Vulnerable Communities

Julie Mallozi’’s “"Storytelling as a Path Toward Justice”" wonderfully evokes a critically important issue for me as I begin a new research project, and more broadly, in regards to working with marginalized communities. As she clearly recognizes, authentic connections with groups or communities arises through the building of relationships. As outsiders, we can achieve these relationships only through the often slow process of gaining trust and engaging in meaningful participation.

This has been powerfully true in the third “inside-out” course I have taught with equal numbers of Amherst College students and incarcerated students. On the first day of class, the two groups come together with little sense of what to expect of each other. Some of the Amherst students assume the incarcerated individuals will be so unlike them that they may have trouble relating. While some of the “inside” students fear that they may have become an elite college students’ anthropology project for the semester. During the course of thirteen weeks, the group forms a deep and lasting bond.

Julie writes about the value of the peacemaking circle ritual in making this kind of bond possible. In this class, I don’t rely upon ritual, but many of the things we do in the course have a similar effect in creating a sense of community. Most importantly, the class is built on the principle of equality and every aspect of the classroom situation is designed to create the conditions that make equality possible respect, freedom of speech, and valuing each person’s contribution to the whole. This atmosphere is transformative, even though it is not very different from many college classrooms. Its revolutionary potential arises from the fact that such conditions of mutual respect are found almost nowhere out in the community (even under conditions that are supposedly free). While on the “inside,” despite the forms of violence and control that are inherent to any form of imprisonment, we create a space for peace and reconciliation.

The most remarkable moment of realization came when my colleague, Phil Scraton, from Queens University in Northern Ireland visited our class. The students had read his path-breaking report as a member of a human rights commission documenting the conditions for women in Northern Ireland’s jails. Both his capacity to bring the voices of the incarcerated alive in academic writing and his personal ability to reach out to the group created a context in which many of the inside students were able to speak about the humiliation they have experienced as wards of the state. Some of the inside students trusted us enough to tell us how it feels to be subject to the conditions endemic to imprisonment to be isolated, subjected to arbitrary authority, and to lose contact with the outside world.

The course was a powerful, but unfortunately short-lived experience for everyone involved. As I start a new research project my attention turns to questions about how we create such environments in the larger communities of people who will never enter a prison and people who have spent their lives in and out of its revolving door. Specifically, my research will focus on employment discrimination experienced by men and women with criminal records. Criminologists call this process of looking for jobs, housing, and a place in the community, “reintegration” an often inappropriate characterization of the experiences of persons who have often never been integrated into their communities.

In this project, I will also strive to develop the conditions of trust that are rarely achieved in small groups, let alone, society at large. I will ask about employers’ fears and perceptions of risk and potential employees’ sense of vulnerability and hopelessness. Like Julie, in order to explore this question I will need to listen to a lot of stories from those who have the power to provide jobs and resources and those who are systematically denied such opportunities. In telling these stories I hope to begin a conversation, and ultimately to create the same kind of possibilities for trust and communication found in the classroom, within the larger communities where prisoners return and attempt to put their lives back together. Under such conditions, we might be better able to see the pervasive injustice of continuing to punish people who may be considered “dangerous”, but who are, in fact, among the most vulnerable in our communities.

Author: Kristin Bumiller

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