I climbed the stairs to an office that is the temporary home of the Red Tent Women’s Initiative. Inside, six or seven women who pretty much looked like women everywhere were having a group meeting.
Barbara Rhode, the group leader, gave me a seat, introduced everyone before I got out my notebook. Turns out that was OK, because some in the room didn’t want their names used.
They are ex-offenders who are now out of jail. But I couldn’t tell who was who anyway after the quick introductions, so it didn’t matter.
I didn’t see a red tent, but I’ll try to explain where the term comes from.
It may be myth, metaphor or reality. Some say the term is biblical in its origins, rooted in a time when women were isolated with other women in a red tent when giving birth or menstruating.
It was when they shared stories, history, and were able to speak openly and honestly in a homogeneous group.
What does this have to do with modern society?
The easiest way to understand it in its current iteration is by reading “The Red Tent,” a historical novel by Anita Diamant, published in 1997.
Or listen as St. Petersburg marriage and family therapist Barbara Rhode explains how it is used symbolically to describe a modern movement — one that provides women a gathering place of safety and comfort where they can talk without fear and learn and be supported by other women who have more life experience.
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Often, this is accompanied by creating something by sewing or handiwork, much like the quilting bees of old.
In Rhode’s case, the book itself, seen on an innocent stop at a neighborhood estate sale, prompted action to serve a group she had long been interested in.
She hoped to offer incarcerated women opportunities to develop the skills, support and relationships that will help keep them on the right side of the law.
Incarceration, says Rhode, is a vicious cycle. Once out of jail or prison, most offenders end up back in the same neighborhoods with the same friends, the same haunts but with myriad new problems.
Many have drug and/or alcohol addictions.
They may have the desire to steer clear of bad habits, the lure of substances and dangerous relationships, but don’t have the skills to navigate the outside world.
So they end up re-offending.
Statistics are grim regarding the ripple effect of the cycle. According to Rhode, about 65 percent of the children of incarcerated mothers will themselves end up in jail or prison.
About two years ago, Rhode began the local Red Tent. Through hard work, a continual investment of personal funds from her and her husband, architect Tim Rhode, plus the cooperation of the Pinellas County Jail, the program now provides volunteer classes in the jail for nonviolent female offenders.
Depending on who is in class on any given day — the women are often moved from one facility to another — those who attend the twice-a-week, three-hour classes create fabric art under the tutelage of artist Polly Edwards while interacting with each other and a counselor, Nobuko Coussoule.
Coussoule and Edwards were there the morning I was. The others were graduates of the jail program and there for an informal weekly group session that focuses on helping them to cope on the outside.
One served time for a third felony DUI. Another for offenses related to addiction to painkillers. Both have children. Both attend St. Petersburg College.
Every group session — whether in the jail or on the outside — focuses on self-examination, as well as trauma resolution, financial literacy, anger management, parenting skills, steps for successful reintegration in the community, and they are encouraged to understand the cycle of addiction.
There is a waiting list to get into the classes in jail. Of the 200 or so who have been served, fewer than 20 percent have re-offended. The class holds a maximum of 15 women.
Rhode, who has an active private practice, says this work is the most gratifying she has ever done.
She hopes in the near future the Red Tent will have a permanent facility in the community where those who are no longer incarcerated can find emotional, educational and psychological shelter and help. There, they will make marketable fabric art and crafts that will be sold online and at local markets with the creator retaining 100 percent of the proceeds.
But, speaking of money, the Red Tent needs some as well. The only paid staffers are Edwards and Coussoule, who often work as volunteers.
Fresh Start Ministries and Mentoring, the 501 C-3 nonprofit group under which Red Tent operates, is having a banquet to honor longtime Public Defender Bob Dillinger on May 1. The Red Tent and other nonprofits will auction off donated items at the event to raise money for their work.
If you have anything you would like to donate for the auction, please contact Rhode at (727) 418-7882, or Redtent.firstname.lastname@example.org. Or visit the Red Tent website at www.redtentproject.com.