History of the Program
Regina Arnold and Myra Goldberg, two faculty members of Sarah Lawrence College, developed an initiative to facilitate writing workshops for self-expression with inmates of a local prison. Beginning in 1995, student facilitators worked with women assigned to a self-contained "rehabilitation" style prison program, called Solutions, for issues related to alcohol and drug abuse. The women voluntarily signed-up to be part of the workshops, meeting weekly with the facilitators to tackle a set of prompts that highlight an element of writing. The original students were drawn from Professor Arnold's course on the U.S. prison system. The sessions started with two faculty members facilitating the workshops in six-week blocks. Students in the class assisted the faculty by working with program participants to complete the reading and writing assignments. The students met twice a month with Professor Arnold outside the classroom to reflect and wrestle with some of the experiences they were having within the jail.
The program culminated that first year in a reading by the students of the pieces written by the women who were incarcerated, a tradition that continues today. In the fourth year of the program, Sarah Lawrence partnered with both a local radio station and past participants to do a reading over the radio that was broadcast in the jail.
Right-to-Write continues to host weekly, year-long workshops for inmates of the Westchester County Correctional Facility. As the program has grown, the model for workshops has been adapted. The College continues its relationship with the Solutions program, but the logistics of the workshops have come to rely much more on the students and the support of the Office of Community Partnerships. Instead of two faculty members serving as lead facilitators, volunteers from Sarah Lawrence's undergraduate and graduate programs fill that primary role, working in small groups with inmates and overseen by the a head facilitator through the graduate program on writing.
Over the years, Right-to-Write has come to incorporate more women from the female unit of the jail through an initiative called Mommy Reads. In this program, student facilitators meet with participating women, who are mothers or grandmothers, to read a series of children's books that demonstrate different narrative techniques. The facilitators utilize writing prompts to help the women in crafting a story for their children and then the volunteers illustrate the stories. The women then create audio recordings of their books for their children. The Right-to-Write program packages these recordings and books and mails them to the children of the program participants.
Right-to-Write now also brings writing sessions to the boot-camp style program operating under the facility's Young Offenders Program. Facilitators, working in pairs, lead small groups of males aged 16-24 in weekly writing workshops. The young men, who eat, work, and live together, are required to attend the sessions, which occur within their common space. Facilitators encourage the men to write with the help of writing prompts that cover different forms of poetry and fiction techniques.
Becoming a Right to Write Facilitator
Serving as a volunteer facilitator of a R2W workshop can be both incredibly rewarding and extraordinarily challenging. Workshop facilitators will need to be able to nurture the creative processes of 3-10 writers, balancing ideals with the realities of the facilitating writing workshops. Cohorts of volunteers help construct the semester long, integrated curriculum with exercises that will motivate, support and challenge the writers. The task of the facilitator is not for everyone. As such, a selection process has been established to obtain qualified facilitators. Each year, about 15 facilitators are needed to run the program. Undergraduate and graduate students wishing to become a facilitator in the R2W program need to complete an application and attend an interview. The application can be found in the "forms" section of the MySLC R2W page.
Once selected, facilitators will need to:
- Attend all workshops to prepare for work in the jail (one in the fall and one in the spring)
- Prepare lesson plans for each of the sessions with other facilitators and communicate weekly with the graduate student coordinator
- Attend and facilitate weekly writing/reading workshops with individuals who have been incarcerated
- Communicate with graduate student coordinator and other SLC group members on issues/challenges of work Attend debriefing sessions when scheduled
Overview of Sessions
Sarah Lawrence facilitators guide weekly, one-hour sessions at the Westchester County Jail on writing. Working from a basic workshop structure, volunteers pay attention to the needs of their group while ensuring consistency in the quality and focus of the sessions. Attention is paid to having the individual participants write and read from their poems or short stories. These pieces develop from a common writing prompt provided by the facilitators and then utilized by each group. Facilitators prepare prompts each week. Support for facilitators comes in the form of a dedicated graduate student coordinator and the Office of Community Partnerships and Service-Learning.
Special Opportunity for Graduate Students
Graduate students are encouraged to apply at the start of each academic year to serve as coordinators to one aspect of the R2W program. As coordinators, graduate students are paid a stipend for their work in guiding facilitator writing plans and overseeing 3-5 volunteer facilitators.