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Rewriting Confinement: Feminist and Queer Critical Literacy in SpeakOut! Writing Workshops
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Rewriting Confinement:
Feminist and Queer Critical Literacy in SpeakOut! Writing Workshops

“I don’t think we were glorifying here. We have to have a sense of humor about what we’re going through or we won’t get through this. We have to see the funny parts. Sometimes that’s even better than focusing on the bad all the time.”

SpeakOut writer, residential teen workshop

“I just went to go that one day but then we got the pens, paper, and folder. That is like gold in here. It’s like coffee and lotion.… Girls would kill in here for that stuff. Just kidding. But if one girl loses her pen, we all know which one is ours—even though they are all the same.”

SpeakOut writer, women’s jail workshop

As these two writers illustrate, the regulatory mandates of carceral spaces often mediate the possibility of situating literacy as activism. Writing topics are filtered. Common writing tools are strictly controlled. This essay will highlight our work as facilitators of SpeakOut writing workshops, a community literacy project that seeks, first, to provide a safe and encouraging space for confined writers to understand their relationship to the larger world and, second, to increase public awareness on issues of incarceration and social justice through publication.1 As teachers in carceral institutions, we have found that our goal to promote literacy as an active and critical response to confinement is sometimes challenged by institutional [End Page 32] regulations and material constraints. This essay will trouble our aim to enact feminist and queer pedagogy by examining how our workshop practices might contribute to reifying dominant power structures rather than challenging them. Our reflections on workshop facilitation in the women’s jail (Tobi since 2005) and residential youth treatment facility (Stephanie since 2010) demonstrate that institutional partners mediate curricular plans, affect interactions with writers and interrupt the agency that writers might otherwise develop and contribute to an abolitionist campaign for social justice. As our conclusion suggests, such challenges demand tactical revision of practice if we are to realize our pedagogical and political vision for literacy activism behind bars.

The SpeakOut writing workshops are a series of creative and critical educational experiences for youth and adult writers confined to correctional and rehabilitation centers in Fort Collins, Colorado. The purpose is to inspire creative expression, dynamic interaction between writers, and collaborative space for understanding and negotiating difficult circumstances.2 The program is sponsored by the Community Literacy Center at Colorado State University; faculty, student interns, and volunteers facilitate weekly writing workshops and collaboratively develop the SpeakOut journal twice annually. Writers are also invited to participate in SpeakOut 2.0, a dynamic web space for feedback and publication. Although the program is offered to boys and men as well, we will focus our attention here on a women’s group at the local jail and a teen girls’ group at a residential youth and family rehabilitation center. While workshop design is nuanced to meet the needs of the adult or teen writers, there are some common practices that cut across the contexts we serve. The 60-90 minute workshops have space for up to twenty writers who elect (sometimes with staff recommendation and encouragement) to attend one or more sessions. Each workshop opens with a brief orientation for newcomers and an invitation for writers to share work composed since the last meeting. After collective feedback is offered, we move into the day’s writing, often organized by topic (e.g. women’s bodies) or by form (e.g. memoir or found poetry) based upon the interests that writers have articulated. The workshops focus on creating space for communities of writers to foster the penning of traditionally marginalized stories, countering school-based definitions of correct writing, and challenging mainstream publication practices by producing and disseminating the SpeakOut journal. To achieve these programmatic goals, facilitators introduce a wide range of published pieces and writing styles, discuss the multiple purposes and audiences for writing, and anticipate how writers’ work will be received. They also implement workshop practices such as peer review and short writing exercises in order to engage writers in complex (and...