May 3, 2010

Students and Imprisoned Teenager Team Up to Make Art and Book

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Last semester, a group of Cornell students worked in a world quite different from their academic surroundings high on East Hill: that of a juvenile detention center. Prof. Tamar Carroll, history, combined her knowledge of gender studies, social justice and “mass incarceration” in the United States into a service learning class exploring these issues.

Students in the class traveled once a week to the Lansing State Residential Center to work on creative writing projects with detained teenage girls aged 12 to 17. At the end of the semester, the girls’ favorite works were assembled into a book entitled Release, which was distributed to participants, local libraries and the Cornell Store, which will be selling copies to profit the Public Service Center. The book provides both a creative outlet for the girls, and a window into their lives for others. Students in the class studied the facts and philosophy underlying the growing problem of mass incarceration, and the links between education and social justice. “Mass incarceration is reshaping our nation,” Carroll said, citing the fact that one in every 100 Americans is currently in jail and that disproportionately high numbers of detainees are African-American and Hispanic. “I think it’s really important for Cornell students to learn about [this incarceration problem]” she said. Carroll, who volunteered previously at the facility, said she believed the girls might respond better to volunteers closer to their own age. “They really enjoy meeting people [from] the outside … and really appreciate not being treated like prisoners,” Carroll said.Each week, the Cornell students designed projects and worked with small groups of the teenagers to create poetry, rap, paintings and collages. Carroll recalled one project in which the detained students compiled photos “representing hope, loss and friendship,” and sent their Cornellian mentors to obtain specific images from the “real world.”The images they requested ranged from those reminiscent of home, like a pet, and others of wealth, such as a Hummer. One girl asked for a picture of a room in the non-institutional world, because she said she “had never seen a real room.”  Carroll emphasized the importance of the bonds formed between the Cornellians and the incarcerated girls, some of whom have kept in touch via email and letters after the program’s conclusion. “They found common ground as young people,” she said. Carroll added that the two groups were able to connect over teenage problems like fights with parents and fascination with popular culture. “When we gave them the book, they were extremely excited to see their work in print,” said Carroll, recalling how the student whose photograph adorned the back cover exclaimed, “Look! It’s my picture; it’s my picture!” after noticing her work’s prominent placement.Cornell students participating in the program agreed that it was deeply moving for them.“Working with the residents was a really inspiring experience for me and helped me realize the educational and self expressive opportunities we took for granted,” said Carlo Lutz ‘11, another of the Cornell student volunteers, adding that he has been inspired to pursue similar programs with prisoners at the MacCormick Secure Center.   Carroll noted that the interaction could not fix the underprivileged backgrounds of the girls. “It would be arrogant and improper to think that this will change their lives,” Carroll said, but she expressed hope that such projects will foster “future conversations and mutual understanding.”

Original Author: Eliza LaJoie