Lenwood Buchanan is fighting for freedom and he wants others to join him.
Buchanan, known as “Tone,” is the president of the Sampson Correctional Institute’s chapter of Toastmasters International. Every Monday night, the group of about a dozen inmates gathers together to share inspirational, personal and heartfelt messages in the form of short speeches, encouraging one another as they grow communication skills they hope will benefit themselves and society.
“That means being prepared to go anywhere I want to go,” said Buchanan, explaining the meaning behind his speech’s “Fighting for Freedom” theme. “That means being spiritually and mentally free. We have to take the veil off our eyes and prepare ourselves to be free. We’re incarcerated but we’re not preparing ourselves for society when we go out there and come back in here. We’re making a career out of coming back and forth to the penitentiary. You’re seeing your family grow up in pictures.”
At the Toastmasters meetings, turns are taken both giving and evaluating prepared speeches and answering a series of questions, with members always affirming with applause. The meetings are one hour long and the agenda is followed to the letter. Members have set roles, established at the end of the previous week’s meeting.
The goal of the program is to provide a positive learning experience by which members are empowered to develop communication and leadership skills, and thus greater self-confidence and personal growth.
“By regularly giving speeches, gaining feedback, leading teams and guiding others to achieve their goals in a supportive atmosphere, leaders emerge from the Toastmasters program,” a statement from Toastmasters International reads. “Every Toastmasters journey begins with a single speech. During their journey, they learn to tell their stories. They listen and answer.”
The effort is one that is 330,000 members-strong, with approximately 15,400 clubs in 135 countries.
Inside the small chapel at Sampson Correctional Institute Monday, those club goals were never more evident.
Sampson Community Resource Council (CRC) volunteers assist through the Toastmasters program, where inmates are able to engage in public speaking — an asset not only in improving oneself but a valuable tool to have when addressing parole boards, obtaining employment post-incarceration and being a productive member of society, CRC chairman Chick Gancer said.
On this particular night, Gancer is unable to attend due to a fractured leg. Fellow longtime CRC member Thomas Sampson is there to assist and invites the Rev. Thomas Farrow, his pastor at First Baptist Church, 900 College St. in Clinton, along with him.
“Technically, the inmates can’t meet by themselves, so they need a volunteer to come in and act as a sponsor,” Sampson pointed out. “We stress that these skills will be an asset once they get back into society.”
The inmates do not take that lightly. Buchanan even drives that point home during his speech, one of three given.
Buchanan said inmates who do two or three years behind bars just to get out, still uneducated and jobless, find themselves repeating a vicious cycle. Those without bars in front of them may feel the same constrictions — bad credit, mounting bills, no job or a lack of education.
“When are we free? Salvation is free. The truth will set you free,” Buchanan implored during his speech. “Mentally we want to be free in society to go where we want and do what we want to do, but in reality we’re still locked up, we’re still in prison, we’re still fighting for freedom. Whether we’re locked up or not, it’s out of sight, out of mind. Nobody cares about you if you don’t care about yourself and you don’t do what it takes to stay out of here.”
As Toastmaster for the evening, Kevin “VA” Morrison essentially serves as host and emcee responsible for guiding the group through the agenda. There are three prepared speeches and three different evaluators for those speakers, while another person audibly counts “uhs” and “ums” with a clicker and still another is responsible for tracking time. Leading up to prepared speeches are the table topics, where Toastmasters members give off-the-cuff answers to questions raised, Among them, Sampson asks about women in the military, the Flint water crisis and closed-door meetings regarding the Coal Ash spill and a subsequent fine reduction against Duke Energy.
Each receives an answer, which is also subject to be timed and evaluated.
Along with Buchanan’s, there are two other prepared speeches.
Chace Murphy talks on the topic of love, using a tale about a clown fish and a pelican falling in love to highlight that sometimes love by itself isn’t enough to sustain a relationship.
“Sometimes love is not enough, especially in a situation like ours — incarceration. If you take love out of the equation for a second, do you have enough of the other qualities such as trust, respect, understanding, financial security, communication? Do you have enough of those qualities to withstand the hard times? If you do, I say cherish what you have.”
Another speaker, David Daniels Jr., gives his first Toastmasters speech — the “icebreaker” — using it to introduce himself. Growing up in Fayetteville, his family didn’t have much.
“We lived in poverty so the littlest things make you value a lot,” said Daniels, who has five brothers and sisters. “The condition I grew up in takes a toll on you, but we had love for each other.”
He talks to his mother by phone every day, he said. Recently, she told him about visiting rapper J. Cole’s old Fayetteville home, a run-down house at 2014 Forest Hills Drive. J. Cole overcame hardship and named his last studio album after that Fayetteville address. It was certified platinum a matter of a few months.
Daniels said he has similar aspirations to make something of himself.
“I will not let this prison marginalize me. I will not let this devalue my capabilities, so when I get back out there I will have the necessities I need. I was working as a tattoo artist at the time, so now I’m starting to read business law and books I never read in the world — getting knowledge on my ambition,” he remarked.
Farrow, who regularly visits the correctional facility on the third Sunday each month, said this was his first time at the Toastmasters. He lauded the passion, credibility and substance of the speakers.
“I tip my hat to you all, because you had that,” Farrow told them. “You were passionate and you were vulnerable, you put yourselves out there in your speeches. You were talking about something that was within yourself. You had great substance tonight and everyone did a marvelous job.”
He encouraged them to read literature and write liberally.
“Even if you are going to speak extemporaneously, it’s important you write because writing helps you clarify your thoughts,” he explained. “I think this is a great thing you are doing. Keep doing it and the ones who are newer, keep coming.”
In closing out his speech, Buchanan offered similar encouragement.
Some of the members of this particular Toastmasters chapter will never leave prison. The chapel where the Monday meetings are held is located within the medium-level security of the Correctional campus, where the more hardened criminals are held. In the room are convictions of robbery and murder and at least a handful of life sentences.
Freedom, Buchanan attested, can be putting yourself on a positive path, being free of sin, doing what is right, praying — to free your heart and soul.
“Freedom to me is preparation, learning constantly. A third of the Bible was written in prison. You can’t say you were limited because you were incarcerated. There’s no limit to freedom,” Buchanan said, walking around and making eye contact with each of the men in the room. “It’s time for us to wake up. Don’t let a day go past and let it be a waste of time. Put your mind to something and focus. I’m fighting for freedom.”
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.