Finding Hope in Earth and Sun
On Sequarier McCoy’s vision board, where she pins her dreams as well as visual depictions of who she is and wants to become, there’s a picture of open hands holding soil.
“That goes back to my ancestry,” Sequarier explains proudly. Her great-great-great grandmother was an immigrant who saved up enough money to run away from discrimination she and her mixed-race children faced in Europe and buy some land in Oklahoma. The land is still in the family to this day. Sequarier’s great-great grandmother picked cotton on that land, and so did her great-grandmother. Her grandmother moved west to California and bought some land of her own, where she raised fruit but also cotton, of course, which Sequarier helped her grandfather pick when she was a child.
“I am a nurturer,” Sequarier says. “I like to cultivate and bring things to life.”
It’s hardly surprising, then, that Sequarier’s connection to the land led to her work harvesting the sun. She recently completed a four-month solar installation internship with GRID Alternatives, a non-profit that provides both solar power and solar jobs to low-income communities.
The road to her work in solar energy wasn’t linear, though, even in spite of her strong sense of self. A difficult childhood, domestic violence and drugs led to several stops in prison along the way.
Sequarier was raised by a mother who was a devout Jehovah’s Witness and a father who struggled with alcoholism. This juxtaposition often produced mixed messages, and Sequarier learned that everything was okay as long as the family wasn’t behind on its bills. Talking about emotions or things that happened at home was frowned upon. She stuffed her feelings down deep inside and started drinking as a teenager to numb her pain. Drinking progressed to marijuana, which then led to ecstasy, codeine syrup and cocaine. But it wasn’t until she tried meth that she became addicted. From there, her life spiraled, leading to several short stints in prison. She spent a year at a mother-infant program trying to get sober. “I was trying to pull myself together so bad,” Sequarier says. “I had a little will-power but not enough.”
Watching her father struggle with alcohol and eventually gain his sobriety and change his lifestyle —including not talking to certain people or going to certain places and regularly attending AA meetings — gave Sequarier a model for how to get clean. She had the tools for sobriety at her disposal, but she didn’t yet know how to use them. Two weeks after leaving rehabilitation, she was back behind bars: she caught an 11-year arson sentence in 2008, of which she served nine years.
During the first two years of her sentence, Sequarier was depressed, and the anti-depressants she was given made her feel like a zombie. Finally, having had enough, she told the mental health specialist at the prison that she wanted to go off the medication. Life began to turn around. She began to lose weight she’d gained from the medicine. She asked for a transfer from Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) to California Institution for Women (CIW), which has more green space. She was reminded of her connection to nature.
As she tells it, “I started being stimulated by the trees and flowers and the environment. And I decided I wanted more for my life.”
Sequarier started taking classes through Chaffey College. She joined Toastmasters and a host of other clubs at the prison. “Things kept getting better and better.”
What happened next turned out to be a blessing in disguise: Sequarier failed her algebra class. As she tried to determine what to do next, she spotted a sign advertising yearlong training and a guaranteed job as a drug and alcohol counselor. The job paid $0.90 an hour, a fortune in prison wage terms.
The entire prison buzzed with excitement about the job — until the women found out that the training would take place at Valley State Prison, a now-defunct facility with a terrible reputation as a violent lockdown facility. If Sequarier got into the counseling program, she would have to spend a year there.
Interest in the program dwindled, but Sequarier was determined. Out of five applicants, she was the only woman from CIW to make it through. “I wanted to do it for me,” she says. “I thought, ‘I can better myself, and I can help somebody else. I can have a career in this after prison.’”
Despite some second thoughts, she transferred to VSP. The only passenger on the four-and-a-half-hour bus ride, she was given the nickname “Lone Ranger.”
At VSP, Sequarier joined a substance abuse program — “We actually had to be in SAP ourselves; you had to be a student in order to teach. I had to learn about myself in order to help others,” she says — and she learned about concepts like group dynamics, body language and personal development. The program was tough, with a strict code of conduct. Only two-thirds of participants made it through the year, but Sequarier prevailed. “I was reborn,” she says.
Sequarier returned to CIW after the year was up and worked as a counselor until she was released in the fall of 2017 and came to A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project. This spring, she was first introduced to GRID Alternatives. GRID installed solar panels on the roof of one of ANWOL’s homes and allowed any interested residents to help out on the job. Sequarier quickly offered to get involved.
“It felt good being able to help A New Way of Life, since they help me,” Sequarier says. “I felt accepted: the people of GRID Alternatives opened their arms to me in full camaraderie. There’s no judgment; they don’t care that I’ve been to prison. The ANWOL installation was all women, and it was very positive, lots of girl power. I wanted to have more of those kinds of interactions.”
So following the build, she began a four-month paid internship to learn to become a solar panel installer.
“I’m having a ball up there,” she says. “I enjoy that I’m the only woman on the roof. I love it. I’ve been told, ‘You kick butt, McCoy.’”
Since her internship ended, Sequarier is looking for employment, with guidance from A New Way of Life’s employment and social enterprise associate, and is leaving her options open. She wants to learn about the potential that lies within solar thermal energy (solar power that can heat and cool houses), and she’s thinking of taking solar classes to broaden her knowledge. However, she still strongly connects with her work in substance abuse counseling/mentoring.
Sequarier has also turned advocate for other incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, working in and alongside members of her community to effect change. She is fully engrossed in Women Organizing for Justice and Opportunity, a leadership development training program run by A New Way of Life, and she is a member of All of Us or None, a community-based organization that brings together formerly incarcerated people to bring about change in the community.
“My Achilles’ heel has been limiting myself and foreseeing my own future. I’m not going to do that anymore,” she says. “I’m hoping that life will lead me somewhere better than I’ve been before.”
It’s clear that, with the determination passed down to her by her foremothers, Sequarier will go far, whatever she chooses to do.