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Diversity and Democracy, Winter, 2018

Winter 2018, Vol. 21, No. 1

Critical Learning, Radical Healing, and Community Engagement in Prison

It is day one of Pitzer College’s Healing Arts and Social Change class, and twenty-two students quietly find their seats in the cramped portable classroom, awkwardly accustoming themselves to sitting in a circle instead of in rows. Their anxiety is not just a sign of new-class jitters—it is evidence of the weight of unknowns surrounding our class, one of California’s first semester-long, credit-bearing courses taking place within the walls of a prison with a mixed class of incarcerated and nonincarcerated college students.

The eleven incarcerated students are a racially mixed group of men who earn seven to seventeen cents per hour; the eleven nonincarcerated students are all women and are majority white and wealthy. As instructed, the students sit in a circle, alternating between “inside” (incarcerated) and “outside” (nonincarcerated) students. The presence of assumptions, fear, and ignorance about the “other” is almost palpable. Yet so, too, is an energy of genuine interest, hopefulness, and curiosity.

These tensions will all be brought to the surface before our first two hours are up, through icebreakers and community-building activities that invite us to reflect on our (multiple) identities and chip away at the assumed walls between us, relishing points of commonality and investigating the conditions that have led to our differences. We start by developing communication ground rules to foster a safe enough space for respectful dialogue. We then tell the stories of our names in pairs, sharing family lore, and sometimes the traumas and values we have inherited, in the process. Next, we stand in concentric circles of rotating pairs, where each person speaks freely and then listens actively as we answer questions that range from silly (“If you could choose, what superhero would you be?”) to serious (“Whom and what purpose does this class serve?”) to personal (“Where are you from culturally, geographically, and politically?”)…

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