: And why is the community pushing back when every other house on this block has experienced incarceration based on the data. And then when we had to go and speak to the community board, and they were elected officials who were pushing back. And I remember going to the community board with our co-founder at the time and huge network of formerly incarcerated people behind us there, they had signs that said no hope for Hope House. And I could not believe that people would do this. And this is home owners, middle-class people, because we moved into a neighborhood, a residential community. And I just could not believe that people were actually acting in this way. But I told them that, listen, I was a lease holder and the landlord knew exactly what it was that we were doing and it was our right to live anywhere, want to have safe housing and beautiful housing, just like anyone else.
Topeka K. Sam: So whether it was eight of my sisters in that house, or just me, if I needed to move in the house, that they would have a formerly incarcerated woman in their community. I mean, since then it's been great because we have great neighbors, they understand what happened and it was their biases and that fear that they didn't know what to expect, but they've been incredible neighbors. We built incredible community. So that was, I would say the hardest, one having to get past the narrative, but also trying to change the community.
Topeka K. Sam: The other thing is, women, as we all know, who are number one in building businesses, small business owners, women, we actually get the less amount of funding. And so in starting a business, being a woman entrepreneur, struggling with getting funding, then a nonprofit, having to fundraise in that capacity as a woman of color business owner, it was difficult. As a formerly incarcerated woman of color, it was even worse. And so for me, it was always, how do I get in front of people? How do I use my voice? How do I share those talents and gifts that I have to explain the things that are happening in a way that moves people's hearts and minds, which then was a good strategy because it allowed us to get in front of many people all over the world who then began to listen to the issues that were happening, women incarceration, and then begin to want to support.
Elizabeth Grojean: And the next thing I wanted to ask you, I feel like I'm already getting it from you now, but it's this. So you are known as an activist, but you're also called a social innovator. And so what do you think that it is that gives you so much powerful momentum?
Topeka K. Sam: Well, it's the women that I left behind when I was in prison. It's the women that I meet and hear from every single day that are still in prison or in their re-entry process. It's the incredible staff and team that we have at the Ladies of Hope Ministries, now over 20, that do this work and they are mission-driven and purpose-driven in order to make sure that we're working together collectively to end poverty and incarceration.
Topeka K. Sam: It is God and the spirit of God that lives in me, that it brings me so much joy to be able to know that the work that I'm doing is actually saving and impacting women's lives and the opportunities that we have to partner with people like you to begin to push what's happening in national conversations, in brands and products that can actually help to impact our lives as well. So it is just great joy to be called to do a particular work, people say, when you love what you do, and I love what I do. I hope there'll be a day where I won't have to, but in the interim that I'm just grateful that I'm called and that I'm being obedient for the call.
Elizabeth Grojean: Yeah. I was really happy to be put in touch with your organization because, of course, we're speaking in honor of Women's History Month. But for me, when I was starting my business, I was spending time with a group of women entrepreneurs and we would meet weekly. And I felt like there was just magical power of being uplifted by women. And it had nothing to do with sharing tips or tricks. It wasn't about business, but there's this force when women get together and it makes things happen. And when my business launched, it took off much faster than I was comfortable with, it was really hard to hold onto it. And I feel like that's a direct result of the power of women. And so I find it almost hard to put into words what that is, it feels like magic. I don't know if you could articulate anything more on that topic or...
Elizabeth Grojean: What is it exactly about the women that you admire that you would get to work with?
Topeka K. Sam: No, absolutely, I completely agree, right. I had an opportunity to speak at Women in the World one year, I think it was 2018. And I said, women move the world, women change the world, and every single movement started and ended with women. And that's just what it is, right. There is so much power in that. For me, I was raised with both my parents and have always had a great collective group of powerful friends. My friends today from college, my friends throughout my life, new friends that I've met, they have been so supportive. And so there's always been that if you are supporting another woman, empowering another woman, that you too become empowered, and it's the truth. What I've learned in my space specifically, that there's so much trauma that women are having to deal with. Past trauma, sexual abuse in trauma, substance misuse trauma, the implications, unfortunately, by gender bias that happens with women.
Topeka K. Sam: And so there's two things. One, it can either help us bound together because we understand that we already have all of these other things that are just so difficult for us to navigate. And so let's come together and do it. Or the adverse sometimes happens where, women are then looked at as competition. And so often, especially in spaces where there's criminalization and incarceration of women, that what happens is, they look to fight against each other and then relationships, right, when you come from a different lifestyle, you live in a particular way that sometimes women have hurt you and harmed you. And so the healing process, through the sisterhood is what I say, is so critical and necessary.
Topeka K. Sam: And to be able to have tools in order to not only heal yourself, because we cannot lead and heal a world if we haven't healed ourselves. And so I think each day when I have the opportunity to connect a woman to a resource, to make sure a woman is in safe housing, to think and dream about other opportunities to build and grow, to impact the world in the way that we want to, that I know that that is part of that healing process that will give women the power to take their lives back and to begin to build and collaborate just as you have. And I have been blessed enough to do so.
...we cannot lead and heal a world if we haven't healed ourselves.
Elizabeth Grojean: And I think about the power of that too. So I mean, we are women and we understand and we want to love and support women. And then there's also that tremendous impact that has on our society, because like you said, 85% of incarcerated women are mothers. And you think about the trauma that gets carried on when they don't have the opportunity to heal and what an amazing gift this is for all of us as a community to have the women in our community.
Topeka K. Sam: Absolutely. I mean, and even when you think about the numbers of kids, it's 10 million children who have been impacted by parental incarceration, right? And so, there is the implications of the things that will happen to them. And then you think of the foster care systems and the other systems that children then have to become a part of. These institutions that sometimes end up in severe trauma and abuse for them that then land them on a trajectory that is not as pleasant as many of us have had the ability to be through. So, healing and tools of healing and wellness is critical. And so that's why when we do our work, we take a holistic approach, because we understand that while we are working to decarcerate, we believe fundamentally that women and girls, they should never be in prison or jail, that there are alternatives to incarceration, that darkness begets darkness, that you cannot heal someone in darkness, and a cage is not going to heal an individual. That you can create spaces and communities of healing and accountability at the same time.
Topeka K. Sam: And so, while we're thinking about doing that and fighting for the liberation of our sisters, that we also know that through that you have to make sure that people's basic human rights are met, which is housing, safe housing, food, healthy food and opportunities for career advancement through entrepreneurship and employment and education. And so we understand that, and it is rewarding when you see the fruits of your labor, but it also feels really good when you can work with other businesses, corporations, brands, and just women who see the same thing and understand that the privileges that we have to even have this conversation, many don't. And that, because we don't take it lightly, it affords the opportunities for other women too.
Elizabeth Grojean: Can you speak more about the impact that you're able to have either in the sense of data or in terms of experiences of people, whichever way you would address that?
Topeka K. Sam: Sure. So I can address it in both ways, right? So for us, as an organization, we have a 0% recidivism rate. So that means that every single woman who's come through our program has not gone back to prison or jail. We've been operating since 2017. So that's huge, right? We have women, whether they're in our houses, whether they're in any of our programs, we've served thousands of women around the country and also beyond. We work with organizations in Africa and organizations in Europe and in Trinidad and the Caribbean. When I think about the impact just of every day, when I'm able or have the ability to talk to a sister in Texas, meet from one of the houses, and they're like, thank you. Or provide a job, this sister who works for us now just came home after 21 years in prison and so after 21 years we were her first job, her first paycheck.
...as an organization, we have a 0% recidivism rate. So that means that every single woman who's come through our program has not gone back to prison or jail. We've been operating since 2017. So that's huge, right?
Topeka K. Sam: And to be able to do that brings me a lot of joy, right? To be able to give people opportunities who never had a mentee, who came home, and she was our first employee before we even paid ourselves. But who now has her own nonprofit organization that focuses on girls. Those are the things that every single day that I feel. I'm talking to a sister who is incarcerated for 63 years for a white collar crime, with children at home, who right now, today, is in court, hopefully going to be released on an emergency because of COVID and health issues through compassionate release.
Topeka K. Sam: And so understanding that the reach that we have and those things. And she's released to be able to provide her an opportunity through education and employment. To be able to partner with prisons across this country, because understanding that we have to build those relationships and provide training and development through our Google skills, digital skills training, partnering recently with Google inside of prisons, as well as outside. All of these things that we're doing and building in such a short period of time, but to also partner with huge organizations like The Margaret and Daniel Loeb Foundation, Third Point, which is a hedge fund.
Topeka K. Sam: To be able to expand our organization throughout the country and the globe are opportunities that people don't get. And so when I think about impact, it's those women that I talk to and I see. It's the children that we impact through the mothers, but it's also just, this impacts me. Having gone through the things that I've gone through in my life and even going through prison and me being engaged in a federal drug conspiracy, learning the things that I've learned, all this work is retribution for me. There was a time in my life that I didn't understand the impacts of drugs and what it did on communities, because that wasn't my story. And going through that myself and talking to the sisters and hearing the things that they went through.
Topeka K. Sam: And for me, having to look at the messy parts of my own life and realize that I was not the person that God created me to be and having to take accountability to that, but to do that, and have to get to a place in my life that I have moved and walked in what God wanted me to do. And even having this conversation with you right now, originally I was sentenced and I wouldn't have been released to September 30th, 2021. So having had the great opportunity to be released in three years, instead of in 10 years, I understood that there was a huge calling on my life and the things that I had to do. And so this also, it's just part of my retribution. And I know that, but I'm grateful to be able to sit here and be able to have these conversations and to be able to be honest that sometimes we are not who we are supposed to be.
Topeka K. Sam: And when I say supposed to, who we're created to be. But once you get to a place of forgiveness and it's forgiving yourself for the harms that you've caused others and forgiving others for the harms that they caused them, and in understanding that you've been redeemed, when you ask God to forgive you, that you can truly move on a path of healing and wellness, without having to worry about the noise of what others may think about you. And so I'm just grateful to move in that spirit and work in that spirit daily. It's hard, because I am human and sometimes it gets a little rough, but I always remember that I am here and I could have still been in prison. So, it is with that grace that I know is afforded to me daily, that I continue to do this work.
Elizabeth Grojean: So I mean, I think you're so fortunate and know that, and it's like, when you get to live this big life and you give so much, then so much gets given back to you. But I want to ask you, in the face of so much giving and advocacy, if you have a challenge for yourself with finding time to take care of yourself, or if you have any advice for people who are looking to get better at taking care of themselves, self care.
Topeka K. Sam: Yeah. For sure. Well, I'm actually looking for advice.
Elizabeth Grojean: Me too, all the time.
Topeka K. Sam: Those of us who are founders, who have huge goals and huge visions and want to save the world, we don't often save ourselves. I have just in this last few months really, or I would say the last... no, last few months, have really been thinking about what is most important to me. You know, last year was very, very difficult for me personally and professionally. Losing my father to Alzheimer's and having my mother who is older, who lost her life partner after 58 years, and understanding that you have your parents who are older, understanding that I came home. And I just, like I said, hit the ground running that I don't have children. I am not married. And I started saying, well, wow, what do you want? And that was because I started therapy and I was like, Hm, I'm dealing with my own trauma.
Topeka K. Sam: I have to hear and work with people through their trauma every single day. And that's heavy to carry, right. And as I started going to therapy and was asked, what do you want? Like, no, I hear what you say you want to do with your organization. I hear what you wan't to be here for your family, but what does Topeka want? I had to pause because I really didn't know. My whole life post-incarceration has been about serving, but I didn't realize that I have to serve me too, right. Part of this is serving myself. And so it is taking breaks, it is okay, great, you created this organization, you created an incredible benefits package for people. You have vacation time, use it, right? The world is not going to stop because you take a vacation. It's like, you have incredible health insurance and you make sure that people don't have to come out of pocket for it because you wanted to create an organization for others that you wanted for yourself, go to the doctors, get your checkups, make sure you're using that, and that's bare minimum.
Topeka K. Sam: I had to start actually putting time in my schedule for my family, because it was like everybody, my friends, I mean, I make a joke, I love them so much. But they're like, okay, how about Topeka, you're running around saying free her. How about free us? We want to see you too. One of my aunts was like, Topeka, I saw you more when you were incarcerated. I didn't realize 'cause I was so, and I've been so-
Elizabeth Grojean: I can relate.
Topeka K. Sam: It's like, but look, COVID kind of makes you think because you're forced, right, to be still, and it also helps you to think through, what is most important for your life. So I've been actually taking time now to truly figure that out. And then I have great assistants who purposely block out my calendar. I think I have things to do and then I look and after six o'clock, there's nothing, then I'm like, what's going on?
Elizabeth Grojean: Amazing!
Topeka K. Sam: So it's been cool.
Elizabeth Grojean: I got a therapist this year too. It's amazing, yeah.
Topeka K. Sam: It's really good because you need that, right. You need to be able to unpack and think about you. And if that's selfish, and I can't remember who said the quote, but it's, "an act of self-love is a radical act in and of itself." So, while we're being advocates and activists for the things we care about, we need to care about ourselves as well.
Elizabeth Grojean: So, so powerful, so easy to say. And it's a constant learning process, right?
Topeka K. Sam: Yes it is.
Elizabeth Grojean: But it's a great journey to be on. If you would have people remember, maybe they're hearing about Ladies of Hope Ministries for the first time today, have them remember one thing from this conversation, what would you want people to take away?
Topeka K. Sam: You mean like one thing, huh?
Elizabeth Grojean: One thing, or something that they can remember is, is...
Topeka K. Sam: Okay, so you said one thing. So I have so many, but I'll do my best. What comes to mind is there's a scripture and I believe it's Job 11:7, but it speaks about hope. And it says, "If is hope for a tree, that if it is cut down that the tender branches will sprout again." And if you have hope you have nothing, right? And so irregardless of what may happen to you in your life, irregardless to where you may be right now. That if there is hope, hope for a better future, a hope for a different career, hoping to forgive yourself, hoping to forgive others. If something is rooted in hope that it will change and it will sprout.
"If is hope for a tree, that if it is cut down that the tender branches will sprout again."
Topeka K. Sam: And for me, the word hope is just so significant in so many ways. Providing hope, being of hope, hope leads to love, it all encompasses each other. So in the theme of healing and health and wellness and love, hope for me is critical. So it is my hope that people learn more about the impacts that are happening through incarceration of women and girls. And it is my hope that people will join us in our movement, end poverty, incarceration of women and girls, through The Ladies of Hope Ministries.
Elizabeth Grojean: And where can people come to find out more?
Topeka K. Sam: Sure. So they can go to the website, thelohm.org. They can go on any social media platform to @thelohm, or they can text. They can text the word THELOHM2021 to the number 41444.
Topeka K. Sam: I thank you so much for understanding how critical and important this conversation is, for wanting to share your gifts with us and for allowing this platform and your community to hear what's necessary. And hopefully people will activate as well, so thank you so much.
Elizabeth Grojean: And that's also the information for making a donation. So I wanted to repeat that, to text 41444 with the message THELOHM2021 for information and to donate, and anyone who makes a donation and emails us the receipt to our customer service email, firstname.lastname@example.org, we're matching the donation with weighted blankets for The Ladies of Hope Ministries. So thank you so much again for your time and for being here and just grateful for you. Thank you.
To learn more about Topeka K. Sam & The Ladies of Hope Ministries and to get involved, visit thelohm.org.