Beyond the Bars Fellowship Alumni Highlight: Kristi and Melissa

September 19, 2022

Read the story of how two of our Beyond the Bars fellows from the 2016-2017 cohort have remained close friends since first meeting during the fellowship

Kristi DiLallo and Melissa Tanis both grew up with a parent incarcerated. When they met during the Beyond the Bars Fellowship as a part of the 2016–2017 cohort, this shared experience started a friendship that would grow throughout the fellowship and after. Although they now live on opposite coasts, they have stayed connected and a recent reunion at Kristi's wedding in August allowed them to reflect on the evolution of their friendship and their time in Beyond the Bars.  

1. How did you all become friends?

Kristi: Melissa stood out to me right away on the first day of the Beyond the Bars fellowship. During the opening ice breaker, some folks shared their relationship to the criminal justice system, and she and I both talked about having a parent in prison starting from the age of five. I was really struck by her story and wanted to connect with her since I hadn’t really met anyone “like me” before. It turned out we had a lot in common, including the little things like loving terrible early 2000s television/pop music, and bigger things like having moved around to multiple states throughout our childhoods.

Melissa: Our love for classic early 2000s pop culture was definitely a bonding moment. People who love and regularly watch all High School Musical movies have to stick together. 

I remember we all went around the circle at the first fellowship meeting and shared what brought us to the fellowship, and I was sort of listening up to see if anyone had the same experience as me. I have found that whenever I meet another child of an incarcerated parent, there is usually an instant connection because there’s a relief that someone else understands your experience without you having to say a word. It is sadly a common experience as millions of kids in the US have a parent currently incarcerated, but it's also one that feels very isolating because many people don’t disclose their experience for fear of being shamed. So when we find each other, it’s special. 

2. How did the fellowship foster your friendship?

Kristi: During the fellowship, we bonded a lot throughout the meetings we had with everyone, as well as other big events like a retreat. We always had similar feelings about things that were discussed in our meetings or about activities we did with the larger group. We connected about things we’d both experienced within the system, things we’d seen our parents go through, and more. I know it sounds cringey, but Melissa helped me feel “seen” for the first time in my life. It was (and is) a friendship I’d never experienced before. 

Melissa: I think when you’re in a space where it’s so normalized to talk about these experiences, it helps so much because you don’t feel awkward bringing it up. In conversations I have with friends who don’t know about this part of my life, it can always feel scary because you never know how they are going to respond. So just the fact that the fellowship automatically creates space for that since that’s why most of us are even there, it allows for deeper friendships to be made. 

3. How have you stayed connected since?

Kristi: Although I moved to California after I left Columbia, Melissa and I are still best friends! We have been going strong for more than five years, and we’ve been lucky enough to visit each other in person and keep in touch through FaceTime and social media. I just got married earlier this month, and she flew out to be part of my wedding! I didn’t have a traditional wedding party, but she was my “unofficial” maid of honor and helped me through so much during my wedding week. She even went wine tasting with my whole family and my now-husband’s family! 

Melissa: The wedding was so much fun and they are a couple I am always happy to support! What I love about my friendship with Kristi is that we can always pick up where we left off and I can always randomly text her about things on my mind and vice versa and it doesn’t feel weird. I can also tell her things I probably wouldn’t tell anyone else, partially because they just don’t know what it’s like to have a parent incarcerated, and not only does she understand them, she usually has thought or felt the same at some point. We match each other’s energy and this has kept us connected since the fellowship. I miss not being in the same state together. But I knew when they moved that we would still be close because again, when you bond with someone over this terrible experience of having a parent arrested, incarcerated, and tortured behind bars, it’s not something you want to give up. 

4. What has the friendship meant to you?

Kristi: I could write an entire book about this, but I’ll try my best to keep it short. My friendship with Melissa is one of the most special relationships I’ve ever had. She supported me during the later years of my parent’s incarceration, and was by my side when my parent was released through medical parole. She is the only person I’ve ever met (besides my brother) who actually “gets” what I’ve been through and understands how I feel. I never have to perform with her the way I have had to in other friendships—I can be 100% my authentic self, no matter how messy or overwhelming I may be at a particular moment. I am so thankful that Beyond the Bars brought us together!

Melissa: I could also write a book, but Kristi’s would probably be better because she’s an incredible writer! During the fellowship, about a month or two in, my dad passed away in prison. I honestly am so grateful that I did the fellowship when I did because I had a natural support system in place for when it happened. A couple years later, after Kristi had moved to California, I went to visit her on the weekend of the anniversary of my dad’s death and it was just so amazing that we had connected enough that not only did I feel safe being with her during that time, it felt like the right way to spend it. Kristi is great at embracing and normalizing talking about grief and keeping the memory of our lost loved ones alive, so I knew I could trust her to sit in my grief with me and also help me honor and remember my dad. It is very rare to find friends who can do that. 

5. What words of encouragement would you give to future fellows?

Kristi: I would say try to put yourself out there—share your story and don’t be afraid of judgment. I was a really shy person before I went to Columbia, and several experiences in grad school, especially BTB, helped me break out of my shell. Although it was scary, doing so helped me find my best friend Melissa! :)

Melissa: Agree. Especially if you are joining the fellowship as a community member who this may be your first contact with Columbia (it was for me when I did the fellowship!). It can feel intimidating maybe at first, but the fellowship is there to foster these kinds of relationships and to connect the work being done. I still stay in touch with others from our cohort and see them at rallies or events around NYC. Lean into the relational aspect of the fellowship and make the effort to connect with the other fellows outside of the fellowship too. I think this was really where Kristi and I’s relationship was able to grow, when we met up outside of the fellowship meeting times.

Kristi now works at the University of California San Diego as a diversity, equity, and inclusion writer and editor and Melissa is still with us at the Center for Justice as our Policy and Communications Manager as well as a consultant with the RAPP Campaign.   

Learn more about the Beyond the Bars Fellowship