By Amory Ballantine, SPP Roots of Success Coordinator
Photos by Joslyn Rose Trivett, SPP Network Manager
“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
― Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
On Wednesday, May 7, I had the privilege of sitting in on my first Roots of Success class and, later, attending the previous cohort’s graduation ceremony. The class I visited is held at Stafford Creek Corrections Center (SCCC) in Aberdeen and team-taught by inmate instructors. It was the second class in Roots of Success’s curriculum, titled “Fundamentals of Environmental Literacy.” I was moved and impressed by how the curriculum’s structure engages students in thinking critically about challenging technical concepts, and by the learning environment instructors and students have created.
Inmates in SCCC’s Roots program are clearly committed to environmental justice and to each other. Instructors and administrators encouraged students to generate ideas for institutional changes and to educate each other, drawing parallels between commitments to environmental sustainability and commitments to one another’s success.
We sat in the back of the classroom, behind twenty-seven students in khaki and beige. At the front of the room were flipcharts, a table, a podium, and three instructors: Grady Mitchell, Cyril Walrond, and David DuHaime. They took turns teaching for about an hour each, separating sections with short bathroom breaks. Now team-teaching Roots for the fourth time, the instructors are excellent at what they do. Their styles are unique, complementing each other well, and they worked together seamlessly. Mitchell’s presence is commanding and dynamic, DuHaime’s careful and personal, and Walrond’s heartfelt and encouraging. All of them joked with the room, putting us at ease, while gently challenging every student to contribute to discussion. Because they are inmates themselves, instructors use examples relevant to students, creating an environment which promotes collaboration and camaraderie. While teaching the concept of bioaccumulation, for example, Instructor Mitchell described the formaldehyde added to prison sheets to keep them from sticking together. “Shake an unwashed new sheet and you’ll see the powder that comes off! I sleep with a towel on top of the pillow now.”
Instructors posed lots of questions to the class, who had good, interesting and insightful answers. They learned about waste and consumption cycles, how small amounts of toxins accumulate in our bodies over time (bioaccumulation), climate change, environmental justice, and more. Students’ diverse backgrounds and life experiences made for very interesting and enriching discussions.
They appeared wholly absorbed in a discussion of climate change, including concepts of “climate injustice” and environmental injustice. Instructors asked the class how global warming might impact health, and students came up with several examples of ways poor people might be affected: being unable to afford air conditioning in the summer or heat in the winter; keeping doors and windows shut in the summer because of safety concerns in high-crime areas; being unable to afford to go to the doctor when sick; being unable to afford insurance coverage for their homes in case of climate-related disasters. One student pointed out that you could say it was the other way around, and in fact social and economic injustice are exacerbated by climate change. In a discussion of planned vs. perceived obsolescence, someone shared the powerful insight that not only products, but people– including entire neighborhoods or communities–could be perceived obsolete.