[3 November 2006 - By Steven Dahlberg, Principal, International Centre for Creativity and Imagination, Willimantic, Connecticut, USA] Inmates forfeit many rights while they are in prison. But their “right to think and be heard” – to think creatively and express their ideas – can’t be taken away.
As artist M. C. Richards once said, “we have to realize that a creative being lives within ourselves, whether we like it or not, and that we must get out of its way, for it will give us no peace until we do.”
Educator Berenice Bleedorn’s idea about the “right to think and be heard” is a fundamental belief that we all possess creative potential, that our creativity seeks expression, and that we can deliberately unleash and harness our creative thinking for the common good.
Our creativity makes each of us individual. Applying that creativity is how we connect with others to live out our purpose in the world.
This, in fact, is what education should be helping our children discover in themselves. But anyone who cares about creativity in education knows that few schools have enough resources to support high-quality (and quantity) programs in creative thinking and the arts. And this problem has gotten worse under the testing-outcome obsession of No Child Left Behind.
At the same time, vast amounts of research and experience continue to demonstrate the positive impact of creativity on learning, understanding, engagement and development.
There is a huge disconnect between what we know to be true and helpful and good, and what we actually support and encourage. We know that creativity matters – from the childhood classroom and innovative workplaces to economic development and positive aging. The National Governors’ Association even spent an entire day earlier this year focusing on creativity and education. Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano is focusing the coming year of her NGA leadership on the “Innovation America” project. Though it’s great to see these examples on the national level, creativity is rarely a priority in policies, funding and training.
Last night I witnessed the positive impact that creativity had for a group of incarcerated women. Through a creative writing program, their creative spirits were nurtured, supported and given a voice – where previously they’d been trampled, stifled and shredded.
“Time In” explores the stories of women incarcerated at York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Connecticut. This collaborative dance, song and spoken-word performance encompasses the stories of female prisoners’ lives before conviction, the ceaseless presence of time in their lives on the inside, and the new lives and language they must learn as convicts.
But it also explores the life of the mind and spirit – something that isn’t given over to confinement in cells and boxes, like the rest of their lives are in prison. For some, the freedom of the mind is a way to maintain sanity; for others, a way to begin to imagine life after prison.
Some come to this awareness naturally. For others, it comes through prison programs, such as the writing workshop at York run by Wally Lamb, the Connecticut author of She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True.
This performance – along with the commentary before and after with the artists, director, Lamb and two former York inmates – demonstrates what happens when you find and express your creativity:
- It shows the value of another person believing in you and your creative potential. “If you want to see somebody change, believe in them,” said a self-described ex-convict following the performance.
- It provides a strong argument for teaching creativity and arts in school so that students discover their true selves and can find a place for positive expression in school, rather than exploring negative self-identities and illegal expression on the streets. After teaching creative thinking to men in a Minnesota prison in the 1980s, Bleedorn recalls that “I cannot forget the men who, in some cases, may be paying the high price of failure of schools and society to recognize and value a multiple of thinking and behaving talents.”
- It suggests that if we want to rehabilitate offenders so that they become productive, contributing citizens, then we need to help them discover who they are, who they want to become and how to begin living that new vision. “Hope you can see the good inside of me,” sang the performers.
Most people’s encounter with creativity happens by chance – whether in the classroom, the workplace or in prison. They randomly find themselves in the presence of a great teacher or manager who realizes that simple, “one-right-answer” approaches aren’t going to create individuals who are capable of living in our complex, interconnected and challenging world.
The time has come to develop “creativity by choice, not by chance.” Lamb’s original choice was to teach one, 90-minute writing workshop at York. “What I wanted from them was whatever they needed to write – two pages minimum,” Lamb told the audience before the performance. This provided the chance experience for the women who ended up in his workshop, and the chance for Lamb to keep returning.
The choice has come in dedicating himself to more than seven years of working with these women. The choice has come in helping the women produce several books of their writing. The choice has come in partnering with other artists – such as the dancers from The Judy Dworin Performance Project and the singers of Women of the Cross – who also started working with the York inmates. These collaborators worked with the inmates to bring movement and song to the prisoners’ own words. Lamb describes the outcome, “Time In,” as “victory over voicelessness.”
Lamb reminded the “Time In” audience, as he taught the inmates, that creativity is hard work. It takes “revision, revision, revision … and patience, patience, patience.” But if you hunker down, find your voice and give your creativity its due effort, Lamb said you can see patterns, move out of dead ends and find your way out “to understand your history and rehabilitate yourself.”
These women “struggled their truths onto the page,” Lamb said. We can, too. And we can help the young people in our communities do the same.
Bleedorn reminds us that “the freedom to express individualistic, spontaneous ideas in appropriate, planned activities and in a supportive climate for some part of the school day could satisfy creative energies positively rather than relegating them to experimentation with negative behavior.”
The closing scene of “Time In” conveys a similar message of the freedom, hope and courage that comes from expressing our creative selves. It’s a strong reminder that we have a choice to recognize the creative potential rather than the destructive core of who we are. We have a choice to tap into what is most purposeful and meaningful in our lives. We have a choice to express ourselves and make our creative desires real in the world.
And we have a choice to develop creativity in both schools and prisons now, so that one day, we are only doing so in schools. How will you use your right to think and be heard?
"Time In" runs at Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford, Connecticut, November 2-4, 2006.