Seniors Allison Kennedy and Jasmine An found their calling in a one-of-a-kind community in Kalamazoo, a group of persons they were not expecting to encounter during college: inmates in the Michigan Prisoner Reentry Initiative (MPRI).
Their path to that community began their first year, when both started working at Kalamazoo College’s Center for Civic Engagement (CCE). Through CCE the pair revitalized a writing workshop that had been previously created for MPRI clients. As seniors, Kennedy and An serve as Civic Engagement Scholars for the program, a leadership position in the CCE.
Nowadays, on Monday evenings, no matter how fatigued from classes and work, Kennedy and An make their way to their writing workshop. Three hours later, they always emerge with a newfound energy.
When they left Ann Arbor and came to K, both women wanted to connect with a community that was outside of the so-called “K Bubble.” The MPRI provided that, and the women soon discovered that, in this workshop, authenticity was paramount. If they were not “real” with their participants, then the participants were not “real” with them, and the sense of community was false. Their work at MPRI was their main contact with the city of Kalamazoo, and both say the experience helped sustain their writing and made their college lives more impactful.
They’ve molded the program into an entirely new workshop, and they have created and archived a curriculum for review and revision by future CCE leaders of MPRI writing workshops, a hedge against the program going dormant again. The curriculum includes 40 workshop sessions, tailored to the men’s and women’s groups, with certain template poems and subjects. Participants write and then share their own work on an open microphone.
The goal of the workshops is for participants to explore or build an identity through voice and expression. The prison system can be dehumanizing, and Kennedy and An create a secure place where inmates can re-recognize themselves as people, a place to play and a place to know names and not just inmate numbers.
Their biggest challenge has been the system itself, which makes people seem insignificant and moves them from place to place. Kennedy and An seek to build a community that is unrelated to the prison. The new identities that are formed become the foundation of the ‘new’ community.
“Most people always share what they wrote during the session” said Kennedy. “You can feel the powerful sense of community, they really encourage each other to share and show support.”
“We hear more intimate stories from the members of MPRI than we would at K. But MPRI is a place where no one wants to be or stay,” said An.
Kennedy and An not only work in the Center for Civic Engagement, they also serve as student fellows in the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College. The opportunities complement one another. Through the social justice center, Kennedy and An attend conferences and rallies relevant to their work at MPRI. They recently went to a workshop in downtown Kalamazoo led by Michigan United, a statewide organization committed to shifting the balance of power and cultivating the leadership of people directly affected by injustice. At the workshop, they were able to speak to a prison abolitionist. They discovered that the challenges they face in their project are shared by others.
The social justice center has created a space for the two to work and play with ideas and has provided very useful tools and knowledge. Kennedy said, “I have to credit my boldness to the social justice center.”
“It expanded our awareness of regional and national efforts similar to that which we are doing locally through the Center for Civic Engagement,” said An. “The social justice center sets high expectations for its student fellows, as high as the CCE’s expectations for its civic engagement scholars.”
The theme of the social justice center this academic year is “Building Justice,” and the theme’s emphasis is on student outreach into the community fits well with the duo’s CCE work.
Kennedy and An are collaborating with Michigan United to apply for a grant that would support their work at MPRI. Through MPRI they became invested in the Kalamazoo community and decided that they should continue to work in the city after graduation. “We recognize that creative writing cannot change the world, but the self-esteem, self-awareness, and empathy it can build in individuals is important if communities are going to come together to advocate for policy changes,” said An. If the women get the grant they would like to create narrative writing and leadership workshops, which would take place over the summer.
During their workshops they came to recognize the humanity of the inmates, and they would like to put the best workshop writers into leadership positions, extending the power of powerful voices.
The mission statement that Kennedy and An created for their workshop reads: “By magnifying voice through creative writing workshops and performances we hope to empower individuals to build identities that transcend the label of ‘formerly incarcerated.’ By bringing our most authentic selves to workshops we hope to provide a space for creative self-expression and build community around honest story telling.”
Said Kennedy: “We are committed to help contribute in Kalamazoo after graduation. When you leave your hometown you can experience your own sense of ‘placelessness,’” she added, “but you can change that feeling when you place yourself into and help your new community.” Kennedy and An are awed by the city and its opportunities.
“A lot of liberal arts students move to a big city after graduation,” said An. “We don’t want to do that. We want to thrive, and we want to thrive here.”
Kennedy and An graduate this June. Kennedy’s majors are English and studio art. An’s degree will be in anthropology and sociology and English.