Learning alongside former prisoners, college students find ‘challenge, passion, mutual support’

The Atlanta-based nonprofit Common Good Atlanta created college classes for people returning to their communities after being incarcerated. Local professors taught the classes and local college students served as teaching assistants.

Common Good Atlanta program gives people released from prison access to top metro professors and humanities classes

Kathryn Higinbotham is a fourth-year student at Georgia Tech and Avery Hill is a junior at Emory Univiersity. Last year, they worked with Atlanta-based nonprofit Common Good Atlanta as teaching assistants for a class of people who were previously imprisoned.

In this piece, the two students reflect on their inspiring experiences with the class.

By Kathryn Higinbotham and Avery Hill

As students at Emory and Georgia Tech, we walk into classes every day that introduce us to profound ideas and foster discussions geared toward self-realization and creativity. Our professors invest in us. From our colleges' renovated, historic architecture to plays, symphonies, and dining halls, everything at Emory and Tech is designed for us to thrive academically, socially, and culturally.

Students like us are afforded these opportunities in no small part because, when filling out our college applications, we never had to check that daunting box indicating that we have been convicted of a felony.

But for the last year, we had the privilege of working as teaching assistants for a classroom of people who would have had to check that box. We met every Tuesday night from September to August in downtown Atlanta, studying English literature, writing and rhetoric, U.S. history, art history, and philosophy with a group of men and women who have been previously incarcerated.

Organized by Atlanta-based nonprofit Common Good Atlanta and accredited through the Clemente Courses in the Humanities, the class was generously supported by Georgia Humanities and individual donors.

Common Good Atlanta -- which has offered college courses inside Georgia’s prisons since 2008 -- designed the course to remove barriers for people returning to our communities from prison. Students engaged in 110 hours of face-to-face time with some of Atlanta’s most gifted professors. Not only was the course free, but dinner was provided every class evening, as well as MARTA passes and six academic credit hours from Bard College that will transfer to local colleges and universities, should students decide to keep pursuing a college degree.

The goal was to remove some of the barriers that make cultural engagement and deep learning nearly impossible for returning citizens, while also creating a consistent space where they could be intellectually challenged and engage in rigorous study of the humanities with other people seeking to rebuild their lives after prison.

Volunteer faculty from Emory Oxford, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, and Morehouse College brought their expertise to the classroom; the offices of Gideon’s Promise donated their space, community members provided healthy dinners; and tutors from Georgia Tech’s Writing and Communication program supported students' writing.

Along with Emory Oxford’s Jacob Ruhkamp, the three of us served as the faculty’s teaching assistants for the 15 students who came from the community to take the course. The Clemente Courses in the Humanities facilitated the accreditation and the course was generously supported by Georgia Humanities and individual donors.

We found ourselves as part of a collaborative project in generosity, including the generosity of the students who became our peers and friends.

When you imagine a class for people who have been released from prison, you may envision five-paragraph essays and a watered-down overview of U.S. history. That couldn’t be farther from reality. The course offered a deep dive into primary sources and conversations that would set a high standard in any college classroom.

Every Tuesday evening, the atmosphere was exciting and communal. Knowledge emerged through social production, a conversation among peers as opposed to a sage-on-a-stage. This democratic process happens so dramatically that we mistook one student for a guest professor for weeks before realizing he had been recently incarcerated. It was not until the student mentioned that it would be a year until he’d be able to vote again that we realized he had been incarcerated.

We soon realized that the class represented the ideal we had imagined for our own college experiences: combining challenge, passion, and mutual support. Every week, the classroom was charged with energy and excitement as we tackled Plato and “Invisible Man,” the rhetorical strategy of the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments at the Seneca Falls Convention, similarities and differences within various factions of the Civil Rights Movements, the conflicting legacies of Thomas Jefferson, Angela Davis' Lectures on Liberation, and intertextuality in works of art.

The former inmates met these topics with a passion and drive that you rarely encounter among even the most hard-working undergrads. For example, Brian emailed a professor at Queen’s University in Belfast to seek access to scholarship on surveillance in film adaptations of “Hamlet”; Janine articulated her understanding of American citizenship as someone who has served a prison sentence; Tina wrote eloquently about Emily Dickinson’s insight into the human condition; Mufasa tripled the required word count of every writing assignment with a poetic power that, several times, brought us all to tears; Patrick adapted Picasso’s Guernica into his own moving piece of artwork expressing his understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The students not only demonstrated a deep and nuanced comprehension of the material, but also an unparalleled ability to see their own reflections in texts and art that have historically been reserved for “elite” colleges and universities. They strove to gain a better understanding of themselves through the material.

Mike presented on Tintoretto’s “Susanna and the Elders” at the end of the art history class. He argued the audience became an active part in the painting and illustrated how the artwork affected his own understanding of himself. This same level of self-examination and discovery emerged in every student presenter, who consistently examined their own lived experiences through history, literature, and art.

Such a level of self-realization illustrates the ways in which classroom learning cannot be achieved through a transfer of information alone. Trust must be established in order for the students and teachers to take hold and facilitate learning; while the creation and transfer of knowledge remains important, the community created in the classroom has been more important in our own college experiences. In this class, we saw how people who have been ostracized from the spaces we take for granted created their own community with lively intellectual conversations and a fresh sense of friendship.

As much as the instructors worked to create this atmosphere from the outset, the students were the ones responsible for shaping our Tuesday evenings as welcoming, accepting, and supportive. Everyone who visited the class found themselves immediately immersed in conversation with no transition from “stranger” to community member: the moment you entered the classroom, you were family.

Our society tells people who have been incarcerated that they are not welcome in the job market, in neighborhoods or apartment complexes, or in the voting booth. And yet, these same people who face closed doors were the first to fling them open for any newcomer, including us, two students from Emory’s Oxford College and Georgia Tech.

College educations with an emphasis on the humanities -- the subjects that teach us to understand ourselves and our society, that help us to process our own traumas, joys, and failings as people – have been historically reserved for the most privileged members of society. We saw first-hand what it looks like to resist these assumptions. We experienced how access to higher education strengthens the common good of all communities.

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