Writing and Educating for Freedom amidst Institutional Constraints: Prison Abolition, Foundations, and MOOCs

Hello, my name is Celena Todora, and I am a fourth year PhD candidate in the English Department’s Composition Program. My dissertation explores how activists working within the field of prison education—including both university and community efforts—employ, experience, and navigate both institutional and abolitionist rhetorical frameworks. As my research focuses on the intersection between prison education and the abolition movement, I became inspired to work with Let’s Get Free (LGF)—a grassroots Pittsburgh-based abolitionist organization that educates and organizes to provide tangible support for people in prison, raise public awareness about mass incarceration, change Pennsylvania’s commutation policy, and abolish the sentence of death by incarceration, more commonly referred to as life without parole. I had volunteered with LGF prior to the Humanities Engage immersive fellowship, doing some volunteer grant writing and attending rallies. This fellowship enabled me to deepen my relationship with LGF and imagine new possibilities for my dissertation as well as my future career. In my work with LGF from January to April 2021, I split my time between coordinating grant proposals with the Grants Committee and facilitating their emerging prison education initiative, Let’s Get Smart.

As a prison education scholar, I am deeply invested in increasing higher education opportunities for incarcerated people. While Let’s Get Smart has been in the works for a long time, LGF needed someone to help get the project off the ground, and they were thrilled that I was up to the task. Facilitating the Let’s Get Smart initiative helped me build upon my knowledge and experience within the field of prison education, especially through expanding my narrowed perspectives limited to Higher Ed in Prison programs (HEP) to consider community prison education initiatives not reflected in scholarship. Let’s Get Smart’s vision is to provide all people in prison access to 21st century education and training through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which are free and currently available outside prison to anyone with internet access. While my previous experience in the field of prison education had been primarily theoretical and pedagogical, this project enabled me to develop organizing skills through organizing biweekly committee meetings, coordinating volunteers, contacting officials at local prisons and Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections (DOC), and making steps toward expanding access to education in PA prisons. I drafted a call script that summarized our mission and goals as well as responses to inevitable resistance to our project. We encountered various challenges through this project, including much resistance from DOC officials as well as logistical issues with creating access to MOOCs on the prison tablets. Despite these challenges, we were able to learn quite a bit about the education system, desires, and technologies of PA state prisons, which will help to further strategize ways to increase access to education for incarcerated Pennsylvanians. I plan to continue working with LGF to reimagine new strategies and directions for this project, and I am grateful to Humanities Engage for making this networking possible.

In addition to my work with Let’s Get Smart, the second component of my immersive fellowship utilized and developed my grant writing and research skills to support LGF in ways much different from my work at Pitt. I completed two grant applications and a grant report over the course of my fellowship. I researched funding opportunities and co-wrote proposals with LGF members. I further developed my organizing skills in this role as well, delegating tasks for volunteers and Grants Committee members and keeping fundraising records. We are still waiting to hear back about our applications, but I am hopeful that my work has helped LGF to build capacity. While I have had quite a bit of experience with grant writing in the past, working on projects so close to my heart has been a new experience. I appreciate the ability to use and develop my skills for social justice purposes. Collaborating during the pandemic was also a unique experience, and I feel much more confident in my ability to collaborate and build relationships through computer screens. I am thankful that I could develop these skills and apply my scholarly interests more purposefully within an activist arena.

I am fortunate that this experience has significantly influenced my dissertation. I had to rethink my dissertation plan due to the pandemic, and Humanities Engage inspired me to pursue an ethnographic project with LGF. Through this immersive fellowship, I now have a greater awareness of prison advocacy and educational work beyond the university and can envision career possibilities beyond academia that still allow me to do the social justice work that I am passionate about. Many graduate students would benefit from such an experience, especially if they can work with an organization closely connected to their research and professional interests. Often graduate education can present a very narrow view of career options, but extending our skills and interests beyond academia is not only achievable but important work. We don’t want to keep our work constrained to the “ivory tower,” and Humanities Engage enables graduate students to discover ways to connect with communities beyond the university.

Celena Todora
Department of English
May 2021
Celena Todora will be continuing her work with Let's Get Free as a 2021-2022 Immersive Dissertation Research Fellow. Learn about all the 2020-2021 Immersive Fellows and their experiences with their host organizations.