By Kate Silver
One book talks about a family’s love of dancing. Another is about the energizing freedom of a night on the town. A third explores the devastating loss of a sister to AIDS.
The narratives are different, but each of the works came from the same place: the maximum-security division of Chicago’s Cook County Jail.
For more than a year, teachers from the nonprofit ConTextos have been leading the Authors’ Circle, a memoir-writing class for detainees awaiting trial for violent offenses. Since the program launched in the jail in January 2017, three cohorts (about 65 men total) have participated, spending two hours a day three to four days a week for about four months reading, writing, revising, illustrating through collage and, finally, publishing their stories. The underlying philosophy of the program, which got its start in El Salvador, is that transformational change can happen to people when they reflect on their past experiences, thoughts, beliefs and attitudes—and tell their stories in a manner so that they’ll be heard.
“We talk a lot of the time about their emotions, traumas of the past,” says Lisa Kenner, chief educational officer with ConTextos. “It’s like canned fruits and vegetables. Even if we don’t cook it for dinner, it’s on our shelf.”
Kenner adds that the Authors’ Circle isn’t just about writing. It’s about reinforcing the value of every person. She says that by examining the past, authors—many of whom have experienced violence and trauma themselves—can feel empowered to alter their path in the future.