Last fall, a group of Ithacans who have been formerly incarcerated or experienced court involvement shared their stories in the form of oral history interviews they conducted with one another, which will be archived at the History Center in Tompkins County. Over the summer, a group of the same people transformed what they shared into a radio play called Steppin’ into My Shoes, which was released throughout September and can be downloaded now on Spotify, Apple and Google podcasts.
According to Julia Taylor, the director of Re-Entry Theatre (which sponsored and facilitated the project along with College Initiative Upstate), part of the purpose of this project was to “make available the vast diversity of experiences in our community.” From the perspective of a Cornell student, it might be easy to imagine that Ithaca is a white, academic, upper-class community, but Taylor wants more people to realize that “while that identity exists here, our community is so much broader than that. The stories told in these oral histories, while painful, show other aspects of our community.”
Taylor hopes that the oral histories and radio play will help to “crack open a mythology of a very narrow understanding of who experiences incarceration and why and how,” and “affect a shift in how we engage our community that makes space for people who’ve experienced these systems.”
Steppin’ Into My Shoes is not always an easy listen. Hearing the stories of people who have experienced systemic issues in our community, however, prevents us from ignoring them. And through memories of addiction or tragedy or abuse, the radio play showcases the strength and resilience of its storytellers, and the movements for change that are already happening around us.
Steppin’ Into My Shoes has three episodes that center on three themes the writers and actors pulled from the oral history transcripts. The first episode, “Family,” stitches together stories about the many forms family takes for the interviewees. The second episode, “Hot Topics,” turned accounts from the oral histories into a fictionalized interview show meant to inform listeners about the successes and shortcomings of existing addiction treatments. The episode goes into detail about harm reduction, which is a treatment plan that focuses on the safety and well-being of people who use drugs, rather than the penalization and court involvement that many of the oral history participants experienced. The final episode, “Hopes & Dreams,” showcases the moments when interviewees talked about their successes and hopes for what comes next for them.
Steppin’ Into My Shoes and the oral histories it’s based on carve out space for the memory of the systemic issues that lead to racism, poverty and addiction in our town. They also act as a reminder that everybody has a story to tell — and it’s never as simple as you think.
For more information about ReEntry Theatre or to donate to their ongoing work, visit civicensemble.org. For more information about College Initiative Upstate, which provides free access to college and academic support for people who have experienced incarceration or court involvement, visit ciutompkins.org.Help can be found in the Ithaca area through Cayuga Addiction Recovery Services at carsny.org. Students may consult with counselors from Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) by calling 607-255-5155. Employees may call the Faculty Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) at 607-255-2673. An Ithaca-based Crisisline is available at 607-272-1616. For additional resources, visit caringcommunity.cornell.edu.
Tilda Wilson is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]