Steve Emrick never sought to be a leader—but leadership found him. This is the third in a six-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with Steve about his three decades running arts programs in California’s prison system. Section 2 left off with Steve’s description of the difficult period beginning in 2003 when Arts in Corrections was cut by the state government.
Sarah: Wasn’t it during that period that you were honored by the Dalai Lama?
Steve: Yes, that’s right. In 2009, we were still deep in the struggle. Laurie was working for no money, and I was keeping the art program going as a volunteer in addition to my full-time job in the Bridging program that I described earlier. I received a letter informing me I’d been anonymously recommended to receive an “Unsung Heroes of Compassion” award. This is an award granted by the Dalai Lama to 50 people from around the world from Zimbabwe to Thailand to India to Sweden to the US.
When I got that letter, I felt undeserving. The recognition seemed way over the top. I thought, Wait a minute, how can I be put alongside a doctor who does eye surgeries in the mountains of Nepal, or someone who comes up with a way to get money to families in India so they don’t have to sell off their daughters?
But a friend said to me, Just embrace it—someone noticed that you’ve put in 25 years in a place a lot of people are afraid to go into, and they thought that merited recommending you for this. Hearing that really helped me.
The evening before the ceremony, my partner Dana and I were at a dinner hosted by the philanthropist who had funded the whole experience. A Navajo woman who’s a school principal leaned over to me and said, I feel like an imposter. And I realized that a lot of the awardees felt the same way. They were a humble group, many of whom, like me, had stumbled into the work they do.
The day of the awards ceremony, the Dalai Lama’s security staff met with us and gave us all these rules. “You can’t touch him. When it’s your turn to receive your blessing, you’ll walk onstage. He’ll put a white scarf around your neck. He’ll bow. You’ll bow. Then you’ll exit the stage.” But the Dalai Lama breaks all the rules. At the meal before the awards were granted, I was sitting at a table with Dana and my older sister, along with people who’d paid $500 a plate just to be at this event. The Dalai Lama walked in. As he moved through the room, he high-fived Dana, and paused to connect briefly with other people too. It seemed like he could sense who needed a special touch.
He touched us onstage too. As each awardee walked onstage, Peter Coyote read the person’s name aloud, and when we reached the Dalai Lama, he took our hands. I don’t cry easily, but I was moved to tears. There were a number of traditional Buddhists at the event and for them this was a life-transforming moment, the equivalent of a Catholic person receiving a personal blessing from the Pope. They broke rules right and left—gave the Dalai Lama gifts, hugged him. His security guard was freaking out but the Dalai Lama was fine. You can tell he’s just present for what happens. People talk about that all the time and it’s true. He has a special presence, an amazing aura that’s palpable. He would look very somber and serious one moment, and then laugh the next, totally in touch with his emotions.
It was inspiring to learn about the projects other awardees were doing. There was an American woman named Lynn Poole who worked with Zimbabwean women who sew dolls and make earrings out of coke bottles to support themselves and their children. These are disabled children who are socially ostracized so they especially need support. Lynn Poole’s husband was teaching at an international school in in Zimbabwe. Another expat drove up to them in a truck and said, My visa has expired and I’ve been ordered to leave the country. This is the project; here’s the truck, loaded with materials for the dolls. It’s all yours if you’ll take it on. Lynn stepped up, on the spot. Not only that—over time she expanded the project so the dolls could be sold internationally through fair trade.
After we heard about all these amazing projects, the Dalai Lama gave a speech and said, Look, we’re recognizing you, but your work’s not done. And the work you’re doing now won’t be widely appreciated till way down the road or even after you’re gone. The work is the reward.
Leaving that ceremony, I looked back over the 20 years of my career. I saw that people I’ve worked with have gotten out of prison and are successful. Even though I don’t work in an exotic place, it’s certainly a place where a lot of people would never be willing to work. My job has allowed me to help and support people that needed it.
But at the same time I realized that that award was tied to circumstances I don’t necessarily have control over. I worked at DVI for 10–15 years, but I wouldn’t have gotten that kind of recognition while I was there. San Quentin has a much higher profile. Also, the purpose of the awards ceremony was to get funders and people in positions of power to recognize this work. So I don’t have delusions about how great I am just because I got this award.
The irony is that I received that recognition by the Dalai Lama in 2009, and in 2010, prison education was eliminated statewide, and I was handed a pink slip. My friends said, Too bad about the Dalai Lama award—it jinxed you!
Section 4: I’m About Ready to Swear