Stephanie Train is part of a facilitation team that leads a creative writing workshop for incarcerated women at the Larimer County Detention Center in Fort Collins, Colorado. Stephanie has been involved in the SpeakOut! program since spring 2008. Every Wednesday night she looks forward to sharing her writing space with the detained women who courageously pour their souls onto the page.
Kayla Parry is an undergraduate English major who has been co-facilitating weekly writing workshops at a residential facility for at-risk youth since early 2009. She enjoys helping the young men and women disseminate their powerful and necessary words among the community.
Tobi Jacobi is an assistant professor in the English Department at Colorado State University and the director of the Community Literacy Center. She has been working with incarcerated women writers and training SpeakOut workshop facilitators in an effort to situate literacy education as a tool for social change since 2000.
The SpeakOut! writing workshops were established in 2005 as a collaboration between the English Department at Colorado State University and local justice and recovery facilitates in Fort Collins, Colorado. Each week, SpeakOut! workshop leaders facilitate ninety minute writing sessions with adult and youth writers at four sites and focus on introducing issues of writing identity, genre, style, and technique. The workshops are run twice annually in twelve-week sessions that align approximately with the academic calendar and culminate with a celebration and the publication of the SpeakOut! Journal, a set of creative and expository writings that distributed to the writers and across the region. In the reflection that follows, two SpeakOut! workshop facilitators reflect on our workshop structure, curriculum design, and the emergence of powerful stories of experience.
On Workshop Structure
Stephanie: Each Wednesday, we bring a loosely themed lesson plan into the workshop. Sometimes we focus on the craft of writing, utilizing prompts that help teach specific poetic/narrative forms. Other times we will focus on a cultural or sociological theme such as body image, gender/cultural studies. We usually like to warm up with free writing exercises; the writers turn off their internal editors and write uncensored for a set amount of time. Then we move into the writing prompts.
We like to bring in examples of poetry and fiction to read in class to give the writers an idea of our theme/topic. For example, we’ve used Joy Harjo’s poem, She Had Some Horses in the past. We will then ask the writers to create their own poem that begins with “she had some _____.”
Kayla: It is most helpful to get the girls focused on group by beginning with a warm-up poem or two. I usually always try to pick something that I know will catch their attention and help them transition from their leisure time that precedes group. We like to focus on themes, and each one must be something that will interest a group of teenage girls. It’s something that sometimes proves difficult toward the end of their stressful days. A memorable theme that my co-facilitator brought was poems and writing on beauty, a concept that can be difficult to overcome socially and culturally for girls of their age. The conversation and writing from that day proved exceptional because they had much to think about and say on the issue. We also mold many of our prompts in poetry from other poems we read in group.
On Successful Prompts
Stephanie: One of the most successful prompts we have in the workshop is a “letter to my younger self.” The writers have produced some amazing, powerful, intense writing. Some write about regret and poor choices in the past, but many address their younger selves in a loving, nurturing manner. “Love yourself,” “believe in yourself,” are common phrases found in the writer’s work.
Kayla: The “letter to my younger self” has been our most memorable prompt, as well. The letters were very diverse. Some of the girls expressed anger or frustration to their younger selves, while others gave simple and kind advice. Many of them recalled memories from their childhood that caused sadness, anger, and happiness, and these were all expressed in such powerful letters. It was such a personal and memorable prompt that many of the girls read their letters, but did not want to submit them because they were too privately meaningful for them.
On Writing from Experience
Stephanie: Many of the women at the jail choose to write from personal experience. Often they will create material that deals with incarceration–usually on broad level, i.e. “I’ve made some mistakes,” “I’m doing my time”. Many write about painful or abusive situations from their distant (and recent) pasts. Some writers deal with intense material during the writing process: rape, abuse, drug addiction, even murder. As a facilitator I often think we take on the role of what prison teacher Tiffany Ana Lopez calls “critical witnessing.” When a writer reads a piece aloud, a piece that deals with traumatic events, I usually offer up confirmation that their words have been heard. The writers often experience peer support within the writing groups–empathy and confirmation from fellow inmates.
Kayla: Our group of writers and facilitators has been small, and usually consists of the same few people, so we have all grown close in the short time we are allowed each other. When a writer shares her poems with the rest of the group, a sense of support is often sought and given through the words. Some of the things I have heard have made me laugh or cry, while others simply amaze me into silence. The writing is often exceptional. Yet no week is ever the same, nor does each group produce the same kinds of poems. Some are autobiographical, some are fictional, some are fantastical. The issues focused on most are family, addiction, and the freedom that each girl desires.
We believe that participating in the workshop and sharing powerful stories that are often based in lived experience can lead to meaningful change—for the writers, the facilitators, and the publics who read them. We all have a strong role to play in shifting our understanding of what it means to participate in a socially just society, and speaking out through language and story is one way to actively move toward a more peaceful world.