Begin again, with power differentials

You cross this threshold with colleagues, students; travel in trains and vans together, sharing your news of family, school, weekend plans; forget to know you’re free.You cross this threshold with colleagues, students; travel in trains and vans together, sharing your news of family, school, weekend plans; forget to know you’re free. Enter with new books and those marbled, soft-bound composition pads, with pencils, nametags, lesson plans, once with microscopes, enter inured to procedures because after all you are free. Though you too have committed crimes of intention and accident, you all will walk out after shift change on Friday afternoon, on your way to campus, farm, gym, home, party, knowing that “many compassionate, dedicated, and decent people walk into prison education settings and try to build an illusion that the ‘inside’ of their classrooms are ‘outside’ of the racism, White supremacy, and White privilege realities” that incarcerated will encounter when they reenter their communities”; knowing that the huge percentage of formerly incarcerated people, even those who are newly educated “will not be the next-door neighbors or work colleagues of their prison educators.”1

Still, you, your colleague, your students are also not all neighbors. Some of you know well the crimes committed against you, if not those you commit; long to share your own mistakes with the women inside; have relatives inside and feel somehow responsible; send A Thousand Splendid Suns to your friend from high school now in prison. And tonight friends will ask about the jail, what it’s like, what you do there, and you’ll shrug, tell but not tell. You’ll think of the good you mean to bring and receive, worry about the harm you might also cause as “actors in the system” who “contribute to and benefit from oppression”2 and then you’ll try not to think of it at all because, after all, it’s your Friday night too.

And still, you and your students must carve out work in the world, as one of you, en route to graduate school in social work, heads to an internship investigating prisons overseas, another to a fellowship where she’ll continue teaching inside; you present with colleagues at conferences, gain cache in the social justice arm of the academy. An article on “educational and penal realism” cautions that desires “to serve in activist roles have limits, through convergence with personal economic interests.”3 Who is working for social justice on behalf of whom, in this circumstance of profound power differentials? And what couldworking with look like?

In imagining a “pedagogy of solidarity,” Gaztambide-Fernandez argues that

educators are called upon to play a central role in constructing the conditions for a different kind of encounter, an encounter that both opposes ongoing colonization and seeks to heal the social, cultural, and spiritual ravages of colonial history….This requires moving beyond tired conceptions of individual autonomy and rational consciousness…[and] recasting our day-to-day relations and encounters with difference. “What is at stake,” to quote Judith Butler, “is really rethinking the human as a site of interdependency.”4

Rethinking the human, you perceive networks of connection, how one human being’s imprisonment creates another’s paycheck, how someone’s white is another’s black, how I am not free until you are.

  1. Tony Gaskew, “Developing a Prison Education Pedagogy,” in Bringing College Education into Prisons, ed. Rob Scott (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2015), 76.
  2. Kenneth J. Fasching-Varner, et al., “Beyond School-to-Prison Pipeline and Toward an Educational and Penal Realism,” Excellence in Educaiton 47, 4 (2014): 423, accessed May 20, 2016, doi: 10.1080/10665684.2014.959285
  3. Fasching-Varner, et al., “Beyond School,” 423.
  4. Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández, “Decolonization and the Pedagogy of Solidarity,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, 1 (2012): 42, accessed May 20, 2016.