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Women in Transition from Prison: Class, Race, and Collaborative Literacy

From: Radical Teacher
Number 83, 2008
pp. 30-36 | 10.1353/rdt.0.0022

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One of the earlier productions of the Theater for Social Change starts with a song. The singers stroll across the stage for three beats, and then stop, turn, and sing together, facing front:

Lucinda's Blues: Introducing Ourselves

I like fried chicken and collard greens
Yeah, I like fried chicken and collard greens
The last time I had chicken and collard greens
I used ALL the hot sauce

Hot biscuits and syrup sho do me fine
I said, hot biscuits and syrup sho do me fine
I can eat biscuits and syrup any old time

At night I watch the stars
I said, at night I sit and watch the stars
I just want to let you people
Know just who we are

"A text must do more than awaken moral sensibilities. It must move the other and the self to action" (Denzin, 1997, xxi).


This paper focuses on meetings that are held one Saturday every month with a group of a dozen or so women in transition from prison. We facilitators (two women who lead the meetings) and fellows (women in transition from prison) read/listen to a variety of short texts; we write songs and poems, prose and fiction about our memories of life before being incarcerated, of life in prison and of our lives now. In time, this work will be edited, assembled and molded into a theater piece which the group will stage and perform. The group is called Theater for Social Change, and it is part of an organization called College and Community Fellowship [CCF] which supports women in transition in their efforts to complete college and graduate school and to participate in a community other than (or in addition to) the one in which they lived before incarceration.

The Theater for Social Change is currently (2008) working on its sixth annual production. CCF fellows, including those in the Theater Group, all work full-time and all currently attend or have graduated from college or graduate school1 . The fellows' group is largely Latina and Black with a minority of one to two white women. There is some fluidity in the make up of the group; the composition of the group changes each year due to newly released women, but the core of the group has been working together for four years. Most fellows work in social services, holding positions with organizations that serve others in transition from prison—the homeless, substance abusers, and/or those who have HIV/ AIDS. Some hold clerical positions. The group ranges in age from mid-twenties into the fifties. Many have partners and/or kids, and all are wrestling with life during transition as students, family members, workers, and political activists.

We facilitators are two white academic women. One of us is an Israeli woman and young mother of two who is on a tenure-track position at a large urban university. She is deeply committed through her ongoing research with various marginalized populations and to the empowering strength of critical literacy and aesthetic education as a liberating voice. The other facilitator, late in her teaching career and hoping for her first grandchild, is an adjunct at a small liberal arts college. For the past 12 years she has been teaching incarcerated college students. She was also instrumental in starting a program for women in transition who wish to continue their education in college and graduate school. Both of us, facilitators/authors, participate fully in the writing and discussion activities of the group. As we have been working continuously with these women, we have become increasingly aware of the struggle of working class women, in and after prison, to gain a college and/or graduate school education. The social and historical background of this struggle informs our approach and our practice, as does our commitment to literacy and to honesty about equality and inequality.

Social and Historical Background

In the United States, interest is slowly developing in the fact that most of those who have been incarcerated during our "get tough on crime" efforts of the last 20 years come home. It is important to remember that Theater for Social Change participants are a...

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