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Wilfrid Laurier University Leaf
September 28, 2016
Canadian Excellence

Learning transcends walls and boundaries in Inside-Out program

At first glance there was nothing unusual about the Diversity, Marginalization and Oppression course that social work professor Dr. Shoshana Pollack taught last fall. Each week 17 students sat in a circle, sharing ideas, taking notes and preparing for papers. The difference? Their classroom was inside Kitchener's Grand Valley Institution (GVI) and only 10 of the students were working toward their Master of Social Work at Laurier; the other seven students were incarcerated in the prison.

The course was part of The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, a partnership between institutions of higher learning and correctional systems. Students and prisoners come together to learn together. Founded in 1997, the program has grown to more than 300 classes and 9,000 participants across the United States. Shoshana's class at the GVI was one of the first in Canada (the other, which also took place last fall, was at a federal men's prison in British Columbia).

Being involved in this program far exceeded any expectations Shoshana had at the outset. Much of her career as a social worker and as an academic has focused on women in the criminal justice system, so when she was approached by Inside-Out about expanding the program into Canada she didn't hesitate. The planning process took more than a year and included a lot of support from both Laurier and the GVI. All Inside-Out instructors participate in a seven-day, 60 hour intensive training program that teaches the program's transformative educational method. Two of the days are taught by prisoners inside Graterford Prison, a maximum security facility for men near Philadelphia.

First-year MSW student Kayla Follet says it's difficult to articulate what it was like to be part of the Inside-Out program. "I love talking about it", she said, "but explaining the experience is really difficult because it was so powerful. It was so much more than a course." She admitted that the atmosphere was a bit tense in the beginning. "We were all worried about being judged – the inside and the outside students. You could feel that and it was a little bit awkward. We were crossing profound barriers. Society tells us that we shouldn't be doing this so it took some time for us to warm up to each other."

It wasn't long before the invisible walls separating the two groups of students disappeared. "It was sheer excitement to go to each class," said Kayla. "Those three hours helped me get through the rest of the week."

Students and professor sit in a circle so they are all connected and equal. Students are encouraged to direct their comments and discussions to their peers, rather than the professor. While the professor structures the experiential learning activities and frames the discussion topics, students engage with each other’s ideas, personal experiences and the assigned readings, a process that reflects the Inside-Out approach that views many forms of knowledge (not just professors and/or scholarly texts) as legitimate and valid. Inside and outside students share their experiences and learn together through dialogue. The pedagogical philosophy is that we learn best when our whole selves are engaged in the educational process.

"A really remarkable thing happens when you bring people together in this collective space and everyone is responsible for what's happening," said Shoshana. "The result is that you have a really authentic communication in which everyone learns from everyone else. We learn that we can transcend the walls that separate us."

As the course wrapped up at the end of November, students participated in a graduation ceremony – a first for some of the inside students. "I thought that I would be sad and disappointed that it's over, and I am," said Kayla. "It wasn't long enough. We were just starting to get to know each other."

This isn't the end for this group of inaugural Canadian Inside-Out students though. After graduation, many groups go on to form Think Tanks, collaborations between inside and outside alumni that meet regularly to work on projects focusing on criminal justice or provide guidance in the development of the Inside-Out program. The first Think Tank, developed at the Graterford prison, has met inside the prison every Wednesday since 2002.

Shoshana's class is excited about what lies ahead. Not only will this be the first Canadian Inside-Out Think Tank, but it will also be the first women's Think Tank. While the group hasn't decided on their first project, Shoshana says their goal is to become the Think Tank centre that will provide training to other Inside-Out prisons in Canada.

"I can talk about it now and say how incredible it was," said Kayla, "but I don't think any of us completely understand yet how truly amazing all this is and where it could lead to. I think we'll look back years from now and be proud of what we were part of."