Judge Bettina Borders, of Bristol County Juvenile Court, was named 2012 SouthCoast Woman of the Year. She made “contributions to the community as a justice and activist,” according to the New Bedford (MA) Standard-Times. Her work includes making use of alternative sentencing programs such as Changing Lives Through Literature.
Read reporter Natalie Sherman’s full article about this amazing Woman of the Year.
Is someone in your community changing lives for the better? Tell us about that person.
To submit brief comments, use the comments link at the top of this post. To submit longer comments, or to include images, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We look forward to hearing about the remarkable, and perhaps under-recognized, people in your communities.
–Nancy E. Oliveira, Editor
By: Vicky Coffin
I love walking into libraries and book stores—I am like a kid in a candy shop. I just know that if I explore enough, I will find at least one book miraculously placed on the shelf just for me. It could be a novel about vampires or witches; it could be a pop-up picture book that I can share with my kids; it could be a manual on home repair full of instructions my husband and I need to fix the leaking kitchen faucet. In every scenario, there is one common theme: the freedom to choose. I can make the choice to escape my reality for a while, spend quality time with my family and friends, or educate and empower myself, all with just a book.
I did not always feel this way; when I was younger, reading felt like a chore. I equated reading with homework and drudgery. It seemed like a waste of time to read about events that happened in the distant past when I should be out in the real world living my life. I could not relate to many of the characters in books that are now considered classics; Tom Sawyer, Hamlet, and Madame Bovary were all so foreign to me. Not only did I not understand why the characters behaved the way they did, but I didn’t really care, either.
When I read Wuthering Heights for the first time, something changed. I hated Heathcliff and Cathy—they were both cruel, tortured souls. So, why did I care what happened to them? When I truly opened my mind and heart to the author’s words, I realized that these flawed characters were capable of sharing a perfect, deep love. It was not the fairy tale kind of love with happy endings and noble sacrifices—it was messy and passionate and all the more real to me for its honesty. And that is what hooked me—that I could get lost for a while in these other realities—that I could step back from my own life to problem-solve, reason, or even fantasize with all of the time in the world. If I needed to, I could simply shut the book and walk away. But I am nearly always compelled to crack that book open again after some time of reflection.
Now that I am a parent, I find it compelling to share my love of literature with my children. I have favorite stories that I think they will enjoy, but I’m always surprised how a book I picked up on a whim ends up being one of their new favorites. They always love to guess what will happen next, and we have the chance to talk about the rights and wrongs of the world through a story. I am also amazed at the factual information they absorb about their favorite subjects. My seven year-old told me today that the spot on Jupiter was most likely caused by a comet—that is news to me!
I cannot deny that I, too, love to learn new things from books authored by experts in all different subject matter. Parenting books filled with information about pediatric care helped me at 2:00 a.m. on many occasions when my kids were sick; my knowledge of installing flooring, cement board, tiles, fixtures, and even renovating a complete kitchen has expanded exponentially with the help of many how-to books; and of course, the textbooks I visually consumed during my studies in librarianship have led me down a career path that gives me much personal fulfillment. I am very fortunate to spend each day at my job helping others find just the right book—for research or just for pleasure.
And that is truly the key—finding the right book. One book can light a fire under you—make you question the world and seek out the answers—allow you the opportunity to ponder your own choices and your perceptions of others. In the world of reading and literature, you are given an opportunity that no one can take away—the freedom to choose where your thoughts will take you next. Get lost in a good book, and just maybe you will be found.
Vicky Coffin has worked at both public and academic libraries during her career as a librarian. For the past seven years, she has worked as a Reference Lecturer at the J. Eugene Smith Library at Eastern Connecticut State University where she is also the primary collection builder for the library’s popular Leisure Reading Collection.
By Ken Myers
It is well-known that children who read well experience greater progress in their academic studies. However, literature also is a valuable tool for teaching and reinforcing positive social skills that can help keep children on the right track when it comes to behavior. In fact, the power of literature is so strong, that many juvenile correction systems are implementing the use of required reading as an alternative to other types of punishment. Because literature has the potential to inspire positive change in children, parents and other adults who work with youths may want to try a few of the following ideas in order to begin seeing the effects of literature on a child’s social and emotional development.
1. Create a ritual. Children thrive on routine. This is especially true for children who come from rough backgrounds or who have been forced to overcome significant challenges. Younger children may benefit from having a set bedtime story ritual, while older children can find a regular reading schedule calming. This way, there is a portion of the day set aside that they can depend upon always being the same.
2. Use a book to approach a difficult issue. Working with children can lead to a need for some difficult conversations. Often, adults and children may struggle with ways to bring up particularly challenging topics. For this reason, books are often the perfect way to introduce specific topics for conversation. Through literature, you can seamlessly ease into topics such as divorce, death, and abuse.
3. Explore a common interest. For many children, bonding is a difficult process. However, when a child shares a common interest with an adult, the child is more likely to trust the adult for advice. This can be especially vital for juveniles to make progress towards their goals for better behavior. For this reason, try finding a common interest that you and your child can explore through reading specific literature and books.
4. Make a memory book. When children attempt to learn how to make better decisions, you can help them learn how to focus on the positive aspects of their lives. In these instances, encourage children to create their own literature. By making memory books, children develop powerful resources to track the positive changes occurring in their lives. In a group setting, each member can choose to create a page that everyone can read.
5. Extend reading through activities. Children learn best when they actively participate in an experience. For this reason, extend a literary assignment to include a physical activity. For example, a child who reads a sports-themed book may then enjoy taking part in a real-life game. This can reinforce the concepts the child learned in the story, such as the importance of teamwork.
When children read books, they are able to enter into a world where learning can take place regarding a variety of subjects. Not only is literature an excellent tool for teaching academics, but it is also a valuable resource for helping children learn positive social skills that will enable them to make better decisions. This is especially true for children who may not have had positive role models in the past. Literature should be an important part of any child’s life and supported through the efforts of adults who are dedicated to ensuring the child will have the best opportunities for success.
Ken Myers is the editor in chief and frequent contributor of http://www.gonannies.com/. Ken helps acquire knowledge on the duties & responsibilities of nannies to society. You can reach him at email@example.com.
Image: Frederick Noronha on flickr.com
By Bettina Borders and Estella Rebeiro
One day several years ago, Katherine Knowles, the director of the Zeiterion, approached the Juvenile Court to offer the possibility for court-involved youth to attend Zeiterion performances. Ms. Knowles envisioned the Z as a valuable community resource and wanted to extend it’s reach to include everyone. In her mind, this also meant the kids most folks want to forget.
There are many words used to describe these kids, trouble makers, delinquents, “druggies,” problem kids, misguided, etc. Ms. Knowles thought that perhaps some of them could find something at the Z to facilitate “turning them around.” It sounded good to the court. Why not try it. By and large these were kids with little opportunity to attend the Z on their own resources. Thus through the vision of Ms. Knowles and the generosity of her board, an ostensibly unlikely partnership began. Under the supervision of probation, young people from our court, and often their families, began to attend the varied theatrical performances offered by the Z.
There were several permutations to this partnership, which is part of two alternative sentencing initiatives supervised by probation and the court. At one point Ms. Knowles identified an anonymous donor who wanted to have the kids attend the theater in style. A limousine appeared at the courthouse, picked the kids up and drove them around various scenic areas of the city before dropping them, and their parents, at the Z. Later they were picked up and returned to the courthouse.
At another time, the youth participating in an alternative sentencing program, Changing Lives Through Literature, read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and later attended the play, courtesy of the Z. There have been plays, musicals, storytelling, dance, theater and magic performances these youth have had the opportunity to see. But the question remains: What has it meant?
For most of these youth and their families, this is an extraordinary experience. First, they are having a wonderful experience together, one that most of us take for granted. The probation officers who accompany these youth have watched while the demeanor of these kids transforms as the evening unfolds. They are indistinguishable from the rest of the audience; polite, engaged, attentive, well behaved, well dressed, inquisitive, mesmerized by the magical extravaganzas they are watching. They are out of their “comfort zone” and yet “belong” in this new environment. It is wonderful to hear about as the probation officers report back to the court.
But the transformation does not end there. The youth are asked to write about their experiences or discuss them in groups. Each youth is excited, energized and articulate when dissecting the play or gushing over the virtuosity of dancers or musicians. Many “thank yous” by letter and by mouth are sent by the youths. Another lesson learned. These are experiences we want for all of the youth in our community and Ms. Knowles and the Board of the Z must be commended for making them accessible to those teens least likely to find their way to the beautiful Z.
Art, we know, can transform people, all people. Ms. Knowles and her board have set a high standard for accessibility to art. One that can be replicated in many other areas of our community, particularly for youth. Our youth have much to learn from its leaders and the places frequented by them. Our court certainly appreciates the efforts made by the Z to include these youth. As Ms. Knowles says at the beginning of a performance: “Let the magic begin.” Perhaps she is on to something.
Honorable Bettina Borders is first justice of Bristol County Juvenile Court in New Bedford. Estella Rebeiro is senior probation officer. This op-ed was originally posted in the South Coast Today.
By Colin Ollson
If you decided to sit your child down and announced that today you were going to give little Jacob or Emma a lesson in compassion, what do you think his or her reaction would be? More than likely, it would not be squeals of delight and a question about whether there would be a quiz at the end. Whether children realize it or not, learning how to be compassionate toward others is something they can start developing when they are quite young. The five books that make kids more compassionate listed here are great choices to help them learn that lesson without making them feel as if they are in school.
Milton’s Secret by Eckhart Tolle
This book, which is written for 4-8 year-olds, focuses on a young boy who is worried about the possibility of encountering a bully at school. Children learn compassion for the child who may be a target and through discovering this book with their parents can start a discussion about the bigger issue of bullying, why some children (and adults) behave that way, and how it makes the target of this type of behavior feel.
Another theme of this book is that we must learn to take each moment as it comes, without worrying about the future. This idea of being fully present in the here and now is one which will benefit a youngster as he or she grows into adulthood.
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
The idea behind this beloved story is a very simple one. The main character is a tree which simply gave everything it had to a boy out of love, including simple things like shade to help keep him cool in hot weather or a larger request like a place to build a tree house. Children aged 4-8 will learn that giving out of love is the right thing to do.
Unexpected Treasures by Victoria Osteen
Author Victoria Osteen explores the theme that being kind to other people is the right thing to do, even when circumstances are difficult. In this story, Pirate Fred and Curly Beard are rescued from a sinking ship by Captain Jon and First Mate Sue. The rescued pirates are grumpy at first, but learn about friendship and sharing as the story moves on. This story is a good choice for children between the ages of 3-7.
The Ant Bully by John Nickle
The Ant Bully is a story about a bully having the tables turned on him by finding out how his actions affect others. This story, which is a good choice for children aged four and up, focuses on Lucas, a kid who is taunted by another child who turns on his bully with a squirt gun and uses it on an ant colony as well.
The ants use a magical green potion to shrink Lucas down to their size and sentence him to hard labor. He learns his lesson while living among the ants and children will learn the lesson that treating someone else badly because of the actions of a bully is not a way to show compassion for others.
The Recess Queen by Laura Huliska-Beith
This is another story which would be appropriate for children ages four and up. Its plot focuses on Mean Jean, who simply was the Recess Queen. No one on the playground did anything unless Jean told them it was all right to do it. She ruled the roost, until one day a new girl came to school and everything changed.
Katie Sue was not intimidated by Mean Jean. She asked Mean Jean to jump rope with her instead. This simple act of friendship (and compassion) made the difference in the story and it is an effective way to teach children that reaching out to others can be a way to diffuse a situation.
When you are exploring these five books that make kids more compassionate with the young people who mean the most to you, don’t forget to ask questions about their experiences as you read the story. The book can be a wonderful starting point for this ongoing life lesson.
Colin is an in-house copywriter at http://www.essaypedia.com/. He specializes in writing of custom research papers and essays on history and arts.
By Tam Neville
After lunch the group heard a presentation on “Research: Does it work?” led by Ron P. Corbett Jr. He began by saying that evidence-based practices are used in many settings.
Is there empirical support for what you do?
Is it having the effects you want on the people you work with?
All in Changing Lives Through Literature believe that it does change lives. A recidivism study has recently been done at UMass/Boston by retired professor Taylor Stoehr, Professor of Sociology, Russell Schutt, and Associate Professor, faculty member of the Criminal Justice Program, Xiaogang Deng. The study showed a reduction in offending for CLTL graduates.
Do we have the ability to help people reduce offending sometimes or altogether?
There was an experimental group and a control group. We looked at behavior 18 months before CLTL and 18 months after CLTL. There were 600 participants in the study. There was a 60 % drop for CLTL participants and 16% for others. Both the number and severity of incidents were reduced. Also the participants worked with a parole officer and took one other program (such as substance abuse, batterers, etc.).
What is it about Changing Lives that leads to a reduction in offending? What is the link between graduates of the program and those who offend less? Stoehr reports on this study:
“This group was larger than the Jarjoura/Rogers study and ran for a longer time. We had five jurisdictions: New Bedford, Lynn/Lowell, Dorchester, and two smaller courts. We had a larger range of information.
For the probationers, someone was paying attention to them. This is what was missing from their lives. In the Dorchester men’s class we have big groups so we break them up into smaller groups. Once in a class discussion, we had five guys who were great talkers, all talking at once. Then one held up his hand and said, “This is what our problem is, we don’t listen, we just talk.” Moments like this begin to happen in the third class. The process is unpredictable. You let go of controls. In Dorchester we don’t stick so hard to the text. The main thing is what happens in the classroom.
In the Dorchester program, we have a set of questions that we work with that go in a sequence. For example: What does it take to grow up? Does anybody ever learn things in school? And towards the end of the semester – What does it take to hit bottom? The questions get bigger and bigger.
In mid-semester we ask, “What is your evaluation of street smarts?” By this time there is trust. On street smarts – almost all are proud of their street smarts. The staff has a different view: street smarts prevent you from learning anything new. Many students cling to street smarts. The most important thing about Changing Lives is that people belong to a community that has the same concerns that they have. We have so little of that in America – where does that happen in your life? That makes a huge difference in what you do with your life.”
Books bring universality. A student realized, “I’m not the only one with this problem.” Through books students learn how to fight with words, not fists. They build a community together.
Reading is a cognitive behavior intervention – it makes thinking more flexible and more expansive, more empathetic.
The program boosts self-esteem too. To have a conversation with a judge can boost a student’s confidence. A student completes an assignment, voices an opinion, and is listened to.
Judge Kane said, “We’ve had the program for 20 years and there has never been a scary incident in these years. We get gratitude from our students.”
Judge Dever said, “People come into the program looking at life subjectively. In this program, through literature, they start looking at life objectively. This changes their ability to communicate. This then may help them with job interviews, things they thought were unattainable.
Reading slows you down – you have to find a quiet place and be by yourself. This is new for them – it leads to self-reflection.”
Stoehr talked about juveniles saying, “They don’t’ have a place to go with no noise and they’re full of hormones. Think of something you can do at the meeting, very short things (maybe rap), something that gives them a little challenge at the moment.”
Teresa Owens (PO, Taunton Division) said, “CLTL gives them a safe setting. One thing that always came out of the Dorchester women’s class was the question of choices. Were there other choices I could have made? Or, you can go to someone else to ask and say ‘I don’t know what to do.’ Also, people in class were accountable to each other in terms of doing the reading, homework, etc.”
CLTL is a team experience. When people have a chance to reflect on choices, this is their time, a time they can actually think. They don’t have that luxury in their lives. In CLTL they learn that there are more options, more choices.
Professor Waxler said, “We collectively make a community. The activity is primarily verbal. Reading brings engagement with narrative – you see that you are connected to other people. The story that I just read is my story too. Then discussion with everyone sitting around a table, there’s an open relationship between our experience and narrative. Story gives us meaning and helps us put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.”
To begin the final session, a probation officer new to the program spoke using herself as an example. She said, “Say I want to start a program. How do I get a judge involved, a facilitator, and probation officers?”
Judge Kane answered her on the matter of judicial involvement. “At least have someone who will let you run the program. You will need a judge’s support to get POs behind it. Having a judge is very important.”
Jean Trounstine added, “Get a judge talking to a judge. This will increase the chance of their going to class. You then have to go out and find facilitators.”
Someone else commented, “You have to get the judge to commit to an incentive if CLTL is not a condition of probation.”
The question of incentive: Outcomes are more positive where a court can create incentives such as six months off probation period, discount on supervision fees, etc. This information is in the literature and on the website. Dee Kennedy pointed out that, “Many students start off by saying, ‘I never would have taken this without the time off’ but by graduation, their attitude has changed.”
To find a facilitator ask Jean Flanagan. Jean Trounstine added, “Try to find a facilitator who has a connection with a school. It’s good to have a school as a place to meet. Call an English department. We can help you – you don’t need to do this in a vacuum.”
Ideally, a university campus is the best place to hold a class. The students get a taste of college life and it makes them proud to go to a college campus. This is especially important with juveniles.
To start a class, ask probation officers to recruit students from among their probationers. Myrna Thornquist (PO, Waltham District Court) advised, “I check a person out – do they like to read? What is their education? In the beginning I don’t tell them what I’m thinking – that they would be a good candidate. I do a little research on a person. Then, are they interested? Sometimes it takes 6-12 months to be sure of someone as a candidate.”
On books, Jean Trounstine said, “We give the students the books, they don’t buy them and the facilitator is reimbursed for these. We also encourage every student to get a library card.”
How many students should be in a class? We have had classes with 5 or with 13. Taylor Stoehr said, “One day we had 50. We split into two groups, then used small groups of 4 to 5.”
Any staff has to be regular. It’s important that all the staff agrees on the class ground rules. If we have an issue sometimes we talk about it afterwards. For the most part we tell the students, be sober and straight, do your homework and be on time.”
For the graduation ceremony, the Lynn/Lowell programs hold graduation in the court house during the first session. Those in the dock witness graduation. The graduates receive books and a certificate. It’s a day for celebration.
This meeting was a very successful one and we now have several courts who are interested in starting a program. We need facilitators. If you, or anyone you know, would like to facilitate a Changing Lives Program please get in touch with Jean Trounstiine at: TROUNSTINEJ@middlesex.mass.edu
By Tam Neville
This program is a great experiment about what democracy can mean. All masks, roles, hierarchies, fall away. There is a moment of beauty. In a class we have the voice, the breath of human beings, the flow of the human heart.
Dr. Robert P. Waxler
On May 10, 2012, Judges, probation officers, and facilitators of the Changing Lives Through Literature program met at the Worcester Law Library. The purpose of the meeting was to assist potential participants in starting new programs. There were many new faces in the room and familiar faces too. Despite losing our funding in 2008, we are still going strong with ten programs running in Massachusetts and hopefully, with gatherings like this one, more will follow.
The day began with a presentation of the history of the Changing Lives Through Literature Program led by Hon. Robert J. Kane and Dr. Robert P. Waxler. Judge Kane talked briefly about the first CLTL class that took place in New Bedford with a group of men, all of whom had serious convictions. The idea was to try the new program on the toughest candidates. If it worked on them, that meant the program was sound.
Judge Kane said the program works because “the act of reading and writing allows people to learn, to learn to listen instead of just reacting.”
All programs have autonomy. Dorchester may use just one text, supplemented with stories, Roxbury may use poems, and another program may use film.
Classes democratically respond to works of literature and this dialogue leaves a deposit in everyone. Judge Kane said, “This was dramatically illustrated by a man with a rough history that we had as a student. He was scared and wanted to stir something up. We gave this turbulent student a different point of view that gave him the chance to reflect. I saw him the other day – he gave me a smile and handshake. This student got a different view of a judge. We, in turn, learn to drop any facile notion of what brings an offender into court. Changing Lives brings me energy and a sense of curiosity. CLTL is a vocation. I’d like to thank Ron Corbett whose great support gives us renewed spirit for the future of the program.”
Next Prof. Waxler spoke about the programs history and its implications.
“The center of the program is literature. Literature is one tool we have that can keep people human. Every time we walk into a class we have that possibility. Our program has a different effect than an anger management or a job-hunting class. The program began in l991 with those who had a major offence. We saw how the men in this first class changed. Watching them walk on campus – after 6-7 weeks they looked different, they looked much more like the other students.”
An independent study (the Jarjoura/Rogers study) was done and was helpful in the beginning of the program. It demonstrated that CLTL graduates had a lower rate of recidivism. 45% re-offended in the control group and of the CLTL group only 18% re-offended.
Not only do the students change but probation officers and judges change as well. Judge Dever said, ‘It has been the joy of my judgeship.’”
Waxler continued, “CLTL is a movement, not an organization or institution. We have 12 states that are involved: Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maine, New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Florida, Kansas, Texas, Arizona, California, and one program in great Britain. The goal is to have a program in every state, every court. We have three books written about the program, a website, and a blog.
I think the program works because people get excited about reading. Thinking and self-reflection (through the process of reading) can be more exciting than dealing drugs. After the third session one of our roughest students said ‘I never thought I would find anything as exciting as being out on the street selling drugs – but I have.’ Reading and being able to come in and engage in discussion with PO’s, other students, and a judge, was inspirational for him.
This program is a great experiment about what democracy can mean. All masks, roles, hierarchies, fall away. There is a moment of beauty. In a class we have the voice, the breath of human beings, the flow of the human heart. People find their own voice and also participate in a communal voice. Many people are stuck in a perpetual present, repeating the same behavior. As Franz Kafka said, literature can break through that frozen sea within us. When that happens through narrative you feel a stirring of desire. You see the future and remember parts of the past and break out of the prison of present moment.
I will tell you about one night in class, we were reading Sea Wolf by Jack London. The hero is a tough guy, but with some narcissist elements. He believes that might makes right and is stuck in this, can’t move off his own center. In the midst of discussion – one student said, ‘I used to be just like Wolf Larsen.’ He recognized himself but was also saying ‘I am now free of that personality.’ Stories can open things up. People are always more extraordinary than the stereotypes. People in the program feel they are not good people. They are down-and-out and believe others see them this way. As we read we see something different – complex human beings – and the students realize that they have that complexity.”
The second session of the day, led by Jean Trounstine, was on program modeling, or how to teach a particular book or story. The discussion was based on Toni Cade Bambara’s short story “The Lesson.”
Trounstine began by asking, “What’s the lesson and who learns it?”
One participant said that Miss Moore exposed kids from a poor neighborhood to the outside world. She took them to F.A.O. Schwartz and here they began to learn about a larger world. Here there were new toys with high prices. The children learned that such things existed and about the inequality in the world.
Sylvia was one of the strongest characters of the story. She learns what she didn’t want to see and she says – “Why am I feeling ashamed when I walk into this store?” She didn’t fit in – she felt, “They are better than I am.” In her own world she ruled the roost. The story shows the limitations of poverty and how it’s difficult for people to see beyond it. Sugar expresses the inequality, “You know Miss Moore, I don’t think all of us here eat as much in one year as that sailboat costs.” Miss Moore is a radical in her own way. She was trying to show children that these inequalities exist and that you can work with them.
What was Sylvia’s world view before she goes to F.A.O. Shwartz? Sylvia’s view is, “My world’s ok, don’t rock the boat,” a predicable response. Now she has to look at a bigger picture and this “rocks Sylvia’s boat.”
Sylvia is angry because of her background. This is connected to our own classes and the question of how to draw students out of anger.
When they first go into the store, the children feel, “White people, crazy, wearing fur coats in the summer. But if everything you see glorifies a certain standard of living . . .” The children are frustrated by Miss Moore who says “Where we are is who we are.” She challenges them with the question of how to change this.
Do you like or dislike Miss Moore? She challenges them not with words or morals but by letting them have their own experience. Miss Moore doesn’t care if the children like her. The kids have a grudging respect for her. She is confrontational and persistent.
Taylor Stoehr asked, “What do you do with that anger? You have to learn this yourself. The lesson for us in this story is that the best you can do is open up the world. There is an analogy between Miss Moore and what we do in this program. In CLTL students are self-obsessed but without any self-esteem.”
Jean Trounstine said, “Let’s focus on what I would do with this in a CLTL class. You’re in a room with chairs in a circle. This is a good story to use at the beginning of semester. No one knows anyone. I have everyone read the story together. The students get over any fear of not understanding. Then I ask, ‘What did you get out of the story?’ Then we would start a discussion. It’s important not to instruct, but to choose a story good enough to make them think.”
Waxler added, “I’ve used this in a regular college classroom. Why does Miss Moore have to put it right in their faces – that they are poor? We are left with questions. Unlike other disciplines, literature doesn’t work for solutions.”
Ron Corbett asked, “Is it important that the characters have some characteristics that students have?” Trounstine answered, “I always pick things I think students will relate to. We used Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Once they come to class, they see the book differently.”
By Becca Sorgert
As we move beyond Restorative Justice to explore Transformative Justice in the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) with programs such as Changing Lives Through Literature, it is great that works such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness have been published where colorblindness and the racial caste are exposed. When readers are engaged through Urban Fiction in the PIC, transformative benefits such as solidarity, survival, resistance, and self-exploration are achievable. Through the lens of Transformative Justice, we can reframe current views of Urban Fiction to validate this genre that is deemed inappropriate by gatekeepers in our current carceral state.
Contemporary Urban Fiction plots focus on life in neighborhoods of major cities, such as Chicago or Philadelphia, where, as Vanessa Irvin Morris states, “specific cultural groups live and thrive;” specifically African American or Latino neighborhoods. The main theme of Urban Fiction is of survival, especially “[h]ow to survive on the streets by circumventing pitfalls.” Scholar Megan Sweeney states “Perhaps the most popular genre in the women’s prison is African American urban fiction.” By understanding themes of Urban Fiction, one can see similar values comparable in prisoners’ lives, such as survival.
Vanessa Morris, scholar and librarian, eloquently proves that there are more themes than what is traditionally critiqued with Urban Fiction (crime, drugs, sex). The most critiqued aspects of Urban Fiction are themes in literature that are not isolated to Urban Fiction and contemporary writings. Morris shows that Urban Fiction functions in many different ways beyond the criticized violence and criminal behavior. Instead, what makes Urban Fiction unique are the following literary themes: a fast moving story with background stories, descriptions of living life from living situations to income, the nature of street life and how it operates, how personal relationships work through tough situations involving abuse and disloyalty, style featuring specific products, and how to endure street life and escape from it.
Solidarity, survival, resistance, and self-exploration are common benefits that run through the published research of why reading Urban Fiction in prison is beneficial to prisoners; Urban Fiction highlights these benefits because the genre is primarily written by, and for, people of color, some whom have experience in the PIC. Morris suggests that Urban Fiction “appeals to readers because it offers an opportunity to investigate, validate, and/or make sense of city life.” It is necessary to be able to do this when Alfred Tatum, scholar on black youth reading, brings to light that “[m]any poor black males are too preoccupied with thoughts of their own mortality and the day-to-day energy required to survive.” The inclusion of Urban Fiction for PIC readers provides counter-narratives to literature that is considered the norm and creates, as Amy Bintliff points out, “the freedom to incorporate stories and themes that reflect who they are and what they want to investigate.”
While imprisoned in the white power structure of the PIC, readers find solidarity through text. Sweeney suggests, “Imprisoned fans of urban fiction occasionally emphasize their identification with this spirit of resistance to dominant white power structures.” The novels of Urban Fiction provide a shared experience of living in a white supremacy, being imprisoned under white law, and being kept under white surveillance. Sweeney’s work suggests that Urban Fiction is a counter-narrative that shows how colorblindness and the racial caste system affect non-white people.
When Urban Fiction is not included in collections, it is an attempt to silence and control the transformation of readers who experience a further understanding of their situation in relation to others’ similar situations. This transformation challenges the current operating system, whether it is the PIC or society in general. This solidarity expands to resistance which then spirals to further reform or transformation of power structures at play. Sweeney proposes that the “penal institutions’ fear of urban books seems to stem from the conception of power and agency that many of the books espouse in depicting characters’ efforts to attain and maintain power.”
An essential part of Sweeney’s work is her highlight of readers becoming authors. Some women prisoners expressed that Urban Fiction “inspire[s] a lot of us to write our own books, and tell our own stories.” When the reading of Urban Fiction is combined with creatively sharing one’s own thoughts through writing, these acts further challenge the PIC structure. Anne Fowell Stanford, professor and author on imprisoned women’s experiences, who explored prisoners’ writing offers: “With dehumanizing social practices in jail, writing becomes an act of resistance, sometimes obvious, sometimes masked. […] This writing is dangerous because it proclaims a making and remaking of selves despite state attempts to confine, fix, and stabilize identities as ‘inmates’.”.
The significance of the cyclical culture of Urban Fiction, one that creates writers from readers, is that it breaks the culture of silence and creates power, resistance, and a means of survival through expression. Creating more writers shows powerful and transformative actions, which is why there is such a threat from multiple and uncontrollable dialogues between the author and their own work, characters within their novel, and between the reader and the author. As a reader, these options for inner dialogue or with other readers allow for self-criticism and positioning oneself in various roles such as the reader, author, main character, as the perpetrator, and / or the victim, etc.
The time has come to engage with the readers and writers in the PIC through authentic dialogues to shape the collection development policies on Urban Fiction. Building relationships with readers through a dialogue technique that embraces feelings and expressiveness will build an effective and inclusive reading collection (such as in a PIC library) that functions, like Urban Fiction, on multiple levels for imprisoned patrons. The transformation from an arrogant to loving perception of Urban Fiction allows readers access to desired literacy and solidarity from their community. Access to this community and genre creates an authentic dialogue between readers and writers to formbonds of support, resistance, and exploration that are essential to survival in the PIC and the white supremacy we live in.
Becca Sorgert is completing her masters of Library and Information Science and is a volunteer jail librarian. You can follow her at her blog (and find more Urban Fiction resources) at Exploring Prison Librarianship. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bintliff, Amy. Re-engaging Disconnected Youth: Transformative Learning Through Restorative and Social Justice Education
Morris, Vanessa Irvin. The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Street Literature
Standford, Anne Fowell. “Lit by Each Other’s Light: Women’s Writing at Cook Country Jail.” Interrupted Life: Experience of Incarcerated Women in the United States
Sweeney, Megan. “‘I lived that book!’: Reading Behind bars.” Interrupted Life: Experience of Incarcerated Women in the United States
Reading Is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons.
Tatum, Alfred. Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males: Closing the Achievement Gap.
by Sarah Fudin, c/o the University of Southern California
In celebration of National March Into Literacy Month, the MAT@USC has created a fun and informative infographic entitled, “The Most Loved Children’s Books”. In it, they have recounted their favorite books as a way to celebrate children’s literature throughout the years.
Changing Lives Through Literature is committed to promoting the access to literature, not just for children but for the world at large. We live in a society where social and economic inequality has become a norm. This disparity has unfortunately burdened with a vicious cycle of crime and incarceration that only we have the power to break. CLTL seeks to end this cycle by taking whatever means necessary to ensure that individuals in the prison system are making productive use of their time through literacy development. However, our efforts do not end there. Preventative measures must also be exhausted by taking the time to effectively communicate the power of reading to the youth of the nation.
Books can unlock a wealth of opportunities for individuals, and gaining access to literature at an early age allows us to tap into our youths’ potential as they grow up. Join us as we celebrate the value of books and how they contribute to changing lives!
(click image for to view the infographic in full-screen)
Sarah Fudin works for the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of education. She can be reached by e-mail here. For more information on becoming a teacher through USC Rossier Online, visit Become a Teacher.