Today, while giving a tour, I mentioned our book group to the student and her mother. I gave the usual speal, and tied it in by mentioning that the CEO pays for our travel and that BMC is supportive of these types of independent projects. She responded with, "Oh that must be so nice for a sociology student, to see how the other side lives."
My response was less than honorable. I sort of nodded along with her before realizing what I was agreeing with. Thinking back now, though, I realize how very, very strange the idea is that the women we work with are somehow different, removed, "others" from us. I think I stopped seeing true difference a long time ago. There is no "other side", I think. We all represent many colors and shapes in a kaleidoscope, overlapping, intersection, enmeshing to paint a picture.
We are not the same, no, but we're not truly different, either.
Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga
"Tambu, an adolescent living in colonial Rhodesia of the '60s, seizes the opportunity to leave her rural community to study at the missionary school run by her wealthy, British-educated uncle. With an uncanny and often critical self-awareness, Tambu narrates this skillful first novel by a Zimbabwe native. Like many heroes of the bildungsroman, Tambu, in addition to excelling at her curriculum, slowly reaches some painful conclusions--about her family, her proscribed role as a woman, and the inherent evils of colonization. Tambu often thinks of her mother, "who suffered from being female and poor and uneducated and black so stoically." Yet, she and her cousin, Nyasha, move increasingly farther away from their cultural heritage. At a funeral in her native village, Tambu admires the mourning of the women, "shrill, sharp, shiny, needles of sound piercing cleanly and deeply to let the anguish in, not out." In many ways, this novel becomes Tambu's keening--a resonant, eloquent tribute to the women in her life, and to their losses."
While typing up the poetry (what an experience!) I felt compelled to write my own short piece. I'm sure you'll notice my influence:
While they are locked up I
It is so FUCKED UP
The yellow papers scream
I try to answer back
Flying fingers on white keyboard
The only language I speak.
NOTE: I fixed some clear typos but mostly left as-is. I was also unsure about one or two of the names.
So I was remembering back to one of our earlier conversation about how we can carry on our work financially and have money to buy books, transportation, etc. I think Sara brought up the idea of a website like kickstarter or indiegogo. I've looked into both and Indiegogo seems best (kickstarter is mostly for art-related ventures). For fun, I also started the process of creating our page. But as I got further into it and started answering some tougher questions, I realized that this may be better done as a group with all of us providing input. Maybe we can schedule an extra meeting sometime to work on this? I know how important the money part is to us being able to sustain this work, so I'm thinking sooner rather than later..
Rather than just updating you on this progress, I also wanted to get everyone's feedback on how me might use something like this internet platform to our advantage. Obviously we could share the link through Facebook and email to our friends, colleagues and family to solicit donations, but what else?
..I've searched and searched for news that Elaine Bartlett has returned to prison, as Jessica brought up. Happily, I've found nothing to suggest that that has happened. Given that Dovetta was passionate about Elaine's story being hers, this gives me a little ounce of hope that she will make it out for good, too. Dovetta's impending release hung over our small group conversation today. We said it would be hard. We knew that it would be almost impossible. She will have to stay away from her husband of 21 years, a drug dealer, and her 6 kids, who also dabble in drugs. She will have to make meetings, find work, find herself, keep herself, follow her dreams. She wants to counsel addicts, write a book, stay clean, never come back. I assured Dovetta that I would be one of her first readers and that I hoped to read her book with another class of incarcerated women one day. The smile she gave me after hearing that single-handedly convinced me that I wanted, NEEDED to continue this work next semester. But now that I'm back home and I've lost sight of Dovetta, I've lost sight of my hope for her, too. We've been taught to blame the institution, the forces that be, that keep these women down. And in fact, we've made it our goal to teach them that, too. But does this way of thinking make it harder for us to hope, too? I can't keep out the doubt. The doubt that says Dovetta won't make it because of the forces pushing against her.
1) "Most of the students stared at the form without writing. The prospect of fitting their complicated lives into all these boxes seemed to overwhelm them" (190).
2) "Elaine walked out the door. Weeks later, looking back on this day, she would have trouble explaining exactly why she had decided to leave. Maybe just because she could. After so many years of being trapped in prison, she did not ever want to feel trapped again" (201).
3) Each newspaper article in which she was quoted sent a message back to Bedford Hills. It didn't matter if only one or two people read it. Word would get around. Everyone would hear that Elaine Bartlett was thriving" (263).
The other day, I went in to do my internal interview for a big scholarship I'm applying to. For some background, this scholarship is for people interested in public service fields, and I want to be a social worker in the Navy. As expected, I was asked right off the bat "why the military?" and more specifically, why I wanted to be IN the military rather than just work WITH the military.
The answer for me was an easy one: how many times does a person get the opportunity to be a real part of the group that they want to "help"? I feel like I do good work when I go and mentor at Belmont every monday, and I know my mentee really responds to me, but the reality is that I can never be a low-income African-American boy from the city. This is not an identity I share. I know that my inability to relate to him on this most fundamental level means that I can never really be the most effective mentor. I'm missing that level of empathy, and I don't know exactly what he needs. The military represents an opportunity, though. Finally I can avoid the trap that is professional imperialism and serve the population of the military because not only do I know the unique stressors and challenges they face, but because I face them, too.
Of course, this would have been the answer I'd have given in a perfect world, or with interviews whose goal was not to push my thinking. So instead my answer went something more like: "...want to try and avoid stepping into a population and doing my best to help the way I think is ri---"
..I think I can articulate a little better what exactly frustrates me so much about the intense religiosity of our group.
But first thing's first. I was actually really touched by Alicia's prophecy -- both the content and her delivery. Something that struck me in particular was he warning of the distractions that would soon try and derail us from our paths and the responses we should give" "I am doing great work, I cannot come." I often get caught in this cycle of reading about other people (especially college students) and all they've accomplished in their lives. I've effectively convinced myself out of thinking I even have a shot of receiving the Truman, a scholarship I've been working towards for almost a year. But something about Alicia's words boosted me out of that ditch I'd been slipping into. I don't know what it was, and it doesn't seem right to approach her prophecy with an analytical lens at this point, but it worked, so thank you, Alicia.
Here are some images that represent our project. The first portion is what we showed during our final presentation.
Collaborators (AKA Book Buyin' Bitches): Hayley, Julia and Jacky
Developing and carrying out a final project that revolved around a subject which interested us felt like a perfect way to culminate our experience and learning together this semester. As one who has depended on books for various reasons for most of my life and never had to question my own literacy, the idea of Books Behind Bars in its effort to both raise consciousness about issues surrounding literacy, privilege and social distance as well as money to buy books for incarcerated women felt particularly close to home. While it was a topic that was personal to me, I saw much potential in BBB in that it had the ability to reach across and off campus, affecting both Bryn Mawr students and the larger population of incarcerated women that we had grown close to. Additionally, our consciousness-raising efforts were particularly far reaching in that our fliers were distributed across campus and thus hopefully engaged even those who were not in attendance of our final presentation. Although it may be impossible to determine how individuals reacted to our thought-provoking marketing techniques, I see the monetary success of our collection (we raised over $165!) as an indication that people not only noticed the flyers but thought about what they meant and why the issues they raised are important.