Last week thousands of students in caps and gowns assembled in the Siegel Center to celebrate with speeches, diplomas, hugs and huge sighs of relief. It’s a party and a respite before the next big effort of gripping down, getting a job and moving on in life.
VCU is well known for its many fine academic programs on three campuses: Monroe Park, MCV and the lesser known but no less important red brick building, way downtown, where students without caps and gowns also marked a milestone last week.
On May 9, 35 men and women at the Richmond City Jail received continuing education transcripts — diplomas, if you will — for finishing two college courses sponsored by Open Minds, a program I founded in 2010 with a generous grant from VCU’s Division of Community Engagement and the priceless generosity of Sheriff C.T. Woody Jr.
This partnership between VCU and the Richmond City Sheriff’s Office does not just put a professor like me in front of prisoners. It puts professors, college students and prisoners into life-affirming dialogue with each other. More than training, more than skills, our courses bring the liberal arts into the core of our lives.
Whether we are studying poetry, theories of gender or religious practices around the world, we are studying the human condition alongside the conditions we have all faced in life and the choices we can still make. We come together to enter into that shared humanity and responsibility as citizens, people filled with noble purpose, to build together a world with less crime and less pain.
This is a boundary-breaking, community-building, stereotype-defying and award-winning program: It was spotlighted this past year in VCU’s successful bid to join President Obama’s Honor Roll for Service Learning in Higher Education and, closer to home, it was the 2011 winner of VCU’s Division of Community Engagement, Currents of Change Award for best teaching. It’s a program touching the lives of hundreds, incarcerated and free.
I know of no program quite like it across the commonwealth, and precious few that are like it across the country. As an English professor who publishes on the teaching of writing in under-served communities and who travels to conferences and meets other professors who also teach in jails and prisons, I can at least report the plain truth: The reason Open Minds is unique is because Sheriff Woody is unique. We know he’s our sheriff and, before that, he was a homicide detective, but deep down, he’s an educator: less sheriff to me than school principal. With his compassion and wisdom he has set the right tone for believing that all of us, no matter our circumstances, are capable enough and creative enough to learn.
Volunteering, truly, is a two-way street. In the best moments of it, everyone learns. At least that’s what I understand when the sheriff says, as he has said on many occasions, that “the jail is in the community, and the community is in the jail.” It seems obvious but worth stating, even savoring, as we realize how deeply our fates are entwined. Everyone’s lives get better when everyone takes the time to learn from each other how to make our world better.
As the graduation season grinds on and more and more students in our colleges and high schools “move on,” as the elementary school set refers to the process, I’ll be thinking of our humble ceremony at the jail. I’ll think of the students and faculty from VCU who, like me, can come and go with ease. But I’ll especially be thinking of the ones still incarcerated, who showed me (who always show me), beautifully, in each assignment, each class meeting, each opportunity to share, what it means to grip down and struggle to be free. Congratulations, graduates!