In 2016, Dr. Meghan McDowell and Dr. Alison Reed, both professors at Old Dominion University, co-founded Humanities Behind Bars after facilitating a weekly reading group at Norfolk City Jail. As they established this community partnership and educational ties between the university and jail, the Humanities Behind Bars (HBB) program grew into a grassroots collective of teachers, students, activists, and artists committed to imagining a just world. Our work is rooted in community-based education and organizing that centers formerly and currently incarcerated people and their loved ones. HBB also draws inspiration from inside/outside programs centered on the creative and critical power of artists and activists impacted by incarceration, such as “Humanities Behind the Walls” at Arizona State University/Perryville Women’s Prison (with which Dr. McDowell was previously involved) and considers this model one of many in its abolitionist genealogy. Our volunteers are dedicated to serving the professional goals of students on the inside while developing transformative pedagogies that inspire healing and holistic visions of social life.
In addition to teaching and learning with students at Norfolk City Jail, Humanities Behind Bars hosts letter-writing hours in order to build solidarity with incarcerated writers across the state of Virginia. We also facilitate critical spaces in the Tidewater community, such as a reading and film series for collective study and critique of the Prison Industrial Complex. Moreover, we have formed a reading group on prison pedagogy. Our political education program thus models our commitment to cultivating inside/outside alliances and abolitionist praxis.
Please consider donating to the Tidewater Solidarity Center, of which we are an affiliate, in order to build networks of care for people impacted by the Prison Industrial Complex.
Humanities Behind Bars: Ethics of Teaching
1) Centering learning around people’s agency or will to effect change in their own lives, the lives of others, and their communities
2) Improvisation and self-determined action
- Being flexible with teaching
- Letting students express their needs in classroom culture and content planning
3) Cultivation of critical discourse and student self-empowerment
- Developing teaching practices that incorporate justice frameworks, social action, and lived experiences
4) Fostering an atmosphere of mutual respect and reciprocal learning