BY KELLY SWAN | July 24, 2017
“You know, what happens a lot is that guys are in prison and they get out and all they know is drugs and gangs, so they go right back. Homeboys and homegirls don’t have an education to fall back on.” (Hector Verdugo)
Laura Bopp was in the audience at a panel discussion with Hector Verdugo, associate executive director at Homeboy Industries, and Janine Geske, former justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court and advocate for restorative justice, at the 2015 Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice. Bopp, who was studying English and secondary education at the University of Scranton, and is passionate about literacy and education, was struck by these words from Verdugo—a moment of realization that inmates are not receiving services or support that will allow them to rise out of the criminal justice system.
As a first-time Teach-In attendee, Bopp witnessed the passion of “doers”—people working for the greater good. Their stories of work for social justice were powerful, but she left the weekend challenged by struggles in her own community.
Paired with Verdugo’s assessment of the roadblocks facing those in prison due to lack of education, Bopp was also struck by the work of Sr. Helen Prejean, a 2015 Teach-In keynote presenter. Bopp found “the compassion that she shows when she talks about the dignity of a human, no matter what someone has done” to be a transformative concept—and the roots of her own vision to put this compassion into action in the city of Scranton.
Bopp’s vision has grown into a program entitled LEAP—Literacy, Education, and Advocacy in Prison. She and a group of University of Scranton students, which has ranged in size from 10-30 volunteers, provide a space for creative writing and community one evening each week for women incarcerated at the Lackawanna County Prison.
“I tell the students that they will need to take a leap out of their comfort zone, rather than just a step. It is different from any service experience previously available on campus.” Bopp has structured the program to include numerous trainings for volunteers, including with a women’s resource center on dealing with traumatic and personal sharing from women in the program. The prison required background checks and an extensive tour prior to the program’s start. “If you’re not used to it, it can be very abrasive and startling,” says Bopp of the prison tour and restrictions placed on both inmates and visitors.
Colleen Boyle, a Philadelphia native who began volunteering with the LEAP program during her freshman year at the University of Scranton and also attended the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice, shares the story of a woman who was very extroverted and personable but was unwilling to follow workshop instructions. “Then, when we started writing word mandalas,” explains Boyle, “she wrote a poem in a rotating spiral about life in prison and how hard it is to feel trapped and alone, stripped of basic human rights. She blew me away with the talent she has, all that she needed was a chance, someone to show her she is not just a statistic, but an individual with feelings and talents who has a right to speak her mind creatively.”
Bopp explains that the program has needed to be very malleable, as many participants come with great passion and talent, but the transient nature of the prison system brings many new participants each week. One week, a discussion of characters in popular culture, designed to appeal to both long-term attendees and women new to the program, drew participants to explore a universal theme—mothers protecting their children. “A lot the women will say that they want to give their child the best life possible, to let them know that they can do better than they’ve done,” Bopp shares. “We all have mothers and we are all children to someone, so it became an easy way for us to relate to each other. When we walk into that room, our labels are stripped away; we are no longer inmates and students, but women writing together. We aren’t there to hear what they did, but help them write and express what they want.”
Boyle emphasizes the need, as a volunteer, to approach this experience as an act of solidarity. She sees a transformation in the ability to build an atmosphere of equality, not charity—of trust and positivity rather than an “us and them” environment focused on judgment or fear of being judged.
Despite the power of the LEAP program, Boyle asserts that this program is not extraordinary. “There are so many places around the U.S. that do this type of thing. This is becoming a widespread movement—humanizing inmates and others who are marginalized, making sure all voices are heard,” she explains. “Fr. Greg Boyle talks a lot about walking with those on the margins. That’s what we are trying to do. It is important that everyone realizes that they can do this too. You may not have a LEAP program, but there are always ways to go to the margins and stand with the people there.”
Bopp is eager to credit both Sr. Helen Prejean and Fr. Greg Boyle with transforming her life—for showing her and other students that ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things by acting on their own compassion and ideas by throwing themselves into projects and movements that inspire them; to go beyond charity and find commonality.
“We share with them,” says Bopp. “We write alongside them. We want to level the playing field”—building a space where community and solidarity overcome the disparity between lives and create space for mutual encounter and relationships to flourish.
Kelly Swan has worked for the Ignatian Solidarity Network since 2016, first as communications director, and now as director of advancement. She grew up in West Virginia and is a graduate of Wheeling Jesuit University. Kelly has worked in parish social ministry, child and family advocacy, community education and organizing, and publishing. She lives in the Cleveland, Ohio area with her children.