A lot of the things I am passionate about, I fell into by accident. As a senior in high school, academics and activities consumed my life. A self-proclaimed “proponent of social justice” and “voice for the voiceless,” I knew little about social change beyond raising money for the Red Cross or giving educational presentations on Haiti, women’s rights, or going green. I didn’t even know the word “feminist.”
After a “medical mission trip” where I observed and stood in awe more than actually helping in a meaningful way (despite being surrounded by people who were making real change), I brought “Students for Social Justice” to my high school.
It sputtered and puttered for the two years I led it but was disbanded after 2014 due to lack of interest. However, the club led me to the world of human rights and responsibilities, even in the most foundational of ways. Knowing that I knew nothing, my eventual college choice was based on their Peace and Justice Studies minor.
I wasn’t done falling into passion projects, though. To better prepare for college in general, I looked at my list of professors on “ratemyprofessor.com” and found that one of my education professors was called a “radical feminist.” I’m embarrassed to admit it, but it was because of this finding that I found a five dollar “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt to wear on the first day of school – remember, I had no idea what feminism entailed. But I earned the respect of the professor (however undeserved), and at eighteen, that was all I cared about. It only took weeks to change my tune. With the help of two new mentors, I became a real feminist, and remain a passionate one to this day.
College brought a host of new challenges and opportunities, and I spent the next two years flitting between different social justice issues. Embracing topics such as empathy and literature or racism in the public education system, I did some work learning about how to improve the education – fitting, as a future teacher. But nothing could prepare me for the complete mental takeover that would begin at the end of my junior year.
My director at the Norman Miller Center for Peace, Justice, and Public Understanding sent me a text one afternoon while I was sitting in the library. “Maggie – are you interested in writing a book?” it said. I didn’t bother with a message to send back. I left my bookbag at the library (hidden behind a couch) and walked over to the office.
“Bob?” He turned from his office chair. “Of course I want to write a book,” I said, setting my jacket down on the table. I didn’t even know the topic yet, but I was about to hear the first description of the lives of two women who would come to consume my consciousness for the next several months, and do to this day.
He had met with two women – Ginny and Harriet – he and many people at the college had known for years. Women well into the golden years of retirement who had spent the last two decades working with men at the local maximum security prison, came to him explaining that their program “Challenges and Possibilities” had been defunded. They spent the better part of an hour sitting at a table reminiscing about the men they had known for so long; the value of the program speaking for itself through their loving narratives about men who had changed the course of their lives through goal-setting, confidence-building, and restorative justice.
Since that auspicious meeting, I’ve spent hours learning about prison reform, Challenges and Possibilities, Truth in Sentencing, restorative justice, mandatory minimums, higher education in prisons, and more. I’ve met amazing people trying to help fix the broken prison system. Over the next few months, I’ll be posting, blogging, making video content, and sending letters to people about this issue.
Just like social justice, feminism, and education issues, I fell into restorative justice and prison reform accidentally. But just like each of my earlier understandings, my passion for the topic became genuine. In the end, the way we arrive at our understanding is perhaps less important than what we do once we reach it. Appealing to ignorance in the face of social injustice is one thing, as I could have in high school, but now that I’ve been made aware of the injustice, it is my moral responsibility to act in anyway that I can.