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360: Women in Walled Communities

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With only a few days distance since the culminating presentation of the 360 cluster of courses I took this semester, it is hard to reflect on how my thinking has shifted, what new questions I have, or how I have been motivated to go forward.  I know that the three courses – in English, Education, and Social Work, all of which revolved around the topic “Women in Walled Communities” – represent a crucial part of my Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice Studies coursework, but it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how.  The classes were incredibly intense, not necessarily in terms of the workload, but with regards to the emotional intensity of being in deep discussion with the same group of people for so many hours a week.  As part of our social work class, we participated in a seven-week art workshop with women incarcerated at the Cannery, an institution that is part of the Philadelphia Prison System.  In addition to the classroom aspect of the class, we also formed an online community on Serendip, posting weekly discussions about our readings, our experiences, and connections we had made.  In many ways, this group of courses represented what I understand to be at the crux of using education as a modality to bring about peace and social justice: we used dialogue, among both Bryn Mawr and incarcerated students to tackle some very heavy and serious issues.

As the semester went on, we decided as a class that we wanted to somehow incorporate activism into our semester, because many of us felt moved to action by the material we were learning and the discussions we were having.  Together with a number of my classmates, I helped to work on the campus campaign to repair and reopen Perry House, the Black Cultural Center and an important living space.   We attended community meetings, met with administrators, helped to draft letters, and contacted alumni donors. To “present” this work, I helped to lead a workshop on race and privilege at Bryn Mawr together with some of my classmates.  In many ways, the workshop was also representative of many of the themes touched upon throughout the term, both inside and outside of class. Before fall break, a group of students in our 360 got together to eat food, drink wine, and discuss the upcoming Perry House plenary resolution.  All of us there were interested in figuring out how to support the students pushing for its passage, but one of the most meaningful parts of the conversation, for me, was how much it complicated my understanding of the situation.  What does it mean that only three affinity groups get to have members living in Perry?  What does Perry House’s very specific history mean for its purpose today?  In some ways, that decidedly non-academic discussion ended up informing how we planned our workshop. 

I think that this decision was important for a variety of reasons, but perhaps was most related to a concept learned from our time in the prison: metaphors.  One of our main art projects, inspired guest speaker (and restorative justice expert) Howard Zehr, involved finding metaphors to express where we feel most safe, and creating collages to represent the metaphor. In some ways, the controversy surrounding Perry House became a metaphor for much larger and systemic issues of race and privilege at Bryn Mawr.  By getting beyond the specificity of this one (albeit crucial) campus concern, we hoped to get to the crux of what actually caused Perry House to be shut down in the first place.  Moreover, we were able to incorporate some of the complicatedness of our earlier informal discussions, bringing in some of the important intersectionalities of privilege and oppression that people face on a daily basis at Bryn Mawr.  I think that both the intention and the execution of our workshop drew on all three classes, and also the larger question that we opened with at the beginning of the semester.  What does it mean to be women in walled communities?

I also think that we took some very important concepts from the restorative justice movement, which was an important topic in our social work class.  As we planned our workshop, we borrowed from guidelines about “how to talk to someone about privilege who doesn’t know what that is.” One of the important points raised in that piece was that privilege does not have to mean guilt, because nobody is responsible for the past, but we are responsible for doing something about it.  Just like restorative justice practice tries to let offenders repair harm caused by criminal behavior, as a white person facilitating this workshop, I hoped to repair some of the community harm of unchecked privilege.  If we think about racism as a kind of structural violence, then the restorative justice tenets of allowing victims and offenders to come together and participate in the response was very much a part of our workshop.  Moreover, we tried to impart some tools to help the “offenders” start to repair some of the harm that has been caused. 

In addition, we very much drew from a piece we read in our English class by Lisa Delpit called “The Silenced Dialogue,” which talked about the idea of there being a “culture of power,” in which people from privileged backgrounds have a set of codes at their disposal allowing them to navigate educational expectations with ease, but that those outside the culture of power do not understand.  Delpit’s focused on the idea that emphasizing process in educational curricula will not teach the “codes” to people who do not yet have them, and that skill building can be just as important for people coming from outside the culture of power.  We drew on the idea of “codes” to make sure that the workshop was accessible to everyone who wanted to participate.  For many of us, the idea of there being a “culture of power” was something we had understood viscerally, but Delpit’s article helped us give a name to the feeling.  We understood that people coming to the 360 presentations, including Bryn Mawr staff, would have different backgrounds and past experiences, and we didn’t want to inadvertently silence any of the participants by using coded language or ideas that some people might not understand.  Although it might not have been obvious for those participating in the final workshop experience, we went through many different iterations of the activities before becoming to the final design.

Theories of restorative justice and Delpit’s concept of the “culture of power” both came from very early on in the semester, but ended up framing much of what we did as the term progressed.  So many of our class discussions stemmed from these ideas, and I think that a lot of the dialogue that occurred within our classes became the framework for our workshop.  Because of the unique nature of a 360, we all got to hear one another’s opinions, reflections, and ideas on a regular basis, and I think that we tried to shape the workshop around what we understood to be needs, concerns, and questions of our classmates.  Even though text and theories were important guides for our discussion, much of the learning in all three classes came from one another, and we were able to draw from that knowledge.

We very purposely decided to end the workshop with a “Now I’m ready to…” activity, where all participants went around the room saying what they felt ready to do going forward as a result of the workshop. I think that we all saw the workshop as having the potential to be the stepping stone for future action.  Obviously, the Perry House fight will be continuing next semester (and maybe beyond), but I think that the kinds of discussions we encouraged can be part of an even broader ongoing dialogue.  As someone who will very soon be a Bryn Mawr alum, the planning of the workshop helped me to personally think about how I can take these ideas of privilege and power outside of the classroom and into the rest of my life.  Although I deal with these issues all the time in my job and activist work, I rarely relate them to academic and theoretical reading I’ve done throughout my time at Bryn Mawr.  Planning an interactive workshop helped me realize how the kinds of activities we did can be a format to bring those ideas to people who might not have a formal education background.  It also helped me realize that discussion can be complicated and messy and nuanced, and that that is ok.


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