The first generation members of Book Club have all graduated and left Eugene, leaving it and other University of Oregon alumni responsibilities to us. The I-O alumni community has continued to grow and is, I can confidently say, as strong, dedicated, and intelligent as the first. Below is the history both of my participation in and of Book Club itself for the last nine months. It has been written both to document what we have done and also to provide a background for the question that has lodged itself in my mind and demands recourse as we take over the responsibilities of the Inside-Out alumni programs at the University of Oregon. I began participating in Book Club last winter, 2012, when the program’s name began to be misleading. For the previous span of its existence, the BC primarily consisted of dialogue based off shared reading. For example, an in depth conversation about race and offensive language took place in response to the ‘n-word’ in To Kill a Mockingbird.* The term before I entered the scene was the last time Book Club did any reading.
At the beginning of my tenure with BC the style switched to a more free flowing format that was, in part, an experimental attempt to continue “discussing topics as varied as responsibility, teen relationships, trust, gang violence, capitalism, and the makings of a hero” while maintaining the level of dialogue, which, “consistent with our own Inside-Out experiences, was much higher than what is often achieved in a college classroom.”** Under the new structure, youth and UO students nominated topics that we would be interested in discussing. Then, using a blind vote, we selected our topics for the term. .*** Prior to voting, the UO students censored the list, removing what we did not feel could be safely discussed within BC without pushing the boundaries of appropriateness, such as family abuse, drug use, or drug trafficking.
For the winter and spring, this format worked beautifully. There was already a good rapport with Serbu youth at the beginning of winter term and it only grew into a more relaxed and trusting relationship. This was commented on again and again by Alex Plattner (long time member) and Ted Sweeney (co-founder). As youth cycled through, via old members ‘graduating’, it was fairly easy to welcome new youth into the group, as each session stood on its own (excluding the group projects that took up part of each session during the end of winter term). We were quite happy with ourselves by the time summer came around.
Summer posed multiple problems. 1) Budget cuts forced the Phoenix program, in which BC is held, to reduce staff and consequently the number of youth it held from 14 to 8. This meant that most of the youth that we had come to know were graduated out of the program, including all of the females. 2) Budget cuts dramatically shook up the Serbu center, causing a rotation of teachers and an adding to an atmosphere of transition. 3) Student schedules in the summer are often unpredictable and difficult to pin down.
Due to complications arising from each of these issues and from an organizational model that, in hindsight, was not advisable for the shifting nature of Serbu at that time, the summer session did not live up to the previous term’s standards. However, thanks to the BC model, based off of Inside-Out pedagogy, all was not a loss, as those essential qualitative benefits remained:
- the youth were able to communicate, within a framework of equality (rather than as mentee-mentor or student-teacher), with happy, successful college students
- the youth were given opportunities to design and lead activities based off topics they (more or less) selected
- the youth were given a “kind of creative space in their own learning” which resulted in “an experience-expanding effect”**
- the UO students were challenged with incorporating new youth into the program and encouraging them to contribute on the fly (with moderate success)
- the UO students learned adaptability in the face of a fairly unpredictable flux of youth through the program
- the UO students got to engage in interesting dialogue with youth who have dramatically different life experiences than us, leading us to learn, perhaps, more than they did.
Despite the program having seemingly made a strong transition to its second generation, having had only good reviews from the youth and the Serbu center itself, and bringing college students eagerly into the realm of volunteer work in the community, I believe that Book Club is still limited from achieving a greater potential. Mind you, I am writing my thesis on I-O alumni projects and am participating in BC for my 4th consecutive term. I am not saying the program is anything but powerful, meaningful, interesting, and deserving of continuation. I am saying that we have work to do.
As of yet, we do not have a mission statement. We do not have a clear organizational system and the only historical records we have are the posts on this blog. We do not have a permanent, overarching goal for the program beyond achieving what is achieved, de facto, by using I-O pedagogy and bringing together inspired university students and incarcerated youth. We are amorphous, unsure even of how to relate ourselves to the core of Inside-Out.
What I’m saying is that we need to figure out what our purpose is as a program; that is to say, we need to figure out what our purpose is as Inside-Out alumni. I have come to an important question born from my own experiences with I-O, but it is a question that needs to be answered for all of us, beyond the specific programming we are involved in as alumni. I ask you, What can we, all of us alumni, do now?****
Please respond below. Dream big.
*See “Negotiating Offensive Language at the Serbu Book Club” posted on May 1, 2011
**Quotes from “What’s New in Oregon: More on the Alumni Book Club at Serbu Youth Detention Center” posted on January 18, 2011
*** We maintained essentially the same format through the spring and summer.
**** ‘All of us alumni’ is a bit of a false statement. What about our classmates still incarcerated and cannot read this blog? Whatever action does take place, we cannot forget those of us who are working from Inside.