Who is Serving Whom? : Final Update of the Semester

This week marks the last week of my undergraduate career at Colorado State University.  While exciting, this also means that it is time to wrap up the projects that I have been working on through the CLC.  Since my last update in February, I have made considerable progress toward completing my evaluation of the SpeakOut interns and facilitators.  I have some preliminary findings ready as of now, but I hope to continue to expand the project over the summer.

Because of time constraints (both my own and from my fellow SpeakOut facilitators), I have only had the chance to interview two interns thus far.  However, I have used six interviews of past interns to supplement and guide my analysis.  I also was able to find a theoretical framework to structure the project, which has helped give me a sense of direction.

This framework is called Ally Identity Development Theory and was published by Keith Edwards in the NASPA Journal (2006).  The theory was developed based on a need to explain how sustainable, reliable social justice allies are developed on college campuses.  Edwards explains allies as members of an agent identity who work to use their privilege to further the privilege of individuals of marginalized and oppressed groups.  He outlines three categories of allies: aspiring allies for self-interest, aspiring allies for altruism, and allies for social justice.  Those in the first two categories are typically motivated by personal experiences or guilt and tend to position themselves above the group they are trying to “help.”  Allies for social justice, on the other hand, see oppression for anyone as harmful to everyone and endeavor to work alongside oppressed people to abolish systems of oppression.

Given much of the theoretical orientation of the CLC, this theory seems to work well to assess how effective the internship program is at educating students through service-learning and creating sustainable allies for incarcerated individuals.  I found through analyzing the interviews that the internship program had a profound impact on the ally development of many of those involved, many of whom had never given serious thought to issues of incarceration before.  Each of the interns were making sense of the experiential lessons learned through SpeakOut in their own way, but they all seemed to be oriented toward becoming an ally for the incarcerated population.

Some other interesting themes that emerged were the views of the power of writing of the facilitators.  The word “therapeutic” came up a lot when discussing writing, and writing was viewed as a form of mental freedom for individuals who were physically confined.  Some facilitators also spoke of using writing therapeutically themselves to deal with witnessing difficult and potentially traumatic disclosures of writers. Additionally, writing was used by the facilitators as a way to connect to the writers in their groups.  Feedback was used only to encourage writing, never to stifle creativity.

To continue this project, I plan to look at the blogs of current and previous SpeakOut facilitators as these are often used as a way to process the service-learning curriculum of the internship program.  I also plan to examine the SpeakOut volunteer facilitator handbook, since this is an artifact that helps to establish the tone of the program and provides some background information to volunteers who are just getting involved.  Finally, I will also be talking with more facilitators about their experiences.  It is always a joy to hear about the ways that SpeakOut has influenced others, and I look forward to continuing these conversations!

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Warning: This Post May Contain Raw Passion

As both an aspiring psychologist and an amateur musician, anytime I read anything about the brain or the arts (or especially both!) I get a little flutter in my chest.  This week I had the opportunity to read an articles recommended by my fellow interns at the CLC talking about the ethics of literacy in the context of the flood of research conducted on neural development and an article about various arts programs taking place in a prison in Alberta, Canada.  I saw applications of issues raised in both articles to the work that the SpeakOut program endeavors to do within institutions of confinement in our communities.

The first article, The Ethics of Literacy Training (Tanner, 1982) raised some interesting points about the difficulty in treating writers as autonomous individuals given the slew of developmental research constantly being thrown at educators.  Psychological research in general tends to focus on averages, often aggregating data from hundreds of participants to reach a statistical conclusion.  Ethical boundaries have been set to respect the autonomy and safety of participants in psychological research, however these boundaries often do not extend to how the research is disseminated and applied in various fields.  I think that educational administrators particularly get very excited about new developments in neurology and the psychology of learning without pausing to examine the bigger picture.

Any type of research must be read critically, and for people who are not familiar with the methods of operationalization and analysis within a given field of study, this can be difficult.  For example, Tanner (1982) mentions feeling overwhelmed about reading research that outlines developmental stages and shows differences in the neurological structure of boys and girls.  While these are important concepts within psychology, it is also important to keep in mind that often the variability within a group of people (whether based on gender, age, race, etc.) is often greater than the variability between groups.  So, while statistics may tell us that a difference between groups is significant, this says nothing about the differences that exist between members of the same group on a given variable.

If anything, this would probably overwhelm Tanner even more, because it blurs the distinctions that have been so clearly demonstrated within research.  While Tanner is focused more on the ethics of teaching literacy, I think the article also brings up the issue of ethically applying research and theory to teaching, a process that can never be completed as research continues to progress and theories become outdated. 

The other article, Escape when No Escape is Possible (Withey, 2010) explores the various forms art takes within a prison in Bowden Correctional Facility, located in Alberta, Canada.  I particularly connected with a description of a knitting program taking place at the prison.  I took up knitting several years ago as a way to cope with the stresses of transitioning to adulthood, and have since come to grasp how relaxing and transformative the art of knitting can be.  I have also played music in various forms since my childhood, which has also evolved into a form of therapy.  Being able to recognize how therapeutic art has been in my life allows me to expand the notion that art could be therapeutic for those who are incarcerated, especially after seeing the artistic, musical, and written talent of the men I work with in the jail.

Microaggressions Make a Macro Impact

I once had a supervisor who defined micoraggressions as: “Those little things that happen throughout the day that make you feel like crap.”  Only she didn’t say crap.  I believe that it is the constant stream of micraggressions regarding race, class, religion, sexuality, and other identities that indicates that our society has not “progressed” as far as we think.  Why are racist jokes so popular if we have really overcome racism? 

In a confined and gendered environment such as the jail, microaggressions in the form of microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations are thrown around on a constant basis.  The most common forms of these that I hear in working with the men are microassaults and microinsults about gender.  Often, the men try to denigrate each other by calling each other women (often in less kind or appropriate vernacular).  While in the housing units, it is likely that these comments go unchallenged, as they are said within the context of a hypermasculine environment where such a challenge could be easily misinterpreted.  However, in the context of group where women are present, myself and the other facilitators have been able to have some meaningful conversations about why these comments are offensive and how to respect women through their words, simply by addressing the comments directly when they are said.

Racial microaggressions also occur in the context of group, but seemingly less frequently because of the relative homogeneity of the group.  I would guess that it is also more common for these types of microaggressions to be addressed in the housing areas, because if a person of color is attacked for their race or ethnicity, it is less taboo to stand up for that identity.  This, however, is coming from a white woman who has not had to worry about assaults to my race.  It is very possible that there is an undercurrent of racial microaggressions that I have not caught due to my own experience with race.

In the past few weeks, our group has been more intentional about setting community standards at the beginning of each session, instead of just reading off a list that someone else thought sounded good.  Every week, I try to address the topic of inclusive language and creating a safe environment by respecting each others’ identities through language. 

At first, I was nervous to talk about a subject that might make me seem less “cool” to the group (flashback to middle school) but I have found that the men usually appreciate me bringing up the idea of inclusive language.  I have also grown more comfortable explaining what inclusive language is, instead of ranting about how people use language to attack each other.  I think that because they can tell how important language use is to me, they are take my requests seriously (at least until group is over).  It is my hope that by creating an atmosphere that honors the identities of everyone in the room, all the writers feel safer expressing themselves each week.

Putting the “Fun” into “Fun”ctionally Literate

Definitions of literacy are important in several arenas.  Schools operationalize literacy using standardized tests in order to send out data to states to get funding for education.  Many governments keep track of rates of literacy as an index of social equality between groups within a society.  Non-profit agencies, such as the CLC, often include statistics provided by government agencies to justify the need for grants to fund programs to enhance literacy.

In all of the above scenarios, it is easier to employ a dichotomous definition of literacy, labeling people as either literate or illiterate.  This makes the data more clean-it is easier to calculate proportions and percentages and make compelling arguments for funding and the need for action.  However, the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization proposes that literacy takes place along a continuum and that the skills along this continuum shift based on cultural priorities.  UNESCO also contends that literacy is a life-long process that can be gained or lost across the lifespan. 

The above conception of literacy makes sense, especially in a world where technological advances are increasing exponentially.  A key component of literacy is being able to communicate with others, a realm in which technology use is becoming more imperative.  So, an adult who learned to read and write but does not know how to use a computer to research issues and communicate with people via electronic media is not necessarily literate in an industrialized country. 

The continuum approach makes the work we do in the jail and Turning Point easier to conceptualize because the people we see on a weekly basis have such a variety of skills within the realm of literacy.  Some of the writers in group are voracious readers and prolific writers, but only in the context of confinement.  On the outside, they may limit their literacy opportunities due to occupational or other environmental demands.  To a researcher trying to operationalize literacy, they may appear illiterate.  Others have never learned how to read or write and work incredibly hard to develop these skills.  For institutions of confinement, a dichotomous definition of literacy lends itself better to program evaluations and grant proposals.  Thus, the dominant definition of literacy is situated within the dichotomous view of literacy. 

I also see the continuum approach as more compatible to the idea of literacy as activism.  The mere act of reading and writing does not allow someone the critical thinking skills to advocate for justice for themselves and their communities (I have witnessed this directly as a college student).  Instead, a continuum view allows for the growth of these skills over time.  As people begin to use literacy to impact their lives positively (or negatively, I suppose), they are able to develop more of an awareness of the importance of literacy and thus are able to harness literacy more effectively to achieve positive outcomes for themselves and others.

Word on the Street

If you’ve ever been to a big city, you probably may have been approached by someone you perceive to be homeless trying to sell newspapers.  Prior to my internship with the CLC, I had no idea that these people, and the newspapers they are selling, are part of a social movement dedicated to providing sustainable employment and education the public about homelessness called “Street Papers.”  Most street papers are produced and sold primarily by people experiencing homelessness.  They serve multiple purposes: to give those experiencing homelessness a voice for their often ignored concerns, to provide a stable and dignified income for people experiencing homelessness, and to provide information to the public about homelessness from the source, rather than government agencies spouting statistics.

In several ways, the SpeakOut journals and street papers share similarities, as they are both community publication initiatives.  First, one of the manifest purposes of both publication outlets is to disseminate the ideas and language of marginalized communities.  Through this, hopefully readers can make literary connections with people from stigmatized groups, which can go a long way in terms of changing the views of communities.  Additionally, the SpeakOut journals are distributed in a variety of communities.  While street vendors from street papers canvas wide areas of the city, our dedicated team of interns and volunteers spread the journals throughout coffee shops, conferences, and agencies around Larimer County and beyond.

While these are two important similarities, there are also distinct differences between the types of publications.  Street papers are more likely to be produced by organizations with explicitly activist orientations.  As such, there is more room for political statements to be made and supported.  In order to fit within the institutional milieu of confinement, the SpeakOut journals cannot contain as explicitly political critiques of the system in which we reside.  To do so, also, would likely force the political and social views of the Community Literacy Center onto the writers published within the journal, which would open up the possibility of misrepresenting the writers themselves.  

As is an overarching theme in my wanderings about community literacy, all questions of publication and representation must be handled with care-whether disseminated as a street paper or a journal of writers experiencing confinement.  This, I think, is the most important similarity in all community literacy work.

Update: Who is Serving Whom?

I am not sure how it happened, but February is halfway over, and it is time to get serious about my research project with the CLC.  To recap, I am planning to conduct a qualitative analysis of the experiences of the volunteers and interns working with the SpeakOut writing workshops.  This idea emerged from my undergraduate thesis, which analyzed the ways people become involved in rehabilitative correctional programming as well as how they construct meaning through their experiences. 

My interviews with the CLC staff have a similar purpose, but with a different take.  I would like to know what attracted the volunteers and interns to community literacy work, specifically with incarcerated populations, as well as the meaning they have constructed since beginning their work.  I would also like to understand how perceptions of incarcerated populations as well as criminal justice as a whole have shifted since beginning work with SpeakOut. 

Here are some of the proposed interview questions:

  • How did you find out about the Community Literacy Center?
  • What made you want to volunteer for SpeakOut?
  • What were you most nervous about in working with an incarcerated population?
  • What has surprised you most about your experiences with SpeakOut?
  • How (if at all) has your view of the criminal justice system shifted since working with SpeakOut?
  • Are there any writers who have been particularly influential to you?

I will begin recruiting for interviews as soon as I am able to get approval from Colorado State University’s Institutional Review Board.  I hope to be able to start scheduling interviews at the CLC’s training about writing through conflict as well as through the CLC newsletter.

“That Must Have Been Hard to Write…”

The incarcerated population is a population of people who have experienced great trauma.  Many people in the system are trapped in cycles of addiction and violence that may very well lead to the feeling of powerlessness Jenny Horsman refers to in her article about literacy and trauma.  In my short time working at the jail, I have seen how trauma can impact the writers, both as they try to learn despite distraction and as they use writing to “write through the pain.”

When I first started volunteering at the jail, I was struck with how open the writers were about the struggles they had faced in the past.  However, in such a “sterile” setting, it is difficult to conceptualize these struggles as salient in the learning process.  After all, while in the workshop room, people are on the whole congenial, joking about the jail food and meeting new cellies.  It becomes shocking, then, when this artificial sense of well-being is shattered, often by well-placed poems or stories about being shot or being beaten by a parent and then going on to aggress on a partner.  Perhaps the most startling was finding out about the untimely death of one of our previous writers.

Just as it would be difficult for a child to pay attention in school with an empty stomach (poverty itself a form of trauma), it is difficult for adults in a literacy group to pay attention when they received bad news in court or found out about the death of a friend.  Writing can then become an important outlet to express the emotions brought up by the event, but it is often difficult to create an environment that normalizes and validates the feelings of the writer without validating and normalizing the culture of violence that allowed the event to occur in the first place.  Instead, I find myself offering trite aphorisms such as, “That must have been very hard to write.” Or “How do you feel after sharing that?”

While it is one thing to create an environment that allows learning while acknowledging trauma, it is another to use writing as a tool to “self-therapize” or process through trauma.  I truly believe in the healing power of writing, whether it is shared or not shared.  Last year, I worked for several months with a writer on an autobiographical story about his divorce and the impacts it had on him.  As this particular writer was about to get out, he thanked me, saying that he had been able to express feelings through his writing of which he had previously been unaware.  I cannot take any credit for his journey of self-discovery-I simply provided a willing audience for his thoughts and the healing progressed on his own.  Through these types of experiences, I have come to view writing as one of the most profound forms of therapy. 

But: what about for the people whose trauma and needs are so severe that merely mentioning it could cause great distress?  I can definitely relate to the title of Horsman’s article: “But I’m Not a Therapist.”  While I do endeavor to one day be a therapist, I simply do not have the skills and experience to respond to trauma in a way that helps someone move past it.  For those who write and have no readers, there is no process of feedback other than self-reflection, which is too often skewed by the situation at hand.

So what, then, should we do as fellow writers in the SpeakOut writing workshop?  I have found that when people are ready to share their experiences, they will, and that by being willing to listen without judgment, all of us can learn about the process of healing through writing.