Commissioner of Natural Resources Bradley Harrington hasn't attempted to hide — or hide from — his former life of crime and addiction. He often tells the story of growing up on the reservation, getting in trouble with drugs and alcohol, and spending several years in prison.
It's that sort of honesty that gives Bradley credibility when he speaks about recovery.
And it's that sort of credibility that had 250 inmates at Lino Lakes Correctional Facility spellbound when Bradley addressed them on January 23.
Bradley opened his talk by holding up a red circle and a blue circle. The circles were the same size, yet he convinced the audience that they were different sizes – illustrating how easily swayed we can be by others' opinions.
When Bradley was growing up, he believed that being from the Rez meant he was destined to take drugs, get in trouble, and go to prison.
He talked about using his uncle's passing as an excuse to do drugs, when it was actually a way to forget his uncle's positive influence — including the true and good messages Bradley didn't want to believe.
As he told his story, "You could've heard a pin drop," said Rhonda Vahle, the prison's psychological services director.
Bradley also spoke of a turning point he experienced during Victim Impact Week when he was in prison. The inmates heard from a man in a wheelchair who had been paralyzed by a drunk driver, and it turned out that the driver was the person pushing his wheelchair.
Their story of forgiveness — and self-forgiveness — made a powerful impact on Bradley.
"Up until that point, I was the victim," Bradley told the inmates. "Nothing was ever my fault. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Seeing the victim and perpetrator together, he saw himself in both roles. “I was putting myself in a wheelchair. I was crippling myself," he said. "After that I went back to my therapist and said I really needed to come to terms with myself. I wanted to learn more about my spiritual side, so I started doing more work on spirituality and forgiveness."
He finished his talk by borrowing an idea from Minnesota Representative Peggy Flanagan, who had presented at a meeting Bradley had attended. She drew a stick figure and talked about the head, heart, guts, hands, and feet, how they symbolize our issues, values, interests, actions, and foundation.
Following Peggy's lead, he asked the inmates to meditate on the drawing.
The prison staff members couldn't believe it.
"They were really surprised that I got 250 inmates to meditate," Bradley said.
Following his presentation, Bradley took questions from the inmates. One asked what the hardest thing was about getting out of prison. Bradley said it was turning his back on friends and family members, his "homies."
Making a decision every day
Bradley also took time for a tour.
"Seeing my old unit, walking across the yard, just remembering everything, I tucked a lot of stuff away," he said.
He had an emotional reunion with his therapist, who remembered his turning point during Victim Impact Week.
Rhonda Vahle admired how Bradley shared the details of getting through each day in a healthy way by paying attention and making a decision every day to stay clean.
"That’s the stuff that these guys can hang on to," Rhonda said. "Every day you keep moving forward toward that authentic self — the best person you can be."
Rhonda knew how much the inmates appreciated Bradley's talk. "Some of the guys remember a different Brad from the one who presented today," she said. "It meant a lot to them that he would come back and give back. Most of these guys never want to step foot in here again, so it's really special and means a lot."