Editor’s note: Melissa Pavlik’s article in the Sept/Oct issue of WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship has deeply resonated with us as it aptly captures the spirit of our blog: to connect writing centers across borders. In her piece, Pavilk describes a dual-campus writing center that connects North Park University tutors in Chicago and students at the school’s seminary’s extension campus, Stateville Correctional Center, “a nearly-century old maximum security facility that houses 1,137 adult males (Stateville Correctional Center)” (p.2). This partnership began in 2018 when one of the North Park University tutors initiated a letter partners project between tutors and inmates. Darby Agovino, a tutor at North Park University writing center, describes the letter partners project in this feature piece.
One of the many powerful outcomes of this partnership is Feather Bricks, a newsletter with articles by incarcerated Writing Advisors at Stateville Correctional Center Campus. To read the inaugural issue and learn from the WAs at Stateville Correctional Center, click here.
To learn more about the Editor of Feather Bricks, Alex Negrόn, you can find his bio at the end of the article.
New Beginnings: A Dual Campus Writing Center
North Park University’s Writing Center is a dual-campus center: one campus in Chicago is over 15 years old and employs mostly undergraduate tutors, while the other, in the maximum-security prison Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Illinois, is three semesters old and run by a diverse group of male MA in Christian Ministry candidates in North Park Seminary’s School of Restorative Arts. Neither could exist without the other, as both centers are united by a coordinated effort to provide students in the community with mentorship and writing support. My time as an outside Writing Advisor (WA) for this dual-campus writing center, especially during COVID-19, showed me the value of access to information, identity expression, and ability to amplify one’s voice, as well as the privilege that has allowed me to take those things for granted.
Our Chicago center would be a different place without our sister center in Stateville. Stateville students relentlessly push our Chicago center to be better. They remind us not to take for granted the resources we have access to and drive us to push the boundaries of writing center work to use our power to support the oppressed, whether that is through supporting social justice reform, acceptance of code-meshing, or publishing of our dual-center experience.
For the past year and a half, I have been involved with our center’s Letter Partners Program, which has given me the opportunity to read Stateville students’ writing as well as send feedback and my writing into Stateville and receive feedback from students. I have also worked as a mentor for two semesters to two Stateville WAs in training while they were enrolled in a tutor training class taught at the prison by our center director. While mentorship for outside WAs in training is done via face to face conferencing (this semester through MS Teams), inside Stateville, mentorship is done through written feedback exchanges.
Correspondence with my first mentee allowed me to rediscover the art of letter writing. My mentee and I exchanged papers from our courses and gave honest, constructive feedback. The act of physically writing letters to and receiving letters from my mentee made me feel more connected to him, not to mention that his letters were often extremely long, detailed, and sincere. I connected with my mentee in a way that I had been failing to connect with my fellow students in Chicago.
I continued to correspond with Stateville students, and in the Spring of 2020, I became a mentor to a second mentee. We corresponded about commenting on student’s papers and how to create the proper tone when giving feedback. But after North Park’s spring break last March, all communication with students in Stateville ceased, as Chicago and Stateville went into quarantine modes. This was a scary time. We learned of rising cases within the prison and death of two highly valued students. One was my mentee. I learned of this loss over email and struggled to comprehend that I would never receive another letter from him.
Despite the lockdown that continued at Stateville, our center was able to run a Creative Writing and Grammar Correspondence courses this past summer. Through these courses, I reconnected with my first mentee over a haiku about cleaning poop off the walls (part of his job in the prison). I received letters about student struggles during lockdown, grammar handouts, and creative writing every week. I wrote feedback and sent in my own poems.
This summer, I had felt that we were not doing enough. I wanted to march into the prison and demand that my colleagues and my friends be treated with the humanity I knew they deserved, but I was devaluing the power that we gave to Stateville students by providing an ear to listen and a microphone to amplify their voices. So, we created our first School of Restorative Arts Newsletter titled Feather Bricks with the theme “Growing” that is completely made up of writing from Stateville students and was disseminated widely within the prison and is also linked on our writing center’s website.
I designed the layout of Feather Bricks. I spent hours over the summer choosing fonts and images. What I valued most about this job was the connection it gave me to a larger purpose that students have been articulating for a year and a half: listen to and amplify the voices of the voiceless.
My correspondence with Stateville students has shown me the importance of connection in a learning environment that demonstrates the power writing has to bring people together. The significance of this moment, as the world faces a pandemic and an uprising against systemic racism, makes these experiences even more relevant: when you lend your voice to the voiceless, your purpose is magnified.
About the author
Darby Agovino is a Biomedical Sciences major at North Park University in Chicago, IL. She is from Saint Louis, MO, where she grew up with two younger sisters, with whom she shares two dogs: Sasha and Hazel. She is a writing advisor and Student Coordinator in North Park’s Writing Center. She is also involved in the Writing Center’s Letter Exchange Program with other North Park Writing Advisors and students in Stateville Prison. She believes strongly in the value of a dual campus writing center and the mutual benefit of correspondence between Stateville graduate students and undergraduate writing advisors. Following her pending graduation in May 2021, her goal is to go to graduate school for molecular biology.
About the Editor of Feather Bricks
Hello! My name is Alex Negrόn, and I am a graduate student, published novelist, and Writing Advisor at North Park Theological Seminary’s School of Restorative Arts at our Stateville Correctional Center campus. As a Writing Advisor, I am lauded for understanding professors’ prompts and always ready to assist writers in composing academic papers without losing their own voices. My current research interests include assessing how to instill a culture of writing here at Stateville. Feather Bricks is a collaborative newsletter comprised of work by incarcerated Writing Advisors, with layout and design by free Writing Advisors on our Chicago campus, aimed to celebrate the multifaceted culture of writing both inside and outside of prison. We hope you join us and be grafted into our beloved community while we champion the art of writing! Click here to read Feather Bricks.