An Interview with Tonya Wilson

Directly impacted by the prison system, today Tonya Wilson is the Reentry Outreach Coordinator of Freedom Project, and a board member of the Freedom Education Project of Puget Sound (FEPPS) at the University of Puget Sound. A Tacoma native, Tonya is a TEDx speaker and appeared in the documentary “Since I’ve Been Down.”

“It would be easy for someone to have looked at my mom’s life and to look at all effort expended on her behalf as wasted resources.”

– Tonya Wilson, from her 2015 TEDx Talk Cracked Sidewalks


On March 15, 2022, from 12-2pm PST, Sound Discipline is hosting our next We Belong & Matter Community Conversation: Disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline. Our community conversations are honest and interactive events for people who want to learn, experience discomfort in a safe space, connect with others, and leave inspired.

This conversation about the school-to-prison pipeline is a collaboration between Sound Discipline, the Since I Been Down documentary, CHOOSE180, and The Freedom Project WA. This issue is complicated by so many systems working as designed to sort, separate, exclude, and decimate human beings who are deemed a problem.

One of our featured speakers is Tonya Wilson. Tonya’s school-to-prison pipeline story is featured in the film Since I Been Down, a stunning documentary by Dr. Gilda Sheppard about the policies of mass incarceration in the 1990s. It explores how fear, racism and a false narrative of safety, security, and prosperity devastated Black and Brown lives in the Hilltop neighborhood of Tacoma, Washington. Our March 15 event starts off with a conversation with Tonya. Registrants for the event will also have special access to stream Since I Been Down.

Before connecting with Tonya in person, I watched her 2015 TEDx Talk — Cracked Sidewalks — a moving 13-minute portrait of her journey to honor her mother’s legacy, map her own story, and reclaim her sense of full humanity while incarcerated. There’s not a single moment in that talk that isn’t miles deep, but this phrase jumped out:

“Lives that seem not to have value, do. They may be your daughter, your brother, your neighbor, or your mom.” 

So when we talked for the first time, that’s where I started – with her call to see the humanity in other people and in ourselves. Tonya shared a story about her grandma:

 “My grandma was a teacher. I will never forget how at the end of the school year, she wanted to make sure their first-grade teacher saw them as a whole person. If we can be the people who hold that reflection of a little person in our hands, hold that special part of them and then pass it on to the next person. That’s what my grandmother did. My grandma tried to give that best part of that child she had for a year off to their next teacher so that they would keep that humanity of that person sacrosanct until that little person grew and could recognize it in themselves. We are not taught to recognize each other’s humanity. We are taught to other each other.” 

After a while, Tonya asked me to call her Ta. I asked her to tell me who else had inspired her. She talked about her teachers and her mentors, including Dr. Sheppard.

“She recognized something in me before I recognized it in myself. That thing that she saw in me is humanity.”

The most important person, the one who made the biggest imprint in her life, she said, was her mom, Sandy:

“A lot of my ability to connect with people and the heart that I have, comes from my mom. No matter what people could say about something she did that wasn’t admirable, she had a heart for people. It’s not someone who is famous, it’s my mom and my grandmom and my mother’s sisters. And my teachers. The women in my life who I can count on and what they reflect back to me in a more trustworthy way than what I can see in the mirror. The women in my family have always been strong and they’ve always been practical. They were the kind of people who were like ‘yeah it’s bad right now, but it’s gonna be ok. You’re gonna be fine.’ As I was growing up, I felt misunderstood. But I realize they knew the world and its emotional contours better than I did. I could use my emotion in service of what I wanted to be different in the world. You cry. You get over it. And then you keep getting up to make breakfast for the kids. The things you have to do you have to do in service of the people you care about.” 

Dreaming up how to frame the conversation on the 15th, I’ve been doing a lot of listening, learning, reflecting. Sound Discipline has come together in partnership with organizations and leaders who are in the work of healing and transforming systems. Each of our organizations are working at different intersections along the continuum of this disease we call the school-to-prison pipeline — to change systems and transform our racist and punitive system of accountability.

As I listen, as complicated as this issue is, and as many layers and as much history intersects with it, Ta’s message is the common theme among all of us – We are humans. Somewhere along the line we forgot, or we were told and taught that we are not. Our systems are organized to separate us from ourselves and one another. Our work is to see ourselves and one another and for our systems to amplify our humanity. As Ta says,

“Excellence is all around us and we can find it all around us — in our family, our neighborhood, the people who are around us. We don’t have to have big chains and skinny jeans. Big eyelashes. You can be WHO YOU ARE and still be excellent. I was excellent in prison. Maybe you don’t know you’re excellent. Maybe our kids will.” 

Register today to listen, learn, and engage with Ta and other extraordinary leaders in this work on March 15:

  • Dr. Gilda Sheppard, Filmmaker Since I Been Down
  • Sean Goode, CHOOSE180 Executive Director
  • Jimmy Hung, Chief Deputy Prosecutor of the Juvenile Division, King County Prosecutor 
  • DeeAnn Wells, Assistant Principal, Lakeridge Elementary School

Andrea John-Smith is the Executive Director at Sound Discipline



Sound Discipline is working for a world where children know they belong and can learn and thrive.

We partner with educators, organizations, and families to transform schools into equitable learning communities.

We bring together science-based, trauma-informed, restorative, and Positive Discipline practices to facilitate change in the ways adults see and respond to students.

Courageous Educators:
We facilitate school leaders and educators to build classroom communities and model an inclusive culture school-wide that promotes student agency and well-being.

Equitable School Systems:
We coach administrators and educators to use data to identify and implement solutions that address damaging systemic patterns of inequity that target Black and brown students.

Connected Families:
We train and coach families and caregivers in a child’s life to apply solution-oriented practices that instill critical social emotional life skills.