JAC recently spoke with Gabriel Ross, our newest addition to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. Gabriel (MA Catechetics and Liturgy, University of St. Thomas) is the founding director of Creative Spirit, a non-profit organization dedicated to exploring spirituality through the arts. Gabriel has facilitated adult education courses and intergenerational programming for over 25 years. She leads women’s spirituality groups and teaches courses on comparative religions, eco-spirituality, creativity and spirituality. Gabriel designed and leads the Soul Journal programs for incarcerated women and Befriending Creation camp for girls. Her unique program offerings include drum and ritual groups and Mystics at the River.
The goal of the Soul Journal program is for the women to leave prison stronger than when they arrived. Prison Mother’s Soul Journal invites the participants to a deeper level of self-understanding, leading to more positive ways to communicate with and parent their children. Creating the journal gives incarcerated women a unique and creative way to see their lives as a process of change and transformation, which is vital to the rehabilitation process. The process itself has transformative power that is extended when journals and new knowledge are shared, helping to heal wounded relationships with children, other family members, and the broader community. The mothers in this program learn positive parenting techniques and new ways to share their values and hopes with their children. Prison leaders see the positive results of creating new circles of support within the prison.
Gabriel is generously sharing the Soul Journal Curriculum for Mothers in Prison with the JAC network as a resource to use once it is safe to go back into prisons. It can be accessed here and under Practitioner Handbooks/Curricula in the JAC Resources tab.
JAC: How did you become involved in this work? What was your path to where you are today?
GR: I founded a small non-profit called Creative Spirit that is dedicated to the imaginative expression of spirituality through the arts. Part of my work was teaching Soul Journal Classes to women in the general public and one of our board members thought it might be a good fit for women in prison. Our board member had a friend who worked at the local women’s prison and she set up the connection to begin the Soul Journal programming.
JAC: In considering the work of your own organization, what is unique about the programming you have been creating?
GR: Our Women in Prison Soul Journal Programs use the power of narrative art to explore new paths to heal, become stronger, and find hope for the future. The work is unique because the curriculum has been written specifically for incarcerated women with input from the women.
Since the first Soul Journal class at the prison in January of 2012 we have developed four different courses based on the needs of the women and prison staff requests:
- Mother’s program
- Program for women with long-term sentences
- CIP (boot camp) program
- Native American program
JAC: How have your students impacted your teaching practices and even your own art?
GR: Teaching in prison has absolutely impacted my teaching practices. Most of my students have never been given the opportunity to sit quietly and reflect on their lives and their values. Having the opportunity to explore these ideas and express them with art, poetry and writing is new for the women and can be challenging. I need to provide engaging exercises, thought provoking material and a variety of strong images to enable their self-expression. It is also about being able to facilitate discussion about their work, finding safe ways for them to share their journals. And of course teaching in prison means finding alternative ways to be creative with the limited art supplies that can be brought into the building.
JAC: What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists?
Seeing what visual journaling can open for them, and the positive effects the program can have for the women. For the Mother’s program, seeing the women find a new creative way to connect with their child/ren. For the Native American program, seeing the women discover Native teaching and values and being proud of their tribal heritage. For the CIP (boot camp program) seeing the women experience confidence and self-worth as they approach graduation. I always leave the prison feeling like I made a difference in their lives and they express their gratitude. Here are some comments from participants:
From the Native American program:
“Soul Journal helped me reflect on what being a Native American woman means and what it means to me and it also inspired me to want to get more involved in ceremony and be more traditional when it comes to raising my children.”
“This class reminded me not to be ashamed/embarrassed of who I am. It helped me remember how much I love who I am and how beautiful my/our culture is. I cannot wait to start going to ceremonies again and help educate the youth about who they are.”
From the Mother’s program:
“I have learned all the ways to express my love and expectations and dreams to my children. I loved that this group made me know and feel better to express my dreams and also share and be open to the wrongs I’ve done so my children don’t do or follow my negative ways. This class helped me to have strength to change and become a positive mother.”
“This was awesome. I was skeptical – once in the class I was surprised at how much I was able to open up about as well as see even on the inside. I’m still able to be a positive influence with my children and hear what a good parent I actually have been and will continue to be. Thank you for this opportunity to do this – it was tremendous.”
From the CIP (boot camp) program:
“Soul Journal has given me a sense of power I didn’t even know that I had. It is the greatest gift I have been given. I’ve been able to find a lot of inner peace and reflect on how I feel.”
“Soul Journal helped me reflect on my life in a less negative way. I was able to begin the process of letting go of resentments.”
“Soul Journal got me looking at what I want in a relationship and about some things I need to deal with from my past to heal. I would only suggest that as many squads as possible get this opportunity – it IS an amazing journey.”
JAC: As you know, JAC is focused on ways in which art can connect those in the prison system with those on the outside. How has this relationship been jeopardized by COVID-19? How have you been keeping connections active during this time?
GR: I have not been allowed into the prison here since the middle of March 2020.
There are no opportunities for on-line or correspondence courses. About a month ago a group of formerly incarcerated Native American women (I had in classes at the prison) contacted me and asked me to do a reentry Soul Journal program with them. We have started to meet and hope to continue to gather. Not being able to go into the prison has been disheartening for me and the prison program director said that the women really miss the Soul Journal programs. There is no certainty about when the women’s prison will open to program personnel.
JAC: The Justice Arts Coalition, as it grows, will continue to seek out and implement a vision of how to better support teaching artists. In your view, what does a supportive network need to include?
A supportive network includes a place to present, discuss and get ideas for this very important work with incarcerated people. The network might also include the opportunity to connect with other local artists looking toward the possibility of collaboration.