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The Power of Kindness with Sita Lozoff and Erin Parish

Updated: Mar 28

This week's podcast episode features Sita Lozoff and Erin Parish speaking with Vita Pires about the past, present, and future of the Human Kindness Foundation.

  • How the Human Kindness Project began in 1973

  • Nurturing the creative spirit “inside”

  • Offering opportunities for prisoners and former prisoners ways to share their wisdom


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Sita Lozoff co-founded the Prison-Ashram Project with her late husband, Bo Lozoff, and Ram Dass in 1973. She is presently the spiritual director of this project, which has been thriving for nearly fifty years. Sita taught mindfulness on North Carolina's death row for years and sent hundreds of free books to people inside.


Erin Parish is the Executive Director of the Human Kindness Foundation. She has twenty years of experience helping individuals and communities build resilience after war and incarceration. Erin has worked with victims and combatants of violence in Colombia and Northern Ireland. In North Carolina, she’s designed peer support reentry programs and transitional jobs programs for people coming out of prison, and driver’s license restoration programs to help people avoid incarceration. In her work, she seeks to create conditions that allow others to realize their full power. She has a PhD in Cultural Anthropology and a Masters in History from Duke University and an MPhil in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation Studies from Trinity College Dublin. In her free time, she loves cooking and throwing dinner parties, discovering new music, and playing outside with her family.


Podcast Transcript


Vita Pires: 

Okay. So, welcome everyone. I'm Vita Pires. I'm the Executive Director of Prison Mindfulness Institute. I'm very happy to be here today with Sita Lozoff and Erin Parish. Sita Lozoff, who is the co-founder of the Prison Ashram Project with her late husband, Bo Lozoff, and Ram Dass in 1973. 


She is presently the Spiritual Director of the project, which is still thriving for close to 50 years. Wow! She taught mindfulness on North Carolina's death row for many years and continues to send out hundreds of free books to people inside. 


Erin is the Executive Director of the Human Kindness Foundation. She has 20 years of experience helping individuals and communities build resilience after war and incarceration. Erin has worked with victims of combat and violence in Columbia and Northern Ireland. In North Carolina, she's designed peer support reentry programs and traditional job programs for people coming out of prison, and driver's license restoration programs to help people avoid incarceration. 


In all of her work, she seeks to create conditions that allow people to realize their full potential and power. She has a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology, a master's in history from Duke University, and an MPhil in conflict resolution and reconciliation studies from Trinity College in Dublin. Welcome. 


So, Sita, let's start with you. Of course, everyone who ever does prison work should always read, We're All Doing Time. I'm just going to put in the pitch there. It's one of the first books I read like 30 years ago. And so, Sita, would you like to talk about the origins of the project since you're kind of one of the originators of this kind of work in the US? 


Sita Lozoff: 

Well, in 1973, Bo's sister's husband got a sentence of 12 to 40 for smuggling a lot of marijuana from Jamaica. Bo and I went and visited him in Terre Haute, Indiana, in the federal prison. That was the first time that we ever stepped inside of prison. On the way back, Bo said, "I'm not sure what this really means, but I feel some kind of connection to working in prison. There's something here for me. I don't quite get it yet." 


That same year, we both read Ram Dass' Be Here Now. We invited Ram Dass to speak at Duke University. When he came down and spent time with us, he said that he was starting to put copies of Be Here Now into prison libraries all over the country. He was getting responses from people in prison. And he was starting to feel a little overwhelmed by them. 


We said, "Let's take your letters." And that was actually the birth of the Prison Ashram Project. As you said, next year will be exactly 50 years since we began this project. 


Vita Pires: 

Wow. Yeah. And so, what would you say the majority of your work has been throughout the 50 years? Do you send out books? Do you correspond with prisoners and inmates? 


Sita Lozoff: 

Well, in around the mid-80s is when Bo wrote We're All Doing Time. We've since sent out half a million copies into prisons all over the country and in other countries as well. It's translated into a couple of different languages. And so, the project has changed and grown organically. Where I'm at right now, Vita is that I am basically writing to people in prison who have seen these books. Bo has written a few other books, has seen these books, and wants them. 


There might be some letters of encouragement that I write, but mostly I'm going to the post office. I'm picking up the mail, which is about 150 to 200 letters a week. I'm responding to the mail. Fortunately, I have dear Erin and our Operations Manager, Kirsten, to help with the details of running a project that is this large. So, I can, as Spiritual Director, really spend my time writing to people in prison and caring about them and loving them, which is what I've been doing for most of this time. 


Erin Parish: 

I think sometimes, Sita is a bit too humble about the relation-driven process of walking with people for 50 years and being a sustainable presence in people's lives. I think that one of the real powers of the Human Kindness Foundation is that space of faithful accompaniment that happens with not just sending the book, sending the newsletters, but like, offering a handwritten response, however small that is, that it really does create a sense of spiritual community and love to community. And so, I just want to put a plug-in for all the work that you do to create a community, which I think is a really important part of what the Human Kindness Foundation does. 


Sita Lozoff: 

Thank you. 


Vita Pires: 

What would you say is the main message of the book or the books that you sent that you've generated on your project? What is the main message that prisoners find so transformational? 


Sita Lozoff: 

Well, right over the top, it's an interfaith project, which was actually easy for me to do. I was born Jewish, I do Buddhist meditation, and I'm a Hindu Guru. It was very simple for me to move into the space of all religion's point to that spiritual connection. I believe that that's what our books do, is that they help people see what we call the three main things that we talk about, which are simple living, dedication to service, and daily spiritual practice. Those three things are pretty much what we've got out there and what we've been supporting and putting out there for all these years. 


Erin Parish: 

I actually asked someone recently this question like, "What did you get out of the book? Why does it matter to you?" because he's building a Reentry House Project all based on our books. He said that by reading the books, he felt loved, he felt understood, and he felt a sense that God was within him and that God was within everything. That's what he wanted. That's how he prays. That's how he lives his faith, those thoughts, and those concepts that he got from the books. 


Sita Lozoff: 

It's beautiful. 


Vita Pires: 

Yeah. Well, we've had a big project, too, ever since Fleet was in prison. People were sending him all those letters. And then, he got somebody on the outside to answer all the hundreds of letters he got. And since then, as you say, it's a hundred or more letters a week they're receiving. A lot of other places, like they don't know what to do with letters, so then they send them to us. We just send the books out because we don't really have an operation. We do more of the classes inside. We don't have an operation to respond. Do you have other people that are helping you correspond because that's kind of something people don't even consider doing anymore with the world of email and social media and all of it, you know? 


Erin Parish: 

We do. I mean, we have volunteers. It's something that we're looking to definitely expand because we're actually trying to work to collaboratively create new content with people who are incarcerated and family members. I mean, this is me. I'm expanding the correspondence, so now we get, you know, 50 pages of poetry. And so, it's definitely a challenge to figure out how to create that infrastructure to respond to people and to respond to people well. It's something that we have some of that infrastructure now, but we're working to increase it. 


I think, in the future, I will also be thinking about how to be very place-based. We're very paper-based. We're very, very relational. And so, trying to think, as we look towards the next 50 years, how are we able to incorporate volunteers from across the country? We get people from across the country. We get people from across the world asking for volunteers, and they usually want those letters because they want that personal contact. And so, trying to figure out how to make that possible is something that I'm working on in the next couple of years in order to support the new kinds of projects that we're going to be working on. 


Vita Pires: 

Are you considering moving? I know a lot of inmates or people inside have email now. Would you consider doing that? Are you considering them? 


Erin Parish: 

I mean, that's happening in a small way already. And then I think also with the states that have text behind or have some sort of format in which they've got the third-party vendor that the letters are already going to. There's the option to respond by email or something essentially like email. 


Actually, it's a lot easier in some ways to do. I mean, it's less about personal handwriting, but it is quicker, and it is something that people would be able to do without sitting in this office. Honestly, I think that the space of communicating with people who are incarcerated is going to move more and more digitally. 


We are a paper-based organization because that is the way to connect with people. And so, we're having to figure out how to become both digital and paper because I think we can't totally lose the paper by moving towards digital, and so we're going to have to do both. 


Vita Pires: 

Yeah. Go ahead. 


Sita Lozoff: 

Have you taken that on yourself, as well? 


Vita Pires: 

We have moved one of our programs on to tablets, like our Path of Freedom, the curriculum. It was put on the tablet like seven or eight years ago. We've had about 35,000 people enroll in it on the tablet. As you say, it's not the same thing as people going in, meeting people in person, and having that human connection to share the material. We're trying to get it in the largest one that we'll put this course in for millions of people, but I think it would be good if the book was digital. 


Erin Parish: 

It is now. 


Vita Pires: 

Okay. If you could get on one. I think I could suggest that to some of the places where we have tablets. They acquire that book to put on because we do the classes now on Zoom because of COVID. They quickly shifted to allowing us to do it on Zoom, which is challenging in a different way. I mean, in one way, it's great that we can do that. We have programs in different states now than just locally. But there's a challenge with the technology because all the inmates are in one little box, and then the facilitators are in their big boxes. And so, it's kind of just been. 


They don't seem to be all that affected. The audio was bad. And so, it's just that there are some technical problems, but I guess that will advance and, you know, we have been able to send microphones to a few facilities so that they can have better viewing and stuff like that. And if they could combine it with the tablets with the in-person, I think that would be the most helpful because then they'd have the resource material because they're already on the tablets now. 


So, if there's something that's a little bit more, you know, whatever, transformational based than just watching YouTube or something, then they want that. They asked me, "Can't you get your book on the tablet?" And I'm like, "Yeah, I'm trying?" 


Erin Parish: 

We put ours in Adobo. 


Vita Pires: 

Oh, you're in Adobo. Okay, great, because that's where our thing is, so then I can refer people to your book. 


Erin Parish: 

Oh, super. Super, super great. We have all the books that we published. And then Prison Contemplative Fellowship has videos as well as some documentaries. So, we have that. We're proud to put this up. I mean, like videos and podcasts. And so, we're looking to build additional content and curate content because I think what we've always done is create and curate high-quality content around spirituality, mindfulness, and wellness. It is accessible and primarily created for an incarcerated audience. 


When we think about what that looks like in a digital world, that's one thing that I want us to be able to continue doing and also really expand upon that interfaith space, expand upon wellness is connected to mindfulness and spirituality, and have that connection with the audio and the video because we're so paper-based, so many people have a hard time reading books. So, I think there are opportunities for new forms of creativity while there are also aspects that are lost. 


Vita Pires: 

Yeah. So, what other programs do you envision, Erin? 


Erin Parish: 

Yeah. So, there are a couple of new projects that we're working on. One is a new book project called Together Apart, which I could see also being a multimedia project. Do you want to tell the birth of Together Apart, and then I will explain what the project is going to be? 


Sita Lozoff: 

Sure, I'd be happy to. I have a dear friend on North Carolina's death row. She's transgender. Her name is Priscilla James. She actually gave me this Mala that I'm wearing for my 70th birthday. She's a Buddhist. She told me she was starting to meet with some of the Muslim Brothers on Wednesday evenings to basically just send love and light into this painful world. They were meeting together to do that. And she said, "Why don't you join us?" 


And at that time, you know, Wednesday evenings, seven to eight, just join us. And with the motivation of sending light and blessings to the world. And I did. A couple of years ago, we started putting it in a newsletter and inviting people inside prisons to join us at that time. We've put it in every newsletter since then. I would say there are hundreds or maybe even thousands of people meeting on Wednesday evenings, seven to eight. I've told them about any other time on Wednesday because we know the times are different all over the country. We even had somebody in Thailand saying, "What time is it in Thailand?" at that time. It actually was 7 AM in the morning. 


And so, it's an amazing project and idea for people who are so frustrated about being inside and not being able to help out in the world. We have found that it has just been just astonishing the amount of response and love, and feelings that people are getting by taking part in this project. 


Erin Parish: 

When I first started this job, I was just blown away by this spiritual practice that was born in death row and was born in death row at the beginning of COVID, with the goal of bringing people together, and that space of spiritual wisdom that is born through incarceration is so powerful. It's been part of our work for the past 50 years. And so, in this next book project, and whatever kind of media project that might be, it's really about elevating the spiritual wisdom and spiritual practices of people who have experienced incarceration and their loved ones. 


And so, we're looking into our 50 years of archives from the newsletters with letters from, I mean, materials that people have sent us for decades. Art that people have been sending. People have been sending us their spiritual practices and their spiritual wisdom for decades. And so, this project is saying, how can we marshal that in a forum to share with the world and to share with the world what the wisdom that is born through these difficult experiences is? So, that's one project. 


And then another project, which is kind of a companion project, is working on a human kindness curriculum that would accompany our books and accompany this new Together Apart Project as well. And, you know, the idea with that is we've been sending out our free books to chaplains and therapists, and people who are incarcerated for decades, and people have been using these books in class forums, informal peer support forums. And so, working with people who've already used the book to understand how they're using that, and also to draw upon a lot of different strengths that I think we have organizationally. I think we're a very creative organization. And so, I see it as a curriculum that would combine mindfulness, creativity, and somatic awareness. 


I'm a cultural anthropologist, so cultural anthropology creates a curriculum that fits with and can sit alongside the work that we do and that also can be collaboratively designed with people who are incarcerated. So, I'm going to start teaching a mindfulness class in a local prison next Friday. And so that's a place like a container that will be able to develop the work in collaboration with people while also working with people who have been using the book and using it as part of a curriculum. 


So, these are like the next couple of years. But I think that space of creativity, curiosity, and collaboration is really at the heart of both of these projects and trying to understand, I believe really strongly in the wisdom of lived experience, but the experience needs to have a process to get to wisdom like experience doesn't just become wisdom. I think it needs space, sense, structure, and story to get there. You need space to be able to distance yourself from the intensity and have an experience. I think that's something that mindfulness can give us. 


We need a space to be able to make sense of what this experience means and what happened to really understand it. You need a structure to be able to put the experience into this wider context of these things that happen to other people. These things have a historical context. And then, we can get to the point where we're able to tell a story about our experiences. That story can be wisdom we keep for ourselves or wisdom that we share with other people. But what I really want us to be able to do as an organization is figure out good sustainable ways of helping people go from that space of experience to space, sense, structure, and story so that they're able to share their wisdom with others. 


Vita Pires: 

So, developing a path quality for them that might be kind of missing in just a bare mindfulness class or something, but giving them practice as well. 


Erin Parish: 

Yeah, that's absolutely the idea. 


Vita Pires: 

A bonding experience. 


Erin Parish: 

Yeah, I mean, the artistic space, I think, is really exciting to think about creative writing, or any kind of artistic expression that can go along with the mindfulness space. I'm really excited about thinking about how to develop that. 


I think it's a real strength of what our organization has been when I look around. I look around this office, and I see beauty. I just see exquisite beauty that I'm looking at right now at this saddest Buddha that was sent to us. I mean, I want it in my house. I want to make posters of it. There's so much creativity that is locked up, and how we can create structures and pathways for the world to be gifted with that creativity is something I'm really committed to doing in this work. 


Vita Pires: 

Great. So, have you taught inside prisons before? 


Erin Parish: 

Yeah, no, I have. I have a lot of personal and professional experience with prisons. My sister was incarcerated for ten years. So, I spent a lot of time in and out of southern prisons and jails. I've professionally done a lot of work in different prisons and jails. Before I had this job, I worked for the city of Durham, and I was the human-centered designer for the city. 


And so, we collaboratively designed programs to lessen the impact of incarceration and justice involvement for Durham residents. And so, a lot of that involves interviews with people with lived experience of incarceration in order to design those programs that are designed peer support reentry programs and the transitional jobs program and the driver's license restoration program. 


A lot of that involves going into prisons and jails and talking to people about what they need most. And then it also taught cultural anthropology in prison, which is so much fun. It's like a group discussion on all the things that you really shouldn't talk about. It's a lot of fun. 


Vita Pires: 

Well, how does that look? Can you describe what the discussion topics are that you might bring up? 


Erin Parish: 

An intro to cultural anthropology? 


Vita Pires: 

Yeah. 


Erin Parish: 

Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, some of them, and these are things that I would want to incorporate into the curriculum. I mean, when you think about, like, what are rituals? And what are rites of passage? And what are the ways in which we form a community? What are the kinds of unspoken rules that you see that dictate how the world around you works? That's really interesting. People grab onto that right away. 


When you start talking about race, gender, sexuality, trauma, you know, those are some tender spaces, but I mean, probably the best individual cultural anthropology, like discussion class I ever taught, was the gender class at Warren Correctional Institute because the men were so really like, "Can you talk to me about how to not be sexist?" "Can you talk to me about how women should be treated?" I mean, it was fascinating. 


I think because people took to those topics, which are not topics that you would probably be talking about in the yard comfortably. It's something that I think would be interesting to incorporate into a curriculum, particularly the places around rituals and rites of passage and those kinds of things. 


Vita Pires: 

Because that can all be wrapped into gang culture as well. 


Erin Parish: 

People recognize that right away. Right away. I mean, when I taught at Duke, people would recognize that as when you tend to get basketball tickets, right? Or if you're talking about totems to a Duke student, they're going to see blue Devils. And if you're talking about that to someone in prison, they might see, you know, gang symbology. So, I mean, that's what we did. It's what we do as human beings. So, yeah. 


Vita Pires: 

It sounds like when you're teaching groups you encounter fairly open groups that have people that are interested in transformational change. Is that true for the people? I mean, because, you know, in my experience, where we teach classes, we go into, like, the life skills department. A lot of people are signing up for the class, not for whatever the topic of the class is. They're signing up to have a good time. They're signing up to get away from wherever they are, to do something different for some entertainment. I don't know. Even just to relax for a minute in a quiet space. 


Sita Lozoff: 

Well, I taught mindfulness on North Carolina's death row for three years. It's an optional class. There were about a dozen guys who regularly came for three years. I mean, these are desperate people. We haven't had an execution here since 2006. But they know it could change. They are absolutely. It's not like California or wherever. 


They came into that class specifically for spiritual transformation. There's no question about that. We had the most absolutely amazing conversations. We'd start out with meditation, of course. And then we just opened it up to whatever anybody wanted to talk about. I specifically remember one group. They had just had three executions in Alabama, one right after the other. The guys came in just sad and frightened and angry. All their feelings and everything came out. However, by the end, we were sending love to the executioners as well as the people who had died and their families. It was to everybody. 


As the Dalai Lama has said, there's this thing that he calls wise selfishness, that they end up feeling better. If they are in a space where they are sending that love out where they can transmute those feelings in that kind of way. It was just extraordinary. I will never forget that. 


Vita Pires: 

That sounds very beautiful. Yeah. Inspiring. Yeah, so there's like they have the awareness that there could possibly be, you know, I mean, of course, we all could be dying at any moment, but it's kind of like this horrible anxiety probably that's always in the wallpaper, so to speak. So yeah, having to work with your kind of up against it in a really intense way. Plus, the environment. Right? Exactly. A warm and cozy way to end your life. So, what else? What else? What are your hopes, Sita, for the program continuing on for another 50 years? 


Sita Lozoff: 

My hope is in the body of Erin. No pressure. We handpicked this beautiful, wonderful person. I'm just amazed and touched every day. The energy in the office is alive and wonderful. I'm giving it to her. I truly am and trust that we are all guided and that we've been guided to have Erin in our project. 


Vita Pires:

Wow. It's beautiful. 


Erin Parish:

I mean, it's an honor, and it's a privilege. I know that all of the things that I have done in my life have led me right here to this moment, the three of us together. So, I recognize that. I am grateful for the opportunities that we have to be vessels and want to always hold this space in wisdom and in humility and love because that's like the basis and the foundation on which it was built on. 


That space of unconditional love that you bring that I like, learning as a method is so powerful to me and the work that I'm trying to hope that I can shepherd in my work in my life. So, we're having a moment here, Vita. We're going to cry for a minute, but I'll be right back. 


Vita Pires: 

That's very powerful to hear. I mean, I guess you know who Sita Lozoff is. Sita and Bo, we're like the ones that all the rest of us, you know, laid the ground for all the rest of us for the past 50 years to follow your example. So, it's always been like, I know, Bo was a little problematic, but he was always a very inspirational character to me, and so are you. So, it's so wonderful to see you passing it on to someone like Erin, who you see will continue the work. You can trust her to grow and flourish. 


Sita Lozoff: 

Thank you so much. 


Erin Parish: 

There's so much here. There's so much good stuff here. I feel like sometimes you really need new eyes to see all the treasure. Sometimes when you're just sitting in a space, it just feels like, "Oh, that's my life." But for someone to come in and say, "Oh my gosh, there's a treasure in that cabinet." You know, there's a treasure on that wall. And that's how I feel about people. That's how I feel about all the people that we work with. There's treasure everywhere. And sometimes you just need, like, new fresh eyes and that space. 


Sita Lozoff: 

Right. 


Erin Parish: 

And so, I feel like that's part of my role here is to be able to cherish this archive and find all of the treasures in the archive and let them fly. That's my job. 


Vita Pires: 

Yeah, okay. I'm not sure where we go from here because that was really amazing to hear and so inspiring. 


Erin Parish: 

Well, I mean, I'm thinking about unconditional love a lot. I was thinking about what this connection between failure and unconditional love is, which I didn't, you know, I don't fully have that. But, you know, failure shouldn't be a privilege. There's such a learning space that can happen in failure. But for so many people, there's no safety net. And so, when you make a mistake, when you fail, you're just like, kind of kicked off and kicked away. 


What I see as this just a huge gift of human kindness that is embodied through Sita is what happens when you look at people through the lens of unconditional love and what is made possible by that. I fail at that all the time. I'm nowhere near loving. I can be super judgmental. But when I look at that as a method of how to live life, it opens up so much like liberatory possibilities for me. I think it can open up so many liberatory possibilities for other people. 


What if we looked at corrections through a lens of unconditional love? What if we looked at justice through a lens of unconditional love? That you are lovable, that you are capable, that you belong. That doesn't have to be an airy-fairy dream. It can be a method and a process, or a goal. 


Sita Lozoff: 

Right. 


Erin Parish: 

Like, that's a gift of your faith that I learned and I see every day. 


Vita Pires: 

So, when you walked away from that prison in Terre Haute, and Bo said something like, I'm not sure what this is, but there's something here that does seem like it's become clear, what was there, right? To you, Sita. Yeah, that is this whole flourishing of loving kindness throughout this tiny box system. 


Sita Lozoff: 

I could never know that it would be my calling. I could never know that at that time. But you know, as we know, Vita, one day goes into the next. And here we are. And, you know, I've been practicing mindfulness. So, I'm a practitioner. All these 50 years, I've been doing that. And here we are, you know. 


Vita Pires: 

Well, I just want to thank you. I mean, so much for everything you've done, for all that you've created. It's astounding how many lives you've touched. I think that book is pivotal. All those books were pivotal in helping people understand a really lost place in the world that people may not have an awareness of to give a window of what it is, what life is there in there. So beautiful. 


Sita Lozoff: 

Thank you so much. 


Vita Pires: 

So transformative. 


Erin Parish: 

Sita has co-authorship of We're All Doing Time lineage and Just Another Spiritual Book. And so, lineage, we reprinted, and so it has Bo and Sita Lozoff on the cover, and We're All Doing Time, and Just Another Spiritual Book in the digital versions have Bo and Sita's name on them. And when we reprint them, they'll have their names. 


I mean, you've deserved this. When we think about authorship and books, so much of the love in that book is you. The art, the editing, the curation, the bringing in these other voices, that's a partnership. And so, I'm really appreciative of Vita that you are honoring Sita in this way, and that when we think about human kindness and think about the past of human kindness, we think about the partnership of Sita and Bo, and we think of the partnership of what they produced. 


Vita Pires: 

Yeah, I really, really thank you for coming in to speak about this. It's just so beautiful and so inspiring. 


Sita Lozoff: 

Thank you for inviting us. 


Erin Parish: 

Yeah. 



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