An Interview with Liberation Literacy Founder Dr. Garrett Felber
One of the most tragic legacies of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 was its elimination of Pell Grants for prisoners, which dismantled prison education programs. Liberation Literacy, founded by Dr. Garrett Felber in 2015, began as a Black History Study Group with inside students at Columbia River Correctional Institution (CRCI) in Portland, Oregon. The group then established a donation-based Freedom Library with books about social justice and the African diaspora. The library is now home to nearly 100 books, which are checked out weekly to the reading group and may also be requested on an individual basis by other prisoners at the institution. In Fall 2016, the group initiated its first community reading group at CRCI, and took the name Liberation Literacy. It is presently comprised of nearly twenty inside/outside students who read a common set of books and meet weekly.
In January the Nightingale Team caught up with founder and scholar of 20th century African American history, Dr. Garret Felber to learn more about the bold and inspirational work he began in Portland, Oregon.
Tell us about your background, and what led to the idea to form Liberation Literacy?
When I was working on the Malcolm X Project at Columbia University, we received a request to collaborate with a group called the Transformation Project at the University of Nebraska – Omaha, which uses the Autobiography of Malcolm X as a model for prisoner reentry. In my work for that project, I excerpted passages in Malcolm’s autobiography which reflected the prison reentry program’s “conversion points” (ie. the transition from using to sobriety). Since that moment, I wanted to teach Malcolm’s autobiography inside, but on its own terms rather than through the lens of the prison and its own logics.
One of the core tenets of Liberation Literacy is that we are all equal partners in its development and that it should be driven by the ingenuity, needs, and theorizing of inside students in partnership with community members.
When I moved to Oregon in 2014, I linked up with Reiko Hillyer, a professor at Lewis and Clark College who developed an Inside-Out class at CRCI. We co-taught our first class of what would become Liberation Literacy there in the summer of 2015, reading the autobiography with about twenty students. However, despite having some of these ideas come from my own experiences, Liberation Literacy has been a truly collaborative endeavor. The idea of bringing community members inside, using film screenings as a way to recruit new members, and even our name, were all of formulated and carried out by inside students. One of the core tenets of Liberation Literacy is that we are all equal partners in its development and that it should be driven by the ingenuity, needs, and theorizing of inside students in partnership with community members. I am mostly a conduit, facilitator, and resource.
Can you walk us through a typical reading group?
I honestly cannot remember two meetings which were the same! We meet every Wednesday from 5-8pm. That part is always similar. Part of the fluctuation is due to the fact that we are shaping the group as we go, so reading group meetings often evolve into political organizing meetings. To give you an example of the range these meetings can take: one week we had Harvard professor Elizabeth Hinton come discuss her book with us; another week the Cinema Project screened a rare 16mm documentary on Malcolm X; last week we discussed Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and formed committees to begin developing a quarterly newsletter.
What is most productive about the pedagogy of our classroom is that we have a divergent set of perspectives and life experiences which commingle frankly and openly in an atmosphere of family and love.
How do these conferences differ in style and structure from the traditional academic model you’ve worked within as a professor?
The most obvious difference is the absence of grades, credits, and formal writing assignments. In this way our meetings more resemble a political theory reading group than an academic classroom. But I admit that while I try to limit my role to facilitation only, I often find myself at the board frantically writing with a dry erase marker (which is a source of constant cajoling in the group). What is most productive about the pedagogy of our classroom is that we have a divergent set of perspectives and life experiences which commingle frankly and openly in an atmosphere of family and love. Also, students regularly ask for more reading and writing assignments, so that is certainly unlike any university classroom I have ever been in.
Can you speak to the power differential at play? How does it shape your ability to enter the community as a peer? To enter into relationship with group members?
I touched upon this earlier in a few of my answers, but I think one of the most productive conversations we had about our roles came from our discussion of materialism. I posed the question: could there be oppression in a world without possessions? Several students mentioned that we would still all have various skills which would inevitably create hierarchies, and therefore, oppression.
This is of course hypothetical and at the end of the night, half of us go home and half stay imprisoned. But there is a spirit in which we each have one book and a shared commitment, and we recognize that our collective strength is much greater than that of any individual, so we take those to their furthest conclusions.
We then troubled the idea that skills are possessions as opposed to cooperative tools which actually heighten our collective abilities rather than promoting one individual over another. For example, we hypothesized that if one person were a great orator but not good at writing, they would be little use in creating our newsletter and getting the message beyond CRCI’s walls. On the other hand, a good writer might have less to contribute in our classroom environment where these ideas are formed, but have a tremendous impact in translating them to print and transmitting them more widely. This is of course hypothetical and at the end of the night, half of us go home and half stay imprisoned. But there is a spirit in which we each have one book and a shared commitment, and we recognize that our collective strength is much greater than that of any individual, so we take those to their furthest conclusions.
If you were to examine Liberation Literacy’s impact through a health lens, how do you see it impacting public health, communal health, and psychological health?
This is a fantastic question (this is what academics say when they haven’t thought of a question before)! It brings to mind the idea of bibliotherapy, which was popular in penal discourse beginning in the 1950s. Most simply, this theory recommended that a patient could be treated through selective reading, often guided by a facilitator. I highly recommend Meg Sweeney’s book, Reading is My Window, for an understanding of the history of bibliotherapy in prisons. The bibliotherapy movement importantly brought about the expansion of prison libraries, which have been depleted now to include mostly legal and religious texts, and popular fiction. So when I began the Freedom Library at CRCI, which has over one hundred books on social justice and the African diaspora, it was likely intuitively informed by some of those ideas.
But this question also reminds me of a comment from one of our students, who was remarking on the fact that our group did not “count” as part of his program at the prison. He has regular programs which he must attend for very tangible gains such as early release or custody of his daughter, and these classes sometimes conflict with our group. But he said to me: “This is therapy for me.” He is also a big hugger and we give a lot of hugs in our group. We were recently advised to stop “having contact with the inmates” by staff, who cited the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). If nothing else, that edict demonstrates the quotidian ways in which prisons seek to dehumanize and disconnect us from one another. While I do not feel qualified to speculate on the ways in which our group effects something like public health, there is no doubt that there are health benefits that our groups brings to all of us, many of which are unintentional and difficult to quantify.
How can readers support your work? Are there opportunities to be involved on a long term basis?
The first answer is crude, but we are run entirely on donations so please go to our website –liberationliteracy.wordpress.com – and donate. You may use the Paypal link or find books on our Amazon wish list which go directly into the Freedom Library and are used in our reading group. However, for those who live in Portland and want to be involved, we are always open to new members. In general, we like to keep the number of inside and outside students in our reading group equal so it does not exacerbate the power imbalance that already inherently exists. I should also point out that there are a host of other volunteers at CRCI teaching art, math, yoga, and all sorts of other much-needed programming. If anyone wants to initiate something pertinent to their own interests and skills, please contact me and I’ll put you in touch with the folks at the prison. Lastly, please inform yourself and talk to your family, loved ones, and friends about the costs of mass incarceration. Prisons are removed from public view (I often get the shocked response: “There’s a prison in Portland? Where?”), and it is our job to raise consciousness about what this means to our communities. This means more than citing dreadful statistics. It means forging relationships and building empathy, so that new forms of social relations can emerge and take hold as political coalitions which lead to lasting change. If you need a book to get you going, I highly recommend Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete? Even those incarcerated said that they had never imagined what our social and political landscape would look like without prisons until reading that book. I suggest that we all need to engage in such imaginings.
Garrett Felber is a scholar of 20th century African American history and critical prison studies at the University of Michigan, where he will earn his PhD in 2017. He has a B.A. in English and American Studies from Kalamazoo College and M.A. in African American Studies from Columbia University. His book project, “Those Who Know Don’t Say: The Nation of Islam and the Politics of Black Nationalism in the Civil Rights Era,” is a political history of the Nation of Islam which recenters the role of black nationalism and prison organizing in the postwar Black Freedom Movement. His teaching and scholarship focus on African American social movements and intellectual history, 20th-century U.S. cultural and political history, prison studies, and black internationalism. His scholarship has been published in the Journal of African American History, South African Music Studies, and SOULS. He has also contributed to The Guardian, The Marshall Project, and Viewpoint Magazine. He was senior research adviser on the Malcolm X Project at the Center for Contemporary Black History and is co-author of The Portable Malcolm X Reader with Manning Marable. In 2015, he founded Liberation Literacy at the Columbia River Correctional Institution in Portland, OR.