July 18, 2010 - 3:51 PM
(Please see previous blogs about the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program if you're new to the blog)
Participants in Inside-Out classes have, for years, consistently reported two reactions from their experiences: that they have been profoundly changed, and they don't want the class to end.
Inside-Out rules prohibit ongoing personal contact between inside and outside students. This means that the outside members cannot visit, call, or write the incarcerated students from the class. Ever. However, the Inside-Out Program has held several leadership groups over the years in which, for programmatic reasons, inside and outside individuals meet on an ongoing basis for a continuing period of time.
Turned Inside-Out magazine is another example of "programmatic contact" being acceptable within the program vision.
Nationally, Inside-Out is expanding to include a host of new instructors, classes, universities, and correctional institutions. Within this larger field of expansion, Oregon is a hotbed of Inside-Out activity, statewide and at the UO. We have some of the most active instructors nationwide, including a sociology professor, Michelle, from OSU who has taught the second-most Inside-Out classes nationwide. At the UO, the Honors College is providing institutional and administrative support, which has led to my internship, a steadily increasing base of professors who are involved in and supporting Inside-Out, and a vision of continued involvement in a program that invites students to step outside their normal experiences and peer groups for true dialogue and partnership in learning.
In light of all of this, I am delighted to announce that the Inside-Out alumni at the University of Oregon are launching an exciting new project: a book club/book study held at Serbu Youth Corrections Facility.
This summer's group is a pilot project, bringing together myself and three other outside students with eight youth offenders enrolled in the Phoenix Program: an incarceration and therapy program designed for offenders to help them reintegrate into society. They youth are ages 14-17, and all have the equivalent of felony convictions.
We held our first full meeting on Friday. We gathered in a classroom in the larger "pod" of the Phoenix facility. Staff members, who had pre-approved the program, could see us through the windows, and the youth who had chosen not to participate were visible moving around the pod and in their rooms. One staff member sat with us in the room.
We spent most of our two-hour meeting on Friday getting to know each other. We used ice breaker activities to allow every person the chance to talk with the others. We shared funny stories or facts about ourselves. We answered questions like "what animal would you most like to be?" "where is your favorite place in the world?" and "If you could return to any moment in your life, either to change it or simply to live it again, what would you choose?" The youth were wonderful. Funny and sweet, and generous with their stories and their willingness to listen.
Then we worked together to write up some rules for dialogue, such as respectful listening and strategies for reminding each other to take turns talking. We had a conversation about the difference between discussing and arguing, and stated that we would invite discussion of the reading material: that we would definitely disagree sometimes. That this disagreement was a goal, not a problem.
Then we introduced the material. As a group, the UO leaders had decided that graphic novels (long comic books) would be a good way of ensuring interest in the subjects, equalizing the playing field, and allowing us to read some new material. None of us had much experience with graphic novels. So we asked for advice in selecting age-appropriate material. We asked friends, and I went to the public library. We selected three options and went to Serbu on Tuesday, presented our idea, and asked the youth to pick which novel we would be reading. They selected Y: The Last Man, by Brian K. Vohn, which is a story of a post-apocalyptic world in which all the men and male mammals in the world have died, leaving the women and a single man and his monkey. It deals with questions of gender, leadership, power, and creativity. It is also beautifully illustrated, and the writing is extremely good.
Next week we wills start discussing the novel. But we left this week with a knowledge of each other, with a basic conversation already begun about who we are and what we're interested in.
We, as outsiders, are not going in as mentors or teachers. We are not going in order to help or change the youth, at least not as a primary focus. We're going to talk about interesting ideas and to hold dialogue with the youth. We hope this will create an ongoing interest in education, literature, and the topics we study together. But we are going in to benefit as well: to learn about literature and ideas from the kids, to participate in dialogue, and to put to use the things we've learned.
I'll keep you posted as this project progresses. We'll be meeting every Friday for five weeks. Then, if all goes well, we will be reconvening in September, with a larger group of alumni participants.
This is something to be excited about. As a participant, as a leader, and as part of the national program, I am extremely excited by what we are creating. The whole Inside-Out community is watching.
I can't wait to see what happens.