Learning Together and Improbable Friendship

by Drs Ruth Armstrong and Amy Ludlow

3 Aug 2015

We are writing this on a flight home from visiting a couple of prisons in the USA, attending a parole board hearing, and having lunch today with a young man who committed serious violent offences in his youth, but is now living life with ‘the shiny people’, as he called them – those who have the chance in life to be and do good.

We wanted to start this last blog of the trip with a piece of writing recited by a prisoner in Graterford prison. This man has been in prison since he was 15 years old. He is now probably in his mid 40’s. His sentence, life without parole, was overturned three years ago but he is still imprisoned while the State appeals the ruling. He is a soulful and lyrical man.

“Look around you…
Who are the people sitting next to you?
The people next to you…
are the greatest miracles you will ever meet at this moment
– and the greatest mysteries.
The people next to you…
have an inexhaustible reservoir of possibilities,
which have only been partially been touched.
The people next to you…
are a unique universe of experience
seething with necessity and possibility,
dread and desire, smiles and frowns,
laughter and tears, fears and hopes –
all struggling to find expression.
The people next to you…
… are surging to become something,
… to arrive at some destination,
… to have a story and a song,
… to be known and to know.
The people next to you…
… believe in something,
… stand for something,
… count for something,
… labor for something,
… wait for something,
… wait for something,
… run from something,
… run towards something.
The people next to you…
… are more than any description,
… are more than any explanation,
… are more, much, much more.
The people next to you…
have something they can do better than anyone else in the world,
have strengths they do not even recognize,
need to talk to you about those abilities,
need you to listen,
but do they dare speak them to you?”

Improbable friendships formed through connections with people we may not usually encounter are rich in potential to build bridges across perceived and real divides. For example, a university student and an imprisoned student can take an educational course together. A volunteer from a faith community may visit a prison to worship alongside prisoners. Through common experiences, interests and achievements people stand together – separate but connected.

These platforms have potential as foundations for more interconnected and relational communities. As Christian Smith argues, personhood is socially and relationally constructed. Connections are vital to individual personhood and community: ‘Humans literally cannot develop as persons without other persons with whom they share and sustain their personhood. To be a person is not to be an incommunicable self, distinct from other selves. It is also to be related to, communicating among and in communion with other personal selves.’

Contemporary society is increasingly economically and socially fractured and individualistic. As a result, Bauman argues that community has become aesthetic rather than ethical. In aesthetic communities likeminded people celebrate their similarities and their capacity to exercise individual agency. This occurs in ways that exclude people who do not share these characteristics and lack the means to exercise their agency alone. Bauman writes that such communities offer the joy of belonging without the inconvenience of being bound.

By contrast, ethical communities come together in ways that compensate for individual deficits. As such, the exercise of individuality is actuated within community. Individuals within ethical communities are more together than they are separately. While communities of sameness are fragile, communities that embrace and compensate for the discomfort of individual fragility and difference are more robust.

How do we create spaces that facilitate the sort of connection that builds ethical communities? Several initiatives provide hopeful examples of what ethical communities might look like. The Prison-to-College Pipeline programme run by Baz Dreisinger at John Jay Criminal Justice College in Central University New York teaches some of its classes to students in prison. It guarantees that any prisoners who take the course can finish their degree at CUNY upon release. It opens up multiple social spaces within which people who have criminal convictions and those who do not can learn together. CUNY is embracing some of the discomfort of difference by including students who are likely to be quite different from their standard recruits. Through this they are shaping their community in ways that may increase its relevance and robustness.

Similarly, ProjectCURATE, (The Centre for Reconciliation and Theological Education) in Houston, run by Matthew Russell, brings together community groups from disparate neighbourhoods through creative educational initiatives. Its aim is to provide a learning platform through which people who might not otherwise encounter each other come together. As with the Prison-to-College pipeline, ProjectCURATE familiarises communities with the different realities of their neighbours through making space for improbable friendships. One small example of the results of these encounters is a new taco van, bought by wealthy parishioners, parked on a church lawn and staffed by undocumented immigrants, serving food to street dwellers. By parking on church property the van operates in a safe space where immigration authorities have limited jurisdiction. These friendships disrupt divisions and can curate new inclusive communities of understanding and collaboration.

This year we will be running a series of seminars at the University of Cambridge in which we will explore the reservoirs of possibilities that exist when we curate space for improbable friendships in which we dare to speak to the people sitting next to us, ‘shiny’ or not.


Please join us!

Ruth Armstrong is a British Academy Post Doctoral Fellow at the Institute of Criminology. Together with Dr Amy Ludlow she is the co-founder and director of ‘Learning Together’, a course where students from the University of Cambridge study alongside students currently serving time in prison.

Read more by Ruth Armstrong and Amy Ludlow:

What happens when students from universities and prisons learn together?

Learning Together Unwired

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