Deborah Tobola

Part I: “Daddy, I like eating at the joint”
by Larry Greco Harris

If you were to judge director Deborah Tobola by appearances, a relatively petite white woman with a low-volume voice sitting in the command seat of a circle of grown men, ex-offenders of multiple races, some with backgrounds from gang-ridden inner cities, you might be tempted to judge her as unqualified for such a leadership position. And you would be wrong.

Let's scratch a little below the surface and examine some of the earliest seeds planted and events experienced that aimed Deborah toward her current leadership role as founder and artistic director of San Luis Obispo County's Poetic Justice Project.

As a toddler, Deborah was already in prison with her father. A decorated Korean War Marine veteran, Charles "Chuck" Tobola took a job at the California Men's Colony while attending Cal Poly on the G.I. bill. He was assigned to the prison's new West Facility. At the time, prison staff could bring their families to CMC's cafeteria for good, cheap food. When I was three years old, that's where I had my first meal out, Deborah says. And I said, Daddy, I like eating at the joint!

Thus began little Deborah's unlikely road that led her to a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and ultimately back to the same prison she'd visited with her father. Along the way, she developed the leadership skills necessary for contributing to the lives of grown men inside (and now one step outside) the gates of the California state prison system.

Part II: A Father’s Impact

The impact of a father's absence on a son is one of the primary themes embedded in the musical play, Blue Train, sponsored by the Poetic Justice Project of San Luis Obispo. Deborah Tobola, though obviously never a son, is nevertheless qualified to participate in and even lead this father conversation, not because she had an absent father, but because she had one who was present.

Besides introducing Deborah to the prison environment where he was employed, Charles Tobola served as a task-master, coach and mentor who refused to psychologically box his daughter into some traditional 1950′s role of the little-woman-behind-the-man. He saw her as an intelligent individual in her own right, and he expected her to live up to the innate abilities he obviously saw within her.

I was my father's eldest daughter. We had a close relationship. We would talk about politics and religion and literature. During these conversations he'd suddenly stop me and say, Don't express your miserable opinion until you've read Sinclair Lewis . . . or Hemingway . . . or Dorothy Parker . . . or e.e. cummings. It was a wonderful mentorship, and I don't know what I would have done without that in my life.

One can never be certain where we get our personality traits nurture? nature? but Deborah's father wasn't going to sit on the sideline and hope for the best. He was raising a thinker, a doer, and as it turned out, a leader. It's amazing to think how powerful the actions of an adult can be on a kid.

I remember when I was in eighth grade, he was on a business trip to San Francisco. Now, in our family my mom did all the buying of Christmas and birthday presents. But when he came back from that trip, he had a present especially for me. It was a Hermes Rocket portable typewriter. And I just can't tell you how much that did for me. It was an affirmation from my dad that said Yes, you can be that writer that you want to be.

Along with nurturing her intellectual appetite, Charles Tobola passed along his keen sense of social justice, encouraging his daughter to fight the good fight. "He also taught me not to give up," Deborah says. "Whoever said it would be easy? Whoever said it would be fair? was his mantra. I took it to heart. I call it persistence."

After her original introduction to prison as a child, Deborah's family would travel extensively. She would not re-enter the walls of a prison again until 40 years later. After working as a journalist, she returned to school and earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arizona. Around the time she returned to California, the state was spending less on universities and more on prisons. In addition to occasional college English courses, she taught creative writing in the California Correction Institution in Tehachapi and North Kern State Prison in Delano.

In 2000, she took the position of Institution Artist/Facilitator in the Arts in Corrections program at the California Men's Colony, to the site of her first lunch date with her dad. Charles Tobola died years before his daughter began her life-changing work in the prison. But as far as the evolution of her vision, her mission, her leadership skills and her creation of this emerging Poetic Justice Project, Deborah, along with her entire family agree: Dad would have just loved this!