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Reentry: From Stigma to Reinvention

by Aimee Mepham, Program Coordinator, WFU Humanities Institute

Reentry: From Stigma to Reinvention
Project Director: Lisa Blee, Assistant Professor, History

Reentry: From Stigma to Reinvention is a collaborative project between the Project Re-entry program and students in Professor Lisa Blee’s course HST 367: Issues in Public History.

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Lisa Blee

Blee began to formulate the main project for her course last spring after taking part in a community-based participatory research seminar for faculty. She wanted a project that took on a subject that did more than just celebrate an aspect of the past. “I needed one project that all the students could work on, and it had to matter,” she said. “I wanted students to have the experience of making decisions within controversy, to listen to people in the community, also to use their critical thinking skills to determine how much authority they should have on this issue and a chance to challenge their own pre-conceived notions.”

She then found Michael Thomas, Program Coordinator at Project Re-entry and learned about the organization a bit more. Project Re-entry, founded by Rebecca Sauter in Forsyth County, provides transition services for former offenders returning to their communities. The organization has an established, structured curriculum that begins pre-release and also offers a variety of post-release services for program graduates. Blee contacted Thomas and asked if they could meet to discuss how they might be able to help one another through a possible collaborative project with her students. They worked through the spring and summer to develop the project the students would complete during the fall 2014 semester.

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A collaborative planning meeting at the Project Re-entry office.

There are six students in the course, and while three are history majors with an interest in public history, the course also includes an adult student auditing the course, a graduate student in the Master of Divinity / MA in Sustainability program, and a biology major not especially interested in the study of history before this course, making the effort truly an interdisciplinary one. The students in the course have read extensively on the history of incarceration, including Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and David Oshinsky’s Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. They have also recorded oral histories with five former offenders and participants in the Project Re-entry program.

The project will culminate in the course-generated exhibition Re-entry: From Stigma to Reinvention. The exhibition will include panels featuring a timeline on the history of incarceration, information about the history and success of Project Re-entry, excerpts from the oral histories, as well as music, writing, and artwork created by the former offenders and curated by the students. The exhibit will open on Saturday, January 17, 2015 at the Sawtooth School for Visual Art.