Four Years of Bringing Incarcerated and Campus-Based Students Together to Learn About Food Justice

The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program brings campus-based students together with incarcerated students for a semester of classes held within the correctional space. TESA Collective has been teaching a self-designed course called “Creating Farm and Food Focused Cooperatives” at a local Massachusetts jail through Greenfield Community College’s Inside-Out program for the past four years.

THE CHALLENGE

For many incarcerated men, post-jail life can be a major emotional adjustment, and it can be quite difficult finding support. Furthermore, for those who have felonies, getting a job after jail is extremely difficult. A number of consequences can result, including homelessness, depression, anxiety, and recidivism.

This lack of support can result in recycling those who have been incarcerated in and out of their families and communities, which has numerous socio-political impacts. When individuals are incarcerated, local employment prospects and economic viability both go down. If they have a felony, the person is also often removed from many democratic processes and lose such rights as voting, public social and housing benefits, and parental rights. Such setbacks inevitably decrease family stability and reliability as well, which increases mental and physical health issues in families, and encourages even greater social problems such as homelessness and suicide.

THE COLLABORATION

Curriculum design is one of TESA’s greatest passions, and one way we feel we can contribute to effective social change. Working with institutions and organizations to build impactful learning opportunities for students is something we value greatly. In 2012, TESA first taught the course “Creating Farm and Food Focused Cooperatives,” which we also designed through the Inside-Out Program.

The course has unique content in that it supports students in developing farm and food focused worker-owned co-ops. These focuses meet needs for the community and students alike.

Over the course of each semester, TESA has worked with students to develop and discuss ideas around economic democracy and labor. The students establish solid group dynamics that break down stigma together and learn first how to talk about democracy and cooperation, developing a collective process.

Through co-op examples and case studies, students learn more about worker ownership and the practice of cooperation. They then form small groups and cultivate their own business plans and bylaws that then culminate in the development and presentation of their own co-op projects.

At the end of the semester, they are required to each present their final project to the larger group.

Here’s a sample list of co-ops past students have designed:

  • Composting cooperative
  • Cooperative treatment and rehabilitation farm
  • Cooperative food hub and distribution center
  • All bulk worker-co-op grocery store
  • Co-op Traveling farm market and food delivery service
  • Co-op restaurant and farm
  • Co-op re-entry farm and mobile butchery

A map of the farm-focused coop developed by students in a class at the Franklin County jail in Massachusetts

Additionally, TESA is also involved in a weekly discussion group called The Think Tank. The group is co-facilitated and was co-founded in 2015 by Andrew Stachiw, a worker owner with TESA Collective. The Think Tank is a space for envisioning new ideas and a place intended for democratic interaction. Participants work together to discuss and build proposals, and through the process learn to work collectively towards creating change. The Think Tank reads and discusses books while empowering its members to generate proposals for the betterment of the jail. They’ve even created a proposal to attend local cultural events so inmates can begin to re-acclimate to society, and wrote another proposal to get inmates out of the jail monthly for free, sober fun together. In 2016, they began to go out on hikes and attend local cultural events.

A NOTE FROM TESA

This particular class is unique because the content focus is on co-ops, but really, so much of the educational experience is about the exchange between two groups who don’t usually have direct contact with one another. It’s an amazing experience to challenge assumptions, especially for students who aren’t incarcerated, and then see them share ideas and develop cooperatives together. The entire class gets activated by the transformative experience of democratic education, and we get to develop meaningful connections that last a lifetime as well. TESA hopes to teach this class for many semesters to come!

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