Jenni Baker is the communications specialist for Goodwill Industries International in Washington, DC. This is her final post as marketing and media advisor for Changing Lives Through Literature.
Anyone afforded the opportunity to participate in Changing Lives Through Literature will speak of the change it enacts within every person around the table.
Some talk of the affirmation they receive from knowing they are not alone in their thoughts and in their life struggles. Men and women who participate in this program as part of their probation sentence habitually note the affirmation they receive from voicing their insights on an equal playing field with individuals they never considered as equals.
My time in the program taught me that this affirmation works both ways. As a student of English, I entered the program familiar with literature’s potential to change. I was inexperienced, however, with the power of reading and discussion to overcome obstacles of gender, race, and class.
Just as the participants who had spent time in the justice system thought they knew the judge and probation officers they now sat beside, I brought my own preconceptions to the table that first night. After spending years discussing literature with college peers and academics, I confess I entered the sessions with classist thoughts — I wasn’t sure what kind of valuable conversation I could have with individuals who in many cases did not finish high school.
The answer to that question kept me coming to session after session. Seeing literature change the lives of these criminal offenders week after week was certainly inspiring. On a personal level, however, I was more moved by the connections and conversations that strengthened with each meeting.
The participants spoke candidly and astutely about each book placed in front of them, easily articulating reactions and sentiments I was not accustomed to sharing in a normal English classroom. Conversations seized on the human threads that vibrated through all of us, regardless of background and experience. It bonded me to them and made me aware for the first time of the artificial boundaries class (race, gender, sexuality, etc.) erects between us.
Our similarities startle me more now that I am no longer in school and hold a full time job. I see quite clearly that, without outside encouragement to read and discuss literature, even those of us who grew up in literature-friendly households and who profess to love reading don’t pick up books as often as we should. Outside of the influences of academia and CLTL, I better comprehend how individuals who were never encouraged to read may have never picked up a book since their high school years.
My personal experience in the year and a half I spent with Changing Lives Through Literature showed me that the program is as beneficial to people who have never spent time in the prison system as it is to people with a criminal record. It breaks down the barriers between all who sit at the table, changing lives and changing minds.
In parting, I thank Dr. Robert Waxler and all of the CLTL facilitators and participants for “keeping the vision” in their respective corners of the country. I look forward to hearing about new marketing and media advisor Beth Ayer’s transformation in the months to come.