Passing the Torch: The Serbu Book Club Experiences a Turnover of Leadership
Abstract: This blog post, published on Oregon’s Inside-Out website insideoutoregon.com in October 2012, reflects on my participation with a literacy initiative at the local juvenile detention facility.
In the summer of 2010, five university alumni of the Inside-Out Program, which brings students from universities into prisons to participate in college courses side-by-side with incarcerated persons, piloted a literacy initiative at the Juvenile Justice Center in Eugene, OR. The project was a success. In June of this year, the “Phoenix Book Club” celebrated its two-year anniversary at the same time the founding members were graduating from the University of Oregon. The book club made a transition in leadership, and the new facilitators – myself included – ran a summer session that was fraught with difficulty. Now is the time to reflect on the history of our program, study lessons learned, and lay a path forward.
The Juvenile Justice Center runs two secure units, a detention and a treatment program, that bloom out of a central hallway in the shape of a mushroom cap. Both serve youth who are twelve to seventeen years old. The units are mirror images, each containing a classroom, dining area, sixteen cells arranged on two tiers, and an activity area with a ping pong table and basketball hoop, all arranged around a quarter circle. The detention, where the average length of stay is three days, is painted in shades of gray and holds youth pre-adjudication, i.e. before trial. The behavior and addiction treatment program, called Phoenix, is painted in bright pastels and is designed to graduate youth in four to six months. This is where we run the book club.
For the first year and a half, the book club’s weekly sessions consisted of dialogue based off shared reading. This structure led to rich conversations about, for example, race and offensive language in response to the ‘n-word’ in To Kill a Mockingbird. This format was comfortable for university students, reflecting the style of their education, but it was imposed on, rather than created with, Phoenix youth. Further, the youth’s stays in Phoenix are not aligned with the university’s quarter system, as is the book club, and so youth were leaving or arriving in the middle of books then had a hard time being brought into the fold.
In January of this year, the leaders decided to change strategy. Under the new structure, Phoenix youth nominated and voted on topics that they would be interested in discussing week-by-week. University students vetoed some topics, such as family abuse and drug use, and embraced other suggestions, like solving teen homelessness and preventing bullying. Each week, students would bring in short articles on the topic, or use videos or music to frame the conversation.
For the winter and spring, this format worked beautifully. There was already a good rapport with Phoenix youth and it only grew into a more relaxed and trusting relationship. As youth graduated and new youth entered the program, it was fairly easy to welcome them into the group, as each session stood on its own. When program founders Alex Plattner and Ted Sweeny graduated and left Eugene, it was on a high note.
Summer posed multiple problems. The Juvenile Justice Center suffered severe budget cuts, forcing a reduction in staff and the number of youth housed in Phoenix. The majority of the youth we worked with were prematurely graduated out, and the program became boys only, having a profound effect on classroom dynamics. The employee turnover meant layoffs or rescheduling for the teacher and floor staff we were used to working with, adding to an atmosphere of transition that affected our comfort in the unit and the youth’s sense of stability. Finally, there were changes to school schedules, appointments with parole officers, and visits to family that were not communicated to the university students. Each week, it was a surprise to see how many youth would join us, with their numbers fluctuating from one to eight, often coming or going in the middle of our sessions.
The summer book club, the first with new leaders of the Phoenix Book Club, was not what we hoped it would be. However, reviews from staff and youth surprised us by being entirely positive. The youth enjoyed talking with college students on a peer-to-peer basis, as opposed to the usual hierarchical relationships they had with adults in the treatment center. The youth were given a degree of autonomy they did not experience elsewhere in the program and had fun designing and leading activities on topics of their choices, with guidance from university students. Resulting lessons included using Jenga to practice sportsmanlike conduct, role-playing where youth assumed different gender and racial identities, and practice mediating conflict between friends.
I have learned that the Phoenix book club will survive as long as the university students are respectful and follow the rules. The program, a partnership between the University of Oregon and the Juvenile Justice Center, looks good on paper for the administrators, and staff are given an additional hour of flex time to complete paperwork and other chores. For the inheritors of the book club, this is not enough.
Many University of Oregon students, like myself, have lived stable and privileged lives, particularly in comparison with the youth in Phoenix, whose histories read like Dickens tales of abuse, poverty, and life inside a ten by twelve cell. University students need to practice empathy, and not only while they are in the book club. Combining inexperience, eagerness to relate, and an innocence (or ignorance) of the youth’s lives can lead to gaffes, like saying to a kid who spent the last several days on lock-down in their cell, “I wish somebody would shut me in my room. I might actually get some work done.” The response is to give formal training to incoming student volunteers covering the Juvenile Justice Center’s structure, programs, and purposes, including the reasons and contexts for why youth are incarcerated there. Additionally, at least once per term, student volunteers should discuss lessons learned, and to role-play scenarios that require delicate responses, like kids talking about being bullied during a conversation on school safety.
The book club does not have programmatic infrastructure. There is no mission statement, collection of lessons, log of student volunteers, database of resources, or formal method for recruiting new volunteers. The only historical records are the (sparse) posts on this blog. We do not have a goal for the program beyond bringing university students and incarcerated youth together to read and talk. The book club could be cancelled by the Justice Center tomorrow and we would have scant evidence to show this program ever existed, let alone to share the lessons learned.
Oregon boasts of one of the most progressive departments of juvenile justice in the country. Every student who participates in the book club is a witness to the meaning of progress for young people adjudicated (the juvenile version of convicted) of crimes. As we learned when we entered prison to take classes through Inside-Out, the narrative of the state rarely matches the realities behind the walls or the perceptions of the people kept there. Currently, the Phoenix Book Club provides Lane County’s Juvenile Justice Center with bragging rights for the good things it does for the kids it incarcerates. Without better preparing our student volunteers and building an organization out of an inspired act of good will, our work may amount to little else, while the young people we work with deserve so much more.