CCAC spreads literacy to jail

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In the book “A Lesson Before Dying” a young African-American man is unjustly sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. The story examines the young man’s relationship with an African-American male teacher before his execution.

This text was chosen as the cornerstone for the Community College of Allegheny County’s One College One Community Initiative.

interpretive
INTERPRETIVE DANCE—The August Wilson Dance Ensemble performs a piece inspired by “A Lesson Before Dying.” (Photo by J.L. Martello)

The month-long series, which went on through October, was designed to explore and expand community and academic partnerships through a series of themed events.

“Literacy is essential to what we do and is an integral part of CCAC’s mission and goals to provide educational opportunities for all learners,” said Barbara Evans, Ed.D., associate dean of academic affairs who served as the project director for the initiative. “This project was an excellent vehicle to work collaboratively with all of the partners and outreach to the community to hopefully have an impact.”

Though the book closely examines one segment of the population, those wrongly convicted and incarcerated, it carries a universal message. The larger focus is on community engagement, exemplified by the teacher and his responsibility to the African-American community.

“I am a former Pittsburgh Public School English teacher who was familiar with (the author) Ernest Gaines’ work. The book was selected because of the provocative and timeless themes that have relevancy today although the setting was based in the 1940s,” Evans said. “It is a rich compilation of societal challenges, such as racism, redemption, transformation and community relations that people from different races, cultures and ages can connect to and engage in a dialogue.”

Throughout the month, CCAC joined with sixteen community partners to bring the book to every corner of Allegheny County. From local schools to the county jail, participants engaged in series of activities to promote literacy, reading and community engagement.

“I thought it would be an awesome opportunity for our students to examine issues of race and justice. We really just got down to talking about how we could have a positive impact through some kind of project. They have all been sparked from the novel and it’s really exciting to see the students following through with their ideas,” said Nick Kazmarek a teacher at Andrew Street High School, Propel Charter School. “I want them to see how they can impact everyone around them. The one thing above all else is that they have an immense power in their community to impact their community. They’re not just high school students.”

The text especially hit home for inmates in the county prison and juveniles in the detention center where the book was incorporated into their education. CCAC staff led discussions at the prison Oct. 21 and at Shuman Juvenile Detention Center Oct. 19 and Oct. 28.

“The men are all inmates in our prison for various offenses but the book speaks about the trials and tribulations of getting involved in a crime and how it affects people justly and unjustly and it was quite relevant,” said Victor Zakowski, education director, State Correctional Institution of Pittsburgh. “I think they really liked it; they enjoyed it. They liked listening to each other and discussing how the characters could have done this or that differently and how situations get out of hand. It was quite stimulating.”

The August Wilson Center for African-American Culture hosted the kick-off event for the initiative on Oct. 3. At the event, the August Wilson Dance Ensemble performed a piece inspired by the book.

“The book was really a departure point for the dance. We really looked at what about the community made this happen. We enhanced the experience of reading the text,” said Kevin Maloney, the choreographer. “It appealed to me on a number of levels. It’s very well written and there are many different levels to it. For my self, I’m not an African-American. I’m a teacher and the story is really about a teacher and his dealing with this and for me it was an affirmation of why I teach. It’s really an opportunity to impact people in a positive way.”

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