Photo by: Starr Sariego
Exchange for Change is changing the way our community sees incarceration. The organization believes in the power of written partnerships to promote dialogue and impact social change.
And they are taking it one step further: Not only do they offer anonymous pen pals to correctional facility prisoners, but also offer various writing courses. We caught up with one of Exchange for Change’s program coordinators to learn more.
Exchange for Change now offers 34 courses covering diverse topics, from trauma writing and memoir, to journalism and flash fiction. Why literacy and the arts?
By definition, a prison is designed, at best, to strip people of their individuality and sense of self-worth. Literacy and the arts are a way to restore humanity to a people deprived of their dignity and uniqueness. Writing, movement, music and dance all provide opportunities for our students to reconnect with themselves and express their individuality. All of our courses offer tools to improve communication, whether written or spoken. Because of our course diversity we’re able to attract a large cross section of the incarcerated population, growing our program from 17 students in our first class to several hundred per semester.
Exchange for Change is built upon collaboration. Why is collaboration an important piece of your organization’s work and how has it impacted results?
Collaboration is an integral component of our program because we believe that a healthy community is only as healthy as its weakest link. We have incorporated collaboration on every possible level: between students in the classroom; our partnership with academic institutions or other nonprofits, such as O, Miami; and engagement with community activists. In addition to bringing our students’ voices to the outside, we also bring the community inside to hear them speak for themselves, by having them attend bi-annual showcase graduations, which helps build bridges and dismantle stereotypes.
Empathy between inmates in your program and students in outside academic institutions is encouraged through letter-writing exchanges. How can the community learn from this exchange to become more understanding and facilitate more empathetic dialogue?
The name of our organization was originally tied to our signature class, the exchange class. This class is designed for our incarcerated students to participate in a semester-long, one-on-one anonymous writing exchange with students in local academic settings—UM, FIU, FAU, MDC, Gulliver and Ransom Everglades. The intent is for our inside students to feels valued and heard and for our outside students to confront prejudices and biases they may not know they harbor. After our program ran for a few months, we also recognized additional ‘exchanges’, particularly those in the classroom, where groups of students who might otherwise not have spoken to each other were suddenly having meaningful conversations, further breaking down barriers and strengthening bonds within the compound.
To learn more about Exchange for Change, visit exchange-for-change.org/.
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