Writing and Education in Community Contexts: Writing and Learning for Freedom

My name is Celena Todora, and I am a fourth-year PhD student in the English Department’s Composition Program. My dissertation explores how activists working within the field of prison education—whether through community or university efforts—employ, experience, and navigate 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 supports women and trans prisoners in Pennsylvania.

Prior to receiving the Humanities Engage Immersive Fellowship, I was engaged with LGF as a volunteer grant writer and attendee at rallies.  With this fellowship, I am deepening my involvement with the organization by working more closely with their emerging prison education initiative, Let’s Get Smart. As LGF is a volunteer-run group, they were excited that I would be able to commit to working 100 hours with them. In my work with LGF, I have split my time between facilitating Let’s Get Smart and coordinating grant proposals. I am grateful for the opportunity to apply my scholarly interests in prison education more purposefully within an activist arena.

Half of my commitment to this project involves facilitating the Let’s Get Smart initiative, building upon my knowledge and experience within the field of prison education. 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 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. As a prison education scholar, I am deeply invested in increasing higher education opportunities for incarcerated people, and thus I am excited to bolster LGF’s capacity to do so in western PA. My responsibilities include organizing monthly committee meetings, coordinating volunteers, connecting with LGF’s incarcerated members, and taking steps toward expanding access to education in PA prisons. Currently, I am coordinating a contact plan to bolster support from potential partners and stakeholders. So far, we have reached out with our project proposal to many people in Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections, including superintendents and school principals of local prisons. Although I have only been working for about a month on Let’s Get Smart, this project has exponentially increased my understanding of abolitionist perspectives on prison education and showed me that there are venues beyond the university that are receptive to and empowered by my academic interests and skills.

The second component of my immersive fellowship utilizes and develops my grant writing and research skills to support Let’s Get Smart as well as LGF’s larger mission. My goal is to complete three grant applications over the course of my fellowship. This work will entail my own research and writing contributions, delegating tasks for volunteers and Grants Committee members, researching funding opportunities, and keeping fundraising records. So far, I have created a grants-tracking spreadsheet in LGF’s Google Drive and written a letter of inquiry to a local foundation. As the immersive fellowship progresses, I will continue to track the progress of grants that we have already applied for and those we will apply for in the future as well as work with the Grants Committee to coordinate grant applications. I hope that my grant writing work with LGF will secure funding to support their capacity as a grassroots advocacy organization in the fight to end mass incarceration.

My training in the humanities has imbued my work and character with a passion for social justice that complements LGF’s mission. As many activist-scholars like myself believe, theoretical conversations within the walls of the university are not enough for forwarding humanistic ideals, and I see my work with LGF as extending my doctoral training toward greater social justice outcomes. Through conversations, LGF organizers and I found that we are similarly invested in education as a mode for personal enrichment and growth—as opposed to neoliberal approaches that prioritize utilitarian, tangible outcomes—and view such a perspective as essential for implementing higher education initiatives within carceral settings. While our humanistic values already align to a large extent, this does not mean that we will not have much to learn from one another about activism and collaboration. I am grateful and excited for this opportunity to work with LGF to work toward the end of mass incarceration, as well as making the world a little better for those currently incarcerated.

Celena Todora
Department of English
February 2021
Learn about all the 2020-2021 Immersive Fellows and their experiences with their host organizations.