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by | May 1, 2024 | ComLine, Voices of Recovery

It was 2004. I was incarcerated in Wisconsin’s Dane County Jail. I had forged checks on the account of my seventy-year-old friend, Miss Milele Chikasa Anana, one of the most prominent, renowned, highly respected members of the African American community, Madison, Wisconsin. Shoot, everybody in Madison knows Ms. Milele. White folks tremble when she checks them on being out of order. Black lives have always mattered to Ms. Milele. Her monthly magazine, Umoja, elevated us to royalty. 

At my sentencing, the judge let me know that he is a friend of Miss Milele. “I am going to do my best to give you a fair trial.”

My public defender speaks on my behalf. “Your Honor, Mrs. Rice accepts total responsibility for her crime. She is remorseful. Since being released from Dane County Jail, she has completed rehabilitation for the drug problem which caused this sad offense. She is actively involved in Twelve Step recovery, attending meetings daily, and reporting clean urine tests. She is employed by the University of Wisconsin.” 

Judge: “Mrs. Rice, I want to hear what you have to say.”

My voice, my whole body is shaking. I have no idea how I managed to even stand up. Should I look at the judge? Do I pretend I don’t see Miss Milele, who seems older than I remember? 

What could I say? 

“Your Honor, I admit that what I did was a horrendous crime. I am deeply sorry. Miss Milele, I want you to know that it was never my intention to harm you when you invited me into your home. I betrayed you. I wish I could go back and undo it all. I am sorry, I am sorry. I am so sorry.” 

It is her turn. About four feet ten, she stands, clearly broken by what is happening to her. She looks me right into my eyes, more into my soul.

“Young lady, this is a horrible thing that you have done to me, but not only me. Because of what you have done, there is a hole in Madison’s African American community.” 

What did she say? What does that even mean? It took many years for me to understand what she was saying.

The next years in Madison were humiliating! Miss Milele was rightfully angry and made sure everyone knew what I’d done to her. In 2006, I was accepted and completed coursework for the University of Wisconsin’s Odyssey Project. When she found out I was in the program, she advised the director, Emily Auerbach, of my past criminal history. Fortunately, I had already advised Emily, who has a heart for opening doors for people like me. 

After my 2007 graduation, I went on to create myself a job with the Odyssey Project. At the end of the 2008 Odyssey Project graduation, she approached me. Uh-oh, I thought, as she directed me to an area where we could talk privately. 

“I see you out here getting your life together. I’m really proud of you and what you’re doing.” 

What does that even mean? My spirit spoke hesitantly. 

I would like you to write an article for Umoja magazine.

Huh? Eyeing her, suspiciously. 

I did write that article, AND, she even paid me to do it. 

The tide had turned. My time had been served. I had paid back her stolen money. I had been rehabilitated. She was willing to take a chance on me, her friend whom she had once trusted into her home who had robbed her! She had been observing my transformation back to the woman she once knew. She was suggesting that the hole in the African American community which I had created had been refilled. We hugged. I lived in Madison until 2010. 

These days my voice is often sought after in Madison, WI. One of my best-loved organizations, Freedom Inc., frequently brings me in to do blessings and healing work for their events. Last year in June, I was there to present at a gala they hosted.

They put me up in THE premier hotel which looks out on the Capitol Square. My room faced the back side, looking out to the Dane County Jail. Looking out at the jail that once held a piece of my then broken spirit, I was humbly filled with gratitude that I am no longer a ward of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
Miss Milele developed breast cancer and passed away May 2020. Our relationship is a living example of restorative justice. Seems that hole in the African American community is being filled. You can rest in POWER, Miss Milele Chikasa Anana! 

Thank you. 

Oroki R

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