S2 E4: “You have to figure out how to use your wings and what they're for.” Nichole Alexander spent three years raising endangered butterflies while incarcerated. The butterflies weren’t the only beings that metamorphosed along the way. Nichole had experienced immense loss and years of discouragement within the prison system. Nature provided respite, a healing environment, and newfound confidence that would inspire Nichole to better her community and make the world a more just place. Visit sustainabilityinprisons.org to learn more about their programs.
S2 E4: “You have to figure out how to use your wings and what they're for.”
Nichole Alexander spent three years raising endangered butterflies while incarcerated. The butterflies weren’t the only beings that metamorphosed along the way. Nichole had experienced immense loss and years of discouragement within the prison system. Nature provided respite, a healing environment, and newfound confidence that would inspire Nichole to better her community and make the world a more just place.
Visit sustainabilityinprisons.org to learn more about their programs.
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I was very intrigued on how somebody could raise a butterfly. I was intrigued on how you actually held a butterfly, honestly, because I was always told you couldn't catch them, even though we did.
[00:00:47] Christina Thompson: That was the ever-inspiring Nichole Alexander, and words like "amazing" or "incredible" do not do justice to just how truly remarkable she is.
Nichole shared how nature showed up for her just when she needed it to help her heal, and to find a new path, and how it has ultimately inspired her to try to make the world a better place. I'm Christina Thompson, and this is A Little Green.
[00:01:22] Nichole Alexander: I am actually in what's considered, like, Old Town Bothell. It was a very small town originally. I live in the older part. I have lived all over Washington. Started out in Renton. I've lived in Kent on a farm. When we were little, we had baby cows we bottle fed. My first pet was a goat. My sister would sit in the chicken coop.
We were definitely little farm babies for a while. My whole family is basically, earth lovers like the original hippies, and that just was passed along through us. Nature has always been something that soothes me.
I moved outta my house at 16, and, by 18, I was a single mom. I was kind of lost in the wind, and I lived a double life. I was a young mom. I graduated with honors. I was selling drugs, and I was going to school, and I just didn't know. I just thought I'd have to sell dope for the rest of my life to survive and to be able to take care of my kid and my family.
My daughter was 11 and a half months old when I got arrested. That started a downward spiral, so I spent the next decade going in and out of prison.
So in the beginning of my incarceration, the last time down, my life shattered underneath me. My mom became terminal. She was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, which means that her lungs were dying. She was the person who had both of my children. My daughter was very young -- she wasn't even in school yet. I didn't know for a long time that my mom was sick.
It wasn't until I called home, and my son said that my mom went away in an ambulance, that I'd found out that something was really, truly wrong. Everything got flipped upside down.
When I found out what she had, I didn't even have the ability to figure out what that was because there wasn't medical books or anything to explain to me what that meant. My day to day inside prison was really self-contained into doing what was mandated. At that point, I was basically a porter, which means I was scrubbing toilets and a janitor.
I was really just trying to keep myself busy while thinking about the external, worrying about my kids, worrying about my mom.
There was an opportunity to start a cat program inside a prison. My cellmates and I jumped on that and we fostered a cat. I definitely poured all of my emotion into that cat, at the same time, struggling internally to, like, go to meal line, get up, make my bed, walk through the process of, like, spiraling depression, and it was extremely hard because you just never knew.
I also was at the beginning of my sentence, and I had many years left. There wasn't much I could do from my end to support her or the kids except for worry. Inside, I walked a lot. That was my answer to getting off the phone, getting news, whatever. That's basically all you can do. So I just walked these teeny tiny laps inside the yard in prison, and I walked more laps than I can ever tell you imaginable.
At the very end, we got these teeny, tiny baby kitties that had to be fed every two hours, and I would just cry and feed them. And that's what I did, and I got through it.
So my mom used to come and bring the kids every other weekend or so. So when my mom passed away, my kids were with my sister. The only way I was able to see my daughter during that time was once a month to visit. That's when I applied and was accepted over into Butterfly. So the Butterfly Program is the Taylor's Checkerspot Rearing and Research Breeding Program through SPP, the Sustainability In Prisons Project through the Evergreen State College. We actually breed and rear butterflies.
It is an endangered species called the Taylor's checkerspot. It's a very select process to get in to become a Butterfly. We call each other Butterflies, and this is the only job that you hand write a resume and a cover letter, and then you apply to have a job interview, and you go through an interview process.
I was able to apply and then be selected to go out to Butterfly, which means that I would leave our facility, walk over to a locker room, change my clothes into my work uniform, which is khakis and a red shirt that says DOC across the back so you can't lose us, right? We would line up at the prison gate on the backside of the prison and they would actually open up the door and let us out.
The minute you step foot outside that gate, you just lose all weight on your shoulders. It's literally like taking your breath away to walk to work every morning. It's quiet, it's peaceful, It's absolutely beautiful. We're out in the backwoods. There's tall trees. There's deers out there, there's eagles. There wasn't a rush to get there. Nobody was yelling at us. It was so early in the morning, it was very quiet, nobody would be on the yard. And so we could just have that conversation, and as we'd walk up to the greenhouse, there's like a little hill and the beehives and our little garden with flowers, and our grass beds, and our little glass house, and it just represented everything that wasn't prison. It represented care, and nature, education, wisdom.
Sometimes it's a little stressful. I mean, working with an endangered species, right? So it has this big, fancy title, and none of us have ever worked with a butterfly. I've never met anybody in my life that's like, "I work with butterflies," before being in this program. They're a very, very tiny, delicate species.
There's an education level of things that you learn. And you have to do all this counting, and moving, and cleaning, and feeding, and so I was all in. I loved learning all the different parts of it, and why they're endangered, and why we're doing this work, and who we do this work for. I'm not the only person who metamorphisized out of that greenhouse.
It was just a healing environment for every one of us. For me, it was almost three years in the Butterfly. That definitely gave me that footing into a new journey in my life.
Once you finish up your day, right, and you've been out there with music and you're laughing and things are, like, happy in your soul, it feels like it's warm, you come back to that fence and you go directly into a locker room and they strip search you. And everything that you just achieved in that day is depleted, and you're just left with a little grain of it, like, there's just a little speck.
But eventually, like, for some of us, we worked years out there, right? And so that fills you, and you hold that in a dark place. During that time, because my daughter was still young, right? She was five, six years old. One of the only ways for me to have conversation with her on the phone besides what's going on in the school was to tell her about the butterflies. Right now they're caterpillars, and this is how big they are, and this is the kind of grass. And really painting that picture and having that conversation was a positive phone call to have with my daughter. My kids have done 10 years of incarceration with me. In that moment, my daughter could say, "This is what my mom does for her job," and she can talk about that at school, not that her mom's incarcerated and won't be at whatever event it is.
There's a lot of people that we work with that come in that encourage us to do things that, you know, you're told from the minute you come into prison are never achievable again. The confidence that you get from doing this job comes from the volunteers, and the biologists, and everybody else that comes in because, on a daily basis inside, you're beat down.
You're a number. Our volunteers that come in, our biologists, our master's students, Evergreen State College, every single one of those folks come in, and the positive reinforcement, the encouragement, that is what starts to build inside of you, right? Little pieces that you're taking with you. That's what starts to build your soul.
Everybody's so impressed by the work, and it was one of the folks from Evergreen State that came in that said, "Have you thought about going to college? You're earning college credit right now. Have you thought about going to Evergreen State?" And I was like, "No, I didn't even know. I could."
I got my hands on an application into school and filled it out, pen and paper, right? Well, actually pencil. And my application made it outside of prison. I was actually accepted to go to Evergreen State College while I was still in prison. And then I found out that Evergreen State in Olympia was too far for me to travel.
My program that I was going home on wouldn't let me go to Olympia.
Evergreen State College has a Tacoma campus, but their studies are completely different. Olympia campus is biology and environmental, which is what I thought I was going to do. Tacoma is more activism, law, justice, policy, social justice; turns out that was my calling. I ended up going to Tacoma, and I got my undergrad in Law and Policy, and I'm currently halfway through my master's degree in Public Administration Public Policy.
I'm now considering applying for a PhD program.
These days, I am a mom. My daughter's 15, my son's 23. The dynamics with the 15 year old change by the second. I don't know. She's definitely a leader and very artistic. I am working for the Public Defenders Association. I am the Entry and Care Manager for a program that works with the unsheltered population in Seattle.
I'm also part of the 1426 Board for Weld, which is starting a drop-in center for formerly incarcerated individuals. I'm about to be on the advisory board for the Education in Prison with Evergreen State College. Just really trying to make up for the lost time.
I dream of that farm. I feel like I was born in the wrong era. I have a flower child within me. I have a little bit of hippie. I strive to go back to that.
There was a lapse in my life that was struggle, and hard, and lost. I definitely found part of that back, that metamorphisizing inside that lab was just the beginning. You have to figure out how to use your wings and what they're for. If I could go back and tell my 18 year old self anything, it would just be to let go of that other part of my life because things are going to be fabulous.
I absolutely give back to the community every single day in every way that I can, in hopes that I can repair something that I've done in the wrong before. I just am at this amazing point in my life where I'm open to so many things. Eventually, hopefully I know exactly what I'm going to be when I grow up, but right now I'm just exploring everything there is and trying to make up for time
[00:15:45] Christina Thompson: As Nichole works to improve the lives of others and hopefully take some well deserved downtime to celebrate her own successes, she stays in touch with the Butterfly Program. To learn more about the program and similar initiatives, visit sustainabilityinprisons.org, and on the next episode of A Little Green:
[00:16:06] Elizabeth Shvarts: I had this visceral understanding of what climate change could do. That started my journey to being an activist and an artist.
[00:16:16] Christina Thompson: A Little Green is an Avocado Green Brands podcast. This podcast was written and produced by Anna McClain and myself, Christina Thompson, with the help of Allison Casey of Gramercy Post. And our beautiful music is composed and performed by Aaron Levison.