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Andrew Winn on the JustUs Speaks Podcast

February 27, 2023

As a kid, he enjoyed playing in the dirt. Today, as a formerly incarcerated leader, he helps give people in 10 California prisons the experience of gardening through the Insight Garden Program. Andrew Winn joins the #JustUs Speaks Podcast!



Read the full transcript:

Lester Young: Peace and blessings, everyone. Welcome to the new JustUs Speaks Podcast from Just Leadership. I’m your co-host Lester Young.

Hakim Crampton: And I’m your co-host, Hakim Crampton. JustUs Speaks is being produced to amplify the voices of directly impacted people, particularly the voices of formerly incarcerated people.

Lester Young: Just leadership was founded on the principle that those who are closest to the problem are also closest to solutions, but too often further from the resources and the power to affect positive change.

Hakim Crampton: So, on this first season of JustUs Speaks Podcast, we’re interviewing leaders from the most recent 2022 cohort of Just Leadership USA’s Leading With Conviction leadership training program.

Lester Young: Today, we’re talking with Andrew Winn. Andrew is the husband of Kimberly, a dog dad of Chico and Pepper, and Executive Director of the Insight Garden program. The Insight Gardening program offers imprisoned horticulture programs in 10 California prisons and re-entry service for those involved in the prison program. Insight Garden program site at the intersection of environmental, social, and racial justice providing access to the natural world for those involved in the criminal legal system. Additionally, Andrew is a graduate of UCLA and holds an alumni board position. He is an avid trail runner, backpacker, hiker, and a nature enthusiast. He co-founded the Underground Scholar Initiative at UCLA and helped expand projects rebound statewide. Andrew, welcome to the JustUs Speaks Podcast.

Andrew Winn: Thank you for having me, great to be here.

Lester Young: Absolutely man, absolutely. Before we just dive into this, my thing is that I’m always intrigued by gardening and horticulture, and how that actually brings about some form of rehabilitation. Is that therapeutic for the men and women [who are] incarcerated? Not only that but where did you get this idea for the Insight Garden program?

Andrew Winn: There’s a lot to unpack there. The first part is, access to nature in a prison is huge. When I was inside getting my hands in the soil and getting dirty and just being a part of something, the growth of something, was really powerful. My job inside prison last time I was there was carpentry, and right next door was the landscaping, and I would see the bonsai tree right there, and I would see all these folks getting dirty, and I feel like people really enjoyed it. I like getting dirty, and I think that part of that is [wondering] what does eight-year-old Andrew like? What does the six-year-old Andrew like to do? I remember my feet were dirty. My hands were dirty [and] that’s because I was in the mud outside playing all day and just enjoying life. I think just kind of in the same essence, it’s like how do we get like that child back into the person? How do we re-establish who we are when we our humanity’s been removed through a criminal legal system that’s not always out to support us? I think that’s where I get a lot of excitement from offering horticultural therapy and programming inside prisons. Then the other part is, we have a curriculum that goes along with it so if we don’t just show up and garden. You could, but we have a curriculum that goes along with it, and in part three of our curriculum we talk about inner gardening, so in the first two arcs we really establish the environmental parts of it. We build up the skill sets, the vocabularies, the things folks would need to really understand the garden components. Then we transfer it into an inner gardening, and so it’s being able to [think] if you were to tend to yourself in the same way that you’re attending to that plant, how are you taking care of it? How are you creating the ecosystem that provides care for that plant? And what is the ecosystem that you’re providing care for yourself? There’s things that we will have in our curriculum, and I think one of the things that I gravitate towards is composting. We talk about compost, and for some of us we’re really into it, and some of us we’re not really into it, but regardless we understand what it is. It’s taking organic materials and then reshaping them to do something else to provide more life. So, if you Lester, were to compost parts of your life, what would that look like? What parts of your life would that be? That’s what we bring within our curriculum.

Lester Young: Hey man, I like how you make those connections because it brings me back to this book I remember reading many, many years ago while I was incarcerated called, As a Man Thinketh So is He, and in this book it would say that your mind is like a garden and your thoughts are the seeds, and your action cultivate the seeds. So it’s very similar to what you’re saying. You look at it from that perspective when you see a garden, and I remember also it says that the weeds are your negative thoughts, and you have to remember if you have a positive seed or idea, be just like a gardener. Make sure you pull the negative weeds up. You see that connection right there and how it ties in, so I love what you’re talking about, going into Insight Garden. Let’s look at this not only from the physical perspective, but how we tie that into our internal being and changing our mindset, which changes behavior and produces better people. If the garden is right, if the soil is right, then guess what you got? You got a good product, good plants, you got all of these great things in there so I love that. I love the way that you and your team are approaching that. So my thing is obviously I can tell that that’s something that gives you a lot of satisfaction. You really are fulfilled in that role right now.

Andrew Winn: Yeah, absolutely. I mean just being able to provide this, but also in many ways I’m sitting at the table now. Before, I was just subject to people sitting at the table, and so now I have direct conversations with wardens. I’m like, “Hey, how can we do this?” And before that was never about it, and so now being able to, in many ways, represent the community,  people that I work with, people who’ve been incarcerated, just as I have other folks who are stakeholders within all this–they empowered me, they entrust me to be able to have these conversations with the warden. And with our headquarters for our Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. So, there’s a lot of reward in that. While I garden (and I’m growing broccoli and cauliflower right now because it’s wintertime gardening), I’m not going to sit here and act like I’m an expert gardener because I have an expert gardener on staff. These gardeners that we have on staff they shoot it all day long, and they know this is in their blood, and they do this. Me, I get that opportunity to sit at the negotiation table. I have an opportunity to be able to be like, “Hey, we need this because of X, Y, and Z.” I get fulfilled knowing that my community who raised me, they’re the ones who who set me up for success, they’re the ones who support me, they’re the ones who take me places and really shake my mind, and so when I’m sitting at these negotiation tables I’m able to like bring that together, and there’s a lot of fulfillment for me in that. Being able to represent folks who entrust me that’s powerful.

Lester Young: Before I go, as you were talking about gardening and you mentioned being six or eight-years-old, what would the six or eight-year-old Andrew be doing? I remember moving from Boston, Massachusetts to Hilton Head, South Carolina, and my grandmother, every summer, she had a garden in a backyard. Like a big garden–growing okra, and all of the necessary things in her garden. I remember she taught me that. I remember when I got older, I started doing that same thing. When we moved from when my grandma was staying and we moved to another area in Hilton Head, I started my own little garden, but the sad thing is I disconnected from that. I disconnected from it, but even at this age where I’m at now, I still pine to get back into gardening because it was therapeutic for me, but it also just brings me back to those memories of spending time with my grandma. I’m glad you lifted that out, that’s something I’m gonna definitely look at going into this coming year, God willing.

When we’re talking about having a seat at the table, that brings with me to this next question: What has been your favorite part of Leading With Conviction. You’re a recent graduate of Leading With Conviction and you know we really speak about the importance of amplifying the voices of those who are directly impacted and being at the table. If you’re not at the table, create your own table. So, what has been your favorite part of Leading With Conviction?

Andrew Winn: You touched on it just a little bit ago, but community. Being able to be with folks who have shared experiences as I and understanding what they’re like. And yes, I’m a straight white man, and I understand all of the immense privileges that come with that, and we also know that what’s represented within our prison systems in California and beyond, is not necessarily representative of those who are there. So, I think just being able to have a community understand the racial backgrounds to the problems that we have within our criminal legal system, and then being able to amplify that. I feel like there’s a responsibility for me, that I need to be able to say, “Hey, liberation work is not it’s not just for me, but for all our people.” We know that there’s racial implications, we know that there are implications around socio-economic statuses. We know that there’s all kinds of different intersections that cause people to get locked up, and so for me, being part of Just Leadership allowed me to be in community, immersed into that community of people who are not afraid to speak their mind, people who are not afraid to just step up, and say, “Hey, this is what I’m experiencing.” Much of my community was already influenced by Just Leadership before I became a fellow. I have tons of friends who were fellows prior to to me becoming one and so being able to sit at these tables, learn from my folks, the people I love, the people I care for, and then be able to also carry their stories with me when I’m at the negotiation table, when I’m setting up programs, when I’m doing the things I do with Insight Garden program, they stick with me. That’s one of the most powerful things I feel that Just Leadership really provides the community, which is the connections with each other. We know that this is not strictly a California thing–I’m in Sacramento, it’s not strictly a Sacramento thing–this is something we see nationally, but even globally. Being able to just be a part of something much bigger than my little world right here and be able to say, “Hey, no my friends are experiencing this, what can we do to address it?” That’s the power of Just Leadership.

Lester Young: Oh man, thank you for that. I mean I fully agree with you on that. That’s just the beauty of the alumni of this organization and being a part of this beautiful organization. When we say we have that national reach, you’re definitely saying I’m here in South Carolina, Hakim is in Detroit, Deanna’s in Ohio. It’s the beauty, but all of that, man we have fellows in all of these various states representing not only Just Leadership, but the causes that they’re very passionate about.

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Lester Young: What’s up Hakim? What you got on your mind, brother?

Hakim Crampton: I was just curious, Andrew with the leadership vision that you have and you lead, and you drive with out in the community, and the work you’re doing is really inside, but it’s outside, it’s like the juxtaposition. But what’s your vision for leaders like us that have returned home and got these powerful leadership skills? What can we do inside the prison system with these skills that we have? How can we engage them to bring them on board with where we’re at?

Andrew Winn: I think a big part of it is modeling.

Lester Young: Modeling the way.

Andrew Winn: Right. I just think about when I was younger, I had some role models and people I looked up to, and I started mirroring their behaviors. And some of them weren’t healthy behaviors, some of them were healthy behaviors, and so in the same sense, I have a responsibility as somebody who goes inside as a leader in this work to model behaviors that we would want to see in our communities. Like I said, whether it’s Sacramento, whether it’s national, whether it’s globally. Being able to just say, “Hey, I respect your opinion and this is where I’m coming from.” And [to] be able to share that, express it in a kind and gentle way, showing folks a new way of living. Understanding we don’t have to be in toxic masculinity. We don’t have to perpetuate racial injustice. We don’t have to sit here and dwell. We can be what we want to be, and there are vehicles to get you to where you’re at. And so being able to go inside and model what life can be like for folks…I can sit up there and I can talk to folks all day. You can do this, you can do X, Y, and Z, kind of come in really strong, but people inside prisons, they don’t respond to that. They are their own people, they’re doing their own time. I’m not doing their time for them. I can’t go in there and be like, “This is how you need to change.” This is how I’m living, and if you want to live similar to how I’m living, here’s what I’ve done. So being able to share those experiences and to build people up, for me that’s what it’s about. That’s what I bring inside.

Lester Young: I was thinking too about that hyper toxic masculinity thing that a lot of men in prison [think] I got to be tough in prison. They’re showing everybody that I’m the toughest guy on the block, but I always like when transformation happens. When transformation happens in the mind, going back into the mind, being the garden and you change. You stop pulling up those negative weeds and your mind starts growing and blossoming. You’ll find this person now humble growing flowers and vegetables in the gardens in prison. They’d be paying close attention to it, showing that empathy. We talk about how you have to have a level of empathy, [and] they’re showing that by how they care for the plants. That’s a beautiful transformation when you see that. So, I look and I notice you have like 10 of these programs now. What’s the “five-year plan” for the Insight Garden? What is that five to ten year plan that you have with what you’re doing right now, being that you already have 10, what’s the goal now? Take over the world?

Andrew Winn: The goal is to go deeper inside these institutions. We’re offering programming, but what does it mean to grow healthy foods inside without exploiting labor? What does it mean to increase access? We have waiting lists as long as 200 plus people to get into our program, and my goal is to figure out a way to minimize that waiting list as much as possible. So, it’s being able to grow healthy foods. Right now, we have an initiative in California called the California Reform Model, where it’s replicating some of the things that are being done in Norway, and I’m right there on the ground floor trying to implement some of this. I have wardens tell me this is what I experienced inside Norway, would you be able to replicate something like this? And I’m like, “I’m your guy. How do we get there?” So being able to know that there are ways that we can do things that are more caring, so going deeper within where we’re at–those 10 prisons, there’s a lot more work to be done there. The other part that we have is, I’m looking to get into re-entry housing. I want to give a shout out to the homegirl Susan Burton of A New Way of Life [it] really put me on my game on understanding what it means to provide re-entry housing for women. That’s where we see a huge, huge need for it, particularly in California. If you look at where women’s re-entry housing is at, it’s in metropolitan areas, it’s in San Francisco to Oakland to LA to San Diego to Sacramento. But California is vastly huge, so there’s big gaps where people are not getting their needs met, and so we have identified Fresno as being one of those areas that can really use re-entry housing for women. So, where are we going? We’re looking at re-entry housing for women as kind of our next step in building our re-entry program. We’re looking at providing mental health services for those who are part of our re-entry program. So, it’s about creating an ecosystem of care where people are being fully taken care of. Now, they may not need the housing. They may not need mental health services. They may not need the warm handoffs, and the cell phones, and the other things that we’re doing for folks, and that’s okay. But being able to create access to those things, for a long time we didn’t have access to those. As people who’ve been incarcerated, going to be psychologists wasn’t always cool because you knew that they were always going to try to put you on some bogus ass meds, excuse my language.  To be able to have real care for people and be able to create that ecosystem, that’s what we’re about. It’s not about surface level care, it’s about going deeper to meet the needs of folks, [and] really finding out who they are, and allowing for personal exploration in that.

So, that’s what we’re trying to do. It’s building our re-entry. It’s doing more within our existing 10 prisons, and if we are able to get into more, we’ll get into more. Of course, I have to pay a living wage for my folks because that’s part of our ethos is paying living wages to the folks who are going and providing programs. It’s not simply just saying, “Here’s $15 an hour, go make it happen captain.” It’s going in there and saying, “Hey, here’s a living wage, you have enough money to take care of yourself, can you go ahead and take care of these folks, too?” It’s from inside, it’s outside, it’s all that. It’s guided by an ethos that’s deep inside and not just me, but all of the people in the Insight Garden program where we truly care. When you talk about where we’re going with the program, it’s how do we care more.

Lester Young: Nice, nice.

Hakim Crampton: You know what Andrew, that’s such a profound therapeutic approach because as we know, incarceration and post incarceration is very traumatic. I can imagine those inside that are in your program, it must be therapeutic for them to be able to be involved in this process, to be involved in this program, and make the connections to themselves to their own personal growth and whatnot. But what does Andrew do for his own therapy? How do you take care of yourself?

Andrew Winn: Great question. This job, this work ain’t easy, right? There’s a labor component to it, but there’s an emotional labor component to it. These are people I really relate with and so when they’re telling me their stories, it’s heavy. It literally hits right here, and so on those days where the work is heavier than usual, I will figure out ways to get outside right back to that connection to nature. That is really, really healing for me. In my bio, I talked about backpacking, trail running, hiking–I do those things because how else am I going to get rid of some of the stress? Sometimes, I need to go to sleep at night. I can sit here thinking about what’s happening to the homie inside, but at the end of the day I need to be helpful within this, and I need to take care of myself, and we’ll take care of the homie, too. Getting out there and just wetting it out on a trail. I have a dog. Her name’s Pepper, and I mentioned it in the bio. She keeps me running. I outrun her, but she keeps me running because I know she needs exercise. I’m not fast or nothing, but she’s just slow. Getting out there, exercising, getting my mind right, and it’s almost like a form of meditation. Being able to focus in, organize my thoughts, and exert my body. So many times it’s being able to find balance between the work of the mind and the work of the body. There’s healthiness between those if they’re balanced, and I try to figure out that balance, and that’s how I take care of myself. It’s just like being outside–before I got on this podcast, I went outside, and it cleared my mind. I checked on my broccoli. I checked on my cauliflower. It’s getting that fresh air and just being with nature, actually touching the leaves, and just [saying], “Okay, I’m ready to do this.” That’s how I take care of myself. It’s stepping outside, knowing I need a break, it’s running, it’s all those things. It’s really just a lot of connection to nature and figuring out who I am as a person and honoring my inner child.

Lester Young: I love that because when I saw on your bio hiking and running and all that stuff, I’m like yo’, that’s me. Right now the weather’s not the best, it’s constantly raining here in South Carolina, but I’m like as soon as it clears up, I’m going hiking. I find myself [thinking to myself] when we have calls, I just put my headphones on and go by a lake and just take my laptop, and I’ll just be right on a meeting, or on my lunch break by water, in nature where the trees are, and all of that stuff because it’s very helpful. I think that that’s something that we as leaders have to really begin to continue to demonstrate and model what self-care looks like. My thing too is [wondering] who was that person that inspired Andrew Winn to do what you’re doing? Who’s that leader that before you may have gotten into this work that inspired you to open that window which is the mind and begin to dream and imagine creating this program which is now 10 programs, but you want to add more to it? Who would that leader be that inspired you?

Andrew Winn: Lucky for me there was that former Executive Director of the Insight Garden program, Beth, she started this program. I will say this: let me go ahead and start with honoring her vision, her work of laying down the groundwork and allowing for somebody like myself who has been directly impacted into this work and creating that space. But who have I looked to? I mean there’s so many influential folks that really put me into this work, that really put me on in each step of the way. I mean it happened. I remember in community college, I was asked to write a paper about a news article. They [wanted us to] look for these things, code of ethics and all this stuff within that news article. I said, “Well, there’s already a few news articles on me.” I’d already been to prison. It’s just, “Let me pull one of these ones out the hat,” and figure this out. I reviewed an article that was written on me and the professor’s feedback was, “I’m sorry this happened to you, and there’s more that you can be pulling out from your argument.” So, in many ways, I didn’t go deep on the stuff that was really on my mind on that article because I wasn’t sure how it was gonna land. And then to just be recognized for that, “I’m like cool, that really planted the seed for my academic inquiries.” I can go deeper. I can’t have a stronger voice, a bigger opinion, and be able to just call things out for what they are. And so there’s that. I think watching somebody like Danny Murillo talk about the things that he was doing over at UC Berkeley working with Romero and Ralston with Project Rebound, being able to understand her leadership and what she’s doing and why she’s doing it and why it’s so impactful. It’s the Lily Gonzalezes. It’s being able to understand  your communities and honor them and being able to recognize that our academic inquiries can intersect with our personal lives. I think all these people, I just mentioned a few, but there’s so many others. I can name them all day. I mean again W.E.B DuBois, reading The Souls of Black Folk is one of the things that really influenced me. I would even add Frederick Douglass, how he was able to free the mind before his body became free. All those people, whether it’s the books, or through oral communication, those were all [people] who influenced me. I was brought up through all those folks, through this work, and that’s what really inspired me to go deeper, and work harder, and find myself within this space.

Lester Young: Wow, bro, I feel you on that. I’m there right along with you on that man. [Music]

We are so excited to invite you to the Just Leadership USA Ninth Annual benefit Gala, Monday June 5th, 2023 at PhD Rooftop Lounge at Dream downtown in New York City. We’re excited to bring JLUSA leaders, allies, and advocates together in person to unite around our shared values and propel our vision for the future. During the last year we’ve made significant strides in building our capacity and infrastructure to become the only national systems change movement and policy table led by and for directly impacted people. This coming June, please join us for our first in-person celebration in over two years. Learn more at jlusa.org backslash Gala that’s jlusa.org backslash g-a-l-a [Music]

Hakim Crampton: Andrew, you got such a powerful, unique perspective about everything really and how you do your work. That’s crucial to furthering the goals that you seek out. So I was wondering, what motto of life or leadership or inspiration do you follow? Or what’s your motto of life?

Andrew Winn: I mean, like I said, there’s lots of folks that built me up and really gave me a lot of the knowledge that I’m utilizing today, and I’m really thankful for them. But, I think one of the things that I really came up with on my own, and maybe I didn’t, maybe I heard it somewhere and I just can’t place it. I’ve learned that it’s never the big decisions in life right, it’s a thousand small decisions. It’s bending the arc. How do we live? And when we make our decisions, where’s it coming from? I mean for me like knowing where it comes from and understanding that part allows me to build my confidence in the decision-making process. Knowing where it comes from. We know that, we see it every day, where there are systems of oppression and sometimes there are decisions that people make unintentionally that come from those systems of oppression. So, to be able to understand where I’m leaving from, yeah, it’s a thousand small decisions. It’s never the big decisions. People respect me, or at least my loved ones respect me, because of those thousand decisions. It’s that integrity, it’s being able to make real intentional effort and to never speak ill about somebody. It’s those things, and so those are my models, my motto, or my models that I come from is really understanding where those are coming from, and then how I can apply that into my decision making ability. So, a thousand small decisions.

Lester Young: I love it, I love it man. As we’re wrapping up, I just wanted to maybe ask a couple more questions to really get a better understanding of Andrew, so that we can get into the mind. We know that you love gardening. We know that you love leadership, you just graduated from the Just Leadership Leading With Conviction cohort. What does leadership mean to you going forward? We talked about a seat at the table. We talked about you expanding the vision, but what does this leadership mean to you right now? Going into a new year and beginning this whole new transition in life, what does leadership mean to you now? After completing this program? Planning for another year, what does this look like for you? Or, what does it mean to you?

Andrew Winn: I mean it means to me that I have responsibility on my shoulders. I can’t play, “Oh, I didn’t know this.” And knowing that when I speak, when I do things, I am representing my loved ones. I’m representing the community who built me up, and so what’s leadership mean to me? It means that there’s an expectation on me to be the person, the same person behind the scenes as I am on the front stage.

Lester Young: Don’t be like a public success and a private failure. That’s a very powerful one  and that’s the balance, and that’s why I think that self-care, that pause, don’t be a public success, but you’re a private failure in your marriage, your relationship with your children, your partners…you’re destroying that, but you’re living up to this image of success, but you’re really not, so I love what you say about that, man.

Andrew Winn: All right let me add, I always go back to that J Cole song, “Love Yours.” I think that’s just that part of it, like just love the stuff that’s around me. I have a great dog. I have a great wife. I have great people in my life. Love mine. I can put on a facade, and I can have that public life, but deep down my personal, behind the scenes, I gotta love mine.

Lester Young: I like that, I like that. Hakim what you got to say about, love mine, brother?

Hakim Crampton: That’s really what life is all about, love. One of the beautiful things about leadership is that we know leadership is about relationship. Forming a relationship requires love, that’s just a reality.

You’ve been a phenomenal guest, Andrew. We really appreciate it. We really want to give you an opportunity to conclude off some final thoughts to us all.

Andrew Winn: Final thoughts: At the end of the day, I encourage everybody to figure out ways to be kinder and gentler with each other and really center our humanity because we’re tied to each other, whether we want to or not. The decisions we make today not only will impact other people, but will impact ourselves later on, and so how do we go ahead and find kindness, love and friendship and camaraderie and just solidarity amongst all of us. I really want people at the end of the day to have real intentionality about being kind with each other because that will get you so much further in life. So, I want to leave the podcast knowing that we can plant the seed. You listening to this on the other side of that speaker, I want you to figure out more ways to be kind. When somebody makes you upset step back and say, how can I be kind in this situation? How can I hold back these words that I really want to say and create new words that will go ahead and be representative of me not only today, but 20 years from now. You can find Insight Garden at our web address at insightgardenprogram.org. There are ways to get involved. There’s a volunteer form on there. There’s ways to make gifts. There’s swag that you can buy. Let me just say, this is shameless, but we have incarcerated artists who love Insight Gardens so much that they’ve donated their art to Insight Garden, and now we have it on auction and folks are able to buy art that was crafted inside. So there are ways that you can get involved, from following us on social media, we’re on all the major platforms. Insight Garden program or Insight Garden. You can look us up, but there are ways to get involved, but even just locally for other folks, just know that there’s an inner and outer garden. What are the ecosystems people are doing to take care of themselves? I think care really starts with kindness, and I would just want to leave kindness with you all.

Lester Young: We’re going to send kindness back to you my brother, much kindness to you to your wife, to your dogs, and to your network, much kindness, man. It has been a phenomenal time spending with you today just talking to you about everything that you’re passionate about, that’s leadership, Insight Gardening, and just being kind to people. Thank you, my brother, and you have a fantastic day. Continue to do things that continue to make you a better leader. Be blessed, peace. [Music]


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