Visual of BBB final project

HSBurke's picture

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 

Enjoy! 

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HSBurke's picture

Final BBB Reflection

Sorry! I accidentally put this in the wrong place. But I'm moving it here where it's supposed to be!

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.

It is appropriate, but ironically so, that we ran up against so many institutional walls in our development of BBB. The campus bookstore declined our proposal to place a collection jar in their store, citing company policy. When we found another viable option in the two campus cafés, we also ran up against issues when I received an email from the manager stating that we had violated policy by placing them there. We were rejected also by Haverford’s CPGC café, ironically an institution which prides itself on its awareness of and contribution towards tackling issues of social justice. We were successful, however, in raising money despite the barriers that continued to impede our efforts. The bureaucratic roadblocks were extremely frustrating, but our peers’ wholehearted support worked to alleviate some of this initial stress. While it’s clear that our campus in the very nature of it being a liberal arts school is in tune with social justice issues, I wasn’t expecting such strongly positive reaction towards our efforts. Beyond the monetary success, I heard many people talking about the issues raised on our posters, calling them “thought provoking” and “shocking”. I also was approached by friends who wanted to hear more about how I had developed an interest/activist role in the issues of literacy, privilege and social distance. While this amount of interest and concern often feels to me unique to our 360, this project was important in its ability to remind me the willingness and openness that our campus has towards looking at these issues, and how we can channel that to create something even more far-reaching. It was easy for me to lose sight of this potential but the positive reactions toward our efforts solidified my hopes of our campus’s ability to stand together as whole in support of what has come to be important to me through this 360.

I see our project as being one that was propelled by my experience in Vision and working with the women at the Cannery. As I explored in my final Vision memo, the class represented for me a progression towards answering the question “Why should I care?” for myself. This was an experience we wanted to replicate for our campus’s general population, especially as we struggled with the possibility of incarcerated women being seen as an unworthy population for donation (particularly in comparison to Project Educate in Africa). Our flyers represented a condensed journey into awareness of the issues surrounding incarcerated women because each version layered upon each other to provide more compelling information around these topics. Our decision to embark on a project that would directly affect our Cannery counterparts and others in their situation represents the strong relationship that we were able to develop through the class as well a realization into how our own recognition of such issues has increased. At the beginning of the semester, I probably would not have been able to spearhead such a project because I myself hadn’t yet determined why I should care.

Additionally, the “human side” of illiteracy was presented to us in our first visit to the Cannery, when Warden Bryant announced that most of their women read at a second-grade reading level. The dichotomy of reading ability present when we were asked to read out loud was subtly obvious, and my knowledge of this reality prompted me to become interested in illiteracy, the privilege behind it, and how this was never something I had to think about until the social distance between myself and the incarcerated women was removed – a thought process we strove to replicate throughout our project.

Our Voice class, in its focus on the connection between prisons and schools, actually touched directly on issues of reading and privilege in institutions. The book, Reading is my Window by Megan Sweeney was specifically helpful in framing our understanding of reading in prison, especially as we debated how/if we could go about providing books to incarcerated women. This represented a serious point of contention for my project group. We thought extensively about the ethics involved in giving books to people. First, we had advertised that 60% of prisoners are functionally illiterate. What, then, does a book donation do to help alleviate this issue? As highlighted by our Voice texts, illiteracy as well as institutional barriers, clearly begin affecting people while still in primary school. So should we be donating books to schools? We were never really able to move past this issue and determined that we would continue moving in our current direction, an oversight which presents a fundamental, but perhaps unavoidable, flaw in our project.

Despite placing this particular battle to the side, we still ran into further ethical issues. In our infant stages, our first idea was to hold a book drive for students to donate old/unwanted books to our cause. But then we didn’t want to donate books that would not appeal to the women and collect dust on the shelves. Our final idea, which worked to solve this issue, involved collection of money which would then be used to purchase books that the women wanted (which we will determine through a focus group next semester) as well as some dictionaries which are the most-requested book in prison. Sweeney’s examination of how incarcerated women use available reading materials to come to terms with their past, understand their present situations, and move toward different futures was critical in forcing us to ask these questions. Because of the many important ways that women in prison use reading, books are a vital asset to any institution. If we wanted to donate some, we had to think critically about whether or not these books would fulfill the needs and wants of the women who would receive them.

While this is perhaps a more philosophical connection, the lessons learned in Silence class definitely colored my approach to this project. We put a strong emphasis on ensuring that our project wouldn’t come across as preachy or too in your face. Our method centered around the idea that the student body could come to understand the connections between our main themes on their own. Our project was almost a practice in silent subliminal suggestions, allowing our peers to feel as though they’d arrived at the place of questioning their own privilege all by themselves, while we worked to build the scaffolding. This was further demonstrated by the form that our final exhibition took. Rather than performing our activism then and there, we chose to explain and diffract our weeklong efforts, breaking the silence that surrounded our project in order to wrap up our desired effect and bridge any remaining gaps. Of course, on a more concrete level, the idea and meaning of privilege was a topic that we explored deeply in Silence. It was there that we were encouraged by ourselves and others to acknowledge our own privilege and lack thereof. This was present very vividly in Anne’s post regarding her place/role in academia and our collective efforts to work through the privileges that our race and class afford us. A central pillar around which these Silence conversations revolved involved Delpit’s idea of codes and the “culture of power”. We mainly keyed into the idea that “those with power are frequently least aware of—or least willing to acknowledge—its existence. Those with the less power are often most aware of its existence.” In our project, literacy represents power, and it was one of our goals for Bryn Mawr’s campus to acknowledge its existence, as well as the places it doesn’t exist.

It is built into the structure of our project for it to be a continued effort, at least until we complete the final step in donating the books. While I haven’t imagined this collection to be a yearly occurrence, I do look forward to providing more opportunities like this for Mawrtyrs to question privileges like literacy that they had always taken for granted. I hope our consciousness raising was effective in beginning a conversation that can and needs to continue; and I plan on tackling this together with my fellow 360ers. I saw positive indications of this at our final presentation, from my freshman who took our conversation home to their friends, to the possibility of extending the conversation to new students as a member of customs committee. As is typically the case, most people at our exhibition were not the ones who needed to hear our collective message the most. But, if we begin to approach these issues from students’ entrance into Bryn Mawr, I see us creating a more socially, personally, aware campus who will then take this trend and spread it. We’re just at the beginning, and now that I know my own ability to help move a mountain, I can’t wait to see how far we can go. 

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