It was with bittersweet feelings that I told the men in my prison creative-writing workshop last week that I would be leaving in a month so that I could go home to get ready to teach English in New York City next year.

Andrew Skidmore

I was sad because this workshop has been an incredible experience in all the participants’ lives. I have never felt more appreciated than when I drove once a week to Coldwater, Mich. with my partner Matt for the workshop. Every week when we arrived, the guys waited for us with their weekly writing assignments. We stayed until we absolutely had to leave, and then the guys sincerely thanked us for coming. As we walked through the yard, a few of the guys continued talking to us about their writing.

One of them has been working diligently on a collection of personal essays by prisoners who made irrevocable decisions and are now paying the price – for some, life sentences. When I leave to begin a new life, they will remain behind razor wire and locked doors. Spending time with these men has shown me how lucky I am to be free. I go into the real world knowing how precious it is and knowing, as Nelson Mandela wrote in his autobiography, “with freedom come responsibilities.”

College graduation is a kind of freedom I have never experienced before. For the last two years, I have been learning about serious flaws in our education system, our justice system and other social and economic structures. Now, as I begin finding a career, I have the ability to start attacking some of these problems. I am tired of making tiny contributions in groups like Dance Marathon and Alternative Spring Break. These organizations do good work and have inspired me, but they are insufficient.

I feel the same way about these columns. I’ve liked having my soapbox every other week, and I think journalism plays an important role in raising social awareness, but that’s only the beginning.

Myles Horton, the activist in the labor and civil rights movements, said that trying to argue someone into changing their position usually just strengthens their position. “What you need to do is get them into a situation where they’ll have to act on ideas, not argue about them,” he said.

That’s where these columns fail. Last fall, when I tried to inform readers at the end of a column about how to get to a Battered Women’s Clemency Project rally, the Daily’s editors deleted that section. This semester, when I tried to recommend that readers take English classes focusing on the workshops I have written so much about, the editors told me I couldn’t advocate for a specific teacher I’d had – nevermind that this teacher and his classes have changed my life and could potentially change the lives of others. In both cases, the editors voiced concern that what I wanted to say would violate the paper’s conflict of interest policy. Strict enforcement of such a policy at a college newspaper, however, interferes with columnists who want to inspire action.

Don’t get me wrong – I have enjoyed my column for the last year and a half – but I think it’s important to put these articles into perspective. With a Daily column, you may open minds and encourage dialogue on campus, but you are probably not going to change the world.

The real work comes after graduation in what we choose to do with the rest of our lives. And so, if you really believe in a cause, don’t just dedicate your weekends or one night a week to a relevant “community service” opportunity; instead, choose a career that embraces that cause and spend your life working toward it.

But if you haven’t found a cause, an academic field or an activity that you’re passionate about, don’t worry. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks.” After receiving a world-class education at this university, you can be confident that you have some of the strongest ships around. All you can do now is head out in some direction, and if you keep adjusting your sails, you will reach amazing and unforeseen destinations.

Cravens an be reached at jjcrave@umich.edu.

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