Open Circle Finds Redemption for Prisoners

Hank Dixon, Director of Open Circle, is a friendly guy who welcomed me with a firm handshake and a smile, asking, “Where do I know you from? I feel like I know you from somewhere…” The greeting was appreciated, as I had my usual pre-interview nerves, and I suggested it might be because he’s worked with my dad.

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Hank Dixon, Director of Open Circle

“Oh, no, I think your dad has a few pounds on you. Maybe somewhere else…” Hank proceeded to introduce me to some of the other people who work at Initiatives for Just Communities as though I was family, despite the fact that I’d only spoken to him once via email.

We sat in his small office, furnished with what Hank described as, “second hand… but, you know, nice second hand,” furniture from downstairs that would have otherwise gone to the Salvation Army. Open Circle runs on a very tight budget. It seems its stock and trade isn’t the easiest thing to raise money for. “Try to sell people on the idea that they should support people who go to jail… That’s not an easy sell. It’s a real struggle in our society.”

“These aren’t boy scouts you’re going to visit. Some of them have done pretty terrible things in their lives.”

Open Circle is a non-profit organization that matches volunteers with inmates at Manitoba prisons to foster relationships, which isn’t easy even when volunteers and funds are available. “These aren’t boy scouts you’re going to visit. Some of them have done pretty terrible things in their lives. Some people want to change, but they don’t know what the path is. Some people are just lonely and want someone to talk with.”

The relationships that volunteers build with prisoners help them acclimate to society when they get out, as well as navigate the difficult waters of being in prison — an immensely lonely place. The connections benefit not only the prisoners, but the volunteers as well. “You develop some pretty good friendships over the years… people enrich each other, and that’s really what we’re trying to do here.”

By this point, a few things had struck me about Hank. Not only has he worked extensively with inmates through Open Circle, but previous to that he served as a chaplain at a number of prisons throughout Canada. In his words, “I think one of the things that has consistently attracted me to this work… [is the ability to help] what society looks at as waste. To be a part of that, and to be able to find redemption, is something I’d like to carry on.”

He seems like the quintessential pastor type. The kind of guy you’re not sure you could ever be, but damn it, you’re glad there are folks like him around.

“To be a part of that, and to be able to find redemption, is something I’d like to carry on.”

The thing about Hank, though, is that he was a lifer too. He’s been an addict. He went to prison for second degree murder when he was nineteen. It would have been equally hard, all those years ago, to find money to put towards helping him.

The perfect ending to this story is that Hank now runs an organization that exemplifies the kind of change he himself went through. “We’re reminding people that lives are redeemable. There’s always hope.”

For more information about Open Circle, visit their website: http://www.initiativesjc.org/wpblog/open-circle/

Thanks to Hank Dixon for being my interview subject and sharing his story.

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6 Keys to Success from a Professional Communicator

Author’s Note: This post is a bit of a departure from my usual theme because I had an assignment for PR Fundamentals. It still has to do with communication, though!

Ron Arnst, the Assistant Vice-President in the Brand Management & Media Relations department at Investors Group, agreed to meet with me to give me an idea of what it looks like to be a successful communications professional in Winnipeg.

Ron started his career in broadcasting (mostly radio and some television), but he was given the opportunity to expand his horizons by moving into politics. By becoming a press secretary to cabinet for the Gary Filmon government, it allowed him to make more money and do more interesting work (Ron was press secretary during the Meech Lake Accord negotiations).

He left government in 1995 to work in the private sector during the dot-com boom. After being laid off at the end of the boom, he found an opportunity at Investors Group and has risen to his current Assistant VP position.

During the interview, Ron graciously explained some of the unique aspects of his work in communications for a financial services company in the Winnipeg market.

We discussed the concepts of communications integration and communications alignment, and how they’re not always the same. Although marketing, public relations, and advertising may not always be part of the same department at a firm, what’s most important is that they are aligned in their messaging, goals, and priorities.

We also discussed doing business in Winnipeg compared to bigger cities like Vancouver or Toronto. Ron says working in Winnipeg is both a challenge and an advantage. You have to do more to get recognized, but you’re also removed from the groupthink that can occur in bigger centres.

We began to get into the challenges of regulation in the financial services industry, and I knew I was out of my depth, so I decided to redirect. I asked if he had any advice for someone (like me) just entering the communications profession, to which he replied a strong, “Yes.”

Now, I’m not an experienced enough communicator to ask probing questions about the nature of the profession, but Ron had some excellent advice on getting me there. Here are six of the best quotes he had for me:

  1. “You’re never doing as well as what the next opportunity might bring”
  2. “It’s not your corporate history, it’s your ability that makes you employable”
  3. “Go into areas where you’re uncomfortable. Don’t limit yourself”
  4. “In your chosen area, do as much and as many different things as you possibly can. Especially when you’re starting out”
  5. “Education tells me what you should know, experience tells me what you can do”
  6. “Regardless of what you’re told by others… have fun. Do things that you enjoy, ‘cause you’re automatically going to be good at those… you’re going to put the time in… The worst thing you can possibly do is go into a job that you’re not really sure about, that you really don’t like that terribly much, because somebody thought it’d be a great place for you”

I’d like to thank Ron for taking the time to meet with me and give me (and you) this advice. I wanna know what you have to think of this advice, so leave me a comment!