Last week, we were delighted to be joined by Sarah Brown, of the University of Edinburgh, for two of our Learning Together sessions. Sarah joined us as a student, getting stuck into our discussions with a view to learning as much as she could. Sarah plans to start a Learning Together partnership at Edinburgh with our colleague and former facilitator on the criminology course at Grendon course, Ingrid Obsuth. Amy and Ruth are looking forward to continuing discussions with Sarah and Ingrid and their colleagues, when they visit Edinburgh to give a seminar in March 2018. After her visit, Sarah wrote the following…
There was never a need to convince me that Learning Together is an enthusing program with a fantastic a vision and overarching ethos. When I was given the opportunity to travel from Edinburgh down to Cambridge to participate in Learning Together, I knew that I was going to be motivated by the successes and appeal of the program and the ever-so inspiring co-founders and directors, Amy Ludlow and Ruth Armstrong. What I didn’t realise was just how motivated and truly excited I would be after observing and participating in Learning Together and, more importantly, why. To my surprise, it wasn’t the successes and academic attractiveness of the program (and there are many) that grasped my attention the most, but the genuine interactions, commitment and level of intrigue exemplified by all students on the course. Despite my excitement, I came into the program with my own scepticism and queries that were dismantled and resolved in a matter of two hours.
One of the first questions that came to my mind when I first learned about how Learning Together combines University and prison students in a prison environment is ‘How is that safe?’ Of course the safety of the Cambridge students in what we traditionally believe to be a ‘dangerous’ environment is a point of consideration, but equally as important is the protection of the identities and confidentially of the Whitemoor students. The answer to this question was entirely answered by my peers on the course; it all comes down to a shared respect. The group I had the privilege to be part of (shout out to the group of students that let me join in!) defined respect through a list of boundaries and rules that were agreed upon and that would be implemented moving forward, including: listen to others, always assume positively, acknowledge the viewpoints of others, keep the personal stories of individuals confidential and always be clear about what is and isn’t allowed to be shared, and be willing to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It wasn’t long before I realised that in our group there was unpretentious excitement and interest about working alongside each other, and that there was a clear entry level of respect that I have no doubt will only grow and will safeguard safety of all involved.
Secondly, you may think ‘How will two groups with very, very different experiences be able to learn the same material and input the same level of personal experience?’ First of all, I will wholeheartedly admit that I was dubious about how interactions and relationships between two very, very different worlds would come to be. I wondered if underlying stigmatisations from both groups would create an obstacle to developing meaningful interactions. Solutions to this two-different-world gap were immediately addressed by the mentors; previous students from both Whitemoor and Cambridge (whom, might I add, were absolutely fantastic). Speaking from previous experience, they highlighted the importance of opening our minds, challenging our perceptions, and focusing on not just learn beside each other but learning together. Combining two very different groups was not viewed as a negative or ‘barrier’, but as an added component that would bolster and enhance the course. Students get to learn about different perceptions, walks of life, understandings and viewpoints that they might not get to in a traditional university/prison environment. Despite the differences in worlds, the students were very similarly locked into their own bubbles of life (i.e., ivory tower bubble and prison bubble), and what they shared was the desire to get outside of them!
I have always defended the fact that we are all human, we all have our own paths, and despite the fact that none of our paths our perfect, it is never too late to progress. Now I believe it more than ever.