Learning with the Incarcerated Drives Students to Action

This article by Wendy Jason was originally posted on Change.org on 2/8/11

Since 1990, University of Michigan students have been offered unique, transformative opportunities to learn and create side by side with incarcerated youth and adults. Through coursework that often leads to participation in the university-sponsored Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), undergraduates have collaborated with professors, alumni and community members to facilitate arts-based workshops in 24 prisons, six juvenile facilities and seven under-resourced high schools across the state.

Professor Buzz Alexander, founder of PCAP, had been teaching a class, English 319, about the intersections of theater and social change for six years when two lifers at the Florence Crane Women’s Facility asked to register for the course. He consented, and each week during that semester traveled to the facility with two students to meet with the incarcerated women. During these meetings, students and professor engaged in improvisational theater activities, analyzing the racial, class and power dynamics at play in the situations they confronted. They explored their shared space, including the similarities and striking differences in the contexts of their lives.

Alexander quickly realized the power of this experience. A longtime proponent of supporting students to engage directly with communities in activism, he rejected the elitism of academia and its withdrawal from public discourse. He sought to provide students, faculty, and community members a forum for engaged, collaborative dialogue and action. And his class provided a venue in which all involved could expand their perspectives, challenge mainstream perceptions, and connect across differences.

Within a year, the course was completely dedicated to prison theater, and through English 310, Alexander began offering students the chance to facilitate workshops in creative writing, visual art, dance, music and drama at juvenile facilities and high schools. It didn’t take long for these courses to get the attention of curious students; the 25 seats in each class fill up every semester.

Emily Harris, who now serves on PCAP’s National Advisory Board, took Alexander’s English 310 class back in 2001 during her sophomore year. She was placed at a boys’ detention facility, where she facilitated a mixed-media workshop. The next semester she signed up for another class with Alexander.

“It was a formative experience for me,” Harris reflects. “I had the chance to grapple with my own privilege and look at the world in a new way. It was the first time I had seen the impact of institutionalized racism so explicitly and close to home.”

Jaime Nelson, PCAP’s statewide coordinator, became involved by taking 319. “The way [Alexander] taught and interacted was unique,” she recalls. “We learned what it means to actually bear witness, rather than just studying something. And we learned about what it means to facilitate rather than teach.” Nelson calls her experience in 319, and with PCAP, “the single most informative, influential experience I had [in college]. It politicized me,” she says,  “and taught me the philosophy of how I want to live my life and be in spaces with people.”

In his new book Is William Martinez Not Our Brother: Twenty Years of the Prison Creative Arts Project, Alexander outlines the foundation he provides for his students: “I ask them to respect the youth and adults they will work with … I ask them to respect everyone at the facility … I ask them to believe in the youth and prisoners … [and] I ask them to practice a process of discovery.” He readies his students for the pain they will experience when they get up close and personal with “the economic injustice of their country.”

Many of Alexander’s students, having been so affected by their experiences, join PCAP upon completion of his classes. PCAP allows them to continue on as facilitators, and participate in the organization’s annual exhibition of art by Michigan prisoners. Last year, 236 artists from 36 prisons exhibited 422 works of art. The event, like the culminating performances that result from each workshop, is an integral opportunity for prisoners to share their stories and talents with the outside world.

Though PCAP was formally founded years ago, it is reborn, writes Alexander, “whenever youth, adults, and students step forward together in institutions where there is much pain and little trust, to risk collaboration and creativity. To begin to laugh, imagine and play, and to take ownership of their voices.” This is education that truly inspires, that nurtures the kind of independent, critical thinking that ignites social change.

PCAP members and students become more critically aware of issues relating to incarceration and the criminal justice system as a result of their participation. Many take action through supporting campaigns like this one, demanding that the poor — who fill our prisons in disproportionate numbers — be provided competent legal defenses.

Wendy Jason is a writer for Change.org and a passionate advocate for restorative justice who has worked on behalf of prisoners across the country.

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