What's New in Oregon: More on the Alumni Book Club at Serbu Youth Detention Center

We wanted to take a moment to reflect on and share with you an overview of an exciting program happening in Oregon.

The University of Oregon's Inside-Out Alumni Book Club at Serbu Youth Detention Center was piloted by a group of alumni during the summer of 2010 at Serbu, Lane County's juvenile detention facility for youth ages 12-17 years.

The book club has proven to be a welcome chance to experience more of the euphoria of the encounter that is at the core of Inside-Out.

By all accounts, the pilot program was a true success. Four Inside-Out Alumni worked with approximately ten youth, reading The Ultimate Spider-Man, a classic comic book. Using the book as jumping-off point, the group discussed topics as varied as responsibility, teen relationships, trust, gang violence, capitalism, and the makings of a hero. The reports from all participants were very positive. For the youth it was a chance to add an activity to their days, to read an interesting book, and to talk with new people. For the alumni, it was a chance to create a new program, engage in dialogue, and learn from the youth about facilitating a classroom. It was obvious that some of the youth have never had any kind of creative space in their own learning, and to be asked their opinion and encouraged to disagree has an experience-expanding effect.

We learned that working independently of a professor and starting a new program is both difficult and extremely rewarding. We developed a very positive working relationship with Serbu's staff and leadership, and have abundant and growing support for this program at the University, which purchased the books for the class.

During the University's fall term of 2010, beginning in September and wrapping up in December, we enjoyed the participation of twelve youth and eight Inside-Out Alumni. Prior to the kick off of the term's book club, Melissa Crabbe, Inside-Out's Assistant National Director, held a second Inside-Out facilitator training for the alumni participating in the Friday club; this was a fabulous opportunity to work through ideal practices for initiation of discussion as well as to trouble shoot issues that arose during the pilot program. Book club meetings took place every Friday in the Phoenix unit of Serbu, a dormitory-style unit for a co-ed group of 16 youth. Together, we read Calvin and Hobbes, a comic book by Bill Watterson unique for its clever mix of humor and profundity.

During fall term, only two I/O alumni were able to participate who had been involved over the summer. Ted and Katie, who piloted the program during the summer, co-facilitated the fall session, and enjoyed the enthusiasm of the group's new participants. Five of the youth who participated during the summer rejoined the club for fall, and only one summer participant chose not to rejoin the group (the others were released). The more balanced numbers were great: we did wagon wheels, held small group discussions, and overall had a much more involved and integrated feeling in the room with the balance of youth and I/O Alumni. Further, we feel that a nearly 2:1 ration (youth to alumni) is critical to maintaining emphasis on equal participation and avoidance alumni over-participation (simply teaching to the youth rather than participating with them).

The Inside-Out class formula is the model for the book club, in which open and enthusiastic college students join up with incarcerated youth to enjoy and learn with each other. Meetings are full of debate and discussion about issues topical and profound. While a plan for the session is always mapped out by alumni ahead of time, some of the most memorable and sweetest moments occurred unexpectedly. One day, the plan for class time was met with relative disinterest from the youth. There wasn't much response to the preconceived discussion questions, when, suddenly, the conversation broke wide open. One of the Serbu youths mentioned his take on the 2009 film Avatar, which the Serbu unit had watched on DVD the night before. Just like that, a surge of energy had electrified the stagnant discussion. Each and every youth and alumni was jumping to share his/her take on the film, and we rolled with the unforeseen turn in focus, happily devoting the remaining session time to what had become a lively, open discussion.

Midway through the term, we had a half-hour discussion about the ideas of "fate" and "destiny," inspired by Calvin and Hobbes. We talked about free will, and about the possibly contradictory idea that everything happens for a reason. The youth were eloquent on both counts, reflecting both a desire to feel control over their actions and a need for the security of a guiding plan to life. The level of dialogue, consistent with our own Inside-Out experiences, was much higher than what is often achieved in a college classroom. One Friday, we discussed war and peace, our tendency to turn violence into entertainment, and the damage this has on individual lives. It was moving that people were so willing to make themselves a bit vulnerable by sharing and asking questions (the comic dealt with Mutually Assured Destruction and the Cold War, which, coming into the discussion, the youth knew nothing about).

In the book club, we seek to set a positive example for youth and to create a fun and stimulating environment—a distinctly different feel from that of the school classroom as these youth know it. As alumni, we go to Serbu to share our company with the youth and to enjoy theirs. We are not interested in posing as instructors, psychologists, or social workers. Like the Serbu youth, we are students, and we just happen to be a little further along towards an education and stable life. We've learned a lot about the differences of working with youth as opposed to the adults in Inside-Out classes, and will continue to consider how to best design the program to meet everyone's needs.

The Inside-Out Alumni Book Club reconvenes in conjunction with the University's winter term on Friday, January 21st. We are eager to get things going, this time with a larger group of youth (16) and a slightly updated format. Reading a longer work of literature like Calvin and Hobbes posed a few problems. Because of the minimal availability of intriguing reading material in the Phoenix unit, many of the youth tore through the book, likely reading around the clock, within a week of our distributing copies to them. We loved the enthusiasm, don't get us wrong! Unfortunately, the reading rate of the youth outpaced that necessary for focused discussion. This term, we plan to serialize readings by distributing two or three short articles weekly offering varying viewpoints on a predetermined current issue. Book club meetings will consist of discussion and organized debate beginning with basis in the readings and finally extending in any direction it will. This format of serialized reading and the increased encouragement of participation through debate is intended to make contribution as accessible and comfortable as possible for all involved. In addition, we are excited about our plans to organize a closing ceremony, warmly celebrating the participation of all involved, for the end of the term.

If anyone has suggestions for material, projects, or activities, or further inquiries about our experience, please contact us at insideout@uoregon.edu.

- Alex P., University of Oregon
Interning with Inside-Out National Program