She’s cared for neglected kids and helped build a school. This super volunteer, a retiree from the Seattle Public Schools, has found new meaning in her work with the Black Prisoners’ Caucus in Monroe. “It’s important for the men to look at their mistakes,” she said.
JANET JONES PRESTON breezes through the heavy metal turnstile leading to the grounds at the Monroe Correctional Complex, a state-run prison where about 2,400 men are locked up.
She strides confidently along the sidewalk past the prison yard, where scores of men clad in beige and white cluster in groups, taking in the last of the day’s sunlight behind chain-link fencing and razor wire.
Against the drabness of the yard, Preston, 68, is a human bottle rocket, flashing by in a pink tunic with metallic embroidery, chandelier earrings, a fresh application of lipstick and a black hat covering red-tinted braids that cascade past her shoulders.
She smiles and pumps her right arm in a black-power salute as she passes. A surge of energy passes through the yard as some of the men return the smile and the salute.
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Inside the prison, there are security logs to sign and familiar rituals to follow before she and four administrators from Seattle Public Schools are ushered upstairs to meet with 21 inmates representing the education committee of Monroe’s Black Prisoners’ Caucus.
The committee is a serious and studious group that is prepared to have a spirited discussion about the treatment of African-American students in Seattle schools, and to search for solutions to end what group leader Anthony Wright refers to as “the preschool-to-prison pipeline.”
When Preston and her group enter the meeting room, the men embrace her, squeeze her hands, ask how she’s doing. One man brings her a cup of herbal tea. Another, a 29-year-old serving a two-decade sentence for burglary and assault, shares his meticulously written journal with her in the few minutes before the meeting begins.
Preston has been attending caucus meetings every month at least once, and often twice, a month — for more than 18 years. Some of the men have been here as long as Preston has been visiting. She knows dozens more who have served their sentences, or who moved on to other prisons, or to freedom that Preston supported by testifying at their clemency hearings.
“She is an extraordinary person,’’ says Wright, the BPC leader. “She has always been a mother figure to us all. She is the reason that our education committee thrives, and is the driving force of the work that we do.”
Preston, a grandmother and mother of three who has mothered many others via foster care and advocacy, has a special affinity for these men.
As a former family support worker and supervisor in Seattle Public Schools, Preston helped find food, clothing, safety and classroom support for students affected by poverty and trauma so they could get an education. She also had a front-row seat to how the system so often fails African-American students.
Preston began seeing the effects of those failures up-close in college, when, as part of her coursework, she helped inmates at Monroe prepare for their GEDs. She resumed her visits the past two decades, bringing along teachers, administrators and superintendents from Seattle and surrounding districts so they could hear firsthand how systemic failures in the education system were leading men to jail.
“I’m inspired by Janet,’’ says Wright. “She keeps me passionate about making a difference. She empowers us by showing the relevance of our voice even though we are incarcerated. She also strives to keep us connected to our community, and constantly reminds us how much we are missed, thereby elevating our self-worth. We will be forever thankful to Janet for her contribution to the BPC.”
Preston has painful experience with the forces that can separate a son from his mother. She knows that preventing others from experiencing that same pain can be mitigated through action. She has seen the corrosive effects of shame and poverty. Knows what it feels like when someone believes in you, even when you don’t believe in yourself. Knows what it feels like to belong, and to matter.
Her voice is filled with gratitude when she says, “Only by the grace of God, not I, and only by the grace of God, not my kids.”
As a caucus sponsor, she listens to and advocates for the prisoners through a host of social services organizations, including Career Bridge. She also supports at-risk children through Mount Zion Baptist Church, the African-American Leadership Forum, the Grandparents as Parents group, and the Foster Parent Association of Washington State, among others.
“One person can make a difference,’’ she says.
She knows because she has, again and again and again.
OCTAVIA MOORE WAS 13 when Preston received a phone call asking whether Moore — a girl Preston had never met — could live with her and her youngest son.
“I always wanted a daughter,’’ says Preston, beaming. She made room immediately, as she’s done for more than a dozen children over the years.
Moore recalls how welcome she felt in Preston’s house from the first day, and how the two grew to consider themselves mother and daughter without qualifiers. Moore says a tragedy in her family made the arrangement permanent.
“It wasn’t about her,’’ says Moore, now 37 and the mother of two boys. “It was about her giving me an opportunity. My mom definitely has a good heart, and a servant’s heart to give back. She has an amazing affinity for people who are going through hardship and struggle, and the ability to connect with them.”
Moore recalls crowded Thanksgivings, when Preston would open their home to anyone who had nowhere else to go. The house was always a hive for neighborhood kids, and at one point, there were three other girls in foster care whom Preston had taken in.
Preston has a young spirit and a sanguine air that make her seem decades younger than her age.
Born and raised in Seattle, she lives with Lucky, her spunky Yorkshire terrier, in a modest house in the Central District, a few blocks from Garfield High School, her alma mater.
She credits T. Marie Floyd, then a teacher at Madrona K8, with changing the trajectory of her life when she was in sixth grade.
“We were her first class when she came to Seattle,’’ Preston says. “And we were used to running the school, and here comes this lady that wants to boss us, wants to tell us what to do, wants to make us do things her way, and if we didn’t, she’d call our mothers. And, if we got upset about her calling our mothers, she’d call ’em again.”
Floyd, now retired, says she called Preston’s mother so often that the two became close friends.
“I’ve never met anyone like her, who is constantly looking or doing for others,’’ Floyd says of Preston. “She’s always looked out for the underdog.”
Floyd recalls how she once banned a sixth-grade girl from her class for being hostile and rude.
Though Preston and the girl were often at odds, “Janet went to bat for her,’’ Floyd says. “She told me all the good things Mary did that I didn’t know about.”
Preston is driven to make other lives better, Floyd says, and does what it takes to bring comfort, whether giving a child a home, providing food and clothing, or arranging Christmas presents or prison visits.
“Out of all the students I’ve known, and the people I’ve known, she stands out heads above them,’’ Floyd says. “Lots of people do things, but Janet is consistent in all she does for others.”
PRESTON SAYS HER own struggles have deepened her empathy for others.
She recalls the shame she felt when she became pregnant with her son at age 18.
“I wanted to quit going to church because church people were so mean, you know. They’d ask me questions they knew the answer to, and, you know, I was just a kid,’’ she says.
Her grandmother sat her down, she says, and “told me so many stories about so many people in the church. She left me with my mouth wide open. But she also left with me understanding that nobody is any more, and nobody is any less, than me. Nobody.”
After high school, Preston married and worked as a flight attendant for Flying Tiger airline for nearly three years, flying back and forth to Vietnam when the United States was at war there. She took note of how the black soldiers couldn’t leave the plane until after the white soldiers. Decades later, she had her own crushing experience at Sea-Tac Airport: As the only African-American passenger on a flight to Seattle after a visit to Ghana, she was held up in Customs for hours after white passengers had departed.
Preston, encouraged by her mentor Floyd, went back to school in 1978, when her oldest son was a teenager, and earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature and minority studies from the University of Washington.
“They say you always have someone to give you confidence until you have your own confidence, and so she always believed in me,” Preston says of Floyd. “And I always thought, ‘She thinks I can go to college. She really, really does.’ And so it gave me the confidence to try. And then, when I didn’t want to keep going sometimes, I thought about how proud she’d be of me.”
After graduating in 1982, Preston became an instructional assistant for Seattle Public Schools, and then one of the district’s original family support workers, charged with eliminating barriers to learning by meeting the social needs of children at B.F. Day Elementary.
She threw herself into work, doing everything from visiting classrooms to see who needed new shoes, to visiting homes to help parents better advocate for their kids, to working with Child Protective Services to make sure kids were safe and well-cared for. Seeing homeless and neglected children struggle, she got her foster-care license so she could take in kids from her school who needed a stable home.
Meanwhile, she had a second son, Arthur. He was 10 years old in 1998, when Preston was honored with the Washington State Golden Apple Award for Excellence; she was introduced as a woman with a big heart, a gentle spirit and a driving “belief that we’re all on this Earth to help each other.”
Preston eventually became a family support worker supervisor and retired in 2014, after 30 years and two months, from her final role, as the family support interim manager. By then, her good deeds had reached other shores.
THE FIRST THING you notice when you visit Preston’s home is her extensive collection of African art. Sitting at her dining-room table, sipping herbal tea from a delicate china cup, she points to a wood-carved Sankofa bird sitting in front of the living room fireplace, a gift from her eldest son, Akili Mosi Secka, who lives in the Republic of Ghana in Africa.
The Sankofa, with its body facing forward and its head turned backward, symbolizes a word, coined by the Akan people in Ghana, that captures the importance of using the lessons of the past to guide the future.
The Black Prisoners’ Caucus at Monroe has adopted the Sankofa as its symbol, too; a wood carving of the bird — a gift from Preston’s son — occupies a central place at its meetings.
It easily could serve as Preston’s family crest: a symbol of the heartbreak that ensued when Akili left the United States for good, and the hope that sprang from that when Preston mortgaged her house in Seattle to start a school there.
Preston says her son, a Garfield High School scholar and athlete, class of 1984, learned early that his experience in America would be different from that of his white friends. Twice, in college, he was stopped by police, once after being accosted on the street in Baton Rouge, La., and having a shotgun put to his head. Another time, in Washington, D.C., he was chained together with other African-American men after being arrested for an expired parking permit.
For graduation, Preston bought Akili a ticket to Ghana, hoping he would take up graduate studies. Instead, he started an import/export business for African goods, and secretly began building a house in Kasoa.
“He said he would always be a second-class citizen here,’’ Preston says. “He’s free there.”
Preston acquired a small plot of land near him in Ghana for herself, and her son began building a house for her. During visits there, she was troubled by all the children who were selling goods on the street instead of going to school. When her house was finished, she turned it over to a family of eight, to live rent-free.
When she learned that the family could afford to send only one of six children to school, she mortgaged her house in Seattle, and acquired more land for a school.
The People’s School for Positive Education, which opened in 2006, now is substantially supported by a friend who wants to remains anonymous, with help from Preston and the Bellevue chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
“Every time I think I’m going to get a new car, I think of all the things that are needed,’’ says Preston. “ I’ve got a school with 260 students.”
THE ATTENDING MEMBERS of the Black Prisoners’ Caucus education committee are gathered around a kente cloth with the Sankofo bird, talking about their school years. A quick show of hands reveals that all of them had been suspended from school, and all but a few expelled.
Preston says it’s a common problem, and that many drop out or are passed along without the skills needed to thrive.
“To hear the stories from the young men of how they got there, those things that could happen to almost anybody,’’ she says. “It’s important for the men to look at their mistakes, look at their trials and tribulations, not feel anything but strong enough to go forward. Using the strength of their past, the mistakes and the triumphs of their past, to move forward in a positive way. And always pulling whoever they can forward. Always remembering the community. Always valuing family.”
Preston says the men need to know they’re wanted and needed on the outside. And when they do get out, Preston is there to help.
“All I want is for people to have opportunity,’’ she says. “Sometimes people aren’t ready for something. And sometimes they can try again later. But just opportunity. That’s all I want.”