The Ties that Bind

Book open on table, photo by kvelduf

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.



10 thoughts on “The Ties that Bind

  1. Hi Jenni: Thanks so much for all your creative work and dedication. You have made a significant contribution to the CLTL program , and we all wish you the best in Washington and wherever else your journey takes you. Keep the vision always.

  2. Jenni, ditto Bob: Thanks so much for all your hard work here. You have helped develop this blog into a valuable exchange where, as you say, conversations seize on the human threads that vibrate through all of us.

  3. Jenni, I am very excited to pick up where you leave off. I anticipate learning a tremendous amount from working with CLTL. All your hard work is very appreciated.

    I agree, I think one of the very best things about literature is the power it has to help people relate to each other through basic human truths. Anyway, I’ll say again – I’m excited to be part of CLTL. thanks Jenni

  4. Jenni–thank you for all of your work with CLTL, for keeping and maintaining the vision”, as Bob Waxler always continually reminds us, and for recognizing and promoting the meaning-making potential of reading and discussing good literature.

    Several parts of your posting resonated with me. First of all, the idea that reading and discussion can “overcome obstacles of gender, race, and class.” The experiment and aim of an education in America was/is to improve one’s life. Reading, writing, and discussion can help us to see and understand life from many different perspectives. In fact, we cannot possibly experience everything—all there is to offer in lfe—and reading makes it possible for us to vicariousluy experience life experiences for which we would not ordinarily have access.

    Another point of resonance for me was your statement:

    I see quite clearly that, without outside encouragement to
    read and discuss literature, even those of us who who grew
    up in literature-friendly households and who profess to love
    reading don’t pick up books as often as we should.

    You state the obvious, and the obvious must be stated. Our culture is changing rapidly, and somehow we must still emphasize the power of reading–amid twitter, facebook, and other new technologies. Certainly–there are both positive and negative aspects for how these new technologies affect our culture. But reading (deep reading and even “light” reading should remain important and emphasized in our culture. The power of reading for affecting lives is currently underdeveloped, and CLTL represents a both a vision and an action plan for enhancing lives through the power(s) of reading and discussion of good literature.

  5. Jenni, Thanks so much for all of your efforts but mostly thank you for being you. You say you got alot from the program. I say that is a two way street. I hope you attend a session if you find yourself back on the South Coast. Best in everything you do.

  6. The essential part of my teaching middle school is students’ discussions about books. CLTL reaffirms that. Fresh insights give new meaning to writing. How great to have learned about CLTL’s opening up of doors to the same experiences! The program reaches a much larger community, thanks to people like you, Jenni.

  7. jenni, as one might have expected, your post was finely written and wise beyond your years. good literature endures; so does good work. your efforts will be remembered for a long time to come.

  8. Nicely done again, Jenni. You’ve developed a real, living thing here with the CLTLblog, as well executed as your other projects.

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