LaWanda Hollister, Storyteller

“The one most important thing in life is to be honest with yourself,” says entrepreneur, mother and formerly incarcerated Michigander Lawanda Hollister. “Tell yourself the truth and you can avoid a lot of issues and problems later in life. You tell yourself the truth, and once you’ve done that, then at least you know the truth.”

It’s advice Lawanda had to learn the hard way, but the advice shapes her life. From owning up to a tragic and heartbreaking act that landed her in prison for 33 years to setting aside special “date-me days” to keep herself centered and grounded, Lawanda says her policy of being honest with herself helped her through challenges most people will never know and is now helping her make the most of a second chance she wasn’t sure she’d ever get.

Lawanda was born in Chicago but grew up in Flint. She said her family didn’t have much financially, but they tried to set her on a good path in life. Lawanda was sent to a private school, but she was expelled from it on trumped up accusations when she was 13. She had offered to sell some of her trendy used clothes to a classmate, but her classmate stole money from her parents to buy them. Instead of the girl who bought the clothes getting in trouble, the blame fell on Lawanda for conducting the transaction on school grounds.

She floundered in public school. Lawanda began skipping classes and she failed a grade. Worse, a boy she’d had her eye on since she was a young child raped her. Though the attack devastated her, she still craved his attention. The losses began to pile up. Unsure of how else to pull her daughter out of her downward spiral, Lawanda’s mother sent her to Chicago to live with her grandmother.

There, she discovered “the projects” — housing developments that represented freedom from parental oversight.

“I thought it was the coolest thing ever. It was freedom, and everyone was doing what they wanted to do, and I just thought this is so cool. This is a community,” Lawanda recalled.

Eventually the allure of the projects won out and Lawanda ran away from her grandmother’s home. The misadventure didn’t last long — in no time, she had been robbed of all her money and had to go back to her grandmother’s home. Her grandmother took one look at her and proclaimed, “You’re pregnant.” A visit to the doctor confirmed it.

Lawanda was sent back to Flint to give birth to her son. She reconnected with the boy she liked — the one who had assaulted her — and they resumed their relationship. But then she learned he had impregnated another young woman. The thought of it was too much for Lawanda.

In retrospect, Lawanda says she merely wanted to approach the other young woman and convince her to bow out of the picture so that Lawanda and her boyfriend could stay together. Unfortunately, the conversation didn’t go as planned. The other woman said some hurtful things — like Lawanda’s boyfriend had been telling people that he wasn’t in a real relationship with Lawanda at all.

Before Lawanda knew what was happening, the other woman lay bleeding on the floor. Lawanda had stabbed her. It was a sickening, nightmarish moment. Lawanda tried desperately to stop the bleeding and handed her a phone to call for help, but when she heard the woman screaming for help, she panicked and ran away.

Police initially suspected her boyfriend of the killing, but her boyfriend suspected Lawanda and asked police to investigate her as well. Lawanda rightfully told the police that she had spent the night at a friend’s house. When questioned, however, the friend said Lawanda showed up around 2 a.m. saying that she had just killed someone.

It was at that moment that Lawanda decided she had to be absolutely honest about everything — not despite the fact that it would bring consequences for her actions, but because it would.

“I can’t look at what happened as a mistake,” Lawanda said. “It’s something I had to pay for. I just felt that being honest was holding myself accountable.”

Still, hearing the judge proclaim a sentence of up to 60 years was devastating. Though Michigan law didn’t recognize the death of an unborn child during an act of violence as a separate crime in 1987, the judge told Lawanda he was going to sentence her as though it was.

Lawanda never disputed the fact that she needed to be held accountable for what she did. But she also never lost hope that one day, she would be going home again. “I didn’t think I should have gotten off scott free,” she said. “But I feel like I really wanted a second chance. I never believed I would die in prison.”

She prepared for the day she would one day be free by learning all she could about re-entry and by remaining radically honest with herself. But in order to do that, she had to really know herself. That’s why she began her “date-me days” in prison — time she carved out to be alone and recharge.

“The purpose of those days is to stay in touch with myself and to keep myself grounded and focused,” Lawanda said. “It’s to stay in touch with me. I’m always running and going and doing with or for other people. I might get lost if I don’t take time for me.”

Inside prison, these date-me days could be as simple as playing cards by herself, taking a walk in the yard, giving herself a pedicure or just making space for some “me time.”

Once she was released from prison in 2020, she quickly learned that these “date-me days” were at least as important on the outside as they had been inside prison walls.

“When I first came home, I was in Ypsilanti not knowing anybody and it was very lonely and hard for me. I didn’t have any friends,” she said. “What really hit for me was when it came time for me to cook. I was always cooking just for me. That was real stressful and caused a lot of anxiety.”

So she returned to what she remembered — taking time for herself. Each Saturday, she set aside time for herself to do something special, whether it was trying out a new restaurant or cooking for other people in her apartment complex. Those valuable moments for herself helped her find her footing and re-establish herself after prison.

It led to something else, too. She realized that people appreciated her cooking, so she began to develop her skills into Chow Hall, a food truck business she now owns. Just a year old, she has already brought her food truck to events around Michigan, including some sponsored by Safe & Just Michigan.

Some things she has done since coming home are even harder than starting a business. Lawanda sought out the daughter of the woman she killed to offer a heartfelt apology. The two have since had several phone and text conversations.

“She tells me ‘You have to let that go. If God felt that it was time for you to get out, than who am I to feel any different?’ But I can’t,” Lawanda said. “I’m not able to forgive myself, and I never will. A lot of lives were ruined behind that one decision I made, and I’m just not happy with that. I can’t undo it. I’ve prayed and I’ve imagined and I’ve done all that it doesn’t change the fact and all I can do is move on. I’m grateful to have a second chance — I am — and I just move on from here.”

Which brings her back to the importance of being honest with yourself.

“I’ve always been saying this, but you’ve got to be honest with yourself. If you can tell yourself the truth, then you can bypass a lot of things. Like with me catching committing this particular crime. If had been honest with myself, I had no business being at that girl’s house. Tell yourself the truth.”

Listen to LaWanda tell her story here: