What does freedom mean to you? 

This was one of the many questions that I, along with my co-facilitators, asked during our creative writing workshops at Gus Harrison Correctional Facility in Adrian, Mich. We were there through the Sociology program Project Community, which gives U-M students the opportunity to explore the intersection of community service and social action through visiting a community site in one of three focus areas: education, public health or criminal justice, and has been one of the most impactful experiences for me during college. 

We always revisit this prompt —  What does freedom mean to you? —  because no one person’s definition of freedom can be the same, especially for those whose freedom has been explicitly taken away. We ask the participants to respond to these questions through writing, rather than discussion, because writing helps people become vulnerable and nurture relationships. 

It was not until the participants in my workshop started sharing their responses that I truly understood the power of writing and the foundation it serves in connecting people. It enabled me to connect with the members of my workshop on the idea of freedom, a concept that may initially seem too abstract to raise similarities between people. 

One member of the group, Chris, wrote a few responses that showed me both the surprising overlaps and sweeping divides in our experiences.

First, he wrote that freedom is synonymous with “listening to the crackle of a nighttime bonfire while wearing a soft hoodie.” 

Then, it was the “steam from a hot cup of coffee and the smell of breakfast cooking coming from the kitchen inside.” 

Finally, he described “the porch lights illuminating the numbers 4-0-1-8”, or in other words, being able to have a home.” 

Through Chris’s prose, I was able to relate to him on a topic that seemingly is the most stark division between us: I am more free, living my life in the “outside” world — and he is not. I was able to relate to his descriptions of freedom because they represented so many of the simple joys in life. Yet, before his descriptions, I had the privilege to overlook these freedoms because they have become customary for me.   

What are you grateful for? 

During one of our workshops, one member expressed his gratitude for prison. At first, I was perplexed. How could someone possibly be grateful for prison? 

I remember reading his explanation: “my prison experience has been one I didn’t want, however it was one that was probably needed … because I needed to be out of my previous environment or things could’ve been a lot worse … prison made me realize my worth and inspired changes I otherwise would not have made.” 

If prison is a better alternative than someone’s own community, what does that say about our society at large? Should we be restructuring our systems so people know they have worth, or can at the very least find their worth without going to prison? How do we fix a broken society? 

I never considered how there can be positive aspects of prison until he shared his perspective. He made me realize that my initial confusion regarding how someone could be grateful for prison was borne from the security I have felt in my own community. 

What is the best thing that happened to you this week? 

It’s not always the deepest, most thought-provoking themes that trigger a fruitful discussion or mindset change. Instead, it can be the simplicity of sharing an interest that builds a connection. I found the truth in this conjecture during the first month of our workshop, when we were still building relationships with one another. 

One of the members of the workshop answered the prompt indirectly; rather than reflecting on just his week, he reflected on his month — in particular the 264 miles he ran during it, and his excitement to surpass his new record. Through this seemingly small tidbit, I was able to get a sense that he was passionate about fitness, was competitive and liked to challenge himself. The more I thought about it, the more I saw myself in these values, despite us being complete opposites in identity, background, age and status. This made it clear to me that there does not need to be a profound similarity to form a connection; rather, there can just be a shared passion. 

What’s your biggest fear? 

This is a question so sensitive that it inevitably leads to vulnerability. To acknowledge your fears in your own mind is one thing, but to share this fear with others is intimidating. Fears are insights into weak spots that make you more vulnerable to hurt, so to voluntarily share something that frightens you or takes you into a spot of discomfort is a symbol of courage. Yet, no one is truly fearless, so fears do not make us weak — they make us human. 

One of the men in the workshop shared his “fear of the unknown.” He expressed this perpetual state of fear because he lives in “a constant state of uncertainty.” 

Do I feel this way constantly, and in the same way as him? No. Have I felt this way before? Yes. To step into someone else’s discomfort, whether you share those same fears or not, creates a sense of empathy and validity to feelings that are innately personal. It was not necessarily about what this man shared, but rather his willingness to share that enabled us to foster a connection. His openness in that moment was moving; in our space, wherein we were still barely acquainted, he was able to look at us — privileged college students who came there to run a workshop — and still share a piece of his most sheltered self.

And then, questions from outsiders fascinated by my experience; their own pseudo-prompts:

Why do you hold these workshops? 

Are you afraid of being in prison? 

What is it like? 

Upon starting my workshop, I was worried — not because I was afraid of the men, but that I would not be able to establish a meaningful connection with the participants, since my circumstances were so different than theirs. I feared having nothing to talk about and I feared assumptions — not just my own, but theirs as well. Given my privilege, would they be skeptical of my intentions? 

However, over the course of the workshop, I made profound connections with these men. The flow of conversation became easy, and through learning about their life experiences, emotions and dreams — all through writing — I caught a glimpse into who they truly were. I was able to see them as so much more than people that are constrained behind their cells. 

I never imagined I would build such powerful and transformative relationships. If someone had told me I would feel a pull on my heartstrings upon ending my workshop, I don’t think I would’ve believed them. I felt sad that the workshops were over, but happy when reflecting on the connections I had made and the newfound power we had realized through writing. Now, I use writing as a tool, just as the men in my workshop did so meaningfully. When I feel stuck, when I feel prideful, when I don’t know how to connect —  I turn to writing to allow layers of myself to unfold, hoping it inspires those around me to do the same.

Editor’s Note: The author was given permission to share the writing and perspectives of those from her workshops who are mentioned in this piece.

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