top of page

Brilliance Inside brings peace to our prison system


This week I had the pleasure of learning from Mariette Fourmeaux du Sartel, the founder of Brilliance Inside , a project for harmony and peace. Over the past couple years, she and her team have accomplished amazing work with inmates and correctional officers in the U.S. prison system to reduce conflict, and increase communication and connection. I am in complete awe and alignment of their mission, and am so excited for the opportunity to highlight its importance here. Please enjoy Mariette's inspiring interview below, somewhat shortened for your ease of reading:

How did the idea for Brilliance Inside come to be?

It’s the story of trusting a calling that was confirmed by a warm embrace.

While meditating one summer morning, I heard three words that changed my life: “go to prison.” The more I rejected this idea as ludicrous, the more it pulled me in. Having no idea where to start, I googled “prisons in San Diego” and on December 5, 2015, the gates of San Diego’s Donovan State Prison opened. That first week, I went to this dark, violent place three times. And that rhythm has yet to wane.

Fast forward a few steps, I proposed we put on the first TEDx event at Donovan prison. The first event – ideated and orchestrated entirely by a Core Team of 8 prison residents in five short months – took place on May 21, 2017.

This event, that brought together 100 Donovan “men in blue” with 100 outside attendees for a day of talks, conversation and connection, culminated with a Closing Circle of insights. When I called the organizing Core Team to the center of the 250-person Circle to be recognized for their incredible work, this multiracial team of tough guys fell into each other’s arms, in a spontaneous, counterculture, interracial, radical warm embrace! These guys can get seriously hurt for engagement across racial lines and, here, they were hugging!

When TED surveyed the outside attendees, they gave the event a Net Promoter Score that was beyond imaginable. (NPS indicates customers’ satisfaction and their loyalty to a brand.) Despite most NPS hovering around 30-40, we received an NPS of an unprecedented perfect 100!

The success of TEDxDonovanCorrectional stunned everyone, from the attendees, to the incarcerated “people in blue”, to the Donovan Administration… to me! I was so transformed by the incredible human transformation and culture change created in five short months that I decided to dedicate my life to expanding this work of dignity, respect and love.

I founded Brilliance Inside in October 2017, with the belief that each and every one of us, no matter our circumstances, has brilliance inside us. Today, Brilliance Inside brings four programs to Donovan, including an annual TEDx event.

What is the mission of Brilliance Inside? What steps do you take to achieve it?

Brilliance Inside’s mission is to heal society’s cycle of violence. We first transform prison from being strictly a container of violence to a creator of peace, by growing resilient high-performance individuals contributing their purpose and a safer society upon their release.

We bring seven ingredients into each of our five programs. The secret sauce is actually the dignity, respect and love that we inject into every ingredient, every activity, every interaction, every moment. Our space is safe for exploration, expression, connection, transformation, growth and fulfillment.

You have clearly made a positive impact on many inmates here in San Diego. Was it easy to get them to participate in your programs? What were some challenges you've had to overcome? What are the biggest challenges the inmates have to overcome?

Of the many growth edges for the Core Team, the most noteworthy are:

  1. Their lack of self-worth, “self-belief”. By virtue of their broken and highly abusive childhood, the guilt and remorse for their actions and the often degrading prison environment, these residents have often lost their connection with humanity and themselves. One resident wrote on his Core Team application that he had no experience to bring to this event; he’s struggled to see his self-worth. Another had become complacent, believing he was going to be in prison for the rest of his life despite his efforts to be released.

  2. Maintaining the values of our space, extending past the Core Team. Our TEDx events are run by the Core Team with the support of 70 additional resident volunteers, whom the Core Team manages with dignity, respect and love - not prison’s usual force, manipulation and violence. Talk about counterculture…

The resident TEDx Speakers develop the vulnerability (not popular in prison) to explore and divulge personal secrets and insights. The growth enabled by this release has been magical to observe.

My greatest challenge was to lessen the hurdles and blocks of this controlling and rightfully constraining environment. We had creative brainstorming sessions with the prison administration to deliver the Core Team’s vision for this unique event while respecting the rules and regulation of prison.

Is there a specific moment you remember since Brilliance Inside began that has brought you immense joy? A moment that made you think, 'Yep - this is the right thing to do and it's going to be amazing!'?

Undeniably, this moment is the Core Team warm embrace at the end of the first TEDx event. These are a group of tough guys having believed their whole lives that their security came from being the strongest, toughest, baddest guys around. Plus, the team told us stories how simply acknowledging each other on the yard risked getting seriously hurt. Therefore, falling into each other’s arms – in front of their peers, no less – was unseen. In this moment, I knew I had more to give and more to receive from this dark and violent place.

Can you share a success story from your program so far?

There are countless stories of individual transformation. I describe just one in my TEDxNarbonne talk.

What makes my heart sing is the ripple effect that launches once individuals have connected to their own brilliance. The residents become the role model fathers supporting their kids through school and relationships. They speak of improved, more peaceful relationships with their spouses, other residents, even the correctional staff. One random resident stopped me one day on the yard to tell me that the yard had changed since we’ve arrived, to greater respect and harmony. And when these residents are released, they create transformational programs for at-risk youth, for those in recovery. They even become the employees we’ve dreamed of. I saw a recommendation letter written to a man eight weeks after his release that would make us envious!

Are you working with or have you worked with other prisons outside of San Diego? How has Brilliance Inside grown and where would you like to see it go from here in the next few years?

Sustainable change comes with continuous engagement. Therefore, our Transformational Program has met weekly since it started in December 2016, even on Christmas Day and other holidays. This creates the commitment and safety for deep healing and transformation.

We’ve proven this model works miracles. We’re looking to expand it within Donovan first, as Donovan is actually six prisons in one. And yes, of course, we have our sights on further expansion; we cannot change an entire system by touching only one population in one location.

What motivates you to keep going each day?

Oh wow... Being a witness. There exists no words to describe seeing life appear into a person’s eyes. We say that eyes are the windows to the soul. I’ve seen blank “soulless” windows, empty windows, windows muddied with rage… And then, one day, those same eyes suddenly spark into life as they (re)engage with the truth of their own inner brilliance. This moment is often inconsequential, almost invisible, and yet it’s a testament to massive inner work and healing. It also opens the door to the continuation of a long journey of exploration, trusting and expression of this brilliance.

And seeing myself evolve and transform. As I’ve created a safe space for each of us to explore and express our individual unique brilliance, it’s invited me to step more authentically and boldly into mine as well.

Do you have any books, podcasts, documentaries, or other media you recommend that have made a positive impact in your life recently?

Countless. I believe in continuous growth by expanding my spirit, my heart and my mind. Here are just a few top of mind:

“On Being” podcast – Krista Tippet explores the whole of our essence, our humanity, what connects us and what transforms us.

“Ear Hustle” podcast – Into season 4, it provides a view into prison life by the San Quentin residents themselves.

“Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflicts” book – I have found in Donna Hicks’ words the perfect articulation of what we do every day and of the many keys to our success.

What can we do to bring more harmony and peace to the world, especially in today's climate of conflict?

First, let go of the story that we live in a climate of conflict! You’ve likely heard the Cherokee story of the two wolves: There are two wolves battling within us: one is anger, envy, regret, greed, arrogance, guilt, resentment, lies, false pride, self-doubt and ego. The other is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, truth, compassion and faith. “Which wins?” asks the young boy. The grandfather answers “the one you feed.” Feed the wolf you wish to win in your own life. From personal experience, when I focus on what’s right (in me, others and the world) versus what’s wrong, I have a TON more harmony and peace in my life. And believe me, it solves conflicts and problems significantly faster, too.

Plus, as Lao Tzu says beautifully, peace in the world starts with peace in my own heart. So, let’s each of us focus on what we’re doing in and for our own hearts. And trust that the rest flows effortlessly from there. My time in prison has proven this idea to be true.

If you like this story, I highly recommend watching Marie's recent talk at Creative Mornings , an incredible community I am grateful to be a part.


Feelin' fine? Sign up for The Friyay Fuel newsletter here for more inspiring stories like this, paired with other fun finds, delivered directly to your inbox only when you need an extra boost of happy.


bottom of page