January 30, 2011 - 9:51 PM
This term's Inside-Out class, "Institutional Inequalities and Individual Lives" is going amazingly well.
I feel so amazingly lucky to be a part of the class, and to have a leadership role in an Inside-Out classroom. I have so much respect for the students (Inside and Outside) and for the Professor, Ellen Scott. What we have achieved already in the class is a learning community, working beyond the barriers to come together in a way that is all-inspiring for me.
When we met last week, we had missed a class session because of the MLK holiday. But when we arrived in the classroom there was an immediate feeling of comfort and recognition. We settled into the class with another icebreaker, a favorite of mine called "Forced Choice." The room is divided in half, and each round you have to chose which category you are more like. My favorite example is "cats or dogs." This is a question that breaks down all boundaries of age, race, class, religion, etc. and gets down to the basics of humanity: cats or dogs. You should hear the debate on this topic--people get so fired up. And everyone laughed at me for being the only girl in the motorcycle category when the other option was bicycles. When asked why, I first explained that I either want to be walking on my own two feet or getting places fast. But then I admitted to what you already know: that I am still working on a lifelong fear of bikes (for some reason, motorcycles don't bother me).
But then we got down to the book. And the class roared ahead.
The topic of the class boils down to the essential question of sociology: how much is my life course determined by individual choice, and how much by social structure? We've started the discussion with a book called Ain't No Making It, which I recommend to anyone interested in the social sciences. It's an ethnography of a housing project, conducted in interviews three times over thirty years. Jay McLeod started the project as an undergraduate student, interviewing two groups of teenaged friends, one predominantly black group and another white group. These youths had very different aspirations, and very different ideas about how to "make it" in life. By following them into middle age, McLeod created a portrait of society and structure and the intimacies of these men's lives.
As you can imagine, there's a lot there to discuss. People hold really strong opinions about these questions, particularly when tied up with race and class. It can be emotional, and heated. In the context of the prison, these issues became all the more poignant as some of the inside students identified strongly with the youths in the study caught up in bad childhood situations. Some of the outside students had surprising insight as well. We discussed social mobility and aspiration ideology (otherwise known as the American Dream). We talked about how social structures are inherited from previous generations, and how we perpetuate the expectations of us in a variety of ways. We talked about the various ways of "making it" and failing to do so.
This is the high point of my week. It demands creativity of thought and action, and allows for powerful dialogue. As a classroom, we have come together in a very real way to experience the text of the class, and to push ourselves beyond conventional understandings of the topics at hand, and the people with whom we interact. As a student of life, this is a powerful mandate. As a co-facilitator of the experience, it is a challenge and a joy. And as someone passionately involved with Inside-Out it is the ultimate honor to return to the classroom week after week as a student, teacher, leader, learner.
Class tomorrow includes a beginning discussion of Working Poor: Invisible in America. New book, new dialogue. Bring it on.
January 29, 2011 - 4:02 PM
It seems like everyone hits a wall at some point. For college students, it's often called the sophomore slump: that feeling that you've lost your way, that you're not in the right place, and that everything is a bit pointless. As a sophomore undergrad, I hit the slump with a vengeance, and had that feeling of needing to escape and find a new path. So I went to Chile. I spent most of sophomore year selecting, applying, and preparing for my study abroad experience. I read books about working and living abroad, and spent lots of time imagining myself somewhere else. I spent spring term of sophomore year in Valdivia, finding a new way of living and rediscovering my purpose in school.
I am now entering the "sophomore" phase of my Master's program. I'm halfway through the first year of a two year program. The pattern is well-established, I know the program and the professors, and I'm comfortable enough with the whole experience to start feeling the dissatisfaction that sometimes arises with familiarity. I'm feeling a little lost and confused, frustrated, and trapped.
It's the sophomore slump all over again.
I'm not sure exactly where it's coming from. I like the majority of my classes, and am good friends with my cohort members. I like most of the professors, and am happy to still be in Eugene. But there are other things adding up to feeling dissatisfied and confused. I don't love all my classes, I'm less sure of my place in the CRES program, and I'm overwhelmed with schoolwork that sometimes feels below the level I had hoped for.
And, just like sophomore year of undergrad, I'm starting to feel the pull of the rest of the world, the desire to see old friends again, and the itchy feet of a traveler stuck in one place. Sophomore year I made it through by making travel plans. I can hardly wait to figure out my summer internship--I'll be spending at least part of the summer abroad, fulfilling internship credits for CRES. Maybe travel is the answer again.
I also think I'm feeling the tension that exists within the CRES program and the field of Appropriate Dispute Resolution as a whole. ADR exists in both the theoretical and idealistic world and the world of the practical. This means that a single field encompasses the would-be Gandhi figures and those of us who want to mediate at the Small Claims Court. The spectrum of ADR pulls people from many background and many ideologies, which is both a tremendous strength and a very real source of tension.
Added to the complexities of ADR, the CRES program has a similar tension. It is both an academic and a professional program. This means that we have classes both in the theory and psychology of conflict resolution, but also in the nitty-gritty details of practical implementation. This is something I truly value in the program, and is one of the reasons I selected CRES for my Masters study. But as we move deeper into the program, we have shifted from the opportunities to discuss ideology and ethics, and are now focusing on the practicalities of the field. I am feeling a bit trapped in this school setting without discussion or the opportunity to explore our deeply-held beliefs. We are now operating in practical land, and it's uncomfortable for me. It's not a bad thing by any means, but it is without the kind of depth I am used to in school.
Anyway, it's that time of things. Already time to be looking toward the future and start wondering what everything is leading to. Time to plan as well as time to do homework. And the weather's not cooperating, either--alternating between cold rain and the beautiful winter sun so uncommon here in the Northwest. Seems like I need a vacation, an adventure.
Thanks for reading my bellyaching. Here's to a weekend, and a sense of renewed purpose on Monday!
January 24, 2011 - 1:00 AM
On Saturday, in Graterford Prison outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I held the commutation papers for Tyron Werts in my hands, and saw in his eyes the knowledge of freedom after thirty-seven years of imprisonment.
I work in prisons regularly, and have made this a part of my life since freshman year at the University of Oregon, with my first Inside-Out class. I do not do advocacy work, and do not believe that every person I have met inside should be released tomorrow. This is a tension I hold within myself constantly: my deep connection and empathy with people who are incarcerated, and the nature of my work, which is education and not activism.
All that to preface this profound celebration: Tyrone will go free.
Tyrone was a founding member of the Think Tank for the national Inside-Out Program. He was the president of the Lifers Association for years, and has worked in a myriad of ways to advocate for a cultural shift within the prisons to move away from violence and towards education and dialogue. He was a compassionate and mentoring presence in my instructor training sessions at Greaterford, and is someone I have thought of often in the past year and a half since then.
I am far from the only one who sees tremendous strength and inspiration in Tyrone. Here's a newspaper article from the Philadelphia Weekly a couple years ago, which lays out his history in brief and explains what he's done on the inside: http://www.philadelphiaweekly.com/news-and-opinion/Larger-Than-Life.html
Another example of Tyrone's influence is his presence in the book Doing Life, by Howard Zehr (Tyrone is pictured on the cover, on the bottom right-hand side) Howard Zehr is a professor of Restorative Justice at one of the most influential schools of Conflict Resolution in the country: Eastern Mennonite University.
When I met Tyrone a year and a half ago, he was a quiet man with a tremendous force and presence. But he was also somewhat worn down, somewhat resigned to the life sentence he bore every day, and the reality of his future inside the walls of Graterford and his eventual death there. Life without parole is not an easy sentence to integrate into a psychologically whole person. Somehow he managed, and created a life for himself that integrated his leadership and creative capacity in a way that transformed hundreds of lives.
But now, with commutation in hand, he is a new man. The power and hope in him were palpable at our meeting. It was almost overwhelming: his renewed determination to work for powerful positive change in the world. He will be continuing his work with Inside-Out in a new capacity on the outside. He told us that he feels it is his "sacred duty" to go to work upon his release, rather than going on vacation. He's ready to use his freedom to make the largest mark he can.
It is a wonderful but strange thing to know he will soon move from Graterford to halfway house, and then to community member. It makes me ache for the other members of the Think Tank in Graterford, who are living under their own sentences, some with no hope for release. I am also, of course, reminded again of the powerful connections with people here in Oregon, living under life sentences or long sentences. Flying back, seeing the cities of America pass beneath the wings of my plane, I considered my freedom and what this means to me now that I have seen its opposite. I thought of the men I know in Pennsylvania and here in Oregon who entered the correctional system as boys and will leave it old men. It breaks my heart again and again, and leads to such deep confusion as to who we are as a country and what our path should be. I'm not sure what the answer is. But I feel so much pain, and then so much hope when I see someone like Tyrone preparing to reenter the world after all these years.
His commutation is announced here: http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/governor-rendell-announces-commutations-112679939.html. It is a document, a series of words, a single piece of paper and an official decision by a few men of power. But it is also new life. New life and a new chance. I can't imagine how the world changed before Tyrone's eyes when he received the news. But I do know that I have been profoundly changed, again. That seeing the hope when Tyrone showed us this document means the world to me. It is hope, it is a renewal. Freedom.
January 23, 2011 - 7:51 PM
I am writing from the airport in Salt Lake City, halfway back to a normal life. I'm returning from a long weekend in Philadelphia, spent with the leaders of the Inside-Out Program, working through strategic planning and program initiatives in their yearly Steering Committee meeting.
First of all, I was thrilled to be there. The Honors College paid for my trip, as part of my work for their social justice initiatives and as a representative of the alumni at the University of Oregon. Then, once I arrived, I found myself being treated as a colleague by the fifteen professors and staff members able to attend the Inside-Out meeting. Some of these people have been working for social change through academics and activism since the Civil Rights Movement. Others have been working tirelessly in the past few years to create this vibrant program that has made such an incredible difference in my life. My overwhelming sense of this weekend is one of gratitude and excitement: I feel so humbled by their welcome and their confidence in me, and so inspired by everything I learned.
This weekend was meeting after meeting after meeting. We discussed program mission and vision, worked through new funding models, and discussed the implementation of new projects. I signed on to be a member of several new subcommittees, including for Publication (looking at starting an academic and student journal), and the idea of expanding Inside-Out workshops into new venues and with new intentionality (like we did with Sister Helen Prejean). The great objective achievement of the weekend for me was approval to move forward on alumni projects with a great degree of autonomy: the ability to create and market a blog for past students of Inside-Out classes, and to work on replicating the Book Club model in other places in Oregon and more regions around the country.
Again, I am amazed by this organization, and by the work that's being done. I can't wait to work further.
The best part of the weekend was the portion spent with the Think Tank at Graterford Prison. The Think Tank consists of approximately fifteen men incarcerated at Graterford, as well as Philadelphia-based instructors and alumni of Inside-Out. The Think Tank informs the direction of the national program, as well as running two days of the week-long instructor training.
We had incredible conversations at Graterford, everything from new training models to the projects being developed in Graterford and elsewhere. There is a powerful dynamic in the Think Tank: a sense of true collaboration and mutual respect. I seldom feel so alive or so empowered as when I am working with a combined group of inside and outside individuals.
The men at the Think Tank had a profound impact on me when I first met them during the instructor training in 2009. I left Graterford after the training imagining that I would never see those men again--I had no plans to return to Pennsylvania and no way of knowing if I would get the chance. So I left those individuals forever, and then yesterday returned to spend the entire day working with them again.
The last moments of the Think Tank meeting were emblematic of the whole meeting experience for me. We closed our meeting by going around the circle and each saying a single word about how we were feeling. Mine was "inspiration." Many others were "challenged, excitement, curiosity, and enthusiasm." But the final word was from Tyrone. I'll be writing a blog just about him. But he was a founding member of the Think Tank and a huge inspiration in my life. After serving thirty-seven years of a life sentence, he is days away from being released after his sentence was commuted by the governor. As we sat in the circle, you could feel the energy radiating out of him, and the hope and power we all felt from him.
His final word, the last word of the meeting, was everything. It was "Freedom."
January 16, 2011 - 11:25 AM
This upcoming Thursday-Sunday I will be traveling to Philadelphia to participate in the National Steering Committee meeting for the Inside-Out Program. We will be discussing the major program development plans for the upcoming year, and working on a number of initiatives to establish around the country. I am thrilled to be able to participate and even more excited that I will be going as an official Inside-Out alumni and representative of the University of Oregon and the Clark Honors College. After a year and a half of working with many of these Inside-Out staff and instructors from across the country, I will finally have an opportunity to meet many of them in person for the first time.
Inside-Out has a truly unique leadership model. At the individual universities that host Inside-Out across the country, the instructors are expected to take the lead in establishing the program and ensuring program quality and sustainability. The National Headquarters for the program, located at Temple University, provide the training for new instructors, establish program regulations and develop new projects, and provide logistical support. The Graterford Think Tank serves to direct the program's direction and to serve as advisers from their unique perspective as incarcerated members of the program. The men on the Think Tank also run a large piece of the training, and contribute to the decisions of rules and policies for the program.
The Steering Committee is in place to provide the leadership for a geographically diverse program, to implement new ideas and expand the program's offerings. Many members of the Steering Committee are also members of the Research Committee. Most members are instructors, but some are also community members.
Inside-Out alumni activities are just beginning to expand throughout the country. We are at such an exciting moment, with projects like the Serbu Book Club in Eugene, and a developing Re-Entry program in Philadelphia. I've been working with staff and alumni at the National Headquarters to support alumni initiatives and encourage new groups, as well as to establish alumni parameters and guidelines. We've worked really hard to maintain all Inside-Out Program goals and rules in the new context of student leadership and stand-alone programs inspired by Inside-Out classes.
Now we have a chance to receive official approval for the documents we've generated and projects we've established.
In addition to the work on alumni-related projects, I will be participating in the full Steering Committee meeting. I am anticipating a fantastically busy weekend, full of meetings, breakout groups, sub committees, and time spent at Graterford Prison to coordinate our efforts with the men on the Think Tank. Again, after a year and a half of conference calls with these individuals, I am thrilled to be heading to Philadelphia to get things done in person.
People will be attending from across the country. In addition to other Oregon instructors and individuals, there will be instructors from Amherst, Georgetown, Emory, Xavier, Occidental, and American Baptist College. People are coming from the Midwest, the South, and a variety of locations in the Northeast.
I've never attended a meeting of this scope. I've certainly never commuted across the country to do so. I am so incredibly excited to meet these people, to get work done, and to have this powerful group of people working with me to further this program that has made such a difference in my life.
Wish me luck this weekend! I'll be reporting back next week.