“If crime hurts, then justice should heal.”
— Fania E. Davis
Reflecting upon the incredible experience I had this spring semester co-teaching a course on Carcerality and Abolition brings me to a state of rawness and vulnerability that I have not felt in many years. Through the process of growing in mutual relationship with my co-instructor and our students, I am returned to a place of visceral awareness of the harm I caused to my victims, to their family, and to our shared community, which spans the breadth of this state. However, this awareness is now accompanied by a new depth of perception made possible through genuine partnership, mutual purpose and mindful care.
My amazing mission-partner and co-instructor, Dr. Catherine Besteman, has agreed to coauthor this month’s column to explore the impact of collaborative co-learning and community-building in our class for Colby’s Department of Anthropology.
AY 346 – Carcerality and Abolition
Though I had never taught a college class before this semester, I have learned from some of the most caring, compassionate human beings during my undergraduate and graduate education. The most impactful spaces have been those that deliberately upended the standard professor-student hierarchical structure. It was in these spaces that I learned deeply about myself and made progress toward developing greater clarity, confidence and voice.
Catherine heard this when she interviewed me for the Freedom and Captivity podcast in the spring of last year, and more meaningfully when she listened to my Lunch Talk at the Oak Institute for Human Rights last fall. A highly experienced, passionate, and tenured professor, Catherine was moved and inspired to reach out to me with an invitation to co-teach a course with her on “Carcerality and Abolition.” We traced today’s system of unrelenting punishment back to its roots in slavery and colonialism as a means of exploring the pressing need for community-based healing and, ultimately, the abolition of violence-based systems.
A fundamental goal of our partnership is to model the abolitionist goals of community-building through establishing meaningful human connection and mutual trust. The class was structured to break down the divide between incarcerated and non-incarcerated people. When she first envisioned this endeavor, Catherine saw us as modeling how to break down that divide through a teaching partnership based on equity, mutual respect and genuine care. I saw an opportunity to have a positive impact on the world beyond the confines of this prison.
Over the course of my life, I have been trained and conditioned away from acknowledging what good I have to offer people. So, initially, I did not see Catherine’s intent, which was to give non-incarcerated students an opportunity to develop close relationships with a highly skilled and competent professor who is incarcerated, a professor from whom they can learn about the realities of our carceral system. I was merely hoping for a chance to help educate and encourage some young people to come to an understanding they may have been deprived of thus far — that they each have a voice that carries unique strength and power. However, Catherine saw from the outset that by coming to know and trust and care about their incarcerated professor, the realities of the carceral system would become personal to them in a way that might not have happened before.
Catherine and I came to this partnership from radically different positions, life experiences, and perspectives on what a college-level learning space should look and feel like. She was focused on centering our class time on digging into the readings, interrogating and playing with the ideas and arguments they raised. I wanted to devote most of our class time to looking beyond the materials and into the personal, professional and academic impact they were having on the students.
We balanced our approaches, but as Catherine will humbly admit, our students proved me right! By prioritizing our interpersonal relationships, our co-learning environment was personally transformative for us all.
At my design, we used Restorative Circle practice, creating space for every voice to be heard with all its personal expertise and power. Opening and closing each class with this ceremony allowed us to acknowledge that our lives did not begin and end in concert with class time. Instead, we created a container of care, wherein we carefully and respectfully listened to each other, enabling us to then grapple deeply with the challenging subject material. In this space of courageous vulnerability, I required myself to share openly about the harm I have caused as well as that which I have endured. Otherwise, I would have been depriving both Catherine and our students of the depth of learning we were able to achieve. Plus, I would have felt like a fraud asking courage of others while hiding the totality of my self.
Rather than merely learning about it, we actively practiced healing-oriented abolitionist community-building. As Danielle Sered says so clearly in Until We Reckon, “Healed people are often suspicious of belief systems that deny change, because the fact that they are still alive is because they were capable of change…. Healed people heal people.”
In partnership with our students, Catherine and I were able to create a space of courageous vulnerability, radical imagination and compassionate education. We created community. And, wherever you are, so can you.
Leo Hylton is a graduate student at George Mason University’s Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution, currently incarcerated at Maine State Prison. His education and work are focused on Social Justice Advocacy and Activism, with a vision toward an abolitionist future. You can reach him at: Leo Hylton #70199, 807 Cushing Road, Warren, ME, 04864, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Catherine Besteman is an abolitionist educator at Colby College. Her research and practice engage the public humanities to explore abolitionist possibilities in Maine. In addition to the Freedom & Captivity initiative, she has researched and published on security, militarism, displacement, and community-based activism and transformation, focused on Somalia, South Africa, and the U.S. Her recent work has been supported by fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations.