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Engaged Cornell discussion uses Auburn prison program as example

Engaged learning. Though the phrase can have different meanings, at Cornell, it means education that involves the community in novel ways.

On Oct. 27 at the Beck Center, Engaged Learning + Research and the Public Service Center co-hosted a panel discussion on Cornell's new vision of public engagement as part of the weekend's Trustee-Council Annual Meeting, Oct. 25-27. The panelists explained the Engaged Cornell initiative through the lens of the Phoenix Players Theatre Group at the Auburn Correctional Facility in Auburn, N.Y. The Phoenix Players were founded by two inmates at Auburn as a way of therapeutically dealing with their incarceration.

Cornell came into the picture when the group began looking for someone to facilitate the program and teach them drama. Panelist Bruce Levitt, professor of performing and media arts, said that he was incited by his colleague, Stephen Cole, retired associate professor of performing and media arts, to co-facilitate the group. After a year of working with the group, Levitt approached Marilyn Rivchin's documentary film class and asked for volunteers to participate in the making of a film about the group. Jamie Lewis '13 and Joey Triska '13, both film and computer science majors, responded and then worked with three Ithaca College (IC) students and an IC professor to produce a documentary about the Phoenix Players.

When the students first met the prisoners, panelist Triska recalled that he "wasn't sure what to expect. I was astounded by their reaction to us. They ... welcomed us." The prisoners were such a diverse group that "there are so many stories that we could have pulled out of the experience," said panelist Lewis. Levitt had said as much when he explained the project to the students, calling the inmates "engaged, driven men." The group collaborated with the prisoners throughout the spring of 2012; their efforts culminated in their own short 15-minute documentary for their class in April and will contribute to the longer 90-minute documentary to be completed next fall.

The collaboration exemplified what panelist Rebecca Stoltzfus, the provost's fellow for public engagement and professor of nutritional sciences, emphasized as three pillars of engaged learning: community, diversity and a sense of purpose and meaning. She said that Cornell's goal in the area of public engagement is "to be a leading university, where education, research and partnership act together to effect positive change in ourselves and the world." She added that this meant that it was not just "Cornell doing good things for the world … [but] in the process of engaging with the world, we also are learners."

The effect of such programs can also be seen, said Levitt, at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, N.Y., and the Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison program, which granted B.A. degrees to 51 inmates who have since been released. The recidivism rate for New York state overall is 61 percent, but "the recidivism rate of the 51 who have graduated with their B.A.s is zero," Levitt said. "And that is not lost on the state."

Nor has it been lost on the inmates themselves. A poem by Michael Rhynes, founding member of the Phoenix Players, included on the back of the program looks forward to redemption. In the final paragraph, he states: "We don't come to you as beggars, but as men with hopeful hearts, along with the vision of changing this dark, dank world into a kaleidoscope of hope, where the diseases of idleness and worthlessness are banished forever."

Mikhail Yakhnis '14 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.

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Joe Schwartz