Things We Bring In

In the last two weeks, each intern has been asked to bring in an outside article that we see as pertaining to our experiences in the SpeakOut workshops.

In the “Presence of Time and Implications for Literacy,” Muth et al. explain Barbara Adam’s theory of Timescapes as the ways “institutions (state, corporation, church, family, school, etc) use time as a commodity to achieve social relations and control” (5). This critique of clock-time as method of control interested me, because so much of human stress is related to time. In graduate school (and through most of my life), I am plagued with moments of lung-crushing anxiety that I just don’t have enough time. When in the jail, I sometimes idealize the space that these women are in: if I were locked up, I could finally get all of my reading done and all of my papers written (by hand, of course), and nothing would get in the way. However, I recognize that that is a privileged mindset (so much of my experience this year has revealed my ingrained privileged ideologies. The women I interact with at the LCDC have too much time. They want out.

Ryder’s article, “Beyond Critique: Global Activism and the Case of Malala Yousafazi,” made me aware of my Western ideology because, first, I rarely think about the right to an education, because I have one. Furthermore, it made me evaluate the ways that I might be trying to “speak for the subaltern” when I don’t realize it. In fact, even in the above paragraph, I speak for inmates who do not have the (wealthy, Western) privilege of blogging, at my own computer, at my own desk, in my own apartment. I said they “have too much time. They want out.” When I wrote that (give-or-take two minutes ago), I felt as though I was speaking to the unfairness of keeping them locked up. But two weeks ago, when discussing the notion of civility in workshop, one of the women talked about how the jail was home to her. She says it’s the place where she stays sober, the place where she is safe, and where she has a bed and a roof. This woman is not concerned with “time,” so much as she is concerned with “home.” And, though Malala Yousafzai has become a symbol for access to education, I wonder if even she speaks from a privileged point of view. She believes in the power of education, because she has one. As she says, her father taught her to read Arabic to study the Qur’an herself. But many of the women in the SpeakOut workshops are educated. Do they see education as they way out?

The two articles we read for this week both speak to the literal “ways out” in terms of inmate re-entry into society. The Bureau of Justice Assistance produced their Project Overview about Integrated Reentry and Employment Strategies, which is a concise, easy-to-read government document that presents the idea of preparing prisoners for reentry as formulaic. We simply have to follow the flow chart and get the person into the right group. The intentions behind this document are honorable and their logic is sound; however, I felt that it took the humanity away from the process. The document cites that reentering inmates “report that a job is the key to avoiding criminal activity” (so perhaps our focus and Malala’s should be on jobs, not education), but it does not specifically articulate what the “Employment Program Components” are that are expected to get newly-released, very individual inmates to those jobs. As this is the Project Overview, I imagine a more in-depth document exists somewhere, though I would be interested to see if they discuss the human element in any greater way than simply separating people between the categories of more/less ready for “society” and high/low risk for future criminal activity.

In terms of criminal activity, I found Rose and Hardshaw’s article fascinating, as I would never have guessed that contraband technology existed in prisons to such an extent. It made me immediately wonder if any of the LCDC women were still on Facebook or Instagram. The notion of the “purpose” of prison interested me, because the article mentions that the purpose of the prison is to restrict an offender’s movement and keep them from causing further harm to the general population,” but I had always conceptualized the “purpose” of prison as “punishment.” In fact, I don’t know i I believe in the purpose as simply “preventing further farm.” And, if I think like a true, overbearing, probably republican (#sorrynotsorry) member of the criminal justice system, then these people should absolutely not have access to technology. But, if I think like a human being, it does seem like cruel and unusual activity to restrict their involvement with technology, especially in the case of long-term inmates who, if reentering, would literally be out-of-touch[screen] with the current reality. More so though, what this makes me think of is LCDC’s recent implementation of the video visit system. The article posits video visits as advantageous, because visits are not restricted to standard visiting times and they can receive video calls from out-of-state, but I can’t help but wonder whether the inmates are satisfied with only seeing their friends, family, and lovers in 2D.

Literacy as a Foundation

In UNESCO’s Global Report on Adult Learning and Education, they view literacy in these five ways:

1. as skills, particularly the ability to read, write and calculate, sometimes called cognitive skills or a set of cognitive processes;

2. as applied, practised and situated, or as tasks that require the written word, such as functional, family and work-based literacy;

3. as a set of social and cultural practices embedded in specific socio-economic, political, cultural and linguistic contexts, including schools, family and community contexts;

4. as capabilities, reflected in the ability of the person using the skills to achieve their purposes and their communicative goals; and

5. as a tool for critical reflection and action for social change, also referred to as critical or transformative literacy.

Each of these five functions are understood to be on “a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve his or her goals, develop his or her own knowledge and potential, and participate fully in community and wider society.”

At the Larimer County Jail, the third function of literacy noted above becomes obvious to me in that there is a language associated with the criminal justice system that these woman have developed. This reinforces the idea that literacy is a continuum, rather than a fixed skill learned in childhood, though I do think that the dichotomy between literate and illiterate is still present. I notice this most because there are some writers who have asked if they can write in Spanish, which I encourage them to do; although I question whether or not my feedback will be helpful due to my own illiteracy in their language. I do also wonder about the illiteracy that we do not see, meaning that some people may not come to the workshop if they do not have basic reading and writing skills.

A downside to the notion of literacy as a continuum is that, by admitting that literacy is fluid, we also must admit that there are negative associations with not being able to keep up with that literacy. For example, if a person learned to read and write as a child but is computer illiterate, do we assume them to be less intelligent. This highlights what I consider to be a sense of privilege in the concept of literacy. Literacy–especially literacy as conceptualized on UNESCO’s global scale–is a lofty goal, but one that can only be supported through equal access and opportunity.

Research Project

It seems so long ago since I wrote my last post about wanting to focus my research project on post-incarceration or re-entry programs. So long, in fact, that I do not find it a viable option anymore. This is not to say that I am not incredibly interested in the idea of providing a safe, creative, healthy community space, but that I am not sure I have the energy to complete the project as I conceptualized it. Graduate school is draining, and to focus so much of my energy into getting a post-incarceration program started feels like an energy that will split me asunder.v   I am barely keeping my pieces together as it is.

After speaking with Tobi, we decided I would instead shift my project into something tangible and worthwhile for the future of the Community Literacy Center. Instead of spending this semester focusing on the health of post-incarcerated women, I will spend this semester re-working the volunteer manual to help with the help of the volunteers and interns.

I already spoke of feeling split into pieces, and if my weekly experience in SpeakOut does not add to this, it is because I am careful to witness, rather than absorb, these women’s stories. But this is a difficult boundary to maintain, and something that I know many of the interns and volunteers struggle with. The intimacy we cultivate in these workshops can be intense, and after Kay Adams presented at our staff meeting and at the jail, the concept of self-care seems utterly important.

My revision of the volunteer/intern manual will then include much more information on how to protect our own emotional and creative health in these workshops.

Where I Want to Go/Where Can They Go?

Every time one of the women finishes the session by saying “I won’t be here next week. I’m getting out,” I am hit by a bittersweet pang. I have enjoyed having each woman in the workshop, writing, sharing her work, supporting; but out is where they belong. Not here. Not in these cinderblock walls. Out should be a moment of celebration.

But I wonder what will happen to them when they get out. What resources are available to them? Has writing made enough impression on them that they may turn to writing instead of drugs or theft? Can they use writing to deal with homelessness?

Last week, we had a few moments at the end of workshop to talk about this with the women. I talked about how I would love to create (or re-create) a SpeakOut 2.0.

Giving them space and time and support to write is fantastic in these confines, but what about giving them the same space and time and support when the confines are as big as the outside world?

I heard ideas from them about different spaces: a free coffee shop for the homeless that used to be in Denver where people could come, drink coffee, and have a safe, supportive space. “People wrote so much beautiful poetry there,” one of the women said.

Another woman suggested not “SpeakOut,” but “ActOut.” She said, “what if we had a space where we wrote skits about our life experiences, or about things we were thinking about doing, and then other people could act them out.? Seeing our bad decisions acted out on stage might help us understand them better and maybe we won’t make those same mistakes again.”

This is where I want to go for my research project. I want to give these women somewhere to go when they are free to go somewhere. I want to give them a somewhere to go that isn’t the same places they’ve gone before.

I just don’t know if this is possible. I don’t know if we could find space or funding or if current CLC grants would cover a weekly meeting outside of the structure of a jail or a halfway house.

But I’d like to try.

For Granted

I take it for granted that the women I work with at the Larimer County Detention Center can read.

I take it for granted that everyone can read.

I take it for granted that I read.

My childhood was spent on my parents’ laps, book in hands, “reading” with them; my nonsense words mimicked the sounds their voices made. My school years were filled with reading the way my backpacks were full of books. Even now, even outside of reading dictated by curriculum, reading is my escape; it is the thing for which I carve out time, the thing during which I often forget to go to sleep.

It almost never occurs to me to consider the idea that Pat Rigg mentions in his article, Petra: Learning to Read at 45. He says, “I had read and talked about how one’s literacy development is affected by the people with whom one most closely associates, and by the assumptions and expectations held by those people” (138). When I read that, it made sense that my literacy is something that I cherish and that feels like home, because my literacy development was founded in the arms of the family that I cherish–in the arms that feel like home.

I grew up in a family and a culture and with a socioeconomic background where reading had value. Petra did not. Her culture and family and socioeconomic history values work, and food, and raising children. The idea of “reading” means to this woman, Petra, a migrant worker, something so different than what it means to me. At the same time, I was struck when she said, “People like you, who know how [to read], should come help me so I could learn some stories, at least how to write my name” (130), because this quote shows a value of reading and literacy that crosses cultural boundaries. She wants to learn stories, maybe because stories can be used to imagine a different story for herself and her family. She wants to learn her name, because, as I say almost every week, we must write ourselves so that nobody else can write us.

Literacy is about telling stories, hearing stories, telling our stories.

Gloria Anzaldúa’s literacy value is rooted more in speaking than in writing or reading, but even she says, “Chicanos did not know we were a people until 1965 . . . Something momentous happened to the Chicano soul–we became aware of our reality and acquired a name and a language . . . Now that we had a name, some of the fragmented pieces began to fall together–who we were, what we were, how we had evolved. We began to get glimpses of what we might eventually become” (85). Anzaldúa speaks here of the power of language to create not only personal identity but also cultural identity. For her, language was reality. It created a people. It took a fractured identity and made it whole.

And, most importantly, it created the ability to see a different future.

These ideas are those that I hope to give to the women in LCDC: writing can create an identity, writing can create a different future. But I rarely ask them what Rigg realized he did not ask Petra: what do these women want in their writing? What do they expect from literacy?

And lastly, what about those women who may be like Petra, unable to read? Petra says, “They are all the time judging one because one doesn’t know how to read, but one knows how to think in one’s head.” I wonder, why do we focus on writing at the CLC? Would it be enough to focus on language? We call our workshops SpeakOut, but we are speaking onto the paper. Should we open the workshops to verbal storytelling? Can verbal language, rather than written language, achieve the same goals of telling ones story?

I think it can.

Women Writing

I’ve never liked the sound shhhhh

So I stop myself from saying it

on Wednesdays

among women.

Who am I to tell them they can’t



and answer

We are here to write,

but we are here

as community.

I won’t shhhhh community.

I wish the women would speak with their words, not with their mouth. But some prompts hit and some prompts don’t. And some days hit and some days don’t. And if a prompt or a day doesn’t hit with someone, then they still want to speak, not sit in silence. But nobody else wants to be the one that says “shhhhh. Let me write.”

Nobody is going to put more shackles on another, not even, hush.

Sometimes I wish we would speak more. I wish we could talk about what these women think of being in the group. I wish I could hear their stories, in words, even those ones that don’t share them. Especially the ones that don’t share.

But mostly I wish we would write more. That I didn’t sit on my hands with my lips pressed tight trying to tell them not to shhhh. Who am I to tell them anything? White girl not dressed in orange.

Sometimes I want to shhh the others so that the quiet ones, sitting on their hands with their lips pressed together, might speak their work.

Sometimes I want to ask them to write everything they say to one another, without actually saying it out loud. What would that conversation look like if you can’t hear what they other person is saying. I think they’d know though, because these women know each other. Even from before. I wasn’t expecting that. I wasn’t expecting to hear, “I know her mother.” or “How’s your sister doing?” or “My son is in cell block B343.”

I don’t know what I was expecting.

Before my first day, I kept telling myself, “This won’t be like Orange is the New Black. This won’t be like TV.” But the first day, it was. Because I asked them to write, “I am,” and so they put on their fronts. They became characters in their own lives.

Before I went in there, I kept asking myself, “Where did they learn to write? What will their writing be like?” But I wasn’t expecting metaphorical language. I wasn’t expecting to hear similes and turns-of phrases. I wasn’t expecting poetry.

Before I went in there, I kept asking myself, “Who will I be to them?”

I’ve been now, and the women are real women to me, but I still feel a distance. I get it. I’m a white girl and not dressed in orange. “The cliché problem: white [girl] with everything going for [her] telling dark-skinned kids in prison that art matters.”

So now I keep asking myself, “What do they want to write? Am I doing enough for them?”

I don’t know what I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting the craving I feel. I wasn’t expecting the craving to hear them say, “Thank you.” or “What you’re doing matters here.” I wasn’t expecting the craving to speak. To call and hear an answer.

But I’m just like them. We all want to speak and hear an answer.

Literacy: Myth&Crisis

J. Gee situates his discussion on the “literacy myth,” at the beginning of his book titled Social Linguistics and Literacies (1996). And in fact, Gee’s idea that literacy exists only within the social realm is paramount to his arguments that “literacy interrelates with the workings of power,” that “literacy is inherently political,” and that talk about literacy and ‘literary crisis’ is often a displacement of deeper social fears, an evasion of more significant social problems” (22).

He discusses Plato’s construction of society where literacy is a form of authoritative power, wielded by “philosopher-kings” who rule over the general man’s “best interests”–but what those interests might be, the common man has no say (30). Gee then references how literacy has been given or withheld to the aims of the “promotion of Christian faith and life” (32). He cites the “near universal literacy” in Sweden of the eighteenth century, used to reinforce Protestant beliefs, as well as the opposite “reluctance [in Catholicism] to put the Bible and other sacred texts into the hands of the people, for fear they would not interpret them correctly” (ibid). Another large part of Gee’s argument revolves around the ways in which the educational system has propagated the idea that “If language is what makes us human, literacy, it seems is what makes us civilized” (26). He refutes that idea with research that ultimately proves, “literacy in and of itself led to no grandiose cognitive abilities” (34). These are specific examples of the ways literacy has generally been used in history, and for Gee, these examples help frame the question: “What good does (could?) literacy do?” (33).

This question becomes paramount when discussing the role of The Community Literacy Center, specifically within our SpeakOut! workshops. What good am I, really? Why am I there? These questions are ones that I also asked two weeks ago regarding Deborah Brandt’s idea of literacy as an economic tool. By all appearances, the women in the Larimer County Detention Center are not those for whom the literacy myth has worked. They are beyond the rewards system of the educational institution, so what’s the point of using the educational-system’s lauded idea of literacy in the workshops? How will this help them? Can this relationship with literacy that we present to them in the workshop have a meaningful impact on their life?

Honestly, I don’t know. It is hard to argue against Gee’s idea of the “myth” of literacy. If literacy is a myth, then is it also a myth that we can do anything productive with it, especially on a small scale? At the end of this chapter, he frames his solution to the “literacy crisis” by asking “whether the various social groups and institutions that underwrite various types of texts and ways of interpreting them can be changed” (45). But at the Community Literacy Center, I do not think we are in a position to incite large-scale change in various social groups and institutions.

So, with that in mind, when I am asked the question of what literacy provides for the women at the Larimer County Detention Center, I would posit the idea that we take literacy out of the social context in which Gee places it. Even if we cannot spur social change or a fundamental overhaul of the educational system, we can promote the literacy of the individual. I mean that in several senses: first, by promoting literacy outside the educational-rewards system, we give the women tools with which they may find confidence they didn’t have before, simply because they are (and perhaps always been) outside of the educational rewards system. Second, my idea of the literacy of the individual also includes the ability to read and write ones self, and that is an idea to which I continually return. Even if the writing of one’s self may not have a greater effect on society, I hope that it can give joy or alleviate the pain of some personal doubts or discomforts or traumas (pain that often stem from the place these women occupy outside mainstream society). No matter an individual’s place in society or the world, we all have things that we struggle with, we all face our own demons, we all have things to celebrate.

We all have our own stories. So let’s write them. Let’s write on.

I Write/I Write Here

Mostly, I write for me.

I write to free myself. To understand myself. To see myself on a page.

I write so no one else can write for me. I write to use my voice. I wish I wrote write to give someone else theirs.

I have journaled since I was 11, when the stages of pre-pubescence left me spinning and I just needed to orient myself. I kept writing when I felt lonely, like no one could understand. I wrote to help myself understand.

I don’t always write my truth when I’m writing for myself. Sometimes I write elaborate fictions of how things could have gone differently. Sometimes I can imagine my stories so clearly that I start to believe the fiction over the reality.

Sometimes when I write I am left empty, and sometimes it makes me more full.

But always, I am glad when the words are on the page and not filling space in my head. It feels like I open my mouth and a fog falls into my hands, covering the page and clearing my brain.

And that’s a freedom I want to encourage in other people. So much of what confines us is self-created. We get stuck in emotions, stuck in memories, stuck in what other people think of us. I want to encourage the power that comes from putting those confines onto the confines of the page.

I want to encourage speaking self. I want to encourage a call and answer.

Call your self by placing the page open in front of you. See what self answers.

Most of all, write on…

I Sponsor/Sponsor Me

In her article, Sponsors of Literacy, Deborah Brandt defines literary sponsors as “any agents, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who enable, support, teach, and model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold, literacy—and gain advantage by it in some way….sponsors set the terms for access to literacy and wield powerful incentives for compliance and loyalty. Sponsors are delivery systems for the economies of literacy, the means by which these forces present themselves to—and through—individual learners” (19).

With that in mind, I contemplate role of sponsorship for the women in the SpeakOut workshop. I certainly will support and enable their writing, though I do wonder what my supposed gain will be.

To them, I hope I will provide them support and a positive, encouraging attitude. From them, I hope to gain confidence in those same abilities. I hope I will come out of this workshop, knowing that I can be supportive and encouraging and honest.

To them, I hope I will create a place of comfort and trust. From them, I hope they give me the sense that I can be trusted.

To them, I hope I will bolster the idea that writing is freedom. From them, I hope to gain an appreciation for the freedom I have.

On a more global-level, Brandt discusses literacy as an economic tool, and I wonder how much of that I should bring into this workshop. In providing these women time and space to write, I hope that writing becomes a form of therapy and self-expression, but can I also convince them that writing is a way to physically write themselves a better reality? Is that idealistic? How much will writing actually influence their day-to-day when they leave the jail? I want them to cherish the power of writing, but I don’t want to give them false hope.

Honestly, I feel that I will be changed more from this experience than they might be. I expect that I will be continually reminded to live in gratitude for my life and my opportunities. I expect that I will write more than I have in a long time. I expect that I will be kinder to myself, but also to push myself harder. I also hope that this group will give me the strength to take an active role in literacy and shifting socio-economic inequalities. If I preach to these women that writing can change their lives for the better, I hope that I will be spurred to create a world where that is true. As Brant talked about how different sponsors of literacy work to shape economic gaps in our culture, I felt injustice and frustration for those that literacy leaves behind. I felt a frustration similar to that which I felt when i read Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, a book that outlines the huge inequalities in our public school system. But I am at a point now where I don’t want to stop at that feeling of frustration. I want to do something to change the culture that creates those inequalities. Just as I hope these women find strength from the SpeakOut workshop, I hope that SpeakOut gives me the strength to act.

I hope that SpeakOut gives me the strength to write on…

Why Literacy/I Literacy

In the article “Community Literacy,” by Higgins, Long, and Flower, I was struck first by their tittle that defined community literacy as “A Rhetorical Model for Personal and Public Inquiry.”

Before this article, I considered literacy to be the simple knowledge of reading and writing, but Higgins et al. remind us that literacy is not a personal endeavor, but rather something that places us within community. We read to better understand others; we write to better understand ourselves, and help others understand us.

I titled this blog post Why Literacy/I Literacy both to pose a question and to answer it. Why literacy? To create an “I.” A self-as-text that can be read and understood by others.

As soon as literacy is taken outside of the self and placed in a community context, though, we must be aware of the both the possibilities and the problems.

Higgins, Long, and Flower talk about community literacy as “‘a search for an alternative discourse.’ a way for people to acknowledge each other’s multiple forms of expertise through talk and text and to draw on their differences as a resource for addressing shared problems” (9). In order to create this community literacy, they work with four goals: First the have to assess the rhetorical situation by “identifying the nature of the exigency that prompts response and the potential audiences that might be addressed” (12). They stress that “all participants enter a discourse and address a situation they do not fully understand . . . Any one group’s perspective on the problem will always be partial–both limited and biased toward its own interests” (12). The acknowledgment of multiple perspectives helps in their second goal, which is the creation of a local public. They define a local public as “one in which deliberation looks like inquiry, conflicting perspectives and marginalized expertise are a resource, and better resolutions to shared problems are the goal” (18). One the local public is created, the third goal is to develop participants’ rhetorical capacities. In other words, a conversation cannot start until the participants have a way to speak in a way the the other will understand. This process starts by eliciting situated knowledge–by finding out where each party is coming from. Then the group can engage difference in dialogue rather than ignoring difference, and finally the group can construct and reflect upon wise options that move the group closer to a solution to the problem they faced. The last goal of community literacy is to support personal and public transformation through the circulation of alternative texts and practices: we’ve got the conversation going, now let’s do something about it.

In short, Higgins, Long, and Flower stress the importance of community in community literacy. When literacy is placed in a community context as a tool for change, we must acknowledge the possibility of conflict that stems from misunderstanding or lack of understanding. As the authors stress, each person comes to the table of conversation with a different perspective. Community literacy works by taking all varying perspectives and constructing a view of the problem that can be seen from all sides at the same time,

As I look forward to facilitating and participating in a writing workshop at the Larimer County Detention Center, I wonder how much the ideas in the article will come into play. Obviously, in a detention center, our discourse probably won’t be focused so much on changes we could make in their community, as their community is structured and dictated by the realms of the law. However, I wonder if those same theories can be applied on an individual level. Meaning, can we use writing and discourse to help them understand themselves better? Can they write all perspectives of their self onto the paper? Can self be a local public?

I want this weekly writing workshop to be a time of light in their lives. I am nervous that I won’t ask the right questions though. I’m nervous that I’ll either dive too deep or not deep enough. I’m nervous that we’ll start on this communal journey of self-discovery and end up more lost. Regardless, I can’t wait. All I hope is that one person will learn the power that comes from writing self and carries it with them beyond these 12 weeks.

Write on…