When a Smile Gets You Inside: Engaging the Oppressor in Service of Resistance.

AuthorBarksdale, Faith
PositionSpecial Issue on Human Rights Activists Engagement with Oppressors

Prior to law school, I volunteered as a teacher in a radical, anti-oppressive education collective in an American jail. (1) Each teacher periodically wrote and taught a new curriculum based on student input, interest, and preference. In addition to providing educational opportunities within the jail, one of the main goals of the collective was to resist the carceral state through education. These are the radical elements of our program, as I understood them: (1) there were no hierarchies in the classroom; (2) we would not teach GED (2) or other any other curricula approved by the Department of Corrections (DOC) and the topics were student-selected; and (3) we would not require our students to participate in class lessons. As long as students who did not want to participate in the lessons did not interrupt those who wanted to, they were free to stay and interact--or not--as they chose.

Of the many reasons I enjoyed this model, I was very glad that it allowed me to use my privilege as someone on the outside to help those on the inside resist an oppressive and illegitimate system. By simply being in the classroom and allowing the students to engage as they so chose, I was able to help these students enjoy a respite from the tumult of general population (Gen Pop), (3) and the surveillance of Correctional Officers (COs). Our classes were rich, and engaging, and hilarious, and heartbreaking. Over my time there, we discussed a panoply of topics--from how to choose a mortgage with the best annual percentage rate, to how to effectively message the dangers of climate change. The classes were wonderful, and, most importantly, our conversations were private and free.

I spent more time getting inside the jail than I did in the classroom. Traveling from my office to the classroom took about two and a half hours, give or take. It took approximately an hour and a half to get to the jail, and about an hour to process in, depending on the circumstances. From the moment class ended, it took another hour to process back out. Because I would come at a regular time once a week, I spent a lot of my time processing in with COs and other jail staff. Sitting in waiting rooms, sitting on buses, walking through metal detectors, buzzing in through bars: I spent all of this time with DOC employees.

The more time I spent with them and the better our rapport, the faster the process of getting inside and to the classroom seemed to go. The bus driver would wait a couple of...

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