A Different Light: Report from the 2009 Changing Lives Through Literature Conference

cltl logoAllan McDougall is a graduate student from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Allan is a staunch believer in language as social action, with a focus on reading and writing. Allan is currently writing his MA thesis on Changing Lives Through Literature, and writes about professional and academic issues on his blog:

Changing Courts Through Literature

The theme of this year’s Changing Lives Through Literature annual conference was Law and Literature. Once again, CLTL facilitators (professors, graduate students, probation officers, and judges) met just outside of Boston to attend a morning panel and subsequent group discussions. Dr. Ronald Corbett, moderator and Executive Director of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, began the day’s panel with a thought experiment. He proposed a program called Changing Courts Through Literature, asking whether literature can humanize courts, perhaps by shedding light on human struggles? “What happens in the program that allows the picture to get filled out?” Dr Corbett asked, “In the session, do you see participants in a different light?”


“Reading a particular work hasn’t changed my practice,” answered Judge Sydney Hanlon, panelist and Presiding Justice at Dorchester District Court, “but the process of reading with people who come from different places and who I will sentence, people who I will judge, teaches you about their lives.” Judge Hanlon shared that she once sat in a CLTL classroom with eight women, and all of them had life insurance on their young sons. “You don’t see people the same way when you learn something like that about them.”


Judy Lawler, panelist and Chelsea District Court probation officer, shared that she volunteers for CLTL after her work day ends. Chelsea’s sessions, like most CLTL programs, operates as a structured reading group, often with written assignments to accompany readings. Judy compared her time in a CLTL classroom to entering a fantasy world, a world of imagination where perspectives change. “As a probation officer discussing, you see your probationers in a totally different light.”


The impact of CLTL sessions on probationers is also clearly felt by the justice professionals who attend the sessions. Judge Robert Kane, panelist, CLTL co-founder, and Massachusetts Superior Court Justice, told us, “When an individual shares with you the dread and anxiety of being imprisoned, or the fear of being profiled and arrested on the street for no reason, you realize that probation, while serving the necessary purpose of supervision, also profoundly impacts individuals. I wouldn’t know that as fully were it not for CLTL. And I have that in my mind when I think about probation.”


“There’s a side to probationers that court officials don’t see,” agreed Rodney Dailey, founder of Gang Peace and Street Peace “Even though you think you know everything you need to know, no one really knows the extent of what’s going on in someone’s life. Courts expect these individuals to walk the laid out path, but they don’t see all of the distractions. Probationers are walking this line to trying to get themselves together, but they often have unresolved disputes and conflicts in their communities—you don’t know about them, but they deal with it daily. At any given time, something can break out or happen and here’s a new court case.”


Changing Perceptions Through Literature

“Do the offenders see you in a different light?” Dr Corbett invited the panel to answer, opening this portion of the conference to the floor as well.


“They see EVERYTHING in a different light! This program gives people imagination. And imagination goes beyond four corners of a book or a written assignment,” replied Adita Vasquez, West Roxbury probation officer. Vasquez’s probationers, all female, “never thought of themselves as able to accomplish something. They graduate Changing Lives Through Literature and it’s the first time many of them have done anything like that before. You witness a complete metamorphosis of attitude and self-esteem.”


Judge Hanlon replied that “this program lets people know they’re not alone. The probationers learn that the things that people struggle with are universal. CLTL gives these individuals a chance to discuss that. Good literature hits those issues at a depth that makes it okay to talk about it.”


“Not only that,” shared Judge Joe Dever, “offenders look at the judiciary completely differently. That’s my experience after over 18 years with this program.”


Changing Lives Through Literature

But how much of an impact could a CLTL course have on criminal offenders? Judge Joe Dever shared the following story about why he believes this program works:


“I was at the deli, and the woman working behind the counter came to me and said that I sentenced her to Changing Lives Through Literature back in the 90s. ‘At that time, social services had taken away my children,’ she said, ‘I had a serious addiction; I was heading for incarceration and death. Your program totally changed my life.’”


“She introduced me to her coworkers as ‘the man who changed my life.’ She said ‘I never set the world on fire, but I’m alcohol free and drug free, I’m chief of a deli and I got my children back from public custody. My oldest is a sophomore at North Shore Community College, and the other one is a Senior in High School, getting a scholarship to Salem State. God knows I would have never seen them again if not for Changing Lives Through Literature. I’ve credited the program through that process.’”


“Good literature,” replied CLTL co-founder and English professor Robert Waxler, “offers a different kind of experience through the language than the law. Law is a language based on rules; literature, at the best moments, operates and illuminates aspects of the human heart. It presents a new understanding of the world. Law and literature need each other but operate in different ways.”

But good literature can serve a more specific purpose as well shared Judy Lawler. “The gift of good literature serves a special purpose in drug court. The recovering community needs substitution—a healthy substitute for their addiction. Changing Lives Through Literature gives probationers a great gift of substitution that they can keep with them: reading. This program bolsters the lack of self-esteem that causes drug addiction in the first place. Probationers are able to see that they interpret a reading the same way a judge is interpreting it. That does a lot for them.”


Picking up on the idea of drug treatment, probation officer Wayne St Pierre referred to “the menu”: the selection of programs available for probationers. “There’s programs for battery, drugs, anger management, and then there’s jail. But none of that addresses the issue of Post Traumatic Stress that seems to be impacting an entire population. A man in a CLTL classroom told me that going to jail is like putting a lump of manure in the freezer, because when it comes out it’s the same as when it went in. In one of my classes, I asked the group how many of them had been stabbed or shot. Every single person had been. To me, that’s an epidemic. It’s an epidemic and the court doesn’t know its secrets. That’s why I’m less quick to jump to the ‘automatic’ selection on from the menu. Changing Lives Through Literature offers something unconventional, and it works.”


“The court system is too fast moving and quick paced to really deal with individuals,” Stated Judge Robert Kane. “We in Changing Lives Through Literature want to slow things down, but our peers think we’re crazy. That’s what we’re up against and it’s damn hard.”


7 thoughts on “A Different Light: Report from the 2009 Changing Lives Through Literature Conference

  1. Thanks for this review Allan. It was a bright day with a lot of energetic discussion–and you capture it well here. Let’s hope the discussion is ongoing and continues to expand and grow.

  2. Pingback: Changing Lives Through Literature part 1 of 4: What is Changing Lives Through Literature? « Polymorphology: the blog of Allan McDougall

  3. Pingback: Changing Lives Through Literature part 2 of 4: Interview with Ken, CLTL student, Boston, MA « Allan McDougall's blog

  4. Pingback: Changing Lives Through Literature part 2 of 5: Interview with Ken, CLTL student, Boston, MA « Allan McDougall's blog

  5. Pingback: Changing Lives Through Literature part 3 of 4: Interview with Sheila, CLTL Student, Boston, MA « Allan McDougall's blog

  6. Pingback: Changing Lives Through Literature part 4 of 5: Interview with Sheila, CLTL Student, Boston, MA « Allan McDougall's blog

  7. Pingback: Changing Lives Through Literature part 5 of 5: Can literature change lives? « Allan McDougall's blog

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