In 2007, I assisted with a work release/court-ordered drug treatment facility that was unexpectedly experiencing difficulty due to a sudden increase in female inmates. I worked there for five years, teaching Life-Skills, providing Staff Trainings, and completing Mental Health Assessments on the residents. I saw that the women in these programs were tragically average: approximately 80% of incarcerated women are mothers with young children, mothers who, when sentenced, leave children behind. If they are lucky enough to live close by and have relatives who are willing to bring them to see their mothers, they may visit. However, if friends or family members do not step up to care for these children while their mother is in jail or prison, the state temporarily takes over the mother’s parental rights. To regain custody once they are released, these women must find a way to beat almost insurmountable odds to find a job that allows them to prove they can provide adequate housing and food for themselves and their children. As a therapist specializing in trauma resolution, I could not accept that this was the best we could do for these women. Two books impacted me in a way that led to my founding the Red Tent Women’s Initiative.
In “The Tending Instinct,” Dr. Shelley Taylor describes a pattern of behavior in women that “From an evolutionary standpoint,…is a plausible account of female responses to stress.” She states that we are social animals who require spending time and positively interacting with others. We are not solitary beings. After spending time in the company of other women, a healthy “tending and befriending,” women produce increased oxytocin levels, a brain chemical that helps them feel safe and secure. Tending & befriending includes the act of coming together to share stories, help out, empathize, and sometimes mentor the young or those in need. Dr. Taylor builds the case that women are hardwired to connect and require ample opportunities to express and satisfy this instinctual need.
My own private counseling practice has shown me that our society inhibits tending & befriending through its devotion to safety, competition, and independent lifestyles. Men & women live, often isolated, behind locked doors, and children grow up feeling the fear. I had incorporated Dr. Taylor’s information in my workshops, teaching others that the need women often feel to talk through problems with loved ones or professionals was instinctual and that satisfying this urge would ultimately benefit families and communities.
Reading "The Red Tent" by Anita Diamant reinforced my belief that something was missing in our society to help disadvantaged women better meet this need. Diamant’s story, set during Biblical times, describes an actual red tent where women could stay when ill, depressed, alone, grieving, or afraid, a place where young and older women or children could share stories, wisdom, and compassion. I began to ask myself, “Where is our red tent now? What happened to this tradition that benefitted men, women & children and brought about a sense of community & togetherness?” I began to envision a grassroots effort to encourage and empower women to schedule in and protect the time spent in other women’s company.
About six months after reading this book, a simple visit to an estate sale just a block & a half from my house would transform my life and mission. It didn’t take me long after arriving at the sale to realize that something felt odd about this particular sale. It was as if the owner had left one morning and never returned and they were now selling every single thing she had owned; the comb that still had her hair in it, her worn-out teapot and even a 1/2 bottle of her favorite perfume. I asked my neighbor if he knew what had happened. He explained to me in a low voice that the owner had killed herself recently and that the young woman sitting by the front door managing the sale was her daughter. Before I turned to go, I felt pulled to walk through her bedroom to understand better why she had taken her own life. And, there on her nightstand was a copy of “The Red Tent.”
Her book now sits on my office shelf, reminding me that this woman might have made a different choice if there had been a red tent to go to when the world closed in on her. Since that day, I have worked to provide women with a safe place to come together; my attempt at creating a red tent where women could reach out for help, share stories, and mentor the young and in need. In other words, a nurturing, healing place where they could come to tend & befriend.
After the BP oil spill in 2010, my husband’s architectural work significantly decreased as so many people in the Tampa Bay area were adversely affected. I talked my husband into applying for one of the grants BP was giving out to families whose income had dropped due to the lack of tourism. We received that grant in 2012, at the same time as I decided to go down to the jail and volunteer to work with women inmates and share information with them about the destructive cycle of trauma. I used that money, with my husband’s blessings, to hire a part time instructor and a part time group leader.
The Red Tent Women’s Initiative provides classes three days a week in our local Pinellas County jail. Female inmates come together to learn practical new skills that aim to increase their capacity to recover from difficulties through creating art and benefitting from guest speakers who share their wisdom, and in other words, “tend & befriend.” In 2017, we collaborated with Pinellas Technical College allowing our instructor to open educational doors to the women who participate in jail while still incarcerated and upon release. The St. Petersburg Free Clinic, in collaboration with Red Tent, has generously provided a Clothing & Accessory Boutique for any woman in need to shop for free at their beautiful Baldwin Residence in St. Pete. We purchase bus passes through the PSTA Disadvantaged Program for any participant lacking transportation before she is released.
We welcome your questions and support. Please contact me with any thoughts, questions, concerns, or requests for more information; I’d be happy to assist you. On behalf of the women we serve, thank you so much for your interest in the Red Tent Women’s Initiative.
Barbara Rhode, LMFT